(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Nihilist as Hero” is a sonnet from Notebook and a poem that reveals much about Lowell as a poet and a man. The poem begins with a quote from poet Paul Valery about sustaining a work of art beyond a single line. It is a vision of poetry as formal perfection. Lowell then announces a very different view of the nature of art: “I want words meat-hooked from the living steer.” Such direct (confessional?) poetry is blocked, however, by the “metal log,/ beautiful unchanging fire of childhood/ betraying a monotony of vision.” Life, too, is not based on stasis but “by definition breeds on change”; however, change means only that “each season we scrap new cars and wars and women.” It is an endless round of activity without hope or joy. The last lines of the sonnet bring the contrasts together. First, he states that when he is “ill or delicate,/ the pinched flame of my match turns unchanging green.” The image of an illusionary stasis echoes the “tinfoil” flame of childhood. The last two lines complete the poem by balancing the two sides: “A nihilist wants to live in the world as is,/ and yet gaze the everlasting hills to rubble.”

There is no easy solution; one desires both reality and destruction, an unchanging art and a live one, stasis and continual activity. This does not mean that Lowell is a nihilist; he recognizes the claims of both sides and cannot find a way to synthesize them. Humans are doomed to live with a dream of perfection in an imperfect world. It is a haunting conclusion to one of Lowell’s most revealing poems.

The Nihilist as Hero Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.