For the Union Dead | Study Guide

Robert Lowell

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Robert Lowell | Biography


Early Life and Family

Robert Lowell was born on March 1, 1917, "under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House. ... America was entering World War I (1914–18) and was about to play her part in the downfall of five empires." Lowell's biographer Ian Hamilton quotes this statement of the poet's beginnings from the manuscript of an autobiography Lowell undertook in 1955. Lowell's lifelong themes are evident in this statement: his family's privileged origins as a Massachusetts first family and the enduring upheavals of war and global politics.

Lowell's maternal forebears included Edward Winslow (1595–1655), who had come to Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620, and his brother John, who arrived on the Fortune a year later. John married Mary Chilton (1607–79), known as the first woman to step off the Mayflower onto American soil. Massachusetts's first families constituted a social hierarchy that could not be breached for more than 300 years. They were memorialized in this humorous poem by Boston doctor John Collins Bossidy (1860–1928). The other reference is to the Cabots, statesmen and descendants of a wealthy shipping family:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

Marriages took place within the charmed circle of these families, and few dared to defy the rules. These included attending the correct schools from early life onward, choosing an appropriate marriage partner based on the family's historical credentials and fortune, belonging to the appropriate church, inheriting an appropriate city address, and conducting a social life that perpetuated the elitist habits of the group.

Charlotte Winslow (1889–1954), Lowell's mother, married Robert Traill Spence Lowell (1887–1950), whose family had arrived in Massachusetts in 1639. Bob was, by most reports, a rather timid naval officer from the humble side of the Lowell clan. Yet despite their reputations as the "poor relations," that branch of the family had produced gifted people in the arts and academic life and had thus earned a tolerable, if marginal, status among the Mayflower crowd. Among Boston's illustrious Lowells were James Russell Lowell (1819–91), the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly; Amy Lowell (1874–1925), a modernist Imagist poet; and A. Lawrence Lowell (1856–1943), a former president of Harvard College.

Charlotte, despite a large personal inheritance, was never happy with her social position after she married "down." She insisted on maintaining a home on Boston's Beacon Hill for stubborn social reasons even after her husband's appointment as second in command in Boston's Navy Yard, a position that included a large home in which he was required to live. Although Lowell Sr. came home for family meals, he returned each night to the Yard. Charlotte Winslow's sense of privilege was a matter of historical identity, and her choice became a source of family strain and trauma. As a result, Lowell's boyhood was marked by estrangement as well as by the opportunities that life among the elite on Beacon Hill had to offer.


In his schooldays Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., who bore his father's name but not his mild disposition, was menacing and belligerent. From his earliest school years, Lowell was accustomed to being unpopular, according to his biographer. In "91 Revere Street," Lowell's memoir of his early life included in his book Life Studies, there is a suggestion that his unruliness was emphasized by his impatience with a father who never stood up for himself. Young Robert's resistance to his domineering mother and strict rules of behavior manifested itself in his being physically unkempt, rudely quarrelsome, and aggressively uncouth through his Harvard years.

Already thinking of himself as a poet, Lowell attended prestigious private and preparatory schools in Boston and then attended Harvard for two years. In 1937 he met the poet Allen Tate (1899–1979) and moved to Tennessee to study at Vanderbilt University with Tate's mentor, John Crowe Ransom (1888–1974). Following Ransom to Kenyon College in Ohio, Lowell received a B.A. summa cum laude in Classics. A gifted linguist, Lowell mastered Greek and Latin and immersed himself in British literature as well. In 1940 Lowell studied at Louisiana State University with novelist Robert Penn Warren (1905–89) and critic Cleanth Brooks (1906–94). In later years, Lowell learned French, Italian, German, and Russian to translate poetry in those languages. His translations won the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize in 1962.

Early Career

At the start of World War II (1939–45), Lowell attempted to enlist in the army. Initially rejected because of poor eyesight in 1941, he was called up in 1943. In despair over the mounting civilian deaths, particularly the results of the Allied firebombing of German cities, he refused service, declaring himself a conscientious objector. Lowell's claim was rejected, and as a result he served several months in prison. In 1946 he published Lord Weary's Castle, his first major public success, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947.

Lowell was among the originators of a new, deeply personal poetry. Poet and critic M.L. Rosenthal (1917–96) coined the term confessional in a review of Lowell's fourth book of poems, Life Studies. Although the literary tradition of confession is not new, Lowell's approach, shared by near contemporaries, is best characterized as motivated by psychological and historical context. Lowell gave generations of poets, such as Allen Ginsberg (1926–97), Sylvia Plath (1932–63), and Anne Sexton (1928–74), permission to say I and to innovate in modes both personal and political, trends in American poetry that continue to the present time.

Marriage, Politics, and Publications

In 1940 Lowell married writer Jean Stafford (1915–79) and converted to Catholicism. They divorced in 1948, and Lowell married critic and writer Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007) the next year. After traveling in Europe for a few years, the couple returned to the United States, where Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs in 1951. During this period, the poet suffered a number of manic episodes, including a severe illness for which he was hospitalized following the death of his mother in 1954. His manic episodes were often violent, as was his treatment: physical restraint, confinement in padded cells, and electric shock treatment.

Around this time, Lowell's interests in politics grew as did his conviction, according to Michael Thurston, to "write himself out of the strictness" of the conventional poetic structures he had mastered in Lord Weary's Castle. Life Studies, his 1959 volume of poetry, was notable for a more open form and a focus on personal history and politics of the time. Knowing something of personal suffering, Lowell managed a poetry that balanced personal trauma and the violence of war. Life Studies won the National Book Award in 1960.

In the 1960s Lowell's interests and poetry became increasingly political. For the Union Dead, published in 1964, successfully joined personal history with American history. In the title poem, Lowell considers the notion of economic progress and the abhorrent legacies of slavery and the Civil War (1861–65). By invitation, Lowell read this poem on the Boston Common at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960. The poem had been written for the occasion. Poet and editor Peter Davison (1928–2004), one of Lowell's contemporaries, noted that "Lowell [was] always aware of the shadows cast by history." Lowell spoke "not only to the city's condition and to its history, but to the shadowy imminence of the long-overdue civil-rights revolution."

By the mid-1960s Lowell was involved in political activism. In 1965, as a statement of protest against the escalation of the war in Vietnam, he refused President Lyndon B. Johnson's invitation to the White House. In October 1967 he participated in the anti-war march on the Pentagon. His later work would address both his reactions to contemporary world events and his views on American history, including his own family. His publications included The Old Glory (1965), a collection of three plays; and the poetry collections Near the Ocean (1967); Notebook 1967–68 (1969); For Lizzie and Harriet (1973); History (1973); The Dolphin (1973); and Day by Day (1977).

Death and Legacy

Lowell's marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick lasted until 1970, when he announced he was in love with Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931–96), a British novelist and heir to the Guinness fortune. Hardwick, who had remained steadfast for 23 years of Lowell's infidelities, manic episodes, hospitalizations, and subsequent returns to the marriage, divorced him in 1972. Lowell married Lady Caroline and moved to London the same year. The couple separated in 1977. Lowell immediately returned to New York and died of a heart attack in a taxi on his way to see Hardwick and their daughter, Harriet. He is remembered as one of the best, most innovative, and most influential American poets. In the end, a stubborn boy's hard-fought independence, jostled by a young man's struggle with mental illness and a poet's keen sense of history, produced a daring and new American poetry.

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