Robert Lowell was born on March 1, 1917, in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended private schools in his youth and went on to Harvard knowing that he wanted to be a poet. Two years later, he transferred to Kenyon College, after meeting Allen Tate from the New Critics and studying under him informally for the summer. At Kenyon College, Lowell studied with John Crowe Ransom before graduating in 1940. Lowell married the novelist and short-story writer Jean Stafford and enrolled in graduate courses at Louisiana State where he was taught by Robert Penn Warren. It was around that time he began writing poems for his first privately published collection, The Land of Unlikeliness (1944). Before the book was published, Lowell was instated in the army during World War II but refused service, and as a result, spent several months in local and federal prison. Poems like “Memories of West Street and Lepke” and “In the Cage” recall his experiences there. His second collection, Lord Weary’s Castle, published in 1947, was influenced by his conversion to Catholicism and won the Pulitzer Prize. As was the case with much of Lowell’s earlier poetry, it was formal in style and very precise in its adherence to rhythm and meter, loaded with figurative language, vivid imagery and symbols.
In 1948, Lowell divorced and soon remarried another novelist, Elizabeth Hardwick. He published his next volume, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, in 1951, and suffered a number of personal setbacks early in the decade, including the deaths of both his parents. It was chiefly these events which led to a psychotic breakdown and subsequent battle with manic depression throughout the rest of his life. Despite the obstacles—or perhaps because of them— Lowell’s bout with mental illness brought something positive to his writing. Taking a much more personal approach to his work, the poems in his next collection initiated the style we know today as “confessional.” In 1959, he published Life Studies, a collection that revolutionized the world of modern poetry and led to comparisons with predecessor T. S. Eliot. Where Elliot was viewed as one of the most important poets of the first half of the twentieth century, Lowell was considered one of the most influential of the second half. As a professor, Lowell taught many notable poets of the generation, including W. D. Snodgrass, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath; and influenced many others, like Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, and Frank Bidart. Lowell protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s and continued writing for the next two decades, releasing For the Union Dead, in 1964, Notebook 1967-68, in 1969, and The Dolphin, in 1973; the latter garnering his second Pulitzer Prize. His collection Day by Day was released in 1977, just days before his sudden death from heart failure. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1962 until 1977.