In its entirety, Amy Lowell’s work is, as F. Cudworth Flint has observed, a history of the poetry of her time. Born in the 1870’s, she died just three years after the publication of The Waste Land.
Although her first published work owed much, in both theme and form, to the Romantics and the Victorians, by her second book, Lowell was planted more firmly in the twentieth century and, more specifically, in what has come to be known as the Poetic Renaissance. She herself used this term in her critical work, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. It was a time of experimentation in all the arts, in the United States as well as abroad. Lowell took control in America of the movement to revolutionize and modernize poetic forms, and by the end of her life at fifty-one, she was largely responsible for the acceptance in America of the “New Poetry.” Poetry was popular in Lowell’s day, and Lowell made it even more so. Though both her poetry and her ideas about it often enraged her audience, they never failed to elicit responses, and Lowell was such a dynamic saleswoman that she usually had the final word. Not a highly original thinker or writer, Lowell was able, nevertheless, to absorb the best of what was going on around her and build on it.
Lowell’s work, though often faulted for being focused on externalities and devoid of emotion, is psychologically revealing, both of her own emotional states and, in some poems, of the ideas of Sigmund Freud and modern psychology. Many of her poems reveal her own experiences and emotions, and much of her imagery derives from her own life. Lowell’s childhood at Sevenels, at least into adolescence, when she became very heavy, was largely a happy one, and one of her greatest joys was her father’s garden, later to become hers. Her knowledge and love of flowers, gardens, and birds permeates her work. The imagery is not all joyful, however, for Lowell lived out her life at Sevenels and her life also had its great disappointments and pain. Her obesity was probably responsible for her failure to marry and have a family, and in disillusionment, she embraced poetry, almost as a spouse. Disillusionment about her work also occurs in the poems. In all, there is a tremendous amount of psychological as well as intellectual energy in her poems, partly a result of Lowell’s driving need to achieve and compensate for what she had lost or never had. There is also peace in many of the poems, inspired by the security and contentment she found during the last eleven years of her life with Mrs. Russell. Many of the poems centering on love and devotion were inspired by Mrs. Russell.
Lowell’s poetic subjects were wide-ranging. She wrote narratives on subjects as disparate as the frustration of a violinist’s wife and the attempted rape of the moon by a fox. She wrote lyrics on such traditional subjects as love, disillusionment, artistic inspiration, and gardens, but she also wrote poems on buildings, cities, and wars. She wrote quasi epics that encompassed different centuries and countries, and dialect tales set in rural New England.
Glenn Richard Ruihley finds these diverse subjects unified by Lowell’s transcendentalism, her search for the “Numinous or Divine” residing in all people and things. It was, according to Ruihley, the possibility of transcendence that she recognized that night while watching Duse act.
Her technical virtuosity was as great as her thematic range. Her use of metaphors and symbols was extensive. According to Ruihley, the only way to understand much of Lowell’s work is through a study of “her chosen symbols.” Though an outspoken advocate of poetic experimentation, she wrote in traditional forms as well as in free verse and polyphonic prose, often ranging through several forms in a single poem. Her virtuosity was unquestioned, but like most virtuosity, it was exhausting as well as dazzling. She exhausted not through sheer variety of poetic forms but through a prolixity, particularly in much of her polyphonic prose, that left the reader drugged with sheer sensation and unable to absorb more.
Though she professed to be an Imagist, at least in her early work, and was the movement’s leader in the United States, Lowell was never contained or restrained enough in her work to be truly Imagistic in the sense that the movement is usually defined. She was too expansive. In many of her poems, however, sometimes only in individual groups of lines, she did achieve what is usually thought of as Imagistic expression.
“On Looking at a Copy of Alice Meynell’s Poems”
One of the recurring themes in Lowell’s poetry is her disillusionment, self-doubt, and even despair. A representative poem in this vein is “On Looking at a Copy of Alice Meynell’s Poems: Given Me Years Ago by a Friend” (Ballads for Sale). When Lowell learned of Meynell’s death in November, 1922, she turned again to the volume of Meynell’s poems given to her twenty-five years earlier by Frances Dabney. In that year, 1897, Lowell had had her marriage engagement broken off by her young Bostonian suitor. Hoping to alleviate her grief, Dabney had given her the poems. In rereading the poems on Meynell’s death, Lowell found little to admire, but the poems did renew her feelings of despair and bitterness.
Written in a rhyming, metered, and regular stanzaic form, the poem records Lowell’s present and past reflections on Meynell’s book. She evaluates it both as a gift and as a work of art. As she reads again the “whispered greeting” inscribed by Dabney, the memories surface, “dim as pictures on a winking wall,” but vivid enough in the illumination of the moment to revive her emotions. Dabney’s gift, intended “to ease the smart,” was instead a painful “mirror,” reflecting Lowell’s own tragic lack of...
(The entire section is 2398 words.)