Robert Lowell (1917-1977) packed a huge amount into his sixty years: a rollercoaster of triumphs and disasters that informed his writing and pushed back the boundaries of what was deemed suitable subject matter for poetry. He was born into an old, prominent Bostonian family which gave Lowell a strong sense of personal and national history which he both took pride in and quarrelled with. He studied at Harvard before defecting to Kenyon College where he was influenced by the poets Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom and their emphasis on the importance of formal control in poetry. Kenyon was also a centre for the Southern Agrarian School of writers who posited the traditional values of the South as an antidote to modern technological capitalism, a critique that was also to echo in Lowell’s work. In 1940 Lowell extended his rejection of his Puritan heritage by converting to Catholicism. Though his belief did not last, it set the tenor for his first two books, in particular Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) which expresses Lowell’s confident faith in an authoritative manner remarkable for his age. Lowell’s exceptionally skilled handling of meter and rhyme, what the poet Tom Paulin has described as an “insistent greatness”, drew widespread praise and won him the Pulitzer Prize. This success came at the close of a difficult period in which Lowell’s stance as a conscientious objector during the Second World War had led to his imprisonment. The 1940s also saw the beginning and end of his first marriage to the novelist Jean Stafford. His personal life continued to be tumultuous with two further marriages, to Elizabeth Hardwick and the English author and society figure, Lady Caroline Blackwood, both of which also ended in divorce. Alongside his tangled emotional life, Lowell suffered severe psychological illness, most likely bi-polar disorder, which necessitated frequent hospitalisations, and which was only brought under limited control when he was prescribed lithium in the 1960s. This personal anguish and a crisis of faith directly informed the unflinching subject matter of his most famous book, Life Studies (1959) which was identified as founding the ‘Confessional Movement’ in poetry. Its influence in drawing on autobiographical material can be seen in the work of poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and still permeates poetic culture to this day. The collection also marked a radical formal shift, what Lowell termed “a breakthrough back into life”, towards a looser, less august style. By now a very public figure, Lowell continued to act unconventionally, joining a generation of younger poets such as Allen Ginsberg in protesting against the Vietnam War. Subsequent collections ranged from Imitations, his acclaimed versions of major European poets, and For Lizzie and Harriet, another intimate portrait of family life controversial for the use it makes of private letters from his second wife. A re-appraisal of Lowell’s entire oeuvre was prompted by the publication of his Collected Poems in 2003, with some critics seeing a tailing off in his powers in the years leading up to his death. Equally though, the appearance of this volume also emphasised his huge achievements and established him unarguably as “an audacious maker” (Frank Bidart).

His Archive recordings feature two of his most anthologised poems. ‘Skunk Hour’, dedicated to his lifelong friend and fellow poet, Elizabeth Bishop, is the last poem in Life Studies. In its structure can be seen one of Lowell’s abiding concerns – how individual human destiny is linked to a larger history. The first four stanzas describe the decaying social world of a coastal village in Maine at the end of the summer season, the second four the internal spiritual crisis of Lowell as he contemplates this degradation and his own loneliness. However, in the tenacious life-force of the mother skunk and her kittens, the poem offers a symbol of survival that “will not scare”. ‘For the Union Dead’ from the 1964 collection of the same title, was written for a public occasion but as Lowell makes clear in his fascinating introduction to the poem, he wanted to combine grandeur of subject with the more colloquial prosody he’d learned in writing Life Studies. The result is a magnificent meditation on the lost nobility of the Civil War period versus the “savage servility” of contemporary American society. Lowell’s odd accent with it slight southern inflection, picked up during his time at Kenyon College, provides a beautifully precise medium for his words which dissect both himself and his society with equal candour.

Recordings used by permisison of the BBC.

Poems by Robert Lowell

For the Union Dead - Robert Lowell
Skunk Hour - Robert Lowell

Books by Robert Lowell



Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary's Castle

Prize website