Robert Lowell (1917–1977)

Boston, Maine, New York, with a sojourn in England. These are the places that mark Lowell’s career. The Lowell family is ancient, uncertainly rumored to have come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, certainly arrived in Boston in 1639, and soon all over New England. Lowell’s mother was a Winslow, whose ancestors included the famous Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan dissident, Anne Hutchinson, and William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. Lowell seemed only momentarily interested in these genealogical matters.

He also had poetic ancestors: James Russell Lowell, one of the 19th-century “Fireside Poets,” and Amy Lowell, an early-20th-century poet of the brief, incisive image. Again these poetic ancestors seem to have had little influence on Lowell, whose earliest poetry was heavily indebted to the poets of the New Criticism, a movement rooted in England and the American South that emphasized the poem rather than the poet and gloried in elaborate metaphor and intricate allusions to the whole Western poetic tradition. Lowell was particularly close to Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. Tate wrote the introduction to his first published book Land of Unlikeness (1944), and what Tate said there is indicative of the poet Lowell was to be all his life:

On the one hand, the Christian symbolism is intellectualized and frequently given a savage, satirical direction; it points to the disappearance of the Christian experience from the modern world, and stands, perhaps, for the poet’s own effort to recover it. On the other hand, certain shorter poems, like “A Suicidal Nightmare” and “Death from Cancer,” are richer in experience than the explicitly religious poems; they are more dramatic, the references being more personal and historical and the symbolism less willed and explicit. (859)

Lowell had converted to the Catholicism that influenced Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle. He left the Catholic Church toward the end of the 1940s.

Land of Unlikeness, his first book, was more or less swallowed up into Lord Weary’s Castle, published in 1946 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Buried as I was in Keats and Coleridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, I did not discover Lowell until about 1955. But I had been educated in precisely that New Criticism that dominated the early Lowell, and to me his poetry was revelation.

Robert Lowell was Poet Laureate of the United States and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice.

Robert Lowell was Poet Laureate of the United States and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice. (AP Photo)

The Latin epigraph of Lord Weary’s Castle is taken from the Mass of Saint Stephen, the first Christian Martyr, on December 26: “Accept, Lord, these gifts in commemoration of your saints, that as their suffering made them glorious, our devotion will make us innocent”(7). The second poem, “The Holy Innocents,” caught my attention right away (10). The feast of the Holy Innocents is on December 28. The scene of the poem is contemporary: oxen laboring up an icy hill near a burlap mill and an alewife run. What is an alewife run? I did what you did in those days reading a poem. I looked it up. Alewives are anadromous fish that spend their lives in the open sea, but are born and die at the head of freshwater streams.

But suddenly the scene shifts to the Passion story of the New Testament, horrifically reimagined, “King Herod shrieking vengeance at the curled/Up knees of Jesus choking in the air.” Telescoping time, Lowell sees these modern oxen as the oxen in the stable where Jesus was born. It is three months after the end of World War II and still the world is unredeemed:

Still the world out-Herods Herod; and the year,
The nineteen-hundred forty-fifth of grace...

The music of those lines, “The nineteen-hundred forty-fifth of grace,” is insistent, moving. Several years after this first encounter with Lowell’s poetry, I spent a summer vacation in Maine on Lake Damariscotta, the setting of “The Holy Innocents.” I found and clambered up along his alewife run.

The monumental poem of Lord Weary’s Castle is, of course, “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” (14) dedicated to Lowell’s cousin, “Warren Winslow, Dead at Sea.” The epigraph is from the Catholic Douay version of Genesis: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moves upon the earth.” The poem is shot through with allusion, to Thoreau’s Cape Cod, Melville’s Moby Dick, to Greek myth–Orpheus, Poseidon, Odysseus–to the Latin version of the Psalms, the Book of Job, the Servant Songs of Isaiah. This sailor’s death is made to resonate with all the centuries of human violence and disaster. Lowell transforms Melville’s brief suggestion of the innocence of the whale into the whale as Christ figure.

The Mills of the Kavanaughs, with its long narrative title poem, accompanied by several other longer poems, brings this early phase of Lowell’s career to its conclusion.

