Robert Fitzgerald was born on October 12, 1910, in Geneva, New York, but grew up in Springfield, Illinois. His early life was marked by significant loss—his mother died when he was three years old, his only sibling five years later, and his father died when Fitzgerald was seventeen. Despite this hardship, he excelled academically, graduating from Springfield High School in 1928 and then attending The Choate School in Connecticut for a year. In 1929 he entered Harvard University in Boston, where he studied English and Greek.
In 1931, his early poems were published in Poetry magazine. After receiving his BA from Harvard in 1933, he moved to New York City and became a journalist working for the New York Herald Tribune as a reporter until 1935 and then at Time magazine from 1936 to 1949. He published his debut poetry collection, Poems (Arrow Editions), in 1935, followed by A Wreath for the Sea (New Directions) in 1943. During World War II, Fitzgerald served in the United States Navy in Guam and Pearl Harbor.
After the war ended, Fitzgerald returned to New York City where he began teaching English at Sarah Lawrence College. He later taught at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Washington, Mount Holyoke College, and Princeton University. He also served as poetry editor of the New Republic.
Along with being known as a lyric poet, Fitzgerald is highly regarded for his translations, including his verse translations of Homer's The Iliad (Doubleday, 1974), which received the first Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1976, and The Odyssey (Doubleday, 1961), which received the first Bollingen Award for Translation. His other translations include Virgil’s The Aeneid (Random House, 1983), as well as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Harcourt, 1949) and Euripides’s The Alcestis (Harcourt, 1936), both co-translated by Dudley Fitts.
From 1965 and 1981, Fitzgerald served as Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University, succeeding former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. During his tenure, his teaching, especially of English metrics, influenced many young poets, some of whom went on to become known as the New Formalists. Fitzgerald served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1968 to 1985. From 1984 to 1985 Fitzgerald was consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. His other honors include the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Fitzgerald died on January 16, 1985, in Hamden, Connecticut.