Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877
Amy Lowell 1874–1925
American poet, critic, biographer, and essayist.
The leading proponent of Imagism in American poetry, Lowell is remembered for her forceful theorizing on poetics, her eccentric, outspoken personality, and her iconoclastic approach to poetic form. Her experimentation led her to create what she called polyphonic prose, a form...
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- Critical Essays
Amy Lowell 1874–1925
American poet, critic, biographer, and essayist.
The leading proponent of Imagism in American poetry, Lowell is remembered for her forceful theorizing on poetics, her eccentric, outspoken personality, and her iconoclastic approach to poetic form. Her experimentation led her to create what she called polyphonic prose, a form similar to free verse that employs intermittent rhyme, changing points of view, and the repetition of images or ideas. Although she was Ezra Pound's successor as chief advocate of Imagism—a movement that stressed clarity and succinctness in presenting the poetic image—Lowell is herself generally categorized as a minor, though versatile, poet, whose work displays occasional bursts of brilliance. Influenced in both style and theme by her studies of Far Eastern verse, she also sought to liberate poetry from the strictures of meter, using as her vehicles free verse, polyphonic prose, and haiku in such volumes as Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Pictures of the Floating World, and What's O'Clock. This last volume, containing the best of Lowell's late work, was posthumously published and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1926.
Lowell was born of a distinguished New England family whose wealth and position provided her with opportunities for a good education and travel in Europe. In later years, the proper, conservative values Lowell acquired in her youth clashed with her naturally independent and domineering personality, creating an unresolved conflict that is reflected in her life and work. In her late twenties Lowell decided to become a poet, and during the next few years she used her wealth, industry, and intimidating personality to accomplish that end. Her first volume (except for an early vanity press publication) appeared in 1912. A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is conventional and undistinguished, exhibiting nothing of the experimental form that characterizes Lowell's later volumes. In 1913 she met Pound and immediately embraced Imagism, a style applied successfully in her next collection, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. With this widely acclaimed work, Lowell moved to the forefront of American poetry, a position from which she lent support to other writers, among them D. H. Lawrence. During the next decade, she wrote several books of criticism and over six hundred poems, edited three Imagist anthologies, and became a popular speaker at American universities. Accompanying Lowell during her last years was Ada Russell, a former actress who became Lowell's secretary, close friend and inspiration for several love poems. Lowell died in 1925, shortly after completing her John Keats, a biography of the poet whom she saw as her greatest influence.
While A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass was the first published of her serious poetry, Lowell's adoption of the Imagist precepts in 1913 marks a dramatic change from the conventional poetry of this early volume. Sword Blades and Poppy Seed is characteristic of this new poetry, which abounds in sensuous imagery, a precise economy of words, and a delight in texture and color. The collection also represents Lowell's first experiments with polyphonic prose, a form that she used to its greatest effect in the dramatic monologues in rustic New England vernacular of Men, Women and Ghosts and the historical narratives of Can Grande's Castle. The former work contains "Patterns"—a dramatic monologue that examines the clash between duty and desire—which is considered one of Lowell's most important poem. In the latter, the theme of civilization at war, exemplified in the acclaimed "Bronze Horses," predominates. Lowell's interest in Asian literature is evident throughout her canon, reaching its height in the "Lacquer Prints" of Pictures of the Floating World and in the interpolated Chinese poetry of Fir-Flower Tablets, written with the aid of translator Florence Ayscough. In Legends, she returns to the mythical-historical vein of Can Grande's Castle by exploring the poetic possibilities of folklore, while A Critical Fable, which was published anonymously in 1922, is Lowell's satirical look at twentyone poets: herself and twenty of her contemporaries. The poetry of What's O'Clock, East Wind, and Ballads for Sale, although uneven in places, contains some of her most accomplished lyrics. Among Lowell's critical works, poetry is the dominant concern. Six French Poets introduced American audiences to the chief post-symbolist artists. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry is, likewise, less a critical study than an introduction to a larger public of several American poets, including the Imagists H. D. and John Gould Fletcher. Her biography John Keats is valued as a landmark work for its wealth of previously unpublished material gathered from Lowell's private collection on the Romantic poet.
Overall, the reaction to Lowell's poetry has been decidedly mixed. Many of her works, including Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Can Grande's Castle, and What's O'Clock, met with great success upon publication, but this acclaim soon faded. In addition, Lowell's works have consistently elicited negative responses from several critics, who have seen her poetry as lacking in depth, originality, and genuineness. Others have admired her range and technical skill, but have continued to see her work as superficial. In 1975 Glenn Richard Ruihley pushed for a reconsideration of her work that emphasizes the significance of her poetic voice; still, while contemporary commentators have acknowledged her importance as the innovator of polyphonic prose and as a spokesperson for the Imagist movement, most limit her lasting contribution to a handful of poems.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70
Dream Drops: or, Stories from Fairy Land, by a Dreamer 1887
A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass 1912
Sword Blades and Poppy Seed 1914
Men, Women and Ghosts 1916
Can Grande's Castle 1918
Pictures of the Floating World 1919
Fir-Flower Tablets 1921
A Critical Fable 1922
What's O'Clock 1925
East Wind 1926
Ballads for Sale 1927
Fool o' the Moon 1927
Other Major Works
Six French Poets (criticism) 1915
Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (criticism) 1917
John Keats (biography) 1925
Poetry and Poets (essays) 1930
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SOURCE: "Amy Lowell," in The Literary Spotlight, edited by John Farrar, George H. Doran Company, 1924, pp. 51-64.
