Lowell, Amy

views updated May 21 2018

Amy Lowell


Born February 9, 1874, in Brookline, MA; died of a stroke, May 12, 1925, in Brookline, MA; daughter of Augustus and Katherine Bigelow (Lawrence) Lowell; partner of Ada Dwyer Russell (a secretary and editor). Education: Attended Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1917-18, Tufts College, 1918, and Columbia University, 1920; Baylor University, Litt. D., 1920. Religion: Episcopalian.


Poet and essayist. Yale University, New Haven, CT, Francis Bergen foundation lecturer, 1921; Brown University, Providence, RI, Marshall Woods lecturer, 1921.


Phi Beta Kappa.

Awards, Honors

Helen Haire Levinson Prize, Poetry magazine, 1924, for "Evelyn Ray"; Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1926, for What's O'Clock.


(With Katherine Bigelow Lawrence Lowell and Elizabeth Lowell) Dream Drops or Stories from Fairy Land by a Dreamer, Cupples & Hurd (Boston, MA), 1887.

A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1912.

Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1914, reprinted, AMS Press (New York, NY), 1981.

Six French Poets: Studies in Contemporary Literature, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1915, reprinted, Books for Libraries Press (Freeport, NY), 1967.

(editor and contributor) Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1915.

Men, Women, and Ghosts, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1916.

(editor and contributor) Some Imagist Poets, 1916: An Annual Anthology, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1916.

(editor and contributor) Some Imagist Poets, 1917: An Annual Anthology, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1917.

Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1917, reprinted, Haskell House (New York, NY), 1970.

Can Grande's Castle, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1918.

Pictures of the Floating World, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1919.

Legends, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1921.

A Critical Fable, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1922.

John Keats, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1925, reprinted, Archon Books (Hamden, CT), 1969.

What's O'Clock, edited by Ada Dwyer Russell, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1925.

East Wind, edited by Ada Dwyer Russell, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1926.

Ballads for Sale, edited by Ada Dwyer Russell, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1927.

Selected Poems of Amy Lowell, edited by John Livingston Lowes, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1928.

Poetry and Poets: Essays, edited by Ferris Greenslet, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1930.

Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, introduction by Louis Untermeyer, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1955.

The Letters of D. H. Lawrence and Amy Lowell, 1914-1925, edited by E. Claire Healey & Keith Cushman, Black Sparrow Press, 1985.

Also author of the privately printed The Madonna of Carthagena, 1927; "In a Garden" appeared in Des Imagists: An Anthology, edited by Ezra Pound, A. & C. Boni (New York, NY), 1914; author of English versions of poems in Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems Translated from the Chinese, translated by Florence Ayscough, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1921; contributor of poetry to numerous periodicals, including the Yale Review, Atlantic, and the Nation.


An oft-quoted remark attributed to poet Amy Lowell applies to both her determined personality and her sense of humor: "God made me a business woman," Lowell is reported to have quipped, "and I made myself a poet." During a career that spanned just over a dozen years, she wrote and published over 650 poems, yet scholars cite Lowell's tireless efforts to awaken American readers to contemporary trends in poetry as her more influential contribution to literary history. Following her untimely death in 1925, a collection of Lowell's work, published posthumously as What's O'Clock?, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926. But a shift in poetic fashions all but obliterated the memory of Lowell's poetic achievements. The reasons for that eclipse lie both in the poet and in her audience. Lowell was very prolific and very uneven. Because so much of her poetry was bad, it was easy to judge her harshly. Moreover, her best and most characteristic poetry was very puzzling to conventional readers and remains so to this day. The language of these poems is chiefly pictorial, with the result that she was dismissed as a writer who touched only the physical surfaces of the world and so failed to illuminate any of its deeper meanings. Though critics note that Lowell, at her best, is a writer of extraordinary verve, freshness, and beauty of expression, she is little better understood sixty years after her death than she was in 1912 when she published her first book of poems, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass.

