Robert Lowell (March 1, 1917–September 12, 1977), born Robert Traill Spence Lowell, IV, was an American poet whose works, confessional in nature, engaged with the questions of history and probed the dark recesses of the self. He is generally considered to be among the greatest American poets of the twentieth century.
Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II and served several months at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. During the 1960s he was active in the civil rights movement and opposed the US involvement in Vietnam. His participation in the October 1967 peace march in Washington, DC, and his subsequent arrest are described in the early sections of Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night.
Lowell suffered with alcoholism and manic depression and was hospitalized many times throughout his life. He was married to novelist Jean Stafford from 1940 to 1948. In 1949 he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. In 1970 he left Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author Lady Caroline Blackwood. He spent many of his last years in England. Lowell died in 1977, having suffered a heart attack in a cab in New York City on his way to see Elizabeth Hardwick. He is buried in Stark Cemetery, Dunbarton, New Hampshire.
Lowell's collected poems were published in 2003 and his letters in 2005, leading to a renewed interest in his work.
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) did not receive similar acclaim, but Lowell was able to revive his reputation with Life Studies (1959). The poems in this book were written in a mix of free and metered verse, with much more informal language than he used in his first two books. It marked both a big turning point in Lowell's career, and a turning point for American poetry in general. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell's family life and personal problems, one critic, M.L. Rosenthal, labeled the book "confessional." For better or worse, this label stuck. Lowell's editor and friend Frank Bidart notes in his afterword to Lowell's Collected Poems, "Lowell is widely, perhaps indelibly associated with the term 'confessional,'" though Bidart questions the accuracy of this label.
Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations, a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets, including Rilke, Montale, Baudelaire, Pasternak, and Rimbaud, for which he received the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize.
His next book For the Union Dead, 1964, was also widely praised, particularly for its title poem, which invokes Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." In Near the Ocean, which followed a couple of years later, Lowell had returned to stanzaic forms. The best known poem in this volume, "Waking Early Sunday Morning," is written in eight-line stanzas borrowed from Andrew Marvell's poem "Upon Appleton House."
During 1967 and 1968 he experimented with a verse journal, published as Notebook, 1967-68. These fourteen-line poems loosely based on the sonnet form were reworked into three volumes. History deals with public history from antiquity onwards, and with modern poets Lowell had known; For Lizzie and Harriet describes the breakdown of his second marriage; and The Dolphin, which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, includes poems about his marriage to Caroline Blackwood and their life in England.
A minor controversy erupted when he incorporated private letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick into For Lizzie and Harriet. He was particularly criticized for this by his friends Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop.