Amy Lowell

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper Marcia B. Dinneen Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the daughter of Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence. Both sides of the family were New England

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Marcia B. Dinneen

Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the daughter of

Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence. Both sides of the family were New England

aristocrats, wealthy and prominent members of society. Augustus Lowell was a businessman,

civic leader, and horticulturalist, Katherine Lowell an accomplished musician and

linguist. Although considered as "almost disreputable," poets were part of the

Lowell family, including James Russell Lowell, a first cousin, and later Robert Lowell.

As the daughter of a wealthy family, Lowell was first educated at the family home,

"Sevenels" (named by her father as a reference to the seven Lowells living

there), by an English governess who left her with a lifelong inability to spell. Her first

poem, "Chacago," written at age nine, is testament to this problem. In the fall

of 1883 Lowell began attending a series of private schools in Brookline and Boston. At

school she was "the terror of the faculty" (Gould, p. 32). Even at Mrs. Cabot’s

school, founded by a Lowell cousin to educate her own children and the children of friends

and relations, Lowell was "totally indifferent to classroom decorum. Noisy,

opinionated, and spoiled, she terrorized the other students and spoke back to her

teachers" (Heymann, p. 164).

During school vacations Lowell traveled with her family. She went to Europe and to New

Mexico and California. On the latter trip she kept a travel journal. Lowell enjoyed

writing, and two stories she wrote during this time were printed in Dream Drops; or,

Stories from Fairyland (1887), by a "Dreamer." The volume was published

privately by her mother, who also contributed material, and the proceeds were donated to

the Perkins Institute for the Blind.

Lowell’s schooling included the usual classes in English, history, French, literature,

and a little Italian. As Lowell later noted, "My family did not consider that it was

necessary for girls to learn either Greek or Latin" (Damon, p. 87). She would also

describe her formal education as not amounting to "a hill of beans" (Benvenuto,

p. 6). School ended in 1891, and Lowell made her debut. Described as the "most

popular debutante of the season," she went to sixty dinners given in her honor. Her

popularity was attributed to her skills in dancing and in the art of conversation, but her

debut did not produce the expected marriage proposal.

Although Lowell had finished formal schooling, she continued to educate herself.

Unfortunately, higher education was not an option for Lowell women. She put herself

through a "rigorous" reading program, using her father’s 7,000-volume library

and the resources of the Boston Athenaeum (her great-grandfather was one of the founders).

Later Lowell would successfully speak out against the proposed relocation of the

Athenaeum; this would also become the subject of a poem. Lowell’s love of books themselves

began with her first "Rollo" book, Rollo Learning to Read, which

her mother gave her when she was six. This gift marked the beginning of an enthusiasm for

book collecting that would last throughout her life. In 1891 she made her first major

purchase of a set of the complete works of Sir Walter Scott with money she had received as

a Christmas gift. It was, however, her collection of Keatsiana, including a rare first

edition of Lamia inscribed to F. B. from J. K. (Fanny Brawne from John Keats), that

put her in the forefront of international book collectors.

Following her debut, Lowell led the life of a prominent socialite, visiting, going to

parties and the theater, and traveling. Her mother, who had been an invalid for years,

died in 1895. A disappointment in love prompted a winter trip to Egypt in 1897-1898.

Lowell had accepted the proposal of a Bostonian whom she loved, but before the engagement

was formally announced he "became entangled elsewhere" (Damon, p. 120).

"The family could do nothing to protect her except guard tenaciously the name of the

errant suitor" (Gould, p. 65). The trip was also for "health" reasons.

Doctors felt Lowell’s obesity could be cured by the Egyptian heat and a diet of nothing

but tomatoes and asparagus. The regimen almost killed her and resulted in a

"prolonged nervous collapse." In 1900 Lowell’s father died, and she bought

Sevenels. She also bought a summer home in Dublin, New Hampshire, that she named

"Broomley Lacey." The area was home to the MacDowell Artists’ Colony as well as

to other notable painters and sculptors.

