Born into the Lowell Family:
Amy Lowell was born in 1874 in Massachusetts, the youngest of five children in a wealthy and socially prominent family. Her father, Augustus Lowell, was a businessman in the textile industry, a philanthropist, a horticulturalist and trustee of the famed Lowell Institute, an educational foundation that sponsored lecture series and was involved in the founding of WGBH, Boston public television. Poet and Atlantic Monthly
editor James Russell Lowell
was an ancestor. Amy’s eldest brother, Percival Lowell, became a mathematician and astronomer, founded the Lowell Observatory in Arizona and promulgated the theory that the markings he saw on the surface of Mars were canals. Her other brother, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, became president of Harvard College. She grew up on the family estate in Brookline, named “Sevenels” for the seven Lowells who lived there.
Early Life and Education:
Amy’s Lowell’s first education was at home, with an English governess, and later she attended several private schools in and around Boston, where she was known as a terror—loud, opinionated and lacking the decorum expected of a proper young lady from a good family. Because she was a girl, a college education was denied her—instead, she made her social debut when her private school education was completed. Despite her popularity at dinner parties she received no marriage proposals during her year as a debutante, and while she was living the life of a wealthy socialite, she also continued her education as an autodidact in her father’s 7,000-volume library and became an avid book collector herself.
Traveling and Coming Home:
During school vacations in her childhood, Amy travelled in Europe, California and New Mexico with her family. She began writing as a young girl, and her first published contributions were stories in the privately printed volume Dream Drops; or, Stories from Fairyland (1887), which she wrote with her mother and sister—they donated the proceeds to charity. In 1897, after she had accepted a marriage proposal from a suitor who then entangled his affections elsewhere and reneged, Amy escaped to Egypt and embarked on a severely restricted diet, eating only tomatoes and asparagus in the hope of conquering her weight problem and succeeding only in damaging her health. Her mother had passed away in 1895, and after her father died in 1900, Amy bought Sevenels and lived in the family home for the rest of her life.
Becoming a Poet:
Amy’s explorations in the Sevenels library had revealed an interest in poetry, particularly the English Romantics and John Keats
, but she was nearly 30 before she became a poet herself. Her vocation first manifested itself one night in October 1902 when, inspired by a performance by the actress Eleanora Duse, she wrote her first poem. Lowell said of this discovery of her poetic calling, “It loosed a bolt in my brain and I knew where my true function lay.” She also disdained this first effort, considering it full of clichés and technical mistakes. But she kept writing, publishing four sonnets
in Atlantic Monthly
in 1910 and her first collection, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass
, in 1912.
Women in a Men’s World:
In 1912, Amy met the actress Ada Dwyer Russell, who became her partner and companion for the rest of her life, and her heir, editor and executor after her death. It was a “Boston Marriage
”—that term used in Victorian New England to describe a pair of women who lived together without benefit of financial support from men, made possible in this case by Amy’s inherited wealth. After her father’s death, Amy took on not only the family estate as her home but also his public role advocating educational and civic causes, and the rambunctious independent spirit and forthright outspokenness she had shown in childhood developed into her eccentric, bohemian and authoritative persona in adulthood.
Amy Lowell and Imagism: “Amygism”:
In 1913, Amy came across several poems in Poetry
magazine signed by “H.D., Imagiste” that sparked an immediate recognition and identification in her. She travelled to London, carrying a letter of introduction from Harriet Monroe (Poetry
’s publisher), to meet Ezra Pound
and the other Imagist poets. She became a great supporter of Imagism, although she and Pound did not get along, and while her noisy enthusiasm chased him out of the movement towards another more masculine version he called “Vorticism,” it also carried her through the editing and publication of three anthologies of Imagist poetry. Pound repeated Witter Bynner’s cruel epithet naming her the “hippopoetess,” dismissed her brand of poetry as “Amygism,” portraying her as a wealthy saleswoman and poetry booster rather than a poet herself worthy of artistic respect.
An Independent Woman:
Amy Lowell was a formidable woman—always quite heavy, she was short and therefore square in appearance, she wore men’s suits and a pince-nez, smoked cigars and had her hair done up in a pompadour. But she traced her own literary heritage in feminine lines, claiming kinship with poetic predecessors Sappho
, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
and Emily Dickinson
in her poem “The Sisters
,” from the collection What’s O’Clock
that was posthumously published by Russell and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. Amy Lowell died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 51 in 1925 at home at Sevenels, having written more than 650 poems, numerous critical essays, and a monumental biography of John Keats.