Robert Lowell and Irish Poetry

by Eve Cobain (Volume editor) Philip Coleman (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection X, 270 Pages


This is the first book to provide comprehensive treatment of Robert Lowell’s engagements with Irish poetry. Including original contributions by leading and emerging scholars from both sides of the Atlantic, the essays in the volume explore topics such as Lowell and W.B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, and Denis Devlin, as well as the ways in which the American poet’s work was read by later Irish poets Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Paul Durcan, Leontia Flynn, and others. In addition to exploring the ways that several poets have engaged with Lowell, the book encompasses a wide range of thematic concerns, from Lowell and ecology to the politics of identification. The book also includes essays on aspects of Lowell’s engagements with Irish-American contexts, as well as contributions by contemporary poets Gerald Dawe, Paul Muldoon and Julie O’Callaghan. Robert Lowell and Irish Poetry concludes with a previously unpublished introduction Seamus Heaney gave to a reading by Lowell in Ireland in 1975, which is followed by a reminiscence by Marie Heaney.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Philip Coleman and Eve Cobain
  • The Orator and the Poet: J.V. Luce on Robert Lowell: Anna Chahoud
  • Oration on the Conferral of an Honorary DLitt Degree on Robert Lowell by the University of Dublin, Trinity College, 31 May 1976: John Victor Luce
  • Robert Lowell at Castletown House: Paul Muldoon
  • Robert Lowell in Dark Times: Steven Gould Axelrod
  • Names and Naming: Robert Lowell and the Boston Irish: Frank J. Kearful
  • Weaving the Great Clan: Robert Lowell, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King: Alex Runchman
  • From Terrible Beauty to Stale and Small: W.B. Yeats’s Influence on Robert Lowell’s Political Poetry: Adam Beardsworth
  • Robert Lowell and Louis MacNeice: Reading Likeness through Elegy: Calista McRae
  • Rebels in Formal Dress: Robert Lowell, Denis Devlin and their Transatlantic Literary Network: Karl O’Hanlon
  • ‘thudding in a big sea’: The Oceanic Ecologies of Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney: Stephen Grace
  • Waiting for the New Life: Reading Robert Lowell in Bangor, Co. Down, in the 1970s: Gerald Dawe
  • Name and Shame: ‘Identification in Belfast’: Michael Hinds
  • Lost Connections: Reading Family in the Poetry of Eavan Boland and Robert Lowell: Lucy Collins
  • Radical Tensions: Robert Lowell, Charles Altieri and Catherine Walsh: Ellen Dillon
  • ‘The way we are living’: Robert Lowell and Leontia Flynn: Eve Cobain
  • Seamus Heaney Introducing Robert Lowell in Kilkenny, 1975: Julie O’Callaghan
  • Introduction to Robert Lowell Reading at Kilkenny Arts Week, Kytler’s Inn, Kilkenny, 28 August 1975: Seamus Heaney
  • Afterword: Marie Heaney
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

←viii | ix→


This volume of essays on Robert Lowell and Irish poetry is based on a symposium held in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, in March 2017 to celebrate the centenary of the poet’s birth. The ‘Robert Lowell and Ireland’ symposium was supported by the School of English, the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin. Financial support was also provided by the Irish Association for American Studies, the Office of Public Works (Ireland), and Poetry Ireland. The publication of this volume has been made possible by the Trinity Trust and Foundation.

Permission to include a previously unpublished piece of writing by Seamus Heaney in this volume has been granted by the Estate of Seamus Heaney and Faber and Faber Ltd. The editors and publisher gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Marie Heaney and Catherine Heaney in making it possible to include Seamus Heaney’s work in this book. Thanks are also due to Hannah Styles of Faber and Faber’s Permissions Department for her assistance.

The editors also wish to acknowledge Ivana Lowell and the Estate of Robert Lowell for granting permission to use an image of Robert Lowell and Caroline Blackwood on the cover of this volume. Thanks are also due to Isla Forrester of The Wylie Agency for assistance in relation to this.

Permission to reproduce excerpts from unpublished correspondence by Robert Lowell in Karl O’Hanlon’s essay in this volume has been granted by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on behalf of the Estate of Robert Lowell. The editors thank Victoria Fox of Farrar, Straus and Giroux for her assistance.

Paul Muldoon has given permission for his poem ‘Robert Lowell at Castletown House’ to be included in this volume.

