Lowell, Amy (1874–1925)

views updated

Lowell, Amy (1874–1925)

American poet, critic, and woman of letters who became a powerful leader in the modernist poetry movement known as Imagism. Born Amy Lowell on February 9, 1874, at her family's Sevenels Estate in Brookline, Massachusetts; died in the same house on May 12, 1925; youngest of five children of Augustus Lowell (a businessman) and Katherine Bigelow (Lawrence) Lowell; sister of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, and Percival Lowell, an astronomer; privately tutored at Sevenels by a governess; attended several local private schools in Boston; never married; lived with Ada Dwyer.


honorary degree from Baylor University (1920); Helen Haire Levinson prize from Poetry magazine (1924); (awarded posthumously) Pulitzer Prize for What's O'Clock (1926).

At age 17, completed formal education and returned home to help maintain family estate during mother's illness (1891); inherited Sevenels estate after death of her father (1900); bought a summer home in New Hampshire and became involved in Brookline community affairs (1901); was inspired by a performance of actress Eleonora Duse to become a poet (1902); wrote first serious poem (1910); met Ada Dwyer, who would become her lifelong companion (1912); discovered Imagist movement in poetry and met Ezra Pound for first time (1913); quarreled with Pound in London and published her own Imagist poetry anthology, effectively taking over the leadership of the Imagist movement in America (1914); for the next several years, engaged in public debates about the new form of poetry; suffered from a hernia (summer 1916); began work on Chinese poetry with Florence Ayscough (1917); had an abdominal rupture and underwent the first of many operations for hernia (1918); was the first woman to deliver a lecture at Harvard (1919); underwent two more hernia surgeries and received an honorary degree from Baylor University (1920); began biography of Keats and had a fourth hernia operation (1921); continued tiring schedule of reading tours cross country; after publication of Keats biography, suffered a severe hernial attack (1925); several works published posthumously.


Dream Drops or Stories from Fairy Land by a Dreamer (1887); A Dome of Many-Colored Glass (1912); Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914); Men, Women and Ghosts (1916); Can Grande's Castle (1918); Pictures of the Floating World (1919); (translation of Chinese poetry with Florence Ayscough) Fir-Flower Tablets (1921); Legends (1921); A Critical Fable (1922); (published posthumously) What's O'Clock (1925); East Wind (1926); Ballads for Sale (1927); Selected Poems (1928); Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell (1955); A Shard of Silence: Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (1957). Anthologies: Some Imagist Poets (3 vols., 1915–1917); (with Louis Untermeyer) A Miscellany of American Poetry (2 vols., 1917); Six French Poets (1915); Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917); (biography) John Keats (2 vols., 1925); Poets and Poetry (1930).

Amy Lowell, through will and determination, became a major force in American poetry at the critical moment of the birth of modernism. Though lacking the advantages of a first-rate education, she was drawn to poetry as by an irresistible force. Her energy and passion for the genre were boundless, and she became the leading speaker for the modernist movement known as Imagism. Lowell was also widely respected for her own poetry, literary criticism, and a substantial biography of John Keats. At the center of a circle of modernist artists in the 1910s and 1920s, she played the role of patron as well as promoter and practitioner. She was both beloved and despised for her outspoken manner and her challenge to gender conventions, and she exercised an important influence on a generation of American poets.

Amy Lowell was born into a wealthy and prominent family. The Lowells were among the oldest and most well known of the Boston Brahmins. The first members of the Lowell clan had arrived in New England in the 1630s, and since then their descendants had been extraordinarily successful in business, education, and the arts. In the early 19th century, they had given Massachusetts the mill town of Lowell, ushering in the Industrial Revolution in America. Amy Lowell's grandfather, John Amory Lowell, served as sole trustee of the Lowell Institute, a gathering place for intellectuals founded by a cousin, John Lowell, Jr.

Amy was also born into a family with a literary tradition. Her cousin, James Russell Lowell, who was 55 when she was born, was an eminent journalist, diplomat, and poet. The Lowell literary tradition would be carried on after her death by a distant cousin, poet Robert Lowell.

Poetry is at once my trade and my religion.

—Amy Lowell

Amy's father Augustus Lowell, a business tycoon with large interests in the nation's banks and cotton mills, was, noted one chronicler, "wealthy beyond dreams." In 1854, he married the daughter of his father's business partner. Katherine Lawrence (Lowell) came from a New England family as prosperous and distinguished as the Lowells. The town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, well-known in history books as the site of several textile strikes, was named for her family. Her father went on to serve as a U.S. congressional representative and an ambassador to Great Britain. A well-educated woman, Katherine spoke seven languages and excelled in music.

