The Poets Robert Lowell (1917-1977)


About the Poet

Distinguished in family and literary career, Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., flourished as a teacher, poet, translator, and playwright. His flight from an aristocratic background, numerous emotional breakdowns, and three failed marriages contrasts the bond he shared with the stars of modern American poetry — Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, and Anne Sexton, all supportive friends who called him "Cal." He was alienated from white-gloved elitists and their over-refined notions of family, home, and church, and he reshaped himself through poetry that delved into New England's sins and reevaluated American ideals. His contentment took root in the classroom amid student writers who looked up to him as mentor. To the literary world, he was the American prophet of a new poetic freedom, a structurally uninhibited lyricism that was true to self, speech, and history.

Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 1, 1917, and was kin to poet Amy Lowell. After elementary studies at the Brimmer Street School, he studied at St. Mark's School to prepare for entrance into Harvard. In his second year of college, he eluded his father's control by transferring to Kenyon College and boarding with Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon. He studied literary criticism under poet John Crowe Ransom and graduated summa cum laude in 1940.

Lowell brought assorted baggage from his New England background to his personal and professional life. For his rigid piety, critics called him the "Catholic poet." His marriage to fiction writer Jean Stafford foundered because of his infidelities, depression, and alcoholism. In 1941, the couple lived in Baton Rouge while he taught at Louisiana State University, then resettled in Boston. At the height of World War II, Lowell spent five months in jail for refusing to register for the draft. He gained parole in March 1944 and undertook janitorial duties at the nurses' quarters of St. Vincent's hospital. He recounts the experience through "In the Cage" in Lord Weary's Castle (1946), an antiauthoritarian volume that won him the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

In 1951, Lowell suffered full-blown manic depression, which burdened him until his death. After marrying critic Elizabeth Hardwick, he settled on Marlborough Street near his childhood home, entered psychoanalysis, and enjoyed a period of stability. While teaching and lecturing at Iowa State University, Kenyon School of Letters, Boston University, and Harvard, he produced his best known free verse in Life Studies (1959). The collection, which won a National Book Award, tapped the energy and audacity of Beat poetry and recorded Lowell's break with Catholicism, soul-bearing confessions, and revelations of dishonor and scandal among some of Boston's most revered families.

Lowell's buoyant years saw the issue of For the Union Dead (1964), which showcases one of the most anthologized titles, and the Obie-winning play The Old Glory (1965), a trilogy based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and Herman Melville's novella Benito Cereno. During this vigorous, assertive era of the Vietnam War, Lowell produced Near the Ocean (1967), two dramas; Prometheus Bound (1967); Endecott and the Red Cross (1968); and Notebook 1967-1968 (1968), a diary in unrhymed sonnet form that lauds colleagues Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, and T. S. Eliot. Following Lowell's marriage to his third wife, British author Lady Caroline Blackwood, and the birth of a son, he found hope in lithium treatment. He began detailing the emotional crisis and renewal in a deeply allusive sonnet series entitled The Dolphin (1973), winner of a second Pulitzer Prize.

To his detriment, Lowell explored personal events in indiscreet verse, which he performed at public readings. A final collection, Day by Day (1977), a pensive series weakened by obscurity and repetition, won a National Book Critics Circle award. Imitations, containing modernizations of Homer, Sappho, Rilke, Villon, Mallarme, and Baudelaire, won the 1962 Bollingen Prize; Poetry (1963) received a Helen Haire Levinson Prize. Shortly after abandoning England and his wife to return to Elizabeth Hardwick, on September 12, 1977, Lowell died unexpectedly of congestive heart failure in a New York City taxi. He was eulogized at Boston's Episcopal Church of the Advent and buried among his ancestors. Collected Poems was issued in 1997.