This volume brings together a number of those who contributed to the ‘Robert Lowell and Ireland’ symposium and participated in conversations about Lowell throughout the weekend of 3–5 March 2017. However, the success of that event was due to the assistance and input of many individuals ←ix | x→without whom it would not have been possible. The editors are pleased to acknowledge these people here who, in various capacities, helped to make the symposium such a success or assisted with the preparation of this book: Thomas Austenfeld, Rise Axelrod, Emily Bourke, Christine Casey, Jonathan Creasy, Peter Crooks, Caitríona Curtis, Dorothea Depner, Aileen Douglas, Kevina Dunne, Sarah Dunne, Feena Flanagan, Eugene Foster, Daniel Geary, Mary Heffernan, Emily Johnston, Darryl Jones, Benjamin Keatinge, Maureen Kennelly, Grzegorz Kość, Caitríona Leahy, Stephen Matterson, Paula Murphy, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Niamh NicGhabhann, Julie O’Callaghan, Kristina Odlum, Jane Ohlmeyer, Michael O’Loughlin, Diederik Oostdijk, Suzanne Richmond, Diane Sadler, Muireann Sheahan, Valerie Smith, Moya Thompson, Tom Walker.

Finally, the editors wish to thank Christabel Scaife, who gave great advice when the initial pitch for this volume was made, and the following people at Peter Lang who saw the book through its various stages of production: Natasha Collin, Philip Dunshea, Anthony Mason, Simon Phillimore and Jonathan Smith. Thanks are also due to the anonymous readers, whose input is greatly appreciated.

Eve Cobain and Philip Coleman
Trinity College Dublin, November 2019

←0 | 1→



On 13 September 1977, The New York Times reported that Robert Lowell had passed away the day before: ‘Mr. Lowell, who was 60 years old, was stricken while riding in a taxicab on his way to Manhattan from Kennedy International Airport. He was returning from Ireland where he had been visiting his wife and son.’1 Lowell had been visiting Caroline Blackwood, his third wife, and their son Sheridan, at Castletown House, Co Kildare. The week before, Lowell and Blackwood visited Seamus and Marie Heaney at their home in Sandymount in Dublin, but the Heaneys sensed that all was not right. Ten days later, as Marie Heaney writes in the moving recollection that appears as an Afterword to the present volume, Seamus Heaney composed ‘Elegy’ in Robert Lowell’s memory.2

If that last meeting with the Heaneys ended on a somewhat sombre note, with the imminent dissolution of Lowell’s marriage to Blackwood hanging heavy in the air, Lowell and Blackwood were very much a part of Irish literary and cultural life during their time spent in Ireland in the mid-1970s. Lowell gave a reading at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August 1975, introduced by Seamus Heaney, with several younger poets in attendance, including Derek Mahon, Julie O’Callaghan and Dennis O’Driscoll. In the summer of 1976, Lowell was awarded an Honorary DLitt degree from the University of Dublin, Trinity College. During this time, in other words, Lowell was recognized in Ireland – and by Irish poets – as a major figure. For J.V. Luce, who wrote and delivered the public oration in Lowell’s honour in Trinity College Dublin in 1976 – brilliantly contextualized here by Anna Chahoud – Lowell was presented to an Irish audience as a poet ←1 | 2→whose work is characterized by formal ‘compression and energy’ as well as one who has critiqued ‘cruelty […] greed, and […] the barbarities of war.’3 It is hardly surprising, then, that Lowell should have struck a chord with Irish poets in the 1970s, and especially poets such as Heaney and Mahon, for whom the challenge of how best to engage with the unfolding catastrophe of the Troubles in Northern Ireland was such a central concern during this period.

While he may have been regarded as ‘a prophetic, public poet and a courageous pacifist’ in the 1970s, as Tom Paulin has put it, Lowell was also seen by many at the time as something of a celebrity.4 Indeed, a few weeks before they visited the Heaneys in September 1977, a ‘Late News’ column in The Irish Times reported that:

A number of people were arrested and drugs were seized when gardaí [sic] raided Castletown House, in Celbridge, Co Kildare, this morning where a party was being held for a rock singer, Phil Lynott of the Thin Lizzy group. Several hundred people were attending the party in the stately Georgian mansion, including many who had ‘gate-crashed’.5