Augustus and Katherine had four children before the arrival of Amy. Indeed, she was something of an afterthought; at the time of her birth on February 9, 1874, her four siblings ranged in age from 12 to 19. Amy received little attention from her parents. Her father was caught up with his business dealings and his passion for botany. Her mother contracted Bright's disease, which brought on bouts of extreme nervousness and heightened blood pressure.

Yet Amy did not suffer from material deprivation. She was raised at a Brookline, Massachusetts, estate the Lowells had named "Sevenels" since it housed seven Lowells (Ls). The estate, which included a full staff of servants, has been described as "thirty acres of sprawling emerald meadow, grove, garden, walks and walls." The house was equally well-appointed, with sterling silver doorknobs, numerous chandeliers, an extensive library, and fine furnishings. Her father's passion for plants meant that Amy spent her childhood wandering extensive gardens filled with rare and exotic flowers, and her future poetry placed a heavy emphasis on nature.

Amy's education began at Sevenels, where she was tutored by a governess. Between the ages of eight and twelve, she attended several private schools in the Boston area. Though popular among her classmates, Lowell terrorized the faculty. Her precocious intelligence and tomboy ways, combined with a desire to gain attention, made her a notorious class clown.

But Amy suffered from the gender prejudices of her time, despite her privileged upbringing. While she was encouraged to write from an early age, the formal education she received was a girl's education, which was decidedly inferior to that of boys. In the Lowell family, boys were packed off to Harvard by age 13. Amy's formal education could not compare with an education from Harvard, and she would long regret one deficiency in particular. Unlike her brothers, she was never taught Greek or Latin. Lowell felt that her ignorance of classical languages was a hindrance to her development as a poet.

Amy Lowell was troubled by more than an inferior education. She was afflicted, from age ten, with a glandular condition that made her obese. By age 20, she weighed 200 pounds, though she was barely 5′ tall. This condition plagued her throughout her life, and she was acutely aware of what this did for her marriage prospects in Boston high society. "I am ugly, fat, conspicuous and dull," she wrote in her diary, "to say nothing of a very bad temper." Although she received instruction in dance, Amy disliked the whirl of the formal Boston social scene, and she attended social dances with neither success nor happiness.

Although Lowell's formal education ended in 1891 when she was 17, she spent the years between 1891 and 1895 reading extensively in her father's library at Sevenels. Early on, she read Leigh Hunt's Imagination and Fancy, or, Selections from the English Poets. Hunt's book, which would have a serious impact on Amy's intellectual development, was designed to teach the general reader how to distinguish excellent poetry from poor poetry. According to Lowell, the book's extended essay defining poetry "opened a door that otherwise might have remained

shut…. I did not read it. I devoured it. I read it over and over and over, and then I turned to the works of the poets referred to." The most important of the poets she sought out was John Keats. Lowell was deeply moved by the way he reveled in emotion and the five senses. Keats remained a powerful influence on Lowell's work, and she would devote the last few years of her life to a two-volume biography of the poet. Another great discovery was the work of Victor Hugo. "I believe Victor Hugo woke me up to the meaning of style," she later wrote.

Katherine Lowell died in 1895. During the last few years of her mother's illness, Amy had increasingly taken over the role of woman of the household. This experience served her well, for in 1900, when her father passed away, Lowell inherited a substantial sum and bought Sevenels, the mansion and its grounds. Wealth brought independence, and the freedom to pursue her own interests. She became involved in Brookline's public-school system and while attending meetings discovered that she had a talent for debate and oration. In this setting, she honed her skills as a public speaker. Her peers eventually elected her to the executive committee of the Brookline Educational Society, where she chaired the library committee. Her civic responsibilities also included membership in the Women's Municipal League.

In addition to local responsibilities, Lowell continued to read extensively. In 1902, at age 28, her general interest in art and literature finally coalesced into a desire to become a poet. The catalyst came from the world of theater. Lowell attended three plays in Boston which featured the great Italian actress Eleonora Duse . So inspired was Lowell over Duse's performance that upon returning to Sevenels, she wrote her first poem. "The effect on me was tremendous," she later recalled. "What really happened was that it revealed me to myself…. I sat down and with infinite agitation wrote this poem …. [I]t loosed a bolt in my brain and I found where my true function lay." With this revelation came a determination to forge a successful literary career. Lowell located a summer retreat in New Hampshire where she could write without distraction. She also energetically added to her collection of books and immersed herself in the intellectual circles of Boston.

