Lowell, Robert 1917–1977
Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Lowell is generally considered the premier American poet of his generation. Though not allied with any school or movement, he frequently gave voice to his social concerns, which also led many to consider him to be the prototypical liberal intellectual writer of his time. In his work he explored the contradictions in American life and the failure of Puritan ethics. A traditional stylist, he used complicated formal patterns and rhyme schemes while examining very personal topics, in contrast to the free form style of the Beats. This concern with traditional forms culminated in his book-length sonnet sequence, The Dolphin. Lowell was also a widely acclaimed translator and playwright as well as critic and editor. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 73-76.)
[In The Old Glory] Lowell is trying to capture the ironies, cruelties and inconclusiveness on which America was built: in Endecott, the ambiguities are chiefly religious; in Molineux, political; in Cereno, racial. Beyond that, though, he is concerned with essential human nature, which he sees as paradoxical, untrustworthy, and above all, tenebrose. But, regrettably, there are three obstacles he cannot quite negotiate: the limitations of the one-acter, the demands of dramatic form, the problem of stage poetry.
Endecott, for example, is an interesting figure who manages to arouse our sympathetic curiosity, but only at the expense of swallowing up most of the playlet: his psyche exacts much more attention from us than do the perfunctory characters and negligible events of the play. In Cereno, attempts at writing some sequences in the manner of Genet, Beckett or Kafka rub uneasily against patches of realism and even a Hollywood, shoot-'em-up finale. In Molineux, the absurdist mode is fairly consistent (though not so witty as in Beckett or Ionesco), but it clashes with stabs at mythologizing—Charon is introduced as ferryman to Boston, "the City of the Dead"!—and throughout one feels a certain confusion between symbol and rigmarole. (p. 182)
Now, this sort of thing is all very well in lyric poetry, but it just does not register in performed drama. And it is true of all three...
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Lowell is the most gifted poet of his generation to turn to the stage. Like Schevill, he came to drama through translation, but the way was prepared by the dramatic turn of his lyrics after 1957, with their loosened rhythms and simplified syntax. (p. 280)
[Prometheus Unbound is] syntactically varied, inventive in sound play, and lush in imagery. As Lowell's Phaedra was rendered through Freud, his Prometheus has a contemporary existential consciousness. His language has invigorated two classical tragedies for speakers of English, but his most significant dramatic achievement is the three plays grouped as The Old Glory….
Ostensibly dealing with early American history, Lowell's three plays examine that history through the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville, and he focuses on the image of a flag. Lowell has dramatized stories whose cumulative significance equates Old Glory with its rhyme-word "gory."…
Conceived as a whole, the three plays of The Old Glory comment on contemporary America in contemporary language. All three dramas contain a single act of mounting tension. All three dramas close on violence whose reverberations still ring loudly in our ears. Far from a patriotic celebration, these three plays accommodate the ambiguities of revolutionary action, and they do so in the most controlled verse of American drama. (p. 281)
[The] Indian subplot blurs the central conflict of Endecott versus Morton, and it slows the play's dramatic drive. The most discursive play of the trilogy, Endecott and the Red Cross is even talkier in the revised version. Thus the thematic balance of Endecott against Benito Cereno is achieved at the cost of the former's dramatic focus….
[Mercantile words] punctuate the ethical conflict of the drama—money, pay, cash, trade, profit. Above the commercial undercurrent, however, principle shines in Lowell's play; patriotism is never a simple matter of pounds and pence, as in Brecht's plays. Not money but a flag is the most insistent image of Lowell's three plays, and the flag is first mentioned in conjunction with Endecott. (p. 282)
[Endecott's dream] is relevant to the twentieth as to the seventeenth century, for it is a dream of men who commit cruel deeds in the name of stern religions; it is a dream of countering cruelty with cruelty....
