Childhood & Early Life
Robert Lowell was born Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV, on March 1, 1917, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., to Robert Lowell III and Charlotte Winslow. He belonged to a Boston Brahmin family (high-class citizens in Boston).
Robert had a strong poetic influence in his family, with many of his relatives, such as James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell, being renowned poets. However, while he was growing up, the ancestral poetic influences did not affect him. He was a violent kid and exhibited no inclination toward arts or academics.
However, after joining ‘St. Mark’s School,’ his life changed forever. Poet Richard Eberhart taught in the same school, and meeting him led to a marked change in Robert’s psyche. He became highly influenced to pursue a career in poetry.
After graduating high school, Robert joined ‘Harvard College.’ He was an amateur poet in his college. Soon, he met famous poet Robert Frost, who mildly criticized his poetry. This further encouraged Robert to pursue the art of poetry.
However, studying at ‘Harvard’ had made Robert terribly unhappy. He began visiting a psychiatrist, who advised him to take some time off from college. He suggested that Robert must meet Allen Tate, another poet. Robert met Allen and requested him to allow him to live with him. After some initial reluctance, Allen allowed Robert to set up his tent in his lawn. Robert lived in Allen’s lawn for the next 2 months, learning poetry from Allen.
Allen then secured a job at the ‘Kenyon College’ in Ohio. Robert followed him there. By then, he had dropped out of ‘Harvard.’ He then resumed his studies at the ‘Kenyon College,’ studying classics.
After he completed his bachelor’s degree, Robert joined the ‘Louisiana State University’ to study English Literature and eventually earned a master’s degree.
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In 1944, Robert’s first collection of poetry, ‘Land of Unlikeness,’ was published. The introduction of the book was written by Allen Tate. Allen mentioned that the poems were highly influenced by Robert’s recent conversion to Catholicism.
The book, which was published by a small press company, received good reviews from some major critics. Over time, the book managed to attain widespread success.
In 1946, Robert published his second book, ‘Lord Weary’s Castle,’ which was a bigger success than the first book. The book contained 33 poems, and some of them were massively successful. The titular poem from the book went on to win a ‘Pulitzer Prize,’ putting Robert in the league of successful mainstream poets.
In 1951, Robert released yet another book of poetry, ‘The Mills of The Kavanaughs.’ However, the book fell short of the widespread critical acclaim that his previous book had received. Despite this, many major publications gave the book positive reviews.
However, the failure of this book impacted Robert greatly. He suffered from a long creative block, which ended only toward the end of the decade, with the release of the book titled ‘Life Studies.’
‘Life Studies’ garnered great commercial and critical acclaim and won the ‘National Book Award’ for poetry in 1960. The book is also regarded as Robert’s most influential work. The book had significantly informal language, as opposed to his previous works, and this was said to be the biggest reason for its success.
In 1961, Robert published another book, a collection of translated poems titled ‘Imitations.’ In the book, Robert attempted to translate the works of some of Europe’s best poets into English. However, the response to the book was mostly polarized. Some critics stated it was a great book, while others believed it was the “worst” book of Robert’s career.
In 1964, Robert published an original collection of poems titled ‘For the Union Dead.’ The poems in the book dealt with themes such as the American Civil War, ecology, and labor rights. The book received widespread critical appreciation, especially for its title poem.
Around this time, Robert also attempted to write some one-act plays, such as ‘The Old Glory.’ However, he did not stick to plays. Instead, he released yet another book of poetry, titled ‘Near the Ocean,’ in 1967. In this collection, Robert used the same formal language that he had used in the first two books.
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In the 1970s, Robert spent time writing sonnets and published sonnet books such as ‘History’ and ‘For Lizzie and Harriet.’
His sonnet collection ‘The Dolphin,’ which was released in 1973, ended up winning a ‘Pulitzer Prize.’ However, he was dragged into a major controversy when he openly admitted that he had used his ex-wife’s letters for composing the sonnets in ‘The Dolphin.’
In 1977, Robert published the last book of his life. Titled ‘Day by Day,’ the book won the ‘National Book Critics Circle Award’ for poetry. The book also released to highly polarized reviews, with the critics’ community being divided into two factions: those who thought the book was great and those who thought it was a failure.
Following his death in 1977, his best poems were collected and published in a book titled ‘The Collected Poems,’ which was released in 2003.
Apart from writing poems, Robert had also taught at universities such as ‘Yale University’ and ‘Harvard University.’
Family, Personal Life & Death
Robert Lowell refused to be drafted for the Second World War and was thus imprisoned for several months. He later claimed that he had not participated in the war because American involvement in the war would have meant total annihilation of countries such as Germany and Japan, resulting in the death of many innocents, which he wished to prevent.
In 1940, Robert married a writer named Jean Stafford. The marriage, which was later described as “tormenting,” ended in 1948.
In 1949, Robert married another writer named Elizabeth Hardwick. They had a daughter named Harriet. This was also described as a tragic marriage and ended in a divorce.
In 1972, Robert married Caroline Blackwood. The couple had a son, and they lived together until Robert’s death in 1977.
Robert had suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life and had also been hospitalized multiple times for the same. He passed away from a heart attack on September 12, 1977. He was 60 years old at the time of his death.