Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

Robert Lowell was a member of the famous Lowell family, prominent in Boston society. In this poem, he seems to feel that he must explore the Puritan past of New England to discover guilt and transgressions that will help him and his readers come to better terms with the heritage of the past. Lowell does not falsify that earlier and very different world. He does, however, focus on the irrationality and terror of early America rather than the repression that so many others have noted. Moreover, he has recovered the voice of that early world, and the Puritans condemn themselves in their own words.

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At the time when the poem was written, Lowell was a devout Catholic convert with a history of manic-depressive illness. Lord Weary’s Castle is a testament to that newfound faith. It is clear that Lowell believed that his madness did not come from his religion, as it does in “After the Surprising Conversions”: For him, religious conversion was a way to overcome madness.

The Puritan God in the poem seems to be a destroyer, not a preserver: “The breath of God had carried out a planned/ And sensible withdrawal from this land.” If he is not leveling the land, he is abandoning it to Satan to do with as he will. It is the fear that they cannot appease this God that leads Josiah Hawley and those who follow him to take refuge in suicide. The Catholic deity is very different for Lowell; for example, in the sixth section of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” he speaks of “Our Lady of Walsingham,” whose shrine holds out hope to man and the world. The virgin is an intercessor for man and is very different from a wrathful Jehovah.

The overt meaning of the poem in the story of the conversions and suicides is supported by the imagery. The passages on nature at the end of the poem are especially significant. This section, one of Lowell’s additions to Edwards’s letter, speaks in a tone that is very different from that of the preceding sections. The descriptions and images suggest the continuation of nature: “Sir, the bough/ Cracks with the unpicked apples, and at dawn/ The small-mouth bass breaks water, gorged with spawn.” Man ignores the goodness of nature, since the apples are “unpicked,” and the sexual suggestion of the bass’s “spawn” is a principle of life, not the self-willed death and life denial of religious terror. Lowell clearly believed that his new religion, Catholicism, was life-giving, and he continually associates it with natural images. The Puritans do not pick the fruit, but let it rot; the Garden of Eden has been abandoned.

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