In Brookline Lowell assumed her father’s civic responsibilities. Early in 1902 she

spoke against the reappointment of the elderly superintendent of the Brookline public

school system. She was the "first woman in the Lowell family to make a speech in

public" (Gould, p. 77). Initially booed, Lowell continued to speak with her usual

forthrightness and, at the end, won applause as well as her point. Lowell became a member

of the executive committee of the Brookline Education Society and chair of its Library


In October 1902 Lowell became a poet. Her interest in verse had been growing beyond her

childhood enthusiasm, fueled by her reading Leigh Hunt’s Imagination and Fancy; or,

Selections from the English Poets, which she had found "near the ceiling" in

her father’s library. The volume was a revelation to her, opening a "door that might

otherwise have remained shut," Lowell remarked (Gould, p. 51). She had become

enamored of poetry and the poets Hunt discussed, particularly Keats. After she saw

Eleanora Duse perform one October night she wrote her first adult poem, "Eleanora

Duse." Although some critics say that she was being too hard on herself, Lowell

described the 71-line poem as having "every cliche and every technical error which a

poem can have." Yet she also said, "It loosed a bolt in my brain and I found out

where my true function lay" (Damon, p. 148). At age twenty-eight she had discovered

her calling: to be a poet.

In 1910 four of Lowell’s sonnets were accepted for publication by the Atlantic

Monthly. "A Fixed Idea," published first, appeared in August of that year.

By 1912 she had published her first book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Colored

Glass; the title came from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais, his elegy for Keats.

It was not well received by either the public or the critics. Louis Untermeyer wrote that

the book "to be brief, in spite of its lifeless classicism, can never rouse one’s

anger. But, to be briefer still, it cannot rouse one at all" (Damon, p. 192).

Yet 1912 was also the year that Lowell met actress Ada Dwyer Russell. The friendship

between the two women has been described as platonic by some, as lesbian by others; it

was, in fact, a "Boston marriage." They lived together and were committed to

each other until Lowell’s death. Russell was Lowell’s companion, providing love and

emotional support, as well as the practical skill of organizing Lowell’s busy life.

Biographer Richard Benvenuto observed that Lowell’s "great creative output between

1914 and 1925 would not have been possible without her friend’s steadying, supporting

presence" (p.10).

The following year Lowell discovered some poems in Poetry by Hilda Doolittle,

signed "H.D. Imagiste." Lowell felt an identification with the style of H.D.’s

poetry and determined to discover more about it. Armed with a letter of introduction from Poetry

editor Harriet Monroe, Lowell traveled to London to meet Ezra Pound, head of the

imagist movement. In London Lowell not only learned about imagism and free verse from

Pound, but she also met many poets, several of whom became lifelong friends. Over the

years Lowell would develop many literary friendships that resulted in an enormous volume

of literary correspondence, requiring Lowell to employ two full-time secretaries. Lowell

not only supported and encouraged other poets with her writing, such as her favorable

review of Robert Frost’s North of Boston in the New Republic (20 Feb. 1915),

but also with money and gifts.

Lowell’s poems began to appear in increasing numbers in journals, and she was becoming

a prolific writer of essays and reviews. Pound had requested the inclusion of her poem

"In a Garden" in his anthology Des Imagistes (1914). Later Lowell and

Pound would have a falling out over the direction of the imagist movement, and Pound would

call the movement, as adapted by Lowell, "Amygism." Lowell became the

spokesperson of imagism, leading the fight for the "renewal of poetry in her

homeland" (Francis, p. 510), and her efforts were tireless. She traveled throughout

the country, "selling" the new poetry.

Her own volume Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), written in free verse and

polyphonic prose, a Lowell invention, "brought her an instantaneous phenomenal rise

to fame" (Gould, p. 139). Lowell’s first book of criticism, Six French Poets (1915),

based on a series of her lectures, was also well received.

Lowell was publishing a book a year, alternating between volumes of short verse and

longer poems. Men, Women and Ghosts (1916) was highly regarded and contained

"Patterns" one of her most famous poems. In it an eighteenth-century woman,

walking in her garden, contemplates a future that has suddenly become empty because of the

loss of her fianc? in battle; she mourns the fact that the "Patterns" of her

role required her to remain chaste before marriage. The next year she published another

critical volume, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, which included essays on six

contemporary poets: Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl

Sandburg, H.D., and John Gould Fletcher. Lowell also published anthologies of imagist

poets in 1915, 1916, and 1917. Her next volume of poetry, Can Grande’s Castle (1918),

included four long poems; the title was taken from the name of the refuge where Dante, the

Florentine exile, wrote portions of his Divine Comedy. Inspired by her lifelong

interest in the Orient, Pictures of a Floating World (1919) is a translation of the

Japanese word ukiyo-e, a term commonly associated with a form of

eighteenth-century Japanese painting. It includes 174 short, free verse lyrics, considered

by some as "overtly erotic." For example, "A Decade" and "The

Weathercock Points South" are described as a celebration of lesbian devotion. Legends

(1921) contains eleven longer poems, and Fir-Flower Tablets (1921) is a

collection of poems based on translations of ancient Chinese verse. Since Lowell did not

read Chinese, she was dependent on English translations by Florence Wheelock Ayscough,

which Lowell then turned back into poetry.