Chief Works

Much of Lowell's early poetry contains meaty themes and sonorous voicing. A seven-part lament in iambic pentameter, "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" (1946) was dedicated to his cousin, lost at sea during World War II and commemorated as the drowned figure dredged up from the Atlantic in stave I. The poet launches forth in grand style with compound words — for example, whaleroad, dead-lights, heel-headed, and dreadnaughts — and frequent allusions to the Old Testament and to Captain Ahab, drowned skipper of the Pequod in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. As though the universe demands payment for an untimely drowning, the winds beat on stones and gulls grasp the sea by the throat. The address grows more impassioned in stave III, which depicts the "whited monster," Moby Dick, as Jehovah, who, in Genesis 3:14, identified himself to Moses, "I am that I am." The cry of god-fearing Quaker sailors concludes with their assurance that God shelters the faithful.

Bound with erratic rhymes (roll/Hole, into the fat/Jehoshaphat) and slant rhymes (world/sword), stave III builds on the image of piety with a cry from Psalm 130, reiterated in the Latin mass, "Out of the depths I have cried unto thee, O Lord." At a high emotional point on the edge of apocalypse, the poet demands atonement with "Who will dance / The mast-lashed master of Leviathans / Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?" In grim alliterated pictures of the whale's destruction, the poet questions how the destroyer of the great beast will hide his sin, which risks a God-hurled punishment. A complex image of "Jonas Messias," a composite of Jonah and Christ, requires an act of martyrdom as dire as steel gashing flesh, an allusion to Christ, whose side a Roman soldier pierced at the end of the crucifixion.

The puzzle of Lowell's poem, stave VI, veers from the agitation of previous lines to dense images focused on the veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, an English shrine near Norfolk called "England's Nazareth." The Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims have traditionally entered in bare feet to pray, honors a medieval saint, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, who saw and heard the Virgin Mary in 1061. Returned to Nantucket, where an irate oak emotes above an empty grave, the poem questions again New England's past sins of greed and destruction of nature, depicted as the harvesting of the sea and the fouling of its floor with corpses. The final line, an allusion to the rainbow that God displayed to Noah in promise of no more deluges, is an intended puzzle. Weighted with Old Testament gravity and apocalyptic significance, it prefigures unforeseen redemption, a miraculous Christian rescue through divine grace.

Lowell's mastery of varying tones and settings produces some surprising contrasts. A pivotal example of confessional, "Skunk Hour" (1956) is a tormented soliloquy that overlays deep despair with comedy. One of Lowell's autobiographical triumphs, the poem honors poet Elizabeth Bishop. It is an existential experience derived from Lowell's nightly car rides and conveys the naked desperation he felt on an August night. The monosyllabic "skunk" becomes a description of Lowell's mood. In rhymed sestets, the poem moves slowly into New England's coastal milieu before capturing the dark decline of the soul that precedes a spirit-boosting glimpse of sanity.

The poet models its atmosphere, pacing, and focus on Bishop's "The Armadillo," which she dedicated to him in 1965. The motoring speaker ponders the "hermit / heiress" buying up shoreline, a "fairy / decorator" laying in orange net, and "our summer millionaire," all caricatures of the short-term vacationers who invade the New England coast. In an inward state of mind, as he drives his sedan over a skull-shaped hill, an allusion to Christ approaching Golgotha, the poet-speaker returns to a spiritual dark night. Approaching lover's lane, he acknowledges the black mood by comparing parked cars with downed ships. With a deft twist, he ends the fifth stanza with self-accusation — a plaintive, "My mind's not right."

Lowell's ear for the crass commercialism and mindless media barrage notes a figure dressed in L. L. Bean finery and a car radio bleating "Love, O careless Love." A curious out-of-body image pictures his hand strangling his "ill-spirit." The candor is admirable. A depleted ego recognizes that "I myself am hell," a restatement of Satan's misery in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Building to stanzas V and VI, the poet hits bottom. Self-abusive, he feels himself in hell and erases himself with a two-word declaration, "nobody's here — ."

Without pause, the short lines converge on a single animal figure going about the normal activity of hunting a meal. The appearance of the mother skunk at the head of a line of little ones blends humor with the absurdity of defiant animals boldly scavenging in the heart of town. As the softly-padded feet march along Main Street, their striped backs mirror the painted dividing line. Beneath a comfortless spire, the imagery draws back to Golgotha in the naming of the Trinitarian Church, a pompous, "chalk-dry" figure.

