Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Lowell was a dominant force in the Imagist movement founded by Ezra Pound. Imagists advocated the use of free verse, concrete images, and concise language. With its realistic sense impressions, simple language, and free-verse form, Lowell’s “Meeting-House Hill” typifies Imagist poetry. What’s O’Clock (1925), a collection of Lowell’s best later work and the first volume of her poems published posthumously, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1926. This volume included “Meeting-House Hill” along with poems about landscapes and seasons, including one of her most famous poems, “Lilacs.” The central theme of both poems is the discovery of the unity that lies beneath the surface of diverse forms.
Lowell lived in two worlds. The first included the room from which she wrote and the familiar landmarks and gardens of her New England heritage. The other embraced the culture and poetry of the Far East, with its exotic beauty and serenity. “Meeting-House Hill” expresses the sense of oneness she experienced when images of both worlds met on that hill in New England. By juxtaposing the gritty reality of railroad tracks, a city square, and thin trees with the “clear, reticent, superbly final” Parthenon, Lowell’s poem helps the reader see beyond the immediate, everyday world to catch a glimpse of something higher. The contrast is even more obvious when she compares the “pillars of its [the Parthenon’s] portico refined to a cautious elegance” with “weak trees” and “a squalid hilltop.” Vivid images convey a clear impression of the beauty of a familiar scene, as it suddenly stands out against the sky. Lowell describes the imagined scene in equally brilliant images as she explores the sense of unity represented by two diverse settings.
As Lowell perceives the harmony existing in the beauty of a New England church as well as in the face of a Chinese man on a ship, she describes her physical reactions to show the impact of her vision. She “must be,” she writes, “mad, or very tired” when the sight of a church “amazes” her eyes. She feels “dizzy with the movement of the sky.” Whether a church in New England, the Parthenon in Greece, or a ship returning from China, a sense of unity transcends the physical limits of one particular place. Her poem is her attempt to share the feeling of harmony she experiences when the diverse images blend.