The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

Lowell, Robert
Thomas F. Bertonneau - 03/09/12
Lifespan: (1917–1977)

Differing from the Transcendentalist school of American poets even while, in many respects, he continued it, Robert Lowell was a seer-lyricist in the Emerson-Whitman mode, but as inimical as they were not to moral vagueness. A native Bostonian related to the Lowells (he was a distant cousin of Miss Amy), he went to school first at Harvard but left after two years in favor of Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom. While honing his art he did what most poets have done: he lectured on aspects of literature at a series of colleges and universities. In addition to Ransom, who championed even as he mentored him, Lowell rubbed bardic shoulders with Randall Jarrell and W. H. Auden, both of whom also praised his work in the boost-phase of his literary trajectory. Like Auden, Lowell objected conscientiously to military service during World War II and politely declined combat. It is also worth noting that bipolar disorder made Lowell’s life an often stormy one.

While Transcendentalism always remained closely tied to a certain sucrose Unitarianism, Lowell’s poetry displayed a decidedly Roman Catholic or Thomistic orientation. Lowell’s diction thus reveals nothing of Wallace Stevens’s penchant for quasi-philosophical abstraction in the posture of Kant and Emerson; he preferred the concrete (something that he boasted in common with William Carlos Williams, a poet otherwise entirely unlike Lowell), and he bluntly, insistently addressed modernity’s evasion of ethics. In “Mrs. Edwards and the Spider” he says, “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.” Death pointed back to sin and it was sin, not neurosis, that most threatened a person considered qua spiritus and sub specie aeternitatis. For Lowell, mankind thus required Christian humiliation, not Gnostic exaltation. Lowell shares some traits with Frost and some, of course, with Ransom and Jarrell, both of whom he surpassed as a poet.

Lowell won a Pulitzer for his collection Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) and elbowed the critics into reacknowledging his existence with For the Union Dead (1964), which appeared at about the time that those afflicted with the French diseases of structuralism and semiotics were dismissing him as an atavistic scribbler of Civil War nostalgia in verse. The title poem of For the Union Dead raises an audacious question mark over the price of the Yankee triumph. America became an empire, bombed civilians, as at Hiroshima, and now, in commercial Boston, “a savage servility slides by on grease.” Contemporary critical discussion has mostly dropped Lowell, unfortunately. This is a temporary condition; it is Lowell who will trump au courant assessments and it is his contemporary assessors who will populate oblivion.

Further Reading
  • Lowell, Robert. Interviews and Memoirs. Edited by Jeffrey Meyers. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
  • ———. Selected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977.
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