Nearly all Lowell’s poems have a richness of imagery, a wide range of references and allusions, and a density of syntax. His first two books stress religious themes and subjects. Such poems as “The Drunken Fisherman” and “Between the Porch and the Altar” clearly demonstrate his abiding religious concerns. They are difficult to unravel and do not easily yield themselves to the reader. Lowell was, as he often mentioned, trying to write poems in the manner of Hart Crane while under the critical influence of the New Critics. The last stanza of “The Drunken Fisherman” shows the richness and the difficulties of such poems.
Is there no way to cast my hookOut of this dynamited brook?This Fisher’s sons must cast aboutWhen shallow waters peter out.I will catch Christ with a greased worm,And when the Prince of Darkness stalksMy bloodstream to its Stygian term . . . On water the Man-Fisher walks.
The poem is undoubtedly powerful, but it is not the best or most typical type of Lowell poem. Here he is trying to be another T. S. Eliot—writing learned and academic poetry with religious and mythic themes. He was not the equal of the Eliot of the Four Quartets (1943), however, and his natural bent lay elsewhere.
Life Studies led to the coinage of the term “confessional poet.” The subjects of its poetry were Lowell’s parents and grandparents, his bouts of madness, and his friends. The style is also freer and looser; in place of learned allusions there are ironic references to the misspelling of “Lowell” on his mother’s coffin. In “Waking in the Blue,” Lowell describes the inmates in McLeans Hospital for the “mentally ill.” Lowell does not stand aloof but includes himself within the group of “thoroughbred mental cases.” The last two lines convey Lowell’s recognition of his state and make the reader a participant, not merely an observer: “We are all old-timers,/ each of us holds a locked razor.” It is a direct and immensely moving poetry.
Lowell never ceased to write “confessional” poetry, but he expanded the range of his poetry by turning to political subjects. “For the Union Dead” is an indictment of modern life and leaders: There are no more Colonel Shaws to lead Negro infantry but only politicians who refuse to allow Negro children to attend school with whites. Lowell makes clear that twentieth century materialistic society has perverted once-noble values. A few years later, his politics became much more direct. In “Near the Ocean,” for example, he portrays Lyndon Johnson “swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick/ of his ghost-written rhetoric!” Later, Lowell was a part of the march on Washington to stop the Vietnam War and wrote about his experience in a number of poems in Notebook. There are also studies of such leaders and power figures as Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, and Adolf Hitler.
One aspect of Lowell’s poetry that is often ignored by critics is the many elegies on and tributes to his friends and fellow poets. In Life Studies, there are poems on Ford Madox Ford, Delmore Schwartz, and Hart Crane. The finest ones, however, come from Notebook, especially the poem on Robert Frost. Lowell portrays Frost not as a genial New England sage but as a tortured man with “the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs.” Lowell’s Frost says at the end of the poem, “When I am too full of joy, I think/ how little good my health did anyone near me.” There are poems on T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and a moving elegy to his friend Randall Jarrell. Lowell was the greatest elegiac poet of his time, whether the subject was his family, his friends, fellow poets, or great men. “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” are among the finest elegies in American literature.
The later books of Lowell show one surprising change; where before he had written in loose verse paragraphs and occasionally in stanzas, he now takes up the sonnet form. All the poems in Notebook and most of the other later books are written in a very idiosyncratic sonnet form. Lowell usually keeps to the sonnet’s fourteen-line pattern but does not use rhyme or observe the usual Italian or English sonnet divisions. “Dolphin,” for example, begins with a traditional quatrain but then does not continue the quatrain pattern; it breaks the meaning at the seventh line. The last section does, however, provide a counter-statement to those first seven lines which speak of being guided by a muse in the way that Jean Racine was:
I have sat and listened to too many words of the collaborating muse,and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,not avoiding injury to others,not avoiding injury to myself—to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting.
Then a very unconventional fifteenth line is added to complete the poem: “[M]y eyes have seen what my hand did.” Some of Lowell’s experiments with sonnet form seem casual and erratic, but “Dolphin” breathes a new life into the most fixed form in literature. Lowell was nevertheless worried that he had not successfully escaped the trap of that form. In an “Afterthought” to Notebook he said, “Even with this license, I fear I have failed to avoid the themes and gigantism of the sonnet.”
“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”
First published: 1959 (collected in Collected Poems, 2003)
Type of work: Poem
A moving elegy on the poet’s uncle analyzes the divisions in the Lowell and Winslow families.
“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” does not begin like an elegy, focusing instead on Lowell’s childhood affection for his grandfather Winslow and his distance from his own parents. It begins, “’I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa!’” Grandfather Winslow’s world was one of adventure and freedom. “the decor/ was manly, comfortable,/ overbearing, disproportioned.” At his farm are photographs of silver mines and “pitchers of ice-tea,/ oranges, lemons, mints, and peppermints,/ and the jug of shandygaff.” Most significant is the fact that “[n]o one had died there in my lifetime.” The boy (young Lowell) is busy playing with a “pile of black earth” and one of “lime,” an image of play and death that runs through the poem.
The pastoral innocence of the first part of the poem is swiftly challenged. The boy is now inappropriately dressed and is described as a “stuffed toucan/ with a bibulous, multicolored beak.” There is a recognition of failure; Great Aunt Sara had once slaved away at perfecting her ability on the piano, only to fail to appear at the recital. She now plays on a “dummy” and “noiseless” piano. Uncle Devereux, however, is still as young as the posters and photographs that fill the cottage he is closing “for the winter.” Suddenly, reality intrudes upon the stasis of old photographs: “My Uncle was dying at twenty-nine.” Devereux resists the fact of death by sailing with his wife “for Europe on a last honeymoon” in a joyous affirmation of life. His parents are shocked at his seeming frivolity. The child has altered as well; he becomes an observer of bizarre and unfamilial behavior, an accomplice rather than an innocent child.
The last part of the poem contrasts Devereux’s appearance with his fate. He appears to be “as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse,” but he is “dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease.” The...
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