Born into a Prominent Family

Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1874, into a prominent New England family. As an essayist for the Dictionary of Literary Biography recounted, "She was a descendant of Percival Lowle, a merchant from Bristol who immigrated in 1639 to Newbury, Massachusetts. The Lowells of subsequent generations made their way to the pinnacle of Boston society, as the popular saying 'the Cabots speak only to the Lowells and the Lowells speak only to God' attests. Amy Lowell's grandfathers, John Amory Lowell and Abbott Lawrence, were pioneers in the development of the cotton industry in New England. Lawrence also served as ambassador to the Court of Saint James's. Her father, Augustus Lowell, followed in his father's footsteps in his business interests, in his love of horticulture, and in civic responsibilities. Her mother, Katherine Bigelow Lawrence, was an accomplished linguist and musician.… She was the youngest of five children. Her brothers, Percival and Abbott Lawrence, were in their sophomore and freshman years at Harvard University; her sisters, Katherine and Elizabeth, were sixteen and twelve at the time of her birth." Lowell's brother, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, became a well-known astronomer and president of Harvard College. As a young girl Amy attended private schools in between sojourns to Europe with her family and, at the age of seventeen, began a diligent process of educating herself inside the seven thousand-volume library at Sevenels, the Lowell family seat in Brookline where she would also live as an adult. "Lowell's room, which she kept all her life and called 'Sky Parlour,' was on the top floor and overlooked beautiful, patterned gardens, carefully cultivated by her father," according to Richard Benvenuto in his book Amy Lowell.

A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass Is Published

In August of 1910, at the age of thirty-six, Lowell saw her first poem, "Fixed Idea," published in the Atlantic. Other poems appeared regularly in various periodicals over the next several years. In 1912, Lowell's first collection of poetry was published. A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass was termed by Dictionary of Literary Biography essayists E. Claire Healey and Laura Ingram "a typical first book, characterized by conventional themes, traditional forms, and the limitations inherent in the work of a solitary poet who had no contact with other practitioners of her art." However, the critics noted that "Lowell's honesty of expression and an occasional brilliant image provided a glimpse of what was to come." They also chart with unusual thoroughness all of the facets of Lowell's idealistic and mystical thought. The most important of these concerns the existence of a transcendent power that permeates the world and accounts for the divinity that Lowell sensed in all created things. In her poem "Before the Altar," a lonely and penniless worshipper offers his life and being as sacrifice to this Power, which Lowell also celebrated in "The Poet," another early poem. Moved by the awesome splendors of creation, the poet is urged, she says, to forsake the ordinary pleasures of life to pursue the ideality symbolized by the "airy cloudland palaces" of sunset. Such a person, she says, "spurns life's human friendships to profess Life's loneliness of dreaming ecstasy."

In addition to the beauty of the poems themselves, Healey and Ingram also wrote appreciatively of the artistic design of A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, which Lowell had based on a volume by early nineteenth-century British poet John Keats. A devotee of Keats's work since her teenage years, Lowell gradually amassed a collection of the author's papers and manuscripts that she would later mine for a weighty biography. "In addition to the Keats collection," an essayist for the Dictionary of Literary Biography explained, "Lowell built up an extensive literary library—with an emphasis on poetry—which included autograph manuscripts, letters, and first and other early editions of English and American authors.… Lowell was a significant figure in the book-collecting world of the first quarter of the twentieth century." Her collection of some 12,000 books, letters, and manuscripts was eventually left to Harvard University following her death. A. Edward Newton, writing in his book The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections, described Lowell as "a poet of rare distinction, a critic, and America's most distinguished woman collector."

Discovers Imagism

After beginning a career as a poet when she was well into her thirties, Lowell became an enthusiastic student and disciple of the art. One day in 1913, after reading a number of poems signed"H.D., Imagiste," she realized that her own poetry followed in much the same literary vein. The new style of poetry she had just encountered was termed "Imagism" by its main proponent, Ezra Pound. To a poet like Lowell, concerned with extra-rational areas of experience, Imagism was a great advance over the confines of logical statement. Imagism borrowed from both English and American verse styles to create a new Anglo-American literary movement that "honed poetic expression down to its purest, most direct form," explained Healey and Ingram in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Its practitioners—Pound, Ford Madox Ford, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Richard Aldington, among others—were divided between London and the United States and influenced by the general mood of modernism permeating the era prior to World War I.

