On this day in 1943, 26-year-old poet Robert Lowell is sentenced to jail for a year for evading the draft. Lowell refused to be drafted because he objected to saturation bombing in Europe and other Allied tactics. He served the term in New York’s West Street jail.
Lowell was born to a venerable Boston family whose members included an ambassador to England, a president of Harvard, and a prominent Boston minister who founded St. Mark’s School, which Lowell attended. Lowell rejected the family tradition and history, dropped out of Harvard after two years, and went to Kenyon College in Ohio. There, he studied with poet John Crowe Ransom and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He married novelist Jean Stafford in the 40s and in 1946 published a collection of poems called Lord Weary’s Castle, which won a Pulitzer Prize. The poems included The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.
In 1948, Lowell divorced his first wife and married writer Elizabeth Hardwick. Plagued by mental illness, he suffered a breakdown in the 1950s. Lowell and Hardwick lived abroad for several years and returned to Boston in 1954. In the late 1950s, Lowell heard readings by Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets and incorporated their open, confessional style into his own more formal poetry. He wrote about his breakdown, his struggle with mental instability, and the unraveling of his marriages, and released Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award. In the 1960s, Lowell became a champion of civil rights and a protester against Vietnam. Believing that the poet had a public responsibility, he was one of a group of writers who led a march to the Pentagon in 1967. He released numerous books throughout his career. He was divorced from Hardwick in 1972, leaving her and their daughter and marrying Lady Caroline Blackwood. For a while, he divided his time between England and Boston. He later returned to Hardwick and remained with her until he died of a heart attack in 1977.