Lowell Uncollected

Headstrong, rebellious, unstable, Robert Lowell arrived at Kenyon College by a tortuous route. In 1935 he had taken nothing but English courses his first semester at Harvard, then stopped going to class, having found most of the professors second-rate. He had beaten up one of his friends in private school for liking the wrong poet and, after his first year at Harvard, tried to educate his fiancée by demanding that she mail him an analysis of Troilus and Cressida, which Lowell returned with sarcastic remarks. According to his biographer Ian Hamilton, “If being a good fiancée meant nightly readings from Samson Agonistes, then she was happy to put up with it.” Lowell dropped out sophomore year, having tried to join the literary magazine, where he was humiliated during the interview. He was asked to tack down a carpet, then brusquely dismissed.

The only time the poet took his fiancée to bed, he reassured her that after two visits to a cathouse he knew how whores did it. She tried to follow his instructions, but that was the end of their sexual experiments. His parents objected to the marriage so vehemently that Lowell floored his father with one punch. Mrs. Lowell wanted the boy sent to a mental hospital. Her psychiatrist, the obsessive sonnet writer Merrill Moore, arranged for him to visit the poet Allen Tate in Tennessee instead, hoping the Southerner would offer the young man an informal apprenticeship. Moore also believed that Lowell might find Vanderbilt more suitable than Harvard, so the neophyte poet also sat in on John Crowe Ransom’s classes. Accepting an offer to join the faculty at Kenyon College in Ohio, Ransom suggested that Lowell go with him.

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