The Poetry of Lowell Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Of the generation of American poets who came to prominence in the years following World War II, Robert Lowell has emerged as the acknowledged master and, evidently, the most likely candidate for greatness, the odds-on favorite to fill the shoes of our century’s first generation of poets, the generation which included Pound, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, and Frost. In the 1960’s he has managed to win acceptance and unquestioned recognition by all cliques and schools of contemporary poetry and by a dazzling array of critics at home and abroad. While it must be admitted that some of his reputation is the result of pervasive American insistence upon celebrity in all aspects of our culture, still it represents no slight achievement for Lowell and, equally important, seems to indicate an end to the long, tedious, and largely phony cold war between “the academics” and “the Beats.” In point of fact, Robert Lowell has been recognized as a poet of repute since his LORD WEARY’S CASTLE was published and won for him the coveted Pulitzer Prize, but for a poet to fulfill his early promise and to gain steadily in stature and popularity is rare, especially during a period of literary conflict, questioning, and change.

LORD WEARY’S CASTLE was a powerful and, within the extremely limited precincts of the world of modern poetry, popular introduction to the new formalism which dominated American poetry for a decade following. World War II interrupted the continuity of American poetry. It is hard, except by going through the books and anthologies of the 1930’s, to remember or recapture the prewar literary milieu, but in general the establishment was characterized by a deep concern for the social problems of the Depression, an attempt to employ the vernacular American idiom in poetry, not only for more freedom and richness and variety in language, but also in the hope of reaching out to a larger audience. The underground movement of that period was composed of the Fugitives, who cultivated journalism in verse, together with ambiguity, intellectual and personal complexity, traditionalism, and an apparently aristocratic view of the poet’s function. Politically and socially they called themselves Agrarians, being so at least in their distaste for the excesses wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Regionally they were Middle Southern, and theologically they tended to be high church Episcopalians with definite affinities toward Roman Catholicism. They were academics at a time when the relationship between writers and the academics were not so cozy as they are today. Their leader was John Crowe Ransom and their special hero was T. S. Eliot in England. It is hard to realize the influence these men and women have had on American poetry and fiction. The exemplary amount of either produced by the group has been relatively small. But they wrote a great many reviews and a great deal of criticism, taking over and breathing life into quiet quarterlies, and they taught, directly and in a formal context, many of the young men who would in the years following World War II move to prominence on the literary scene. One of these was Robert Lowell.

It is possible that Lowell, at least in his early books, is the best pupil the Fugitives ever had; and they rallied around him and his work with alacrity and enthusiasm. Yet he seems an unlikely representative of the movement. Coming from a long and distinguished New England tradition, he has shown little sympathy for the South or things Southern or, indeed, interest in these things. His heritage was Puritan, yet he rebelled against it and became a convert to Catholicism, with the additional complexity that he was a conscientious objector during World War II, at a time when his new-found Church did not recognize that position as legitimate. Nor did the courts, and he was punished by imprisonment for his beliefs. This personal courage and commitment became meaningful to the poets, those who survived to write poems, who came back; and Karl Shapiro spoke for many of them when he referred to Lowell as the conscience to which other young poets returned.

There are many conflicts obvious in even this impersonal and casual view of Lowell as poet, and conflict is the essence of LORD WEARY’S CASTLE. His personal struggles with his heritage and the present and future of the society are reined in tightly in strict forms, strict rhythms, and solid rhymes. The effect is often the moment before an explosion, a highly dramatic moment. The verse is demanding, requiring as was the custom at the time, some notes, ambiguous, allusive, knotty, and what was then called “tough-minded.” The transitions were swift and almost cinematic in abruptness. But the essence of any poetry is voice, the language and especially the verbal texture, which distinguishes the work of one poet from another. Lowell showed from the first a good ear for a wide range of language, from the straightforward cadences of the spoken idiom to the high resonance of classical and Biblical rhetoric. The texture was as rough and rocky as the New England earth, almost anti-poetic in its hardness. There was a “tension”—a word very popular with the Fugitives who by this time were called the New Critics—between the rugged texture and the smoothness of felicitous metrics and exact rhymes.

The complexity of Lowell’s imagery is vaguely reminiscent of Hart Crane, and it may be relevant that Allen Tate, who was Lowell’s teacher and friend as well as a friend of Hart Crane, has written that what prevented Crane from greatness was the lack of an ordered and controlling philosophy or a belief like Roman Catholicism. Finally, it should be noted that Lowell displayed a real affinity toward the Fugitives in his strong dislike for the things of modern civilization.

With LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, Lowell had arrived. Four years later came THE MILLS OF THE KAVANAUGHS, described as “a collection of seven dreams, fantasies, and monologues.” These were long poems, basically narrative in form, yet combining the strict formality of his earlier work in the longer forms, and sustaining and expanding the areas of interest demonstrated in the earlier book: history, his heritage, Catholicism, the classics, and the Bible. There was no diminishment of power, and the poems represent a remarkable achievement of sustained power and energy. They carried certain aspects of Lowell’s technique to its limits, almost to the breaking point. This book served to consolidate his reputation, yet at the same time it raised a question:...

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