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This article is taken from PN Review 115, Volume 23 Number 5, May - June 1997.

Robert Lowell: History as Happening C.K. Stead

Robert Lowell died in 1977 at the age of sixty. Ten years earlier there had been a sudden alteration in his poetic pacemaker. From being a poet one might describe as a Modernist Metaphysical, a hard work poet, a poet of tight forms, dense textures, complex symbolism and slow production, he'd all at once broken out - or had seemed to break out - into a sequence of rapidly-composed, free-running, unrhymed sonnets. This outburst, or outpouring, continued for six or seven years during which he published probably more lines of poetry than in all the rest of his working life.

Poets, Ezra Pound said, are the stream-gauges and voltameters of society. Perhaps a better image in this case might be a seismograph. Lowell's behaviour in those years registered a social and political shift in the society of the West, involving sexual liberation, social protest, and something close to political insurrection. He was engaged in all aspects of this upheaval, the largest single element being the agitations brought about by America's participation in, or, more accurately, America's precipitation of, the war in Vietnam.

An eastern seaboard Brahmin, bearer of a distinguished name, Lowell had been expected by his family to graduate from Harvard. Early signs of the manic-depressive illness that would blight his life appeared, however, during his first year as a student, and led his mother to put him into the care of Merrill Moore, a psychiatrist-poet who wrote sonnets, only sonnets, innumerable sonnets - ...

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