After the Surprising Conversions Analysis

Robert Lowell

The Poem

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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