When Amy Lowell died suddenly in May of 1925 she was arguably the most powerful woman in American poetry. During a brief and intense career, beginning with the publication of her first volume of poetry in 1912 and lasting until her death 13 years later at the age of 51, she produced six volumes of poetry, two volumes of criticism, a two-volume biography of John Keats, and countless articles and reviews. Three more volumes of poetry were published posthumously, the first of which, What's O'Clock, won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize. Since her death, however, she has become little more than a footnote to discussions of more canonical modern poets like Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, and her own work, out of print since 1957, is rarely anthologized and seldom discussed in literary criticism.
The youngest of Augustus and Katherine Lowell's five children, Amy Lowell inherited a name synonymous with power and wealth. The Lowells dominated industry and the arts in Massachusetts from the arrival of the first family member, a British merchant named Percival Lowle, in 1639. Poets James Russell Lowell and Robert Lowell were both distant relations. Although Lowell's lifetime coincides with first-wave feminism, the gains made by women's rights advocates came slowly, if at all, to women in the Lowell family. Lowell's frustration with the limitations placed upon her gender is a frequent theme in her childhood journals and makes sporadic appearances in her poetry as well, most notably in “The Sisters,” a meditation on female poets, and “Patterns,” in which a woman's tight, corseted clothing represents her repressed sexuality:
Not a softness anywhere about me, Only whalebone and brocade. And I sink on a seat in the shade Of a lime tree. For my passion Wars against the stiff brocade.
Shortly after the publication of her first book, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912), Lowell read the poems of “H.D. Imagiste” in the January 1913 issue of Harriet Monroe's Poetry. The Imagists, a small, loosely-joined group of poets who aligned themselves against “the moralizing, tendentious whinings of the Victorians and the arid and tiresome laudations of the Georgians,” strove for a new form of poetic expression, one which stressed the creation of concise, vivid images, not the evocation of sentiment (Heymann, 1980). Lowell recognized in their writings some of the techniques she herself was trying to perfect. Later that year she traveled to England to meet the poets writing under this banner: Ezra Pound, H.D., and Richard Aldington. Enthusiastic about their work and eager to join their movement, she shared her poetry with them. Pound included one of her poems in his 1914 anthology Des Imagistes but by the next year had disowned the movement, which he claimed had deteriorated into overly sentimental Amygism.
Lowell, undeterred by Pound's disapproval, determined to bring the struggling poets she had met in England to the American public's attention. For three consecutive years, 1915, 1916, and 1917, she edited Some Imagist Poets, featuring poems by H.D., Aldington, D.H. Lawrence, F.S. Flint, John Gould Fletcher, and herself. At the same time she began a publicity campaign to teach the general public the principles of Imagism and Modern poetry. For the rest of her life she spent a great portion of each year touring the country giving lectures and readings, prompting T.S. Eliot to label her a “demon saleswoman” (Heymann, 1980). These were controversial events, more often than not ending with conservative critics accusing her of attempting to destroy poetry; on one occasion they even “charged the podium, demanding that Amy step down.”
While Lowell's first book was neither a critical nor commercial success, her next book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), garnered both critical acclaim and public enthusiasm. This volume also showed Lowell to be an exceptionally versatile poet: made up of Imagist lyrics, ballads, and dramatic monologues in which she experiments with free verse, it included several poems written in what she called polyphonic prose, a form of poetry that looks like prose but employs poetic tools such as rhyme, cadence, alliteration, and assonance.
With her next book, Men, Women, and Ghosts (1916), Lowell began to separate her long, narrative and descriptive poems from her shorter lyrical poems. Whereas this volume consists entirely of narrative monologues, and her next, Can Grande's Castle (1918), consists of four novella-length studies of war, Pictures of the Floating World (1919) is made up solely of lyrics. In Legends (1921) Lowell retold and reinterpreted folk tales from several different cultures, while in Fir-Flower Tablets (1921) she collaborated with Florence Ascough in translating Chinese poetry. A Critical Fable (1922), originally published anonymously, parodied the styles and careers of her fellow poets. After her death in 1925 the remainder of her poems was published in three volumes: the first two, What's O'Clock (1925) and East Wind (1926), had been prepared by Lowell before her death; Lowell's companion and literary executor Ada Dwyer Russell assembled and edited Ballads for Sale (1927) from the poems left uncollected.
In addition to poetry Lowell produced several volumes of literary criticism. With Six French Poets (1915) she introduced her favorite contemporary French poets to American audiences. In Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), a study of six contemporary poets (Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, H.D., and John Gould Fletcher) Lowell created a critical genealogy of modern poetry, ending, of course, with Imagism. Finally, she wrote a massive two volume biography of John Keats (1925), published just months before her death. Ferris Greenslet collected several of her most popular articles and lectures and published them posthumously in Poetry and Poets (1930).
Critical evaluations of Lowell have radically shifted. During her lifetime she was praised for her work in polyphonic prose; Can Grande's Castle in particular was regarded as a masterpiece. Feminist critics such as Lillian Faderman and Judy Grahn initiated re- readings of her work, focusing their attention primarily on her lyrical poetry, especially the love lyrics written for Ada Dwyer Russell, such as “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” “The Weather-Cock Points South,” and “Venus Transiens.”
See also Imagism
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, 9 February 1874. Educated privately; associated with the Imagists in London, 1913, and afterward promoted their work in America as editor, publisher, and patron; Lecturer, Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1917-18. Received Pulitzer Prize, 1926; honorary Litt.D., Baylor University, Waco, Texas, 1920. Died in Brookline, 12 May 1925.
A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, 1912
Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, 1914
Men, Women, and Ghosts, 1916
Can Grande's Castle, 1918
Pictures of the Floating World, 1919
Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems Translated from the Chinese by Florence Ayscough, English versions by Lowell, 1921
A Critical Fable, 1922
What's O'Clock, edited by Ada Dwyer Russell, 1925
East Wind, edited by Ada Dwyer Russell, 1926
The Madonna of Carthagena, 1927
Ballads for Sale, edited by Ada Dwyer Russell, 1927
Selected Poems of Amy Lowell, edited by John Livingston Lowes, 1928
The Complete Poetical Works, 1955
A Shard of Silence: Selected Poems, edited by Glenn Richard Ruihley, 1957
Six French Poets, 1915
Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, 1917
play, short stories (Dream Drops; or, Stories from Fairy Land [with Elizabeth Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lowell], 1887), essays (Poetry and Poets: Essays [edited by Ferris Greenslet], 1930), biography (John Keats, 2 vols., 1925); edited collections of poetry (Some hnagist Poets, 3 vols., 1915-17).