The poetry came slowly. In 1910, "A Fixed Idea," her first published poem, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Several followed in the same magazine which would become the core of her first published volume of poetical works, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass, released in 1912. Conventional in style and influenced by Keats, Dome was deemed perfectly acceptable poetry by the critics; it lacked only one element: the ability to inspire excitement, anger, or emotion of any kind. Lowell was so upset by the lukewarm reviews that she became physically ill with gastric neuralgia and took to her bed for weeks. This setback was only temporary, however, for it took more than a few unenthusiastic reviews to dampen Lowell's desire to become a successful poet. She began writing again and would soon find herself caught up in a new movement that would prove to have a remarkable impact on American poetry.

As Lowell was putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of A Dome of Many-Colored Glass in 1912, several important literary events occurred, notes biographer Jean Gould, that were central to the birth of a new movement in American poetry. First, the young poet Robert Frost began putting together his initial volume of poems. Second, Edna St. Vincent Millay gained attention when her extraordinary poem "Renascence" failed to garner first prize in a contest; the ensuing controversy launched Millay's career. Finally, Harriet Monroe , art critic for the Chicago Tribune, gained financial support for an enterprising venture periodical, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. In a departure from previous poetry magazines, Monroe promised to pay her contributing poets for their published work. Lowell's work caught Monroe's eye; she wrote to Amy, soliciting not only some of her work but some of her money to back the fledgling journal. Lowell obliged in both requests.

At about this time, modernist poet Ezra Pound's Ripostes was published in London. Ripostes contained an important appendix: five poems of the poet T.E. Hulme, the founder of a movement in poetry called Imagism. Earlier, Monroe had named Pound foreign editor of Poetry, and in 1913 the Imagist movement would fully emerge when the journal published a poem signed by "H.D. Imagiste" (Hilda Doolittle ). A later article by Pound officially proclaimed Imagism a movement and laid out its parameters. One literary critic described the Imagists as poets who "called for precision, economy, definiteness, and direct treatment." Ezra Pound also called on poets to learn from the methods of the musician, particularly the musician's use of rhythm. In many ways the Imagist poets were part of a more broad-based international movement in art and literature known as Modernism. This movement, which emerged in the 1890s and reached its zenith in the 1920s, was a reaction and challenge to the realism that dominated art and literature at the time.

As the Imagist movement in poetry was beginning to form, Carl Engel, a musicologist, composer, and one of Lowell's closest friends, introduced Lowell to a new type of poetry: the work of the French symbolist poets and their successors. Now Lowell had discovered free verse, or cadenced verse, as she preferred to call it, and it would profoundly affect her work. The Imagists had also begun to experiment with free verse forms, and it was this aspect of the movement that would most captivate Lowell's imagination. From that point on, Amy Lowell became engrossed in the New Poetry.

She reached a turning point in her personal life as well. In March 1912, Lowell was introduced to Ada Dwyer at a meeting of The Lunch Club, a group of "accomplished women" to which Lowell belonged. Dwyer was a character actress who at the time was playing the lead in Paul Armstrong's drama The Deep Purple. In private life, she was Mrs. Harold Russell, though she and her husband had divorced some time ago, after the birth of their daughter Lorna . Dwyer utterly charmed the members of the Lunch Club, so much so that they changed their group's name to the Purple Lunch Club in honor of Dwyer's current theater production.

Amy Lowell was especially entranced with Ada Dwyer's charms. Notes Gould: "The affinity Amy and Ada felt for each other was apparent immediately." Dwyer was a sympathetic listener as well as an engaging storyteller, and her ability to put people at ease made her a natural complement to the often high-strung Lowell. Intellectually the two shared similar passions as well, for Dwyer had a deep appreciation for poetry while Lowell had always been captivated by the theater.

It was not long before Lowell was trying to convince Dwyer to make Sevenels her permanent home, which Dwyer did in 1914. Dwyer effortlessly took responsibility for daily domestic affairs at Sevenels, freeing Amy to pursue her writing without interruption. Several of Lowell's poems, such as "The Letter" and "Madonna of the Evening Flowers," both published in 1919, are testaments to her abiding affection for Dwyer. Biographers agree that without Dwyer's support, Lowell would not have been able to maintain her almost frenetic working pace until her death in 1925.

