Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lowell was descended from a distinguished colonial family that included James Russell Lowell, the nineteenth century poet and Harvard professor; her brother, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University; and later the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell. Amy Lowell also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, posthumously, for her book What’s O’Clock. Her impassioned identification with New England is an affirmation of her life and heritage; it is difficult to separate the Lowells from the history of Massachusetts.

Although Lowell’s work has been criticized for dealing too exclusively with vivid images and neglecting emotional values, when “Lilacs” is judged by the Imagist ideals that shaped it, the poem is successful. The poem is composed primarily of concrete nouns that describe the appearance of the lilacs in exquisite detail, from their individual flowers to the way they appear in the New England landscape. The concern with appearance, color, and light in the poem illustrates Imagist ideas and has led some critics to associate the movement with Impressionism, the art movement.

Perhaps the most overt expression of Imagist ideas is the absence of a deeper meaning to “Lilacs” than what is stated. There is no “message” or hidden meaning. The poem is a clear statement of what lilacs mean to the poet; she identifies lilacs with the New England of her ancestors and, finally, with herself. Significantly, the poem achieves interest not because of its meaning, which is relatively simple, but because of Lowell’s technique, which communicates the meaning in a vivid and unique way.