It is tempting to suggest that Lowell and Blackwood attended this party, though they may have de-camped to Dublin on the night in question. Whether they were there or not, however, they were closely connected to a literary and cultural scene in Ireland at the time that was itself caught up in a maelstrom of social change. Reflecting on that ‘Late News’ piece from 1977 in 2019, Una Mullally wrote that ‘the story captured the hedonism ←2 | 3→(for some) of that era – police raids, rock stars, stately mansions and drugs. The summer of 1977 was the moment rock music tipped over in Ireland, laying the foundations for what we now call festival season.’6 If the summer of 1977 was Ireland’s ‘Summer of Love’ – though that is probably overstating it – Lowell was very much a part of it, promoting a sense of poetry as something that could help to effect real change in the public sphere.

It is clear that Lowell’s work has been an important example for many Irish poets from the 1940s to the present and the heyday of his influence may have been in the 1970s. However, as Paulin has put it: ‘You don’t need to have been young in the Sixties to appreciate this Faustian poet.’7 The purpose of this volume, then, is to explore some of the ways in which Irish poets have engaged with Lowell since the 1940s, when his first books started to appear. This is an important theme not least because so many Irish poets have responded to Lowell in interesting and various ways – only a relatively small but representative number of them are considered here – but also because the topic seems to have been neglected in critical studies to date. While there are scattered references to Middle Generation US American poets such as John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, and Sylvia Plath in Jefferson Holdridge and Brian Ó Conchubhair’s important volume Post-Ireland? Essays on Contemporary Irish Poetry (2017), for example, Lowell does not feature anywhere in the collection. Does this mean that Lowell does not matter to contemporary Irish poets? The essays in the present volume, which explore a wide range of Irish poets from various backgrounds, suggest otherwise.

In his seminal study Yeats and American Poetry (1983), Terence Diggory downplays the importance of W.B. Yeats in Lowell’s development, suggesting that Allen Tate was a much more significant early influence. In Thomas Austenfeld’s edited collection Robert Lowell in a New Century: European and American Perspectives (2019), however, a broader sense of Lowell’s importance to contemporary and earlier poets writing in Europe is given, suggesting that a lot more remains to be said about both ←3 | 4→Lowell’s appreciation for – and his poetic reception in – the Old World. Steven Gould Axelrod and Adam Beardsworth reassess aspects of Lowell’s engagement with Yeats in their essays in the present volume, but others explore the many ways that Irish poets have been reading and thinking about Lowell over many decades. Notwithstanding the central role played by Seamus Heaney, in particular, in that discussion, a picture emerges in these essays of Lowell as a poet whose work has mattered to Irish poets who are not often considered alongside each other because of a critical insistence on the hard borders of generational, regional and other kinds of perceived cultural affiliation. While it may not come as a surprise to learn that Lowell’s early work was reviewed in positive terms by the great Irish formalist Austin Clarke, for example, the sense of connection that Lucy Collins discerns in the younger Eavan Boland’s engagements with Lowell is an important recognition of the US American poet’s example for Irish poets of the 1970s who sought to turn their attention to the domestic sphere. Lowell’s work has mattered to Irish poets across generations, from Clarke to Boland and beyond, often for very different reasons. Moreover, his influence is acknowledged here in essays that look at examples from both sides of the Northern Irish border, including poets such as Boland, Gerald Dawe, Denis Devlin, Seamus Heaney, Leontia Flynn, Louis MacNeice and Catherine Walsh. The radical eclecticism of that list reveals a constellation of poets for whom Lowell was, and still is, a poet of signal, if not central, importance.

