Robert Lowell in Selected Poems seems to be telling the classic tale of the lost, twentieth century persona. The sequence and pattern of the poems trace the movement from youthful religious preoccupations and rejection of familial ties, through deciphering of the past, fresh insights on childhood, love affairs, renewal of family ties, and, finally, resignation. Lowell is most convincing when he stays close to home. Home in his affluent world of upper-crust New England may be a summer cottage in Maine or the citified Boston of rigid tradition and regular cocktail hours. What the poet seems to lack is raw feeling, immersed as he is in the rarefied regions of highboys, family heirlooms, and proper reserve. He is busily trying to find it, to release a passionate temperament which contrasts with the New England setting. Such tasteful propriety may have led the poet to the obsession with God which is particularly evident in the early poems, but which resurfaces regularly throughout his life.
In 1940 Lowell converted to Roman Catholicism from his Protestant heritage. The mystical, inflamed language of the poems in Lord Weary’s Castle or The Mills of the Kavanaughs contrasts sharply with the country-club atmosphere in Life Studies. In “Colloquy in Black Rock” the speaker agonizes, writhes under his religious obsession. His “skipping heart” is covered with “dust,” perhaps the dust of the past, the oppressive weight of generations. He speaks of the martyre, Stephen, “broken down to blood,” envisions Christ on the “black water.” His heart, which beats “faster, faster” is reacting with passion, evoking the tone and ecstasy of Hopkins’ poetry. The speaker seems to envy, even crave, such martyrdom. In “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” the poet asks, “What are we in the hands of the great God?” Other poems in Lord Weary’s Castle show the same religious fire, as do various poems in The Mills of the Kavanaughs. Such poems examine the evils of the city as in “Where the Rainbow Ends,” or present a curious jumbling of Christianity, paganism, and the burden of the past which weighs heavily both on New England and on the poet himself, as in “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid.” The poet is torn between these influences and shows the schism by writing of an old man who has missed the morning services in the Concord church and dreams instead of Dido, “the ghost of Pallas,” and the “elephants of Carthage.” The density of images and seeming contortions of syntax reveal the depth of the poet’s agony and the extent of religious comfort he desires. The early poems of Lowell seem, at the moment that their persona struggles to break through to God, to retreat into rigid form and an entanglement of words, as in “Mother Marie Therese”:
. . . Christ enticedHer heart that fluttered, while she whipped her houndsInto the quicksands of her manor grounds,A lordly child, her habit fleur-de-lys’d—There she dismounted, sick; with little heed,Surrendered. Like Proserpina, who fellSix months a year from earth to flower in hell....
Other sections of the book are successful for the degree to which Lowell deals with things he knows. The highly personal character of such poems and the shift in emphasis from religious preoccupations are refreshing. In Life Studies, he abandons the strained rhymes and rhythms to say what he means about his past and the awesome responsibility of being a Massachusetts Lowell and a Winslow. In later collections, among them Nineteen Thirties, Mexico, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin, he returns to a set pattern of sporadic rhyming and sonnet-like verses to supply the telling detail, the revealing quote, the mannerisms, gestures, ways of his childhood, and adult milieu. In “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” perhaps the best poem in the entire collection, he captures the essence of the family hearth in a new and sprightly free verse pattern. Immediacy, whimsy, wit, melancholy are all here; scenes are sketched in quickly, easily:
Up in the airby the lakeview window in the billiards-room,lurid in the doldrums of the sunset hour,my Great Aunt Sarahwas learning Samson and Delilah.She thundered on the keyboard of her dummy piano,with gauze curtains...
(The entire section is 1971 words.)