Having fully embraced the new movement in poetry, Lowell was determined to seek out its leaders. In the summer of 1913, with a letter of introduction from Harriet Monroe, she traveled to London to meet Ezra Pound and others on the cutting edge of modern poetry. The trip was a success, and she returned to Boston with a clear mission: to crusade for Imagism. Despite the fact that Lowell was almost a decade older than most of the other Imagists—she was 39 when she met Pound—she pursued her mission with zeal. What Lowell lacked in experience she made up for in enthusiasm and promotional skill. She was convinced that Imagism would be the catalyst for a renaissance in American poetry, and she was confident that she would serve as its most influential prophet.

Problems quickly developed between Lowell and Pound, however. On a second trip to England in 1914, their differences on Imagism escalated into a heated battle. The crux of their disagreement concerned the definition of Imagism. Pound had coined the term, published the first anthology of Imagism (Des Imagistes), and considered himself the unparalleled leader of the movement. Yet he was also organizing a more radical offshoot of Imagism, called vorticism, and many Imagists were dissatisfied with his leadership. Amy Lowell was perhaps the most dissatisfied of the group. Although she viewed Pound as the founder of the Imagism, she felt that he had relinquished his right to be its leader; she wanted to fill that vacuum and bring Imagism to a wider audience than it had reached thus far.

Dwyer, Ada (1863–1952)

American actress. Name variations: Ada Dwyer Russell. Born in 1863 in Salt Lake City, Utah; died on July 4, 1952; educated in Boston; married Harold Russell (divorced); lived with Amy Lowell (the poet), from 1914 to 1925; children: Lorna Russell.

Ada Dwyer made her stage debut in Alone in London and was a prominent actress on the New York stage for many years. She appeared as Doña Julia in Don Juan (1891), Mrs. Greenthorne in Husband and Wife, and Malka in The Children of the Ghetto (1892), reprising her performance as Malka for her London debut at the Adelphi in 1899. For the next seven or eight years, Dwyer toured as a supporting actress in productions starring Eleanor Robson (Belmont) , playing Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Fanchette in A Gentleman of France, Mrs. Leadbetter in Merely Mary Ann, Lady Fancourt in Agatha, Mrs. Waring in The Girl Who Has Everything, and Lize Heath in Salomy Jane. Throughout 1908, she toured in Australia as Mrs. Wiggs in Alice Hegan Rice 's Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. In 1909, Dwyer returned to the Lyric in New York to play Bet in The Dawn of a To-Morrow, reprised at the Garrick in London in 1910. Returning to the Lyric, she appeared as Kate Fallon in The Deep Purple (1911) and as Grandma in Blackbirds (1912). After meeting poet Amy Lowell , Ada Dwyer took on only a few more roles between 1913 and 1914. She moved into Lowell's Sevenels in 1914 and retired from the stage.

On July 17, 1914, at a dinner party organized by Lowell at London's Dieudonne Restaurant, these two forceful personalities clashed. Pound and a few others mocked Lowell. Though she did not retaliate in kind that evening, she was soon using her powers of persuasion to convince other Imagists like H.D. and Richard Aldington that she, rather than Pound, should serve as their representative. Lowell soon turned the tide in her favor, in part because several Imagists considered Pound's methods dictatorial. Lowell oversaw the next three Imagist anthologies.

The feud between Lowell and Pound never ended. Pound made every effort to distance himself from the American Imagist poets and referred to them thereafter as the "Amygist" movement. For her part, Lowell continued to insist that Pound had done little for the Imagists. In a letter to the critic Louis Untermeyer, she assessed Pound's influence thus: "The Imagists during the year and a half in which he headed the movement were unknown and jeered at, when they were not absolutely ignored. It was not until I entered the arena and Ezra dropped out that Imagism had to be considered seriously."

Lowell's showdown with Pound revealed not only her intense commitment to the new poetry, but also her sometimes obstinate disposition. She thrived on controversy, particularly when the subject for debate was literary. She once called critics "yapping terriers."

Lowell demonstrated a defiance of tradition and free spirit that was legendary. Though raised in the Episcopalian Church, she became an atheist. As one of her biographers noted, she was "a believer in the transcendent power of literature and the sacred property of art." Lowell also flouted conventions in her daily demeanor. Once, during a drive in the country, Lowell's car broke down, and she had difficulty getting it repaired at a nearby garage because the mechanic feared that her check might not be good. In order to convince him, she told the mechanic to call her brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell, then the well-known president of Harvard University. Once on the phone, Abbott asked the mechanic, "What is she doing now?" The mechanic replied, "She is sitting on a stone wall across the way, smoking a cigar." Abbott promptly assured the mechanic that the customer relishing her cigar was indeed his sister. Besides enjoying cigars, Lowell was notorious for her huge pack of pedigreed Old English sheepdogs. She gave the animals free rein at Sevenels, much to the horror of some of her guests, who were provided with bath towels to spread in their laps as a shield against the dogs' abundant drool.

