Robert Lowell

On this date in 1917, poet Robert Lowell, the great-grand nephew of James Russell Lowell, was born in Boston. At an early age, he knew he wanted to be a poet. As a 19-year-old, he wrote Ezra Pound a letter in which he confessed that Zeus and Achilles were “almost a religion” to him; how could the “insipid blackness of the Episcopalian Church” compete? (The New Yorker, March 20, 2017)

He attended Harvard for two years and eventually graduated from Kenyon College in 1940. He converted to Catholicism when he married novelist Jean Stafford. During World War II, he volunteered but was rejected due to poor vision. However, in 1943, he was drafted. Horrified by this time at the Allied bombing of civilians in Germany, Lowell became a conscientious objector, for which he was jailed as part of his sentence. He completed his first book, Land of Unlikeness, which was published as Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946 and received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

After divorcing (despite his conversion), Lowell married Elizabeth Hardwick, another writer, in 1949. The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Lowell’s next book, came out in 1951 to less acclaim. He suffered from manic depression in the 1950s, living much of the time in Europe. His career rebounded with Life Studies (1959), containing what one critic dubbed as “confessional” poetry.

Lowell became a Democratic activist in the 1960s, campaigning for Sen. Eugene McCarthy and against nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War. His second marriage broke up and he married Caroline Blackwood in 1972. The Dolphin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. According to David Tribe in 100 Years of Freethought, Lowell became a freethinker. He translated the humanistic Prometheus Bound in 1969 (see quote below).

He died in 1977 at age 60 after suffering a heart attack in a cab in New York City on his way to see his ex-wife Elizabeth.

Freedom From Religion Foundation