With a desire to learn more about Imagism, Lowell journeyed to London with the goal of meeting with Pound; she carried with her a letter of introduction from Harriet Monroe, editor of the Chicago-based magazine Poetry. Lowell and Pound struck up a mutual friendship, and she also became acquainted with poet John Gould Fletcher and novelist Henry James; her trip was also noteworthy for her exposure to other modernist trends in the performing and visual arts. Back in Boston, Lowell undertook a campaign to make Imagist poetry both a critical and financial success in the U.S. and began traveling often between the two countries. During this time, Lowell was also writing poetry of her own and saw the publication of several volumes of verse, including Sword Blades and Poppy Seed in 1914, Can Grande's Castle in 1918, and Pictures of the Floating World in 1919. Lowell's own verse, although written in the Imagist style, evolved into what she termed "unrhymed cadence," a non-metrical style she felt well-suited for the English language and based on the natural rhythms of speech. With her friend John Gould Fletcher, Lowell is credited with bringing this versical style, also called polyphonic prose, into American poetry, an art described by S. Foster Damon in Amy Lowell: A Chronicle as "the most various and supple poetic form ever devised in English. It runs without let or hindrance from one rhythm into another, according to the mood of the moment; it allows the use of any and every device known to versification, the only restriction being that 'the sound should be an echo to the sense.'" Pound took exception to Lowell's brand of Imagist poetry, however, and formally abandoned the movement. According to an essayist in Gay and Lesbian Literature, "Lowell's contributions constituted a break with the original European movement, causing Pound to ruefully scorn the American branch as 'Amygisme.'" The break resulted in two factions among the Imagist poets, some of whom wanted Lowell to take up editorship of an annual anthology of Imagist poetry to which she had previously been a contributor. Anti-Pound factions among the writers believed that Pound's editorship of the anthology, as well as his general de facto leadership, exhibited too capricious a manner.

Lowell's editorship of these collections of Imagist poetry began in 1915 with Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology, to which she also contributed; two more volumes were published in subsequent years. In her introduction to the 1915 volume, Lowell attempted to set down some criteria for writers of Imagist poetry. They should strive, she wrote, "1. To use the language of common speech.…2. To create new rhythms.…3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject.…4. To present an image.… 5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite. 6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry."

Lowell continued to publish volumes of poetry over the next few years, but 1921's Legends would be the last collection of her own work published before her death. In it, she uses eleven legends from around the globe as a basis for eleven poems. William Lyon Phelps, reviewing the work for the New York Times Book Review, commended the growth Lowell had shown since her early days as a poet. "There is simply no comparison in excellence between" the stronger parts of Legends, Phelps wrote, "and the best pages of her first book. While her chief forte is description, owing to her extraordinary sensitivity to sounds, colors, and smells, she has given in Legends such a variety of beauty as to delight her friends and to bewilder her enemies." John Livingston Lowes, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, grouped Legends and Can Grande's Castle as among the more outstanding examples of Lowell's work. "I know no writer of English whose command of the rich vocabulary of sensuous impressions approaches Amy Lowell's," the critic asserted. "The almost physical impact of it startles one each time one turns her pages."

Throughout much of her career Lowell's curiosity and intellectual keenness took her farther than her New England upbringing and continental jaunts; through Pound she became interested and subsequently influenced by the culture of the Far East. One scholar of her work, William Leonard Schwartz, noted that Lowell's poetry, especially after Pictures of the Floating World, could be compared with the rhythms in Japanese visual art. She also penned haiku poetry and what she called "Chinoiseries," poems fashioned after the idiomatic languages of the East. Taking her interests a step further, Lowell also reworked Chinese poems with translator Florence Ayscough for the 1921 volume Fir-Flower Tablets. Some critics faulted what they felt were errors in the translations, but others praised the work. Schwartz, writing in Modern Language Notes, remarked, "[if] we ever graft Far Eastern branches upon the stock of English poetry, we will turn back to Amy Lowell's Oriental verse with the gratitude and respect due to an inspired explorer." Saturday Review of Literature critic Lowes also praised Fir-Flower Tablets, deeming the poems in the volume "in their exquisite art, among the masterpieces of their kind."

