American poet, born in Boston, and educated at Kenyon College, where he became friendly with R. Jarrell and J. C. Ransom. In 1940 he married the novelist Jean Stafford, and became a fanatical convert to Roman Catholicism: his first volume of verse, Land of Unlikeness (1944), betrays the conflict of Catholicism and his Boston ancestry. His second volume, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which contains ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ and ‘Mr Edwards and the Spider’, was hailed in extravagant terms. In 1949, having divorced, he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. His other volumes of poems include The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), which has as its title poem a meditation by a Catholic widow reflecting on the past in her ancestral home in Maine; Life Studies (1959); For the Union Dead (1964); Near the Ocean (1967); and Day by Day (1977).
He reached the height of his public fame during his opposition to the Vietnam War and support of Senator Eugene McCarthy, as his Notebook 1967–1968 (1968) records; but he had long been suffering bouts of manic illness and heavy drinking, and a visit to Britain in 1970 increased the disorder of his private life. His highly personal, confessional volume of poetry, The Dolphin (1973), caused scandal with its revelations of martial anguish and discord. He married the writer Caroline Blackwood in 1973, but later returned to America, where he died. A legendary figure in his lifetime, both poète maudit and aristocrat, both classic and romantic, he suffered from the claims made on his behalf as the greatest American poet of his time, a heroic myth‐maker whose work was compared favourably with that of Yeats, an ironic intellectual whose ambiguous, complex imagery satisfied the demands of the New Criticism. The response to Ian Hamilton's frank biography (1982) bore witness to a sense of the need for reassessment.