In a more contemplative mood, "Memories of West Street and Lepke," a bold first-person tour of jail, relates the poet's incarceration among extremists ranging from the radical vegetarian Abramowitz and an antiwar Jehovah's Witness to the balding Lepke Buchalter, syndicate chief of "Murder Incorporated." The free-verse narrative, which appeared in Partisan Review in Winter 1958 alongside "Skunk Hour," rambles amiably over a curiously domestic setting. From the post World War II economic upsurge known as the Eisenhower Years, Lowell flashes back to his "fire-breathing" youth when serving time for "telling off the state and president" seemed noble. Marked by the nonchalance of the lobotomized killer and the smugness of young Republicans, the era bobs along, seemingly unaware of coming "sooty . . . entanglements" resulting from "lost connections," veiled references to future national troubles.

Those concerns, in the form of civil rights protests and peace demonstrations, took shape in the 1960s. Written in 1964, "For the Union Dead," a 17-stanza eulogy, he originally titled "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts' 54th" to honor the white leader of the first all-black troop in the Union army. Composed in declamatory style, the topic and form bring Lowell back to his thematic and metrical beginnings.

The straightforward narrative is a chain of associated images. Opening on a child's view of the Boston aquarium, it progresses to the barbarous tearing down and rebuilding on Boston Common in sight of the statue of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, famed exponent of black involvement in the war to end slavery. Beginning in line 32, the poet lauds Shaw, whose sculpted pose stands "as lean as a compass-needle," as though directing the nation toward racial equality. Praised in natural images for ten lines, the historic figure, a small man, is as vigilant as an angry wren guarding her nestlings, and as gently taut as a running greyhound. Line 40 concludes with a poignant reminder that Shaw, once dedicated to his task of producing black infantrymen to fight the Confederacy, could not "bend his back," an image of military posture blended with the fact that Shaw died in a battle he could not elude. To his honor, he remains where jeering rebel soldiers interred him — piled along with fallen black warriors in a common grave at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, the site of their futile assault.

With self-conscious mannering, the poem segues from Civil War era abolitionism to the 1940s with a lament that Boston has no statue to "the last war," which could refer to World War II, the Korean War, or even an end-of-time cataclysm. A photo on Boylston Street depicting a Mosler safe that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima disparages contemporary culture for its commercialism. The nation has entered an irreversible decline. As the poem reaches its thematic conclusion, the lines narrow to two beats, then a blunt spondee, "he waits." For the poet, the long-awaited end to racial division is an ephemeral ideal on which Colonel Shaw rides. With the bursting of the bubble, the poet shifts back to the aquarium for a letdown — the liberated fish change into finned automobiles slipping easily through modern-day Boston, where money greases the ride.

In 1977, Lowell produced one of his most personal assessments in "For John Berryman." Remembering his colleague as "lit up," possibly by enthusiasm or drunkenness or both, Lowell fondly recalls his generation's self-serving myth-making by labeling themselves "the cursed." As the poets of the 1950s graduated from students to teachers, they welcomed alcohol at the same time that they embraced the intoxication of poetry. Lowell refers to death in "You got there first," as though dying were a hurdle in a race. In a candid evaluation of mortal fears, the poet acknowledges that the thought of John in the afterlife eases Lowell's fears of what lies beyond.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Compare the ruined men in Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Determine how both poets augment a fear of death with images of disintegrating bodies.

2. Discuss the various human relationships in "Memories of West Street and Lepke." What is Lowell's opinion of people considered as "fringe elements" of society?

3. Isolate elements of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Armadillo" that carry over to Lowell's "Skunk Hour."

4. Summarize sources of moral decline in Lowell's "The Mills of the Kavanaghs" and "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid." Contrast the poet's judgments against his forebears with William Faulkner's assessments of the Compson family in the novel The Sound and the Fury.

5. Analyze depictions of alcoholism in Lowell's "For John Berryman" and E. A. Robinson's "Mr. Flood's Party." Determine how drinking can liberate at the same time that it enslaves.