Robert Lowell 1917-1977

Robert Lowell was born in 1917 into a wealthy Boston Protestant family, the son of a naval commander. He was educated at a preparatory school in Massachusetts, two years at Harvard and then Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied classics, graduating in 1940. He then did a Masters degree in English Literature at Louisiana State University, also teaching English there. During World War II he was a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for this for five months, an experience reflected in his poem Memories of West Street and Lepke.

His first book of poetry, Land of Unlikeness, was published in 1944, followed by Lord Weary’s Castle two years later, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947. This contained two of his better known poems, Mr Edwards and the Spider and The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, inspired by the death of a cousin in the war. From 1950 to 1953 he taught at the University of Iowa and thereafter at a number of other American universities including Harvard from 1963-1970.

In 1940 he got married to the short story writer Jean Stafford, which was troubled and ended in 1948. The following year he married Elizabeth Hardwick and they had a daughter in 1957. He left her for Caroline Blanchard in 1970, marrying her two years later. They moved to England and had a son. For many years he had a close poetic friendship with the poet Elizabeth Bishop. Lowell suffered from bipolar disorder, then known as manic depression, for which he took lithium to control his mood swings. His poem Waking in the Blue was written after a stay in a psychiatric hospital.

During the third quarter of the 20th Century he published several more volumes of poetry, including The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), Imitations (1964) and three books of sonnets in 1973, the last of which, The Dolphin, won him the Pulitzer Prize for the second time in 1974. He died in 1977, aged 60, from a heart attack in a New York taxi.

Much of Lowell’s work is complex and autobiographical and his poems unashamedly document intimate details from his family life and personal problems. His fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop considered some of this inappropriate and was not afraid to tell him so. There is no doubt that he wrote fearlessly and from the heart. Some of his best known poems are Ode to the Confederate Dead, In the Cage, Night-Sweat, Skunk Hour and The Scream. He also wrote a prose work, 91 Revere Street, and three one-act plays. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he won numerous other awards.

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