The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

“After the Surprising Conversions” is a forty-six-line poem on a historical event in colonial New England, a common subject for Robert Lowell. The title indicates that the poem takes places after the conversions and destructive religious enthusiasm that swept southern New England in the wake of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is explaining and, in a sense, justifying the origins and development of the event to an unknown correspondent.

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The speaker of the poem is Edwards himself; the poem is based upon his letter of 1736, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northhampton and the Neighboring Towns and Villages.” The tone of Lowell’s re-creation of the letter is very different from the fervor that occasioned it. Edwards comments matter-of-factly on the suicides and on how “it began to be more sensible”—it can now be sorted out and understood more fully.

The origins of the religious awakening began with one man, who “came of melancholy parents.” There were, however, signs of hope in his life. He would watch the wind touch a tree and think of God’s beneficent creation. He was predisposed to “loving,” but “he durst/ Not entertain much hope of his estate/ In heaven.” Edwards preached one Sunday on Kings, a historical book of the Bible that is an unlikely source for such momentous events. Immediately after, the melancholy gentleman, Josiah Hawley, who was in fact the uncle of Edwards, “showed concernment for his soul.” This concern immediately leads him to preach the difficulty of salvation to others, and he “dreamed/ That he was called to trumpet Judgment Day/ to Concord.” In May, he “cut his throat.” Edwards seems to ascribe the cause of this suicide to the nature and family background of Hawley; it is a means by which Edwards justifies his own role in the episode.

After this event, others suddenly began to fear for their spiritual state, cutting their throats after urging others to do the same. A madness and despair about God’s grace seized them; the only answer was suicide. Edwards ascribes these terrible events to Satan and, curiously, to God: “God/ Abandoned us to Satan.” The religious gains that had been achieved earlier by Edwards are now undone in the religious madness that follows. It is interesting that Edwards seems to deny or attenuate his own responsibility for the suicides and passes the responsibility to God. The God who empties the land and allows Satan to take over is not Jesus, but Jehovah, the God of wrath.

The last lines of the poem deal with teeming and fecund nature. The fullness of the unpicked apple trees and the spawn of the bass are a rebuke to those who have lost themselves in abstract and abstruse religious speculation. Nature is life-giving, and the way of Edwards’s God leads only to self-destruction.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

The poem is written in a loose iambic pentameter that does not call attention to itself, although the pattern is regular and the syllables are exact. There are a few significant changes in the iambic pattern; the spondees of line 42 (“ ‘Cut your own throat. Cut your own throat. Now! Now!’ ”) consciously violate the established meter, reflecting the violence of the awakening. The variation of the meter at the beginning of line 40, “Jumped at broad noon, as though some peddler groaned,” also supports the changed view of those who once took their salvation for granted.

The poem consists of run-on couplets that hide their formal nature. Since the couplets consistently run on, the reader is hardly aware that they are couplets until he or she closely examines the poem. So there is an underlying recurrence that gives order to the seemingly casual conversational style of the letter and the violent events that it describes. The interaction between a fixed form and terrible and irrational events provides a tension that is not resolved until the end of the poem, when nature returns as a presence.

There are some interesting opposing images in the poem. The melancholy man broods on “terror,” but earlier “loving shook him like a snake.” Love gives way to death, and the landscape that was a sign of God’s goodness seems to disappear until the end of the poem. The demand to “Cut your own throat” is described in a strange but appropriate simile “as though some peddler groaned/ At it in its familiar twang.” Death has, in Lowell’s strange reformulation of Edwards, become a commodity to be sold to those gullible or guilty enough to buy. Even the time period of the events, “Hard on our Lord’s Ascension,” contrasts with the later lines, “The breath of God had carried out a planned/ And sensible withdrawal from this land.” The beneficent Jesus who has completed his mission of redemption and ascends to heaven is transformed later in the poem into a wrathful Jehovah.

The last image pattern is very different from what has gone before. Images of nature return to stand against the cutting of throats. The visual and aural images of the cracking apple trees filled with “unpicked apples” and the “small-mouth bass” breaking water, “gorged with spawn,” are a counterpoint to the selling of death and the despair that leads to suicide.

Edwards’s actual words make up about one-third of the poem. Lowell borrows phrases and occasionally whole sentences and surrounds them with his own language, so the poem filters the spirit of Jonathan Edwards through the mind and art of Robert Lowell. The extensive use of such historical elements in a poem is very unusual. Lowell manages to preserve the integrity of these elements, but they have been turned into an artistic creation, a unified poem; this is not merely a historical curiosity.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98

Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970.

Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.

Mariani, Paul L. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Perloff, Marjorie G. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Williamson, Alan. Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

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Themes