Lowell penned two books of literary criticism, 1915's Six French Poets: Studies in Contemporary Literature, and Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, published in 1917. The poet Untermeyer, in American Poetry since 1900, praised the latter volume, noting "it is her catholicity of taste, her subjugation of prejudices that make such a book not only a noble interpretation but a contribution to criticism." In her later years, despite increasingly poor health, Lowell continued to devote her energies to winning over the American public to an appreciation of contemporary poetry. She undertook lecture tours, professing to relish oratorical opportunities. More importantly, she used her social connections, financial independence, and forthright personality to boost the careers of other poets, providing feedback, recommending their work to others, acting as a liaison with editors, and writing articles on the subject. Carl Sandburg was one recipient of Lowell's support.

A Critical Fable Looks at the Poets of Her Time

Lowell's A Critical Fable, published in 1922, was a literary answer to A Fable for Critics, an earlier work written by her cousin James Russell Lowell. It was a lighthearted satire on the literary currents of her day and the business of writing. Lowes, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, termed it "a tour de force of self-portraiture or rather, a gay, sparkling, whimsical portrait of herself as she knew that others saw her." Benvenuto described A Critical Fable as "a long, witty survey, in rhymed couplets, of the leading poets of her time, including herself, whom she described as a 'whirling afflatus.' Lowell published the poem anonymously on 15 September 1922. She hoped to set the literary world buzzing over its possible author; and for more than a year—Lowell acknowledged the work early in 1924—various candidates were proposed.… Although most of the portraits give a sincere estimate, made with a lighthearted touch, others—including the lines on Eliot and Pound—give way to bitterness; Lowell's enmity as well as her generosity is apparent; and she cannot resist, under cover of the anonymous voice, predicting future renown for herself."

Lowell's last writing project was a biography of poet John Keats. Benvenuto explained that "Lowell had been a lover of Keats since the 1890s, when she brought her schoolmates home and read his poetry to them. His influence is strong in her early poetry; the title of her first book, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, is taken from 'Adonais,' Shelley's elegy to Keats. Throughout her career, she wrote a number of poems on or about Keats." The biography took her several years, from 1921 until July of 1924. "The two-volume biography, more than twelve-hundred pages long, was scheduled for early 1925," Benvenuto wrote. "She had worked at nothing so long or so hard as at Keats—it drained her energy. She had become so involved with Keats's life and work that she almost felt as if his identity were replacing hers." The book was a great success. Within ten days of publication, it went through four printings. Lowell was even featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Final Days

By spring of 1925, Lowell was busy planning a lecture tour of England. To bid her farewell, Benvenuto recounted, "a large group of her friends held a 'Complimentary Dinner in Honour of Miss Amy Lowell' on 4 April 1925. Several hundred attended; and Lowell—who, typically, was an hour late—heard herself praised in a dozen speeches. At the end, she read one of her great poems, 'Lilacs.'" Lowell's health had been declining for several years; a glandular condition had caused her to gain weight, leading to such further health problems as hernia attacks. She was obliged to suffer through several operations. In May of 1925 she suffered a serious attack; two days later she rose from her bed against medical advice and was immediately felled by a stroke. She died within a few hours. Winfield Townley Scott, writing in the New England Quarterly, declared that the tremendous effort she had put into the biography of Keats "certainly killed Amy Lowell."

Lowell's idiosyncracies were as famous in her time as were her poems. "Like [Gertrude] Stein," Cecily M. Barrie in Gay and Lesbian Literature noted, "Lowell did not shrink from notoriety. Lowell understood that her flamboyant image, as well as her status as a Boston heiress and sister of the president of Harvard University, all combined to arouse the public's curiosity about her. Unfortunately, critics as well as the public seemed more obsessed with her eccentricities than with her art. And in the context of New England at the turn of the century, Lowell's unconventionalities seemed abnormal. She smoked small, black Manilla cigars—an 'unladylike' choice but with the advantage that cigars burn more slowly than cigarettes, and so would last through long hours as she composed her verses. She was not above taking pleasure in defying the social convention which made smoking taboo for women; she once caused an unsuspecting young man to blush as she compared unwrapping her cigar to undressing a lady layer by layer, then lit up and inhaled seductively. Lowell liked to sleep until 3:00 in the afternoon, entertain until midnight, and then write until nearly dawn—the perfect time for her to contemplate the moon and revel in its inspiration. She demanded 16 pillows and a sybaritic-sized bath, but the ample proportions of her body made these necessities. She also demanded that mirrors be draped in black, another concession to her life-long obesity. Finally, she wore her hair in a severe pompadour in a vain attempt to add height to her five-foot stature."

Relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell

By 1920 Lowell had been engaged for several years in a relationship with her secretary, Ada Dwyer Russell, an association that some of her biographers note seemed to have provided the poet with emotional stability and happiness for perhaps the first time in her life. Barrie explained: "Their relationship was a bond of love, presumably platonic, which was acknowledged by their friends but not permanently recorded, since Ada's first duty as Lowell's executrix was to 'cremate' all personal correspondence in Lowell's effects. Regardless of the details of their relationship, Lowell was a passionate person, and it was Ada's strength which gave her the courage to free herself from the many strictures imposed on her as a member of the Lowell family." Lowell penned several romantic odes to Russell over the years, including "The Temple," "Anticipation," and "The Taxi."

If you enjoy the works of Amy Lowell

you might want to check out the following books:

Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Collected Poems, 1912-1944, 1986.

Marianne Moore, Becoming Marianne Moore: Early Poems, 1907-1924, 2002.

Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, 1957.

Ada Dwyer Russell edited a trio of posthumous collections of Lowell's verse, including What's O'Clock, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, East Wind, and Ballads for Sale. Speaking of What's O'Clock, Barrie explained that Eleanora Duse, "a famous Italian stage actress, had enchanted Lowell in 1902 with her art and her person, and engendered a devotion that lasted all of Lowell's life. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book of verse, What's O'Clock, published posthumously in 1925, Lowell's six sonnets to Duse, which had earlier been deemed too controversial for readers, were finally made public, and they clearly reveal the poet's awe and adoration for Duse. From her, Lowell learned that art had the power to enter and indeed to order the flow of one's life, and that the expression of one's inner self could be lived out in a dramatic and opulent manner."

In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Healey and Ingram termed Lowell "the embodiment of the new liberated woman," expressly citing the poet's "unlimited faith in her own capability." Benvenuto concluded that "there is a great deal in Lowell's poetry worth exploring and discussing. She became an accomplished storyteller, and she knew enough about human nature to create such complex characters as those in 'The Doll' and 'Written on the Reverse.' In telling of a fox's infatuation with the moon, or Perry's journey to Japan, she could make her images and symbols both subtle and resonant. In her best lyrics, she paid the same attention to the impact of words, and drew upon their symbolic and connotative possibilities. She was as adept an artist with the figurative colors of her language as she was a word-painter. But even in those poems in which there is no more than what meets the eye, there is much to see; and we have just begun to get to the core of the best of the others. With her amazing diversity, her different experiments, her obtuseness at one moment and her clearheadedness at another, and her many failures and successes, she is not an easy poet to sum up—which makes many of the still prevailing assumptions about her all the more suspect. This much seems sure: she contributed not a little to the age of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot; and it would have been a very different and less exciting time without her."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Benvenuto, Richard, Amy Lowell, Twayne, 1985.

Bryher, Winifred, Amy Lowell, a Critical Appreciation, Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1918.

Damon, S. Foster, Lowell: A Chronicle, with Extracts from Her Correspondence, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1935, reprinted as Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, Shoe String Press, 1966.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 54: American Poets, 1880-1945, Third Series, 1987, Volume 140: American Book-Collectors and Bibliographers, First Series, 1994.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Faderman, Lillian, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, Morrow (New York, NY), 1981.

Flint, F. Cudworth, Amy Lowell, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1969.

Galvin, Mary E., Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers, Greenwood Press, 1998.

Gay and Lesbian Biography, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Gay and Lesbian Literature, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Gould, Jean, Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement, Dodd (New York, NY), 1975.