Seamus Heaney’s previously unpublished introduction to Lowell’s reading in Kilkenny in 1975 provides a marvellous insight into the Northern Irish poet’s sense of the American’s importance here, but the perspectives of the next generation, as it were, are given in the poetic and biographical reflections of Paul Muldoon and Gerald Dawe in their contributions to the volume. Between them, Muldoon and Dawe speak to the complexity of the Lowellian inheritance for (Northern) Irish poets, which is in turn tackled as a subject of real critical difficulty in Calista McRae’s reading of Louis MacNeice’s affinities with Lowell and Karl O’Hanlon’s probing account of Lowell and Denis Devlin within the contexts of transatlantic late modernism and Catholicism. The Irish-American contexts of Lowell’s work are also examined here in very different ways by Frank J. Kearful and ←4 | 5→Alex Runchman, while Lowell’s importance to contemporary poets such as Catherine Walsh and Leontia Flynn is considered in the contributions, respectively, of Ellen Dillon and Eve Cobain. A strong sense of context – historical and critical – informs these essays but they are all closely attentive to the intricacies of formal procedure that have made Lowell’s work so rewarding, and challenging, from the beginning. At the same time, many of the essays included here challenge us to think of Lowell in new ways precisely because of the way that Irish poets have engaged with him. In his consideration of what he terms the ‘oceanic ecologies’ of Lowell and Heaney, for example, Stephen Grace opens up a new sense of the shared ground between the poets. Michael Hinds, meanwhile, asks what is at stake when Lowell gets it wrong in his representation of Irish history, as he appears to do in his sonnet ‘Identification in Belfast’.

Writing in August 2003, a few months after the US American-led invasion of Iraq, Tom Paulin wrote in a review of Lowell’s Collected Poems:

Rereading his lines now, on the heels of another unjust, small war, I see that Lowell is drawing on Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (that sweet volcanic cone) and adapting Marvell’s octosyllabic couplets and stanza form allusively to reinforce his public stance. He knows the heart of darkness in the American imperial sublime, as his fascination with Melville shows.8

Nearly two decades later, the horrible irony of the phrase ‘small war’ has given way to the age of Trump, a truly dark time in which, as Steven Gould Axelrod argues in the opening essay in this collection, the world needs poets of Lowell’s searing honesty more than ever. Axelrod’s essay, which was delivered as the H.O. White Memorial Lecture in Trinity College Dublin in 2017, reinforces the view articulated by J.V. Luce in his public oration on the occasion of the award of an honorary DLitt degree to Lowell in 1976, but all of the essays collected in this volume share this sense of Lowell’s importance to the contemporary cultural and political moment. In his reflections on Lowell’s influence in his contribution to this volume, Gerald Dawe acknowledges that his ‘debt to Lowell goes very much deeper than [he had] previously thought.’ The various contributions to this volume attest to the breadth and depth of Lowell’s ←5 | 6→presence in the Irish poetic landscape, prompting further study of several individual poets and, at the same time, demanding a reassessment of a major American poet’s continuing importance and influence outside of the United States, in Ireland and elsewhere.9

1 ‘Robert Lowell, Pulitzer Prize Poet, Is Dead at 60’, 13 September 1977: 1; available online at: <https://www.nytimes.com/1977/09/13/archives/robert-lowell-pulitzer-prize-poet-is-dead-at-60-robert-lowell.html> (accessed 13 May 2019).

2 See Seamus Heaney, ‘Elegy’ in Field Work (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 25–27.

3 See J.V. Luce, ‘Oration on the Conferral of an Honorary DLitt Degree on Robert Lowell by the University of Dublin, Trinity College, 31 May 1976’ in this volume. An excerpt from Luce’s oration was also printed in The Irish Times (1 June 1976): 7.

4 Tom Paulin, ‘The voice of America’, rev. of Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, eds Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), available online at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/aug/03/poetry.robertlowell> (accessed 13 May 2019).

5 See Una Mullaly, ‘The summer of 1977 was the moment when rock music tipped over in Ireland’ in The Irish Times (30 March 2019), available online at: <https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/the-summer-of-1977-was-the-moment-rock-music-tipped-over-in-ireland-1.3834024> (accessed 13 May 2019).

6 Ibid.


X, 270
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. X, 270 pp

Biographical notes

Eve Cobain (Volume editor) Philip Coleman (Volume editor)

Eve Cobain received a PhD from Trinity College Dublin in 2017. Her doctoral research, which was funded by the Irish Research Council, explored the signi_ cance of music in the poetry of John Berryman. She has been an Occasional Lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College and an Early Career Researcher based at the Trinity Long Room Hub. She has published essays on John Berryman, Richard Murphy, and other aspects of modern and contemporary poetry. Philip Coleman is an Associate Professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, where he is also a Fellow. His most recent publications include John Berryman’s Public Vision (2014) and Berryman’s Fate: A Centenary Celebration in Verse (2014). He has also co-edited John Berryman: Centenary Essays (2017) and George Saunders: Critical Essays (2017). With Calista McRae, he is co-editing The Selected Letters of John Berryman.


Title: Robert Lowell and Irish Poetry