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In Lowell's work I have always felt a giant pressure exerted on language and experience, not only in dense and highly wrought poems but in relatively conversational and casual ones as well. In the wide range of poetry that this force has given us, I continue to distinguish two kinds that I noted years ago in "Exile's Return," the opening poem in Lord Weary's Castle: the first unverifiable, so to speak, being chiefly dreamwork and earwork ("The search-guns click and spit and split up timber"), the second verifiable, public, and powerful ("A rough cathedral lifts its eye."). His new poem, "Ulysses And Circe," contains both these types of imagination. It is a realization of myth and at the same time a mythification of reality. Lowell has made his own fiction out of experience including that of the Circe episode of The Odyssey. He "translates" the three central persons (including Penelope) into immediate beings in the mind and senses of one, who is Ulysses and the poet, or Ulysses for the poet. Present experience provides much of the detail, but the fiction is mainly "timeless" and only here and there pinned necessarily to this century. The odd life of the poem is given with an odd plainness that rises without effort or inconsistency to rich lines of which as a whole it is careless, being concerned to be a whole, as it is. "Penelope" strikes me as the least immediate figure, section 5 as the blurriest and most pervaded by dreamwork; I am not so nearly satisfied, as I am with the other sections, that it had to be thus and not otherwise. This is a large poem and, I surmise, an important one…. (p. 25)
Robert Fitzgerald, "Aiaia and Ithaca: Notes on a New Lowell Poem," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1977 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1977, pp. 25-31.
Life Studies, [Lowell's] famous transitional volume, was welcomed by myself among other reviewers, for a new kind of direct ease: not, of course, as an ancestor of 'confessional' poetry—if your verses can achieve fame only through hysterical self-exposure and an extra-poetic act like suicide, so much the worse for your verses—but for the skill with which Lowell keyed down his rhetoric and managed to use items of domestic reportage to replace rather worn religious or historical or literary symbols by domestic memorialising. Of course, in doing so Lowell had the advantage through his ancestry and his personal history of being himself a distinctly symbolic personage. The aristocrat without power or wealth except in so far as he embodies the history and the lost hopes of his country is a very poetic figure: especially when the lost dream of the colonial governors, the Founding Fathers, the oldest and the grandest families, was of a sparse republican virtue. Not all American poets were in Lowell's position of being able to give the extremely and intimately particular a general relevance. This was even in wry withdrawal and celebration of polite defeat no mean accomplishment. (pp. 73-4)
For the Union Dead was an even more distinguished book than Life Studies, the title poem a masterpiece. Here the particularities of American history and contemporary civilization,… the bold and dashing and yet intricately patterned...
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Historical judgment and public distance—the tone realized, for example, in "For the Union Dead"—are entangled with [Robert Lowell's] own partly victimized awareness that he is a Lowell and a New Englander…. In his best poetry there is an unspoken and often intended plot: the ambition to write resonant public poetry is corroded again and again by private nightmare, by a failure to escape ghosts of the past….
Lowell said that at the time he wrote Life Studies he didn't know whether it was a death-rope or a lifeline. His handling of autobiographical material since then suggests that he is still not ready—and perhaps need never be—to answer that question. The tone of Life...
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All [Lowell's] intelligence, his understanding of shifting levels of experience and of language, led him to complexity but not to a reduction of scale or a restriction of feeling. Certainly he lives with bathos, the ironies of mundanity, but when this comes it comes with a bang:
In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother's coffin,
Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.
was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil….
The grandeur of Lowell's style reveals that triviality is simply no danger to him. His life-work has been pitched at a point most others dare not envisage....
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Robert Lowell's career as a poet moderated or wavered between his natural inclination towards symbolic formalism and his courtship of confessional free verse…. He would not have smarted at being called the heir of the French Symbolists, or more exactly of the Parnassians…. The Parnassians are neglected in favour of the Symbolists, but their standards of formal beauty and objective, often descriptive, verse found for a while a remarkable inheritor in Lowell. Just as the Parnassians both developed and reacted against the extravagances of the great Romantics … [so] Lowell seemed to stand out for an impersonal rhetoric and conventional forms against the free verse utterances that the age had licensed.
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Much of [Day by Day] is occupied by the title sequence, dedicated to [Lowell's] wife and tracing a period of their lives in separate but interrelated lyrics; but most of the other poems in the volume are also personal in that they dwell on the poet's past, his friends, and his regular preoccupations (marriage, family history, and, of course, death). However, they do not have the smothering effect of naked autobiography. True, there is some discreet gossip-fodder, and some stimulation of our curiosity. (Which critic is he describing? Whose name is concealed by a dash?) But he looks in many directions—outward, forward, over his shoulder, as well as into his own psyche and surroundings—with generosity,...
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