Gregory, Horace, Amy Lowell: Portrait of the Poet in Her Time, Nelson (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1958.

Healey, E. Caire, and Keith Cushman, editors, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence & Amy Lowell, 1914-1925, Black Sparrow Press, 1985.

Heymann, C. David, American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy and Robert Lowell, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY, 1980.

Newton, A. Edward, The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1918.

Newton, A. Edward, A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book-Collector, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1921.

Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Rosenbach, A. S. W., The Unpublishable Memoirs, Kennerley (New York, NY), 1917.

Ruihley, Glenn Richard, The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered, Shoe String Press, 1975.

Walker, Cheryl, Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Personal in Modern Woman Poets, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1991.

Wolf, Edwin II, and John Fleming, Rosenbach: A Biography, World Publishing (New York, NY), 1960.


Harvard Library Bulletin, January, 1981, Maxwell

Luria, "Miss Lowell and Mr. Newton: The Record of a Literary Friendship," pp. 5-34.

Modern Language Notes, March, 1928, pp. 145-152.

Nation, February 28, 1925, p. 749.

New England Quarterly, September, 1935, pp. 320-330.

New York Times, May 14, 1925, p. 18.

New York Times Book Review, June 12, 1921, p. 19.

Saturday Review of Literature, October 3, 1925.

Sewanee Review, January, 1920, pp. 37-53.

Time, March 2, 1925.*

Lowell, Amy

views updated May 11 2018


Born 9 February 1874, Brookline, Massachusetts; died 12 May 1925, Brookline, Massachusetts

Daughter of Augustus and Katherine Lawrence Lowell

Amy Lowell, a descendant of a clan of cultivated New England intellectuals, was raised in a family of devout Episcopalians on a 10-acre estate (Sevenels); the stately brownstone mansion, with its high mansard roof and extravagant gardens, became her home on the death of her parents. Her life of opulence was reinforced by a full staff of servants and her secretary-companion, Ada Russell. Lowell disapproved of wasting time and money on frivolities, however, claiming she was "an old-fashioned Puritan," who "let each day pass, well ordered in its usefulness."

Following several years of solitary apprenticeship in the atmosphere of the 7,000-book-lined library at Sevenels, she became a student of verse, and finally, in 1902, settled into the serious business of being a poet. The image of the social grand dame was not easily overcome; however, Lowell was determined to be be recognized as a hardworking, serious poet. At the time her first serious poem, "Fixed Idea," appeared in Atlantic Monthly (Aug. 1910), her recognition consisted of the admiration accorded the sister of an eminent astronomer and the president of Harvard.

Despite the uncharitable opinions of some of her relatives, the portly, liberated woman, who resembled the director of a girls' school in her mannish coat, stiff collar, and pince-nez, knew what she was about. For more than 13 years, Lowell was an ardent and indefatigable campaigner for poetry, and her prominence in both social and literary circles, coupled with her histrionic presence, gave her easy access to poetry societies, publishing offices, and public platforms. As a self-appointed prophet, she felt her mission was to reconstruct the taste of the American public, whom she felt had little comprehension of contemporary poetry.

It was not until her meeting with the Imagists in London in 1913 that Lowell began to gain some recognition. Despite controversy with writers such as Ford Maddox Ford and Ezra Pound over the reconstructed version of Imagism she imported to America, Lowell successfully published three Imagist anthologies and continued unwavering in her determination to create a climate conducive to the creation of American poetry.

Together with her poetry, Lowell published two volumes of critical essays, Six French Poets (1915) and Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), and numerous reviews, some of which reflected critical misjudgements, particularly in the case of Pound, Eliot, and Marianne Moore.

Following the publication of her first volume of poems, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass (1912), highly conventional in subject and style, Lowell was more experimental, studiously noting in each of her prefaces the development of her own poetics, her experimentation with unrhymed cadence, fluctuating rhythm, and most notably "polyphonic verse," a flexible verse form that she first used in Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914) and later in Can Grande's Castle (1918). Generally, Lowell was successful when she was on native ground; her lack of success is reflected in departures, such as her "oriental poems."