A Critical Fable (1922) is a long, humorous poem, evaluating the state of

contemporary poetry. Originally published anonymously, the poem pokes fun at fellow poets

and at Lowell herself in lines of rhymed couplets. The poem was modeled on James Russell

Lowell’s A Fable for Critics (1848).

Her last publication was the momentous biography , John Keats (1925). In 1921

Lowell had given an address at Yale honoring Keats on the one-hundredth anniversary of his

birth. The lecture stimulated her to write the book, which minutely examines Keats’s life

and corrects some long-standing misconceptions about him. Lowell was also the first

biographer to see Fanny Brawne in a favorable light. The book was well received in the

United States but not in Britain, where she was accused of writing "a psychological

thriller" rather than a literary biography. Lowell was angry and heartbroken but in

typical fashion determined to confront the critics on their own turf. Accordingly, she

planned to travel to England. The journey was never made; Lowell died of a cerebral

hemorrhage at Sevenels.

Posthumous publications, edited by Ada Dwyer Russell, are What’s O’Clock, which

won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1925 and includes the frequently anthologized poem

"Lilacs"; East Wind (1926); and Ballads for Sale (1927).

Perhaps Lowell’s poetry was not sufficiently recognized during her lifetime, but she

did write more than 650 poems, and she is now acknowledged as the first American woman

poet to see herself as part of a feminine literary tradition, reflected in poems such as

"The Sisters." What her contemporaries did realize was that Lowell made things

happen for American poetry through her own innovations and her support of other poets.

Lowell’s lectures on the "new poetry" of imagism and free verse drew large

crowds, and she was so persuasive that the public began accepting her literary judgments

"as nothing less than gospel" (Heymann, p.214). T. S. Eliot described her as a

"demon saleswoman of poetry" (Heymann, p. 217), and Sandburg remarked on her

forceful presence: "To argue with her is like arguing with a big blue wave"

(Heymann, p. 217). Frost wrote in a tribute that she "helped to make it stirring

times for a decade to those immediately concerned with art and to many not so

immediately" (Francis, p. 512).

Lowell’s correspondence, private papers, and some manuscripts are in the Houghton

Library at Harvard University. Her collection of rare books and manuscripts is also at

Harvard. Brown has other manuscripts and pictures in the Harris collection. The Alderman

Library at the University of Virginia has papers, and her letters to Harriet Monroe are at

the University of Chicago. A complete list of her work is in the definitive biography by

S. Foster Damon, Any Lowell. A Chronicle with Extracts from Her Correspondence (1935).

Other book-length biographies that include critical material are Richard Benvenuto, Amy

Lowell (1985); Glenn Richard Ruihley, The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell

Reconsidered (1975); and Jean Gould, Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist

Movement (1975). Several books have chapters on Lowell. Particularly interesting are

C. David Heymann, American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of james Russell Lowell,

Amy, and Robert Lowell (1980), and Cheryl Walker, "Women and Feminine Literary

Traditions: Amy Lowell and the Androgynous Persona " in her Masks Outrageous and

Austere (1991). Significant articles include Lesley Lee Francis, "A Decade of

‘Stirring Times’: Robert Frost and Amy Lowell," New England Quarterly 59 (Dec.

1986): 508-22; Andrew Thacker, "Amy Lowell and H.D.: The Other Imagists," Women:

A Cultural Review 4 (Spring 1993): 49-59; Lillian Faderman, "Cigar-Smoking

Sappho: Lesbian Laureate Amy Lowell Took Her World by Storm," Advocate, 13

Feb. 1990; and Jane R Ambrose, "Amy Lowell and the Music of Her Poetry," New

England Quarterly 62 (Mar. 1989): 45-62. An obituary is in the New York Times, 13

May 1925.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Copyright ? 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.