The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” is a richly autobiographical poem of 152 lines, divided into four parts. The shortest part is an eleven-line description of the poet at only five-and-a-half, dressed in a sailor blouse; the longest parts (I and IV) are about fifty lines each and narrate an account of Robert Lowell’s memory of a young uncle, who was shortly to die of Hodgkin’s disease. Lowell’s Life Studies volume (1959), to which this poem makes a significant contribution, contains many clearly rendered portraits of the poet and his extended, old-moneyed family. These poems mark a turning away from the well-wrought, high modernist poems of Lowell’s youth to personal, unguarded, and even “confessional” poems, as they were called by early critics. The later poems came out of Lowell’s battles with mental illness, his brief imprisonment as a conscientious objector, his difficulties in love and marriage, and his rich memories of the Bostonian Lowells and Winslows. In this poem, the portrait of three Winslow generations—grandparents, parents, and child—is wonderfully restrained, at times charming, and finally disturbing.
After the title there stands a caption: “1922: the stone porch of my Grandfather’s summer house.” Part I has several verse paragraphs devoted to this setting. The small child, Robert, is sitting on his grandfather Winslow’s porch; nearby, a tenant farmer has placed a pile of earth and lime in preparation for mixing cement for a root-house. This is a...
(The entire section is 626 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The most common beat in spoken English is the iamb (a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable). The English language generally alternates its weak-strong stresses with great regularity. For this reason, modern poets such as Lowell can still be highly rhythmic even when they give up the conventions of regular meter. The term free verse, which is not to be mistaken for a total disregard for beats and counts, is fittingly applied to this poem. Free verse allows Lowell a conversational or intimate tone when he wishes and a freedom to make line breaks that group words more or less at will. In lines 24-33, for example, he gives each item on his grandfather’s porch its individual line. Then, in drastically shortening his conclusion (lines 34-35), he is able to drive home forcefully four telling adjectives to describe grandfather Winslow. The well-chosen words form a little stack which the eye takes in at once:
was manly, comfortable,overbearing, disproportioned.
Later, Lowell will use the same freedom to create surprises in rhyme and juxtapositioning. The effect is comic:
tilted her archaic Athenian noseand jilted an Astor.
The “archaic” modifies Athenian, but lands on top of the Astors. Much playfulness can come into the decisions that free verse...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.