The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell is a massive volume that is a fitting monument to one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. It includes Lowell’s juvenilia in the appendix, his magazine versions of poems, variant lines and words, annotations to the poems, a chronology, and an index. The book has all the apparatus of a scholarly volume for a poet long dead and firmly established in the literary canon. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, the editors of the book, are practicing poets, and Bidart was a close friend of Lowell, so it is a book to read and the apparatus occasionally to refer to rather than a purely academic edition.
Bidart comments in the introduction about some of his decisions as an editor. He had a number of choices to make about what to include in the main part of the book. Should he include the contents of Lowell’s first book of poems, Land of Unlikeness (1944), in Collected Poems? He decided rightly to include it in the appendix, as Lowell rewrote many of the poems in his next book. Bidart also had to choose whether to includeNotebook (1970) or Lowell’s revised version, History (1973). He choseHistory, which is a superior version of the earlier Notebook, and he placed Notebook in the appendix.
Lowell’s revision of Land of Unlikeness, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), is the first book to appear in the main part of Collected Poems, and it is a very impressive early work. The poems are complex, allusive, and filled with powerful language and images; they are also very difficult for a reader. They include a number of references to Christianity, especially to the Virgin Mary, as Lowell was a Roman Catholic convert when he wrote them. Lowell saw himself at this time as a strong poet in the mode of T. S. Eliot and New Criticism. This meant to him that poems with many allusions, paradoxes, and ambiguities were the best poems.
This certainly can be seen in the best poem in the book, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” It is an elegy for Lowell’s cousin Arthur Winslow, but the elegiac note fades rather quickly and is replaced by an indictment of war, commerce, and a lack of spirituality. Lowell first resolves the spiritual crisis by turning to “Our Lady of Walsingham”: “Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.” However, in a last section, he returns to the Quaker graveyard with its commercial whaleboats that assaulted nature as Ahab did in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). The poem ends with an ambiguous line: “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” This suggests the covenant God made with Noah and affirms God’s power over humankind and that God will go on and “survive” his own arbitrary acts. This is a less than complete resolution with its evasive God.
There are a number of poems in the book on Lowell’s family members, although they are primarily elegies and do not have the intimacy of the poems in Life Studies (1959). “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” ends with an appeal to “Our Lady” to bless and save the poet’s grandfather with the blood of Christ. Many of the poems use Catholic images, but they often seem merely added on rather than organic. Lowell had a tendency to parade his newfound religion, and this does not help the poems’ unity very much.
Lowell’s next book was The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), and it continues some of the themes of Lord Weary’s Castle while trying to find a new direction and a new style. The book includes a long dramatic monologue by Katherine Kavanaugh in heroic couplets. She comments on her reduced world and her lost husband. That husband, Harry Kavanaugh, was a Navy officer who resigned in disgrace after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. The situation is quite similar to that of Lowell’s father, who resigned from the U.S. Navy, and it is a precursor to the more direct presentation of Lowell’s conflicted parents in Life Studies. The later poems, however, are much more forceful and effective than this diffuse monologue.
Life Studies was clearly Lowell’s breakthough book. He felt that his earlier style was “clogged” and that the poems were too difficult, allusive, and correct in the New Critical mode. This change is announced in the first poem, “Beyond the Alps.” The poem moves from Rome, the center of Catholicism where the Pope pronounced the dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception, to the modern Paris. Lowell was no longer a Catholic; as he says in one poem, “There are no Mayflower/ screwballs in the Catholic church.” These poems announced a new “confessional” style. The change to simplicity and directness can be seen in Lowell’s prose memoir, Ninety-one Revere Street, part...
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