Robert Lowell was born to a prominent Boston Family. He attended prep school and Harvard, as his family’s auspicious lineage dictated, but left after only two years and finished his schooling at Kenyon College. During this period, poets Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom served as Lowell’s mentors. Shortly after his graduation, Lowell was conscripted into the US military and was subsequently jailed for resisting enlistment as a conscientious objector. While in prison, he completed his first book, Land of Unlikeliness, poems from which were later revised and rereleased in Lord Weary’s Castle, for which Lowell received the Pulitzer Prize. His work during this early period was characterized by traditional formalism, in contrast to the confessional style he was ultimately known for.
In the mid-1950s, Lowell’s mother died while abroad in Italy. He describes the process of traveling home with her body in the poem “Sailing Home from Rapallo,” which concludes
“In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin,
Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.
was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.”
Afterwards, Lowell, who had struggled with manic depression for much of his life, was institutionalized, where he would create some of his best work. During this period, he departed from strict formalism, employing unrhymed sonnets and free verse, most notably in his poem “Waking in the Blue.” In it, he describes the institution and its denizens. “(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)” he says. “We are all old-timers, / each of us holds a locked razor.”
At the urging of a psychiatrist, Lowell wrote a prose account of his childhood, including unsympathetic depictions of his illustrious family and his parents’ fraught marriage. This became “91 Revere Street,” the center of Lowell’s groundbreaking collection Life Studies, which is today considered one of the most important and influential books of 20th century poetry.
Robert Lowell published over a dozen books, including volumes of poetry, works of translation, and plays. Throughout his life, he maintained ties with many important writers of the generation. Lowell was close friends with Elizabeth Bishop and Ford Madox Ford; while teaching at Boston University, both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were his students; and was deeply influenced by William Carlos Williams and the Beat Generation, including the poet Allen Ginsberg. He died of a heart attack in 1977.