Who was Amy Lowell?

Liz Highleyman | September 05, 2007

Amy Lowell
Amy Lowell, a well-known lesbian poet of the early 20th century, situated herself within a tradition of women extending back to Sappho. "We're a queer lot, we women who write poetry," she opined in "The Sisters" (1925).

Lowell was born on February 9, 1874, to a prominent New England family and was raised at Sevenels, a 10-acre estate outside Boston. She was tutored at home until age 9, then attended private schools. At age 17, she left school to care for her elderly parents and had a traditional society debut.

Since a university education was considered improper for a woman of her social standing, Lowell embarked upon a program of independent study, aided by her family's library of several thousand books. After her parents' deaths, she acquired Sevenels and lived the life of a socialite - frequenting the theater, breeding English sheepdogs, and supporting civic causes.

In her late 20s, inspired by a performance by stage actress Eleonora Duse, Lowell began writing poetry, but her work did not see publication for another decade. Her first poem appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1910; two years later, Houghton Mifflin published her first poetry collection, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, but the work received little notice.

In 1913, Lowell traveled to London to meet the writers involved in the Imagist movement, including Ezra Pound and "H.D." (the American-born bisexual poet Hilda Doolittle). Returning to the United States, Lowell became a champion of Imagism, a style characterized by free-form verse and clear, descriptive language. Pound grew resentful as she displaced him as leader of the movement, disparaging her as the "hippopoetess."

Lowell's second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), garnered instant acclaim. Making up for her late start as a writer, she thereafter published an average of one book per year, despite chronic health problems. Drawing upon her wealth and social connections, she encouraged public interest in contemporary poetry through speaking tours, leading T.S. Eliot to dub her the "demon saleswoman of poetry."

Lowell's most consistent theme was her love for women, particularly her two muses, Eleonora Duse and Ada Dwyer Russell. Although Lowell had a long-running infatuation with Duse, the two women met only a couple of times. Russell, a widowed actress, lived with Lowell in a "Boston marriage" for more than a decade.

At 5 feet tall and 250 pounds, Lowell cut an imposing figure, clad in mannish attire and smoking cigars. Because she was an outspoken woman with shrewd business sense, some of her contemporaries accused her of being presumptuous and mocked her appearance and personal life.

Although some male critics have characterized Lowell as a sexless and frustrated old maid, feminist scholars have emphasized the lesbian eroticism in her work, reflected in poems such as "The Weather-Cock Points South" (1919):

I put your leaves aside,
One by one:
The stiff, broad outer leaves;
The smaller ones,
Pleasant to touch, veined with purple...

Lowell died of a brain hemorrhage in May 1925. Her final book of poetry, What's O'Clock, was published posthumously and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1926.

"She was upon the surface of things a Lowell, a New Englander and a spinster," wrote Heywood Broun in his obituary for the poet. "But inside everything was molten like the core of the earth....Given one more gram of emotion, Amy Lowell would have burst into flame and been consumed to cinders."

For further reading:

  • Benvenuto, Richard. 1985. Amy Lowell (Twayne).

  • Bradshaw, Melissa. 2000. Modernizing Excess: Amy Lowell and the Aesthetics of Camp. (Dissertation, State University of New York at Stony Brook).

  • Gould, Jean. 1975. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (Dodd, Mead).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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