Occasionally a memorable poem ("Meeting-House Hill," "Patterns," "Lilacs") appears among the 650 preserved in published volumes, but Lowell will not be memorialized for her poetry. She had unlimited faith in her own capacity and a shared concern with other poets for the enterprise of poetry, and until her death she was a tireless and dedicated impresario of modern poetry.

Other Works:

Some Imagist Poets: An Annual Anthology (1915-1917). Men, Women, and Ghosts (1916). Pictures of the Floating World (1919). Legends (1921). A Critical Fable (1922). John Keats (1925). What's O'Clock (1925). Eastwind (1926). Ballads for Sale (1927). Selected Poems (1928). Poetry and Poets (1930). Correspondence of a Friendship (with F. Ayscough, 1946). Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell (edited by L. Untemeyer, 1955).

The majority of Amy Lowell's manuscripts are housed in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, others are at the University of Virginia.


Benvenuto, R., Amy Lowell (1985). Damon, S. F., Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, with Extracts from Her Correspondence (1935, 1969). Gould, J., Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (1963). Heymann, C. D., American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and RobertLowell (1980). Ruihley, G. R., The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered (1963). Scott, W. T., Exiles and Fabrications (1961).

Reference works:

DAB. NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995). TCA. TCAS.

Other references:

JML (1963). NEQ (Mar. 1970, Sept. 1970). TQ (1964).


Amy Lowell

views updated May 11 2018

Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell (1874-1925), American poet, critic, biographer, and flamboyant promoter of the imagist movement, was important in the "poetic renaissance" of the early 20th century.

Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Mass., of the prominent and wealthy Lowell family of Boston and counted among her ancestors the famous 19th-century poet James Russell Lowell. After being privately educated, she spent many years traveling abroad. Rebelling against her genteel, respectable upbringing, she delighted in smoking a big black cigar while expounding the most advanced and revolutionary esthetic theories of the pre—World War I avant-garde. Endowed with a remarkable flair for organization, she was highly influential in stimulating interest in the poetic experiments of the time. From 1915 through 1917 she edited an annual anthology of imagist poets.

Lowell published her first volume of verse, A Dome of Many-coloured Glass, in 1912. Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), her second volume, first showed the influence of imagist ideas. Curiously enough, in her critical comments she seemed to prefer the work of midwestern "nonimagists," such as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay, to the more image-centered and cosmopolitan poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Though she borrowed often from Eliot in her poetry, she slighted him in her criticism and carried on a bitter feud with Pound.

Despite her enthusiasm for imagism, Lowell's best poems are closer in style to symbolist poetry than to imagist verse. "Patterns," her best-known poem, protests against puritan inhibitions and the repressive conventions of society. A moving feeling for the New England past pervades "Lilacs." Her unsigned Critical Fable (1922) was a contemporary redoing of James Russell Lowell's "Fable for Critics" and attempted to reproduce that earlier work's vernacular humor in judging contemporary poets. In this, Lowell was the first critic to note the "madness" of the characters in Robert Frost's North of Boston. She achieved another "first" by including a discussion of Wallace Stevens, who would not be recognized as a major poet until much later. Her denigration of Pound and Eliot as expatriates seems based more on patriotic than on literary principles. Perhaps her finest overall work was her biography of John Keats (1925).

A few of Lowell's separately published volumes of verse are Men, Women, and Ghosts (1916), Pictures of the Floating World (1919), What's o'Clock (1925), East Wind (1926), and Ballads for Sale (1927). Also of value are her Complete Poetical Works (1955) and Six French Poets (1915), a critical study.

Further Reading

Studies of Amy Lowell's life and work are S. Foster Damon, Amy Lowell: A Chronicle with Extracts from Her Correspondence (1935), and Horace Gregory, Amy Lowell (1958). She figures prominently in the critical study by Glenn Hughes, Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry (1931). Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968), contains a section on her. □

Lowell, Amy

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Lowell, Amy (1874–1925) US poet and critic, sister of Percival Lowell. Her first volume was the sensuous A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912). Following the exit of Ezra Pound, Lowell became the leader of the imagism movement. Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914) was an experiment with ‘polyphonic prose’, or free-verse.