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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Amy Lowell
(1874-1925)


Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, and grew up on her family estate Sevenels (named after the seven Lowells—mother, father, and five children), which she ultimately inherited and whose lavish gardens figure prominently in her poetry. A girl of the upper classes was generally not permitted by her family to go off to the university as her brothers did, and so Lowell’s education consisted primarily of tutors, access to her father’s vast library, and travel in Europe. As she later wrote to the poet Archibald MacLeish in response to his inquiry, her formal education “really did not amount to a hill of beans.” She evinced an interest in literature when very young, and her first writing was published when she was eleven years old.

While the diaries she kept as an adolescent suggest an early bisexuality, as she matured she became less interested in men and looked for love and companionship with other women. Her fascination with the theater led to her involvement for a time with the musical starlet Lina Abarbanell. It also led her to her first muse, the tragedian Eleonora Duse, whom she saw on stage for the first time in 1902. Duse’s talent and beauty inspired Lowell, already twenty-eight years old, to revive her youthful interest in writing. Lowell later recalled the momentous effect of watching Duse perform: “It loosed a bolt in my brain and I knew where my true function lay.” Her first poem since her juvenilia was addressed to the actress and marked the beginning of Lowell’s career as a writer, although she did not publish her first book, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, until 1912, ten years later.

A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass was influenced by nineteenth-century romanticism, and its title comes from a phrase in Adonais, Shelley’s elegiac tribute to Keats, whose poetry many of the poems echo. Other poems in the volume are more original and show the promise of her later poetry; they are personal poems with brilliant flashes of color, verse about her childhood, her family estate, her quest for love. In the following year, 1913, Lowell discovered several imagist poems by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) in Poetry magazine; these made her recognize that “I, too, am an imagiste.” Indeed, before she knew the term “imagism,” she had developed her appreciation of Japanese haiku and tanka, her interest in the Orient having been stimulated by her brother Percival, who had lived in Asia. She immediately began to explore the school of imagism of which, she discovered, Ezra Pound was the titular head; in 1913 she traveled to England in order to meet him.

The conflict between them could have been predicted. Lowell was by 1913 a 250-pound woman of vast wealth, a sense of entitlement, and an air of knowing her own mind. Pound found her overbearing and perhaps threatening. Lowell, for her part, would undoubtedly have agreed with Gertrude Stein’s description of Pound as a village explainer—which is “fine if you’re a village, and if not, not.” Despite Pound’s hostility, Lowell published three anthologies in 1915, 1916, and 1917, titled Some Imagist Poets, which included along with her own work that of H.D., John Gould Fletcher, D. H. Lawrence, and others. When the first volume came out, imagism was still so revolutionary and controversial in the United States that Lowell was denounced by the Poetry Society of America for championing imagist writers. Pound threatened to sue her for stealing his thunder, and Lowell encouraged him, saying that a lawsuit would be “a good advertisement” for Some Imagist Poets. But since neither a title nor a poetic school can be copyrighted, Pound dropped the idea and disassociated himself from American imagism (which he scoffingly called “Amygism”). Lowell adopted the pugilistic posture that she was to use in many of her literary controversies throughout her career.

In her own writing, imagism soon became only one of a panoply of approaches to poetry. She also explored “polyphonic prose,” writing that is prose in its typography and poetry in its language and dense use of imagery. In Legends (1921) she adapted folk myths from aboriginal North America, China, Peru, and the Yucatan, as well as Europe. She was also influenced by a broad range of authors, including, as she suggests in “The Sisters,” her “spiritual relations,” Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson.

In the thirteen years before she died, Lowell managed to bring out a book of poems every year or two (East Wind and Ballads for Sale were published in the two years after her death), and several volumes of prose, including a two-volume biography of John Keats (1925).

Although Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1926 for her volume of poems What’s O’Clock, the attacks on her reputation became virulent soon after her death. It is difficult to say if her detractors were motivated by homophobia or by a sincere lack of excitement about her poetry. In a particularly scurrilous 1926 book by Clement Wood, Amy Lowell, the author was determined to diminish Lowell’s reputation at least partly because she was a lesbian. He argued that her poetry did not “word a common cry of many hearts,” and he concluded that Lowell may qualify “as an impassioned singer of her own desires; and she may well be laureate also of as many as stand beside her,” but non-lesbian readers would find nothing in her verse.

Those who refused to recognize that Lowell was a lesbian but saw her only as an unattractive, overweight woman and an “old maid” were equally unfair in their prejudiced assessments. An article titled “Amy Lowell as a Poet,” which appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1927, complained that her poetry was bad because she was “cut off from the prime biological experiences of life by her tragic physical predicament.” Therefore, the critic goes on to say, erroneously, her poems are decorative rather than expressive of elemental passion “as always happens when the sources of inspiration are literary and secondary rather than primarily the expression of emotional experience.” Though some of Lowell’s work suffers from prolixity and a tendency to exaggerate, her best work is free from such faults. It is concise, vivid, and honest.

Lillian Faderman
California State University, Fresno


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
A Lady (1914)
Patterns (1916)
Grotesque (1919)
Madonna of the Evening Flowers (1919)
Opal (1919)
Summer Rain (1919)
The Letter (1919)
Venus Transiens (1919)
Wakefulness (1919)
The Sisters (1925)

Other Works
Pictures of the Floating World (1919)
John Keats (1925)



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Links

Imagism
(http://landow.stg.brown.edu/post/modernism/imagism.html)
Definition and description according to Lowell's anthology.

Modern American Poetry
(http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/amylowell/lowell.htm)
A biography and several critical essays on Lowell's poetry.

The Poetry of Amy Lowell
(http://www.sappho.com/poetry/historical/a_lowell.html)
Overview and links to lesbian-related poetry.



Secondary Sources

S. Foster Damon, Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, 1935

Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from Renaissance to the Present, 1981

Jean Gould, Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement, 1975

Glenn Richard Ruihley, The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered, 1975





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