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Robert Lowell (Robert Traill Spence Lowell) Biography

(1917–77), (Robert Traill Spence Lowell), Land of Unlikeness, Lord Weary's Castle, Poems, 1938–1949

American poet, born in Boston of the distinguished New England family whose earlier generations include James Russell Lowell (181991) and Amy Lowell. He entered Harvard University in 1935 but left during his second year, and spent several months near Nashville with Alan Tate, whose stylistic example determined the strict formalism of Lowell's earlier verse. In 1938 he enrolled at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, where he absorbed the influence of John Crowe Ransom and the New Criticism and became a Roman Catholic; these developments are reflected in the complex textures and religious preoccupations of Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946), his first two volumes of poetry. After further study at Louisiana State University, Lowell joined a publishing company in New York and was imprisoned in 1943 as a conscientious objector to military service. His subsequent career was dominated by his activities as a poet, in addition to which he intermittently taught at various American and British universities. Poems, 1938–1949 (1950) demonstrated the accomplishment and passionate sincerity of his verse throughout the 1940s. The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) was less well received; its historical dramatic monologues lacked the urgency of the dialogue between faith and doubt through which Lowell had previously voiced his generation's sense of post-war disillusionment. From the mid-1950s onward he sought greater directness, modifying some of his poems to increase their accessibility, and achieving the more conversationally flexible idiom of Life Studies (1959). The book contained numerous candid treatments of Lowell's departure from Catholicism, marital problems, and mental instability, establishing the mode subsequently identified as confessional poetry. For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967) confirmed his stature through the authority and imagination with which many poems conflate his personal, historical, and socio-political concerns. During the late 1960s, when Lowell publicly opposed the Vietnam war (see Vietnam Writing), he produced the many metrically free fourteen-line poems published in Notebook 1967–1968 (1968) and History (1973). His last two volumes, The Dolphin (1973), which made controversial use of letters relating to his disordered marriage, and Day by Day (1977), characterized by deeply elegiac retrospection, tended to amalgamate the various stylistic approaches he had evolved since the early 1950s. His habits of continually revising and reprinting poems from volume to volume have to date precluded the production of a collected edition of his poetry. Collected Prose (1987, edited by Robert Giroux) includes fragments of an unfinished autobiography in addition to a wide range of critical writings. Among Lowell's other works are Imitations (1961), his admired verse translations of classical and European poetry. Ian Hamilton's biography of Lowell appeared in 1982.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Earl Lovelace Biography to Madmen and Specialists