Born in Boston with an ancestry stretching back to the Mayflower, the Robert Lowell family included Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell and poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. When preparing for college at St. Marks School in Southborough, Massachusetts, he was encouraged to write poetry by a young teacher, Richard Eberhart. After two years at Harvard College, he lived in a tent on the Tennessee lawn of poetic mentor Alan Tate before moving on, for reasons of health, to Kenyon College to study with John Crowe Ransom.
Then, after marrying novelist Jean Stafford, Lowell studied at Louisiana State University. Poems he wrote, revised and published as Lord Weary’s Castle, won a Pulitzer Prize.
As a conscientious objector protesting against Allied bombing of civilian populations, Lowell was sentenced to a year in prison. Prison memories were shared in his Memories of West Street and Lepke. His volume Life Studies helped foster the confessional school of poetry and was immediately recognized by a National Book Award.
Throughout his life, Robert Lowell experienced various manic-depressive episodes which required hospitalization. After his divorce from Jean Stafford, he married writer Elizabeth Hardwick. William Carlos Williams became his new mentor. Beginning in 1954, Lowell taught at Boston University. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were among his students. Then, while teaching half-time at Harvard from 1963 until his death in 1977, he was actively engaged in opposition to America’s role in the Vietnam War. He protested with Norman Mailer and publicly declined an invitation from President Lyndon Johnson to participate in a White House Festival of Arts, stating that, “We may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin.”
Lowell’s sudden death at the age of sixty by heart attack, occurred in a taxi when he was returning to his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, after breaking from his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood.
Robert Lowell was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1962 until his death in 1977. He was personally acquainted with most of the major poets of his time and much respected by T. S. Eliot. His Life Studies has been compared to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and Eliot’s The Waste Land as a turning point in American Poetry.
The Poetry of Robert Lowell
THE PUBLIC GARDEN
Burnished, burned-out, still burning as the year
you lead me to our stamping ground.
The city and its cruising cars surround
the Public Garden. All’s alive—
the children crowding home from school at five,
punting a football in the bricky air,
the sailors and their pick-ups under trees
with Latin labels. And the jaded flock
of swanboats paddles to its dock.
The park is drying.
Dead leaves thicken to a ball
inside the basin of a fountain, where
the heads of four stone lions stare
and suck on empty faucets. Night
deepens. From the arched bridge, we see
the shedding park-bound mallards, how they keep
circling and diving in the lantern light,
searching for something hidden in the muck.
And now the moon, earth’s friend, that cared so much
for us, and cared so little, comes again—
always a stranger! As we walk,
it lies like chalk
over the waters. Everything’s aground.
Remember summer? Bubbles filled
the fountain, and we splashed. We drowned
in Eden, while Jehovah’s grass-green lyre
was rustling all about us in the leaves
that gurgled by us, turning upside down. . .
The fountain’s failing waters flash around
the garden. Nothing catches fire.
MEMORIES OF WEST STREET AND LEPKE
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . .
MR. EDWARDS AND THE SPIDER
I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;
What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?
A very little thing, a little worm,
Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
Hold up his mirror and affirm
To the four winds the smell
And flash of his authority? It’s well
If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
Much as one holds a spider, will destroy
Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy
On Windsor March, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There’s no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly–
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.
But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal–
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.
FOR THE UNION DEAD
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the crowded, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is a lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic
The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…
Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!- a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!
JONATHAN EDWARDS IN WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS
Edward’s great millstone and rock
of hope has crumbled, but the square
white houses of his flock
stand in the open air,
out in the cold,
like sheep outside the fold.
Hope lives in doubt.
Faith is trying to do without
faith. In western Massachusetts,
I could almost feel the frontier
crack and disappear.
Edwards thought the world would end there.
We know how the world will end,
but where is paradise, each day farther
from the Pilgrim’s blued for England
and the Promised Land.
Was it some country house
that seemed as if it were
Whitehall, if the Lord were there?
so nobly did he live.
that the breath of flowers in the wind,
or crushed underfoot,
came and went like warbling music?
Bacon’s great oak grove
he refused to sell,
when he fell,
saying, “Why should I sell my feathers?”
Ah paradise! Edwards,
I would be afraid
to meet you there as a shade.
We move in different circles.
As a boy, you built a booth
in a swamp for prayer;
lying on your back,
you saw the spiders fly,
basking at their ease,
swimming from tree to tree —
so high, they seemed tacked to the sky.
You knew they would die.
Poor country Berkeley at Yale,
you saw the world was soul,
the soul of God! The soul
of Sarah Pierrepont!
So filled with delight in the Great Being,
She hardly cared for anything —
walking the fields, sweetly singing,
conversing with some one invisible.
Then God’s love shone in sun, moon and stars,
on earth, in the waters,
in the air, in the loose winds,
which used to greatly fix your mind.
Often she saw you come home from a ride
or a walk, your coat dotted with thoughts
you had pinned there
on slips of paper.
her Pompey, a Negro Slave,
and eleven children.
Yet people were spiders
in your moment of glory,
at the Great Awakening — “Alas, how many
in this very meeting house are more than likely
to remember my discourse in hell!”
The meeting house remembered!
You stood on stilts in the air,
but you fell from your parish.
“All rising is by a winding stair.”
On my pilgrimage to Northampton,
I found no relic,
except the round slice of an oak
you are said to have planted.
It was flesh-colored, new,
and a common piece of kindling,
only fit for burning.
You too must have been green once.
White wig and black coat,
all cut from one cloth,
like your mind!
I love you faded,
old exiled and afraid
to leave your last flock, a dozen
Houssatonic Indian children;
afraid to leave
all your writing, writing, writing,
denying the Freedom of the Will.
You were afraid to be president
of Princeton, and wrote:
“My defects are well known;
I have a constitution
vapid, sizzy, scarse fluids,
causing a childish weakness,
a low tide of spirits.
I am contemptible,
stiff and dull.
Why should I leave behind
my delight and entertainment,
that have swallowed up my mind?”
Caged in fiction’s iron bars,
I give this voice to you
with tragic diction to rebuke the stars —
it isn’t you, and yet it’s you.
“Will you, like Goethe, fall
to oblivion in my arms;
then talk about the stars?
Say they light militant campfires,
storm heaven while I sleep?
Not now —
my spine is hurting me,
I can only lie face down,
a gross weight innocent —
if you will let me sleep —
of seduction, speech, or pain.
I’m too drugged to do anything,
or help you watch the sky.
I am indifferent to the stars —
their ranks are too docile and mathematical
to regroup if once scattered
like comatose sheep . . .
I am indifferent —
what woman has the measure of a man,
who only has to care about himself
and follow the stars’
extravagant, useless journey across the sky,
to divert me from the absence of the sun?
Because they cannot love, they need no love.”
If you heard God is dead,
the old monopolist,
who made us to take us apart —
would you stand upright in spite of your spine?
an old walnut soaked in rum,
too slippery for the stars to crack
in their rigid, identical glass wheels . . .
If God is dead,
how can I be certain another old man
will drop again from the stars,
from sixty thousand fathoms away,
and halt by the post of my bed —
motionless with ill-omened power?
A new old lover
might hurt a thousand times worse . . .
But my beloved
is godlike, tantalizing,
made in the image of a man
too young to be frightened of women.
He can only appear in all my dreams.”