Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 448 words.)