Life Studies marks Lowell’s radical turn away from formalism to introspection and recalls Allen Tate’s introduction cited earlier: the second group of Lowell’s early poems is “more dramatic, the references being more personal and historical and the symbolism less willed and explicit.” Life Studies opens on a train ride from Rome to Paris, over and “Beyond the Alps” (113). Much against his will, he leaves Rome behind, the City of God where the “Vatican made Mary’s Assumption dogma.” “But who believed this,” he asks, “Who could understand?” He turns in thought to classical Greece,

when the Goddess stood....
Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain.
Mary assumed bodily into heaven? “Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain”?

Life Studies was Lowell’s own favorite book (xv). “91 Revere Street,” is an extended account of his childhood. Written in prose, it elevates autobiography to poetic rank, a complete inversion of the anti-biographic tenet of the New Criticism, which had been the dominating influence in Lowell’s early work. Autobiography continues, this time in poetic form, in “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow.” Both in poetry and prose, Lowell manages to make these new, more personal compositions interesting. Part of it is style. But also these poems are more involved in his childlike feelings for his grandparents. Throughout his career, childhood seems the only innocent, the only joyful period of Lowell’s life. Later, of course, schizophrenia struck. It appears decisively at the end with “Skunk Hour.”

Imitations follows Life Studies, its translations depressive, funereal, with lots of Baudelaire, among many others. The sickness of the mind in “Skunk Hour” pervades the selections “imitated” in Imitations. All here is disease.

For the Union Dead opens with “Water,” a gentle memory of a boy and a girl in a Maine lobster town dangling their feet in the water:

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock.

He meditates, in “Hawthorne,” on Salem, its wooden houses, yellow, aged “like the unhealthy hair of an old dog.” He evokes Hawthorne in his customhouse:

bent down, brooding, brooding,
eyes fixed on some chip,...
as if it were the clue.

He concludes this book with its title poem, an impressive elegy “For the Union Dead.” He mourns the loss of the “old South Boston Aquarium,” where he used to contemplate the “dark downward and vegetating kingdom/of the fish and reptile.” Now “Dinosaur steam shovels” are gouging an “underworld garage” on the Boston Common, threatening Saint Gaudens relief sculpture of Colonel Shaw leading his “Negro infantry” to death. In the show window, he sees a photograph of “Hiroshima boiling,” an advertisement for the Mosler Safe.

Near the Ocean, brief as it is, contains, it seems to me, the best collection of Lowell’s later poems. “Waking Early Sunday Morning” is full of yearning, for freedom, for a return to boyhood “squatting like a dragon on time’s hoard.” The image, of course, is from the Old English Beowulf, and not at all appropriate to the imagination of a boy. “O that the spirit could remain tinged but untarnished by its strain” he laments, and thinks of the church, the “Faith of our fathers,” the Bible, “chopped and crucified in hymns.” But those hymns “sing of peace, and preach despair.” He ends in despair:

orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

Once more Lowell indulges his love of translation. Three odes of Horace are followed by a long version of Juvenal’s Tenth Satire: “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” He translates, for Lillian Hellman, Canto XV of Dante’s Inferno. Near the Ocean is a comparatively short book. It is followed by History (1973), a very long book all in sonnet form and moving roughly through time: classical, biblical, medieval, before arriving at last in Lowell’s very personal present. In these poems, he merges all time and all ages together into a sort of drunken simultaneity. He seems absolved of any need to be understandable. “The March” is the only poem that is intelligible all the way through. Childhood seems to have been his only good time. For Lizzie and Harriet (1973) and The Dolphin (1973), his next books, are autobiographical. In Day by Day (1977), his last book, he returned to the free form that characterized Life Studies.

Lowell changed American poetry. The shift from Lord Weary’s Castle to Life Studies is decisive. Nevertheless, over the whole trajectory of his poetic life, the shift looks less profound than it at first seemed to be. The rise of what has been called the “confessional school” of poetry may have taken its cue from the shift to autobiography in Life Studies. But Lowell himself denied any decisive break. These two books, are, it seems to me, the two pillars of his career. Different as they are, they are both rich, both valuable.

—John E. Becker


Bidart, Frank and David Gewanter, eds. Robert Lowell: Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Unless otherwise indicated, the page citations in parentheses are from this work.