| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
California State University, Fresno
In the Heath Anthology
Madonna of the Evening Flowers
Pictures of the Floating World
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Definition and description according to Lowell's anthology.
Modern American Poetry
A biography and several critical essays on Lowell's poetry.
The Poetry of Amy Lowell
Overview and links to lesbian-related poetry.
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