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About this poet

On March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston's oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He took graduate courses at Louisiana State University where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.

His first and second books, Land of Unlikeness (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 at the age of thirty, were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and explored the dark side of America's Puritan legacy. Under the influence of Allen Tate and the New Critics, he wrote rigorously formal poetry that drew praise for its exceptionally powerful handling of meter and rhyme. Lowell was politically involved—he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War and was imprisoned as a result, and actively protested against the war in Vietnam—and his personal life was full of marital and psychological turmoil. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was repeatedly hospitalized.

Partly in response to his frequent breakdowns, and partly due to the influence of such younger poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg, Lowell in the mid-1950s began to write more directly from personal experience, and loosened his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result was a watershed collection, Life Studies (Faber and Faber, 1959), which forever changed the landscape of modern poetry, much as Eliot's The Waste Land had three decades before. Considered by many to be the most important poet in English of the second half of the twentieth century, Lowell continued to develop his work with sometimes uneven results, all along defining the restless center of American poetry, until his sudden death on September 12, 1977, from a heart attack at age sixty. Robert Lowell served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1962 until his death.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Day by Day (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977)
Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1976)
The Dolphin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
For Lizzie and Harriet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
Notebooks, 1967-1968 (1969)
The Voyage and Other Versions of Poems by Baudelaire (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968)
Near the Ocean (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967)
Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1965)
For the Union Dead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964)
Imitations (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961)
Life Studies (Faber and Faber, 1959)
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (Harcourt, Brace, 1951)
Poems, 1938-1949 (Faber and Faber, 1950)
Lord Weary‘s Castle (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946)
Land of Unlikeness (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944)

Prose

The Collected Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987)

Anthology

Prometheus Bound (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969)
Phaedra and Figaro (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961)

Drama

The Old Glory (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

For the Union Dead

Robert Lowell, 1917 - 1977

"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."

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 cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back.  I often sigh 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 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 as 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 statues 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 statues 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.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone.  Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

From Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, published by Noonday Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.). Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

From Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, published by Noonday Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.). Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell's poetry collection Life Studies is considered by many to have changed the landscape of modern poetry.

by this poet

poem
For Elizabeth Bishop


Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop.  Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she
poem
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed;
the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;
in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,
abandoned, almost Dionysian.
At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street,
blossoms on our magnolia ignite
the morning with their murderous five days' white.
All night I've
poem
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme--
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write 
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a