Lowell's eccentricity even extended to her work schedule. She maintained an extraordinary level of production throughout her career by adhering to a rigorous routine. She breakfasted in the mid-afternoon, entertained friends in the evening, often until midnight, and only then started her working day. While the rest of the world slept, Lowell wrote, throughout the night and into the early hours of dawn, when she would retire to bed. This schedule allowed her to achieve an extraordinary output during the last decade of her life, and she became well known as the major propagandist for Imagist movement. Besides writing, Lowell also went on many speaking and reading tours, some as far away as Utah, in an effort to give the New Poetry a national audience. Even the showdown with Ezra Pound, with its serious disruption of the Imagist family, did not dampen her professional output. In 1914, she published numerous poems, including eight in the April issue of Poetry magazine alone, as well as a number of critical reviews and essays.

During the late 1910s, in fact, Lowell produced two of her most impressive tomes. In September 1918, Can Grande's Castle was released. This work, which one biographer pronounced more unified and "epic in its reach" than any of her others, was written entirely in polyphonic prose. She also published a critical work, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, which examined the impact of such poets as Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. In tracing their influence, Lowell was also tracing the rise of the New Poetry; one of her peers called the book "the most important critical work produced in the United States for many years."

In the early 1920s, amid her hectic professional schedule and several painful relapses of a chronic hernia problem, Lowell turned her attention to writing a biography of Keats. Working at an exhausting pace throughout 1923 and 1924, she confided in a letter to a friend that "I eat, drink, sleep and talk that man, and pretty soon I shall be signing his name to my letters." The two-volume biography, released in 1925, was a critical and commercial success; a fourth printing was ordered only days after the first published copies reached the bookstores. Lowell even appeared on the March 2, 1925, cover of Time magazine.

Exhausted from her work on the Keats biography yet still planning a trip to England to promote the book, Lowell received an invitation from a large group of friends to attend a dinner in her honor. The several hundred who gathered for the evening on April 4, 1925, praised Amy for her poetry and her skills in promoting the Imagist movement and listened appreciatively as she recited one of her finest poems, "Lilacs." Sadly, this was the last time Lowell's admirers would hear her recite, for less than a week later she suffered the last of her many crippling hernia attacks. Soon, she succumbed to a stroke, and, on May 12, 1925, she died at Sevenels with Ada Dwyer at her side.

Lowell left behind numerous works-in-progress, which Dwyer saw through to publication. These posthumous collections included What's O'Clock, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, East Wind, published in 1926, and Ballads for Sale, released in 1927.

Biographer Richard Benvenuto has suggested that one of the most noticeable facts about Amy Lowell's life is its division into two distinct phases. Until her late 30s, she did little to set her apart from other wealthy, respectable Boston women of her era. This changed dramatically in 1912. Until her death in 1925, Lowell's life was, according to Benvenuto, "filled with activity: publications, lecture tours, controversies and feuds." The well-born Boston daughter, through sheer determination, made herself a figure to be reckoned with in the movement that would change American poetry in the early 20th century.

Yet critics still disagree over her influence on American poetry. The Dictionary of Literary Biography claims that "Lowell will not be remembered for her poetry, but her contribution as poet-critic, biographer, reviewer, propagandist, and spokesman for modern poetry is without parallel." Other critics like Louis Untermeyer hailed her work as a "pioneering energy" that "helped establish the fresh and free-searching poetry of our day." Her most interesting work is arguably that which experiments with unrhymed cadence and the free-verse style known as polyphonic prose. There is little disagreement, however, that Lowell's formidable persona and dedication to poetry exercised a remarkable influence on the American literary scene. In championing the New Poetry in general, and the Imagists in particular, Lowell made an important contribution to the development of Modernism in American literature and culture.


Benvenuto, Richard. Amy Lowell. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1985.

Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1975.

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

Untermeyer, Louis. Introduction to The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.

suggested reading:

Gregory, Horace. Amy Lowell; Portrait of a Poet in Her Time. NY: Thomas Nelson, 1958.

McNair, Harley F., ed. Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell: Correspondence of a Friendship. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

Christine Stolba , Ph.D. candidate in American history, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

About this article

Lowell, Amy (1874–1925)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article