The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Early in his literary career, Robert Lowell researched the life of the eminent eighteenth century American preacher Jonathan Edwards with the aim of writing his biography. He never wrote the life, but two of his best-known poems derive from this purported venture. “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” is a poem of five nine-line stanzas that fuses several experiences of the Northampton, Massachusetts, minister having to do with spiders, either literally or metaphorically. Lowell adopts the voice of Edwards in meditation.

The first stanza summarizes the content of a remarkable letter that Edwards wrote, probably at the age of ten or eleven, to an English correspondent of his father. In it, he recorded his observations of the habits of flying spiders and drew some unusually mature inferences, for example, that since their journeys were always seaward, the spiders were in effect seeking their own death. Written in a decidedly scientific spirit, the letter discloses a gifted naturalist in the making.

In his second stanza, Lowell shifts his attention to Edwards’s most famous (though hardly most representative) work, the sermon that he delivered as a guest preacher in Enfield, Connecticut, at the height of the religious revival called “The Great Awakening” in 1741. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” compares the individual members of that congregation to “a loathsome spider” that God dangles over hell. In a dramatic presentation of the...

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Mr. Edwards and the Spider Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lowell works the meditation into an elaborate stanza in an iambic meter ranging from three to six poetic feet long with a demanding rhyme scheme of abbacccdd. Having set this restrictive and regularly recurring form for himself, the poet runs the speaking voice across it in such a way as to create felicitous variations of rhythm, pace, and emphasis.

About half the lines as well as the transition between two of the stanzas show enjambment, and half the sentences begin within lines. There is great variety, also, in the length, arrangement, and function of the sentences. The first stanza, for example, is composed of two descriptive sentences of twenty-seven and thirty-five words, while the hexameter line at the end of the second stanza consists of two balanced questions: “How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?” Longer, often-periodic sentences combine with abrupt questions such as these and snappy assertions such as the concluding “This is the Black Widow, death” to give the impression of an agile mind at work.

In this and other early poems, Lowell shared the practice of poets such as Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore, contrivers of intricate patterns who muted the rhymes and disguised the rhythmic schemes, thus artfully concealing art. The sound effects of this poem enhance the movement of the meditating mind without calling attention to themselves—which is why the analysis of such poems must do so.


(The entire section is 537 words.)

Mr. Edwards and the Spider Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970.

Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.

Mariani, Paul L. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Perloff, Marjorie G. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Williamson, Alan. Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.