[In the following essay, the anonymous critic studies Lowell's works, focusing on the themes characteristic of her poetry.]
Amy Lowell towers above most contemporary versifiers like a sort of nineteenth century Savonarola, exhorting them to beware the pitfalls of sin and the ways of the devil. She is the sternest of Puritans; but over her gray sense of duty she wears a multitude of jewels. She wreathes herself in flowers, exotic colors flame from her hair, and while she consigns lust to the bonfire she makes sure that both lust and the bonfire are attractively tricked out with pretty words. Probably no great woman ever so successfully concealed herself by elaborate trappings. The poetical Miss Lowell reminds me occasionally of a wholehearted and beautiful dowager who, afraid that her own person will fail to charm, hedges herself about with silks and satins, perfumes, flowers, jewels, and clanking metals, until she seems a veritable museum of objets d'art, and the real woman beneath, fine and true as she is, becomes discernible only to those who are patient enough to look and to wait. The genius of Miss Lowell is based on a conflict—it is the quarrel of New England conservatism with an almost pagan love of the beautiful—and the result is, naturally enough, a firm code of denial, of duty in the strictest sense.
I do not purpose to ridicule Amy Lowell in these paragraphs, nor to belittle her literary powers. Any one so vital as she is, so tremendously active, gives broad chance for the cheap journalist and punster to indulge himself in comic regard. All her life she has been subject for such attacks; but those who have attacked her have not retired unscathed. In 1914 she was limned by Town Topics which said, among other vicious things: "It is reported that the Macmillans will publish a book of Miss Lowell's verses. Poor Old Boston." F.P.A., from his scornful heights of columny, parodied her again and again and even resorted to personal jibes. It was not the real poets, however, nor the real critics who bombarded her with criticism. It was the little versifiers and wits, who found the marching cadences of Miss Lowell's verses and the virile rush of her imagination easy to parody and to criticize. The firm quality of her work can be judged easily from the list of her critics. Radicals like Max Eastman attacked her, yet in 1915 W. D. Howells gave her high praise. Professor John Erskine and J. C. Squire still look askance at her, yet in 1921 even H. L. Mencken admitted grudgingly that she had "undoubted talents." Clement Shorter compared her to Dr. Johnson as the "unacknowledged head of Literary America." In 1913 Louis Untermeyer referred to her slightingly, but he has since paid her many glowing tributes. Her championship of the imagists brought down showers of controversy about her, which she weathered with little apparent effort. That she actually likes a good argument there is no doubt; but her hates are more intellectual than personal, and her raillery is most often leveled at dunderheads and dodos. She is forever sweeping out dusty minds, and her broom is more vigorous than cruel.
Miss Lowell has published six volumes of her own poetry. Two critical books, adaptations of Chinese translations and of two French operettas, critical pieces, and essays form the enormous body of her work. Before me now, in uniform size and with bright gemlike bindings, lies the complete set of her poems. After rereading them all I confess myself thoroughly humbled. There has never lived a woman poet of such range, versatility, and power. She reminds one of Byron or Browning. I am convinced that future time will find in her one of the literary giants of our time, and that, in spite of her overpowering personality, she will be known for her poetry. I know of only one way of phrasing my belief. She is a great poet.
Consider the poems. They range from the delicate, sometimes trite lyrics of A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass to the passionate virtuosity of Can Grande's Castle and the more closely knit dramas of Legends. There are pieces as fragile and as finely wrought as Italian glass. Pieces like the serene and musical "Patience" or "Madonna of the Evening Flowers" or "White and Green":
Hey! My daffodil-crowned;
Slim and without sandals!
As the sudden spurt of flame upon darkness
So my eyeballs are startled with you,
Supple-limbed youth among the fruit-trees,
Light runner through tasselled orchards.
You are an almond flower unsheathed,
Leaping and flickering between the budding branches.
There are pieces of atmospheric description that startle by their trueness and glow with imagery. Turn to "Motor Lights on a Hill Road," or "Before the Storm." There is humor, even in such grim New England tragedies as those Yankee dialect poems in "The Overgrown Pasture." There is the perhaps more characteristic drama of "Patterns," of "The Cremona Violin," or The Cross Roads"; and, most important of all, Miss Lowell's imaginative grasp of historical events, her linking of them to human passion as in the epical "Bronze Horses" or that great portrait of Lady Hamilton, "Sea-Blue and Blood-Red." She sees often not one country but several, and their contrasted events of the same epoch.
Are these six books, these hundreds of poems, and the many others known to be in existence but still unpublished, the unrelated effusions of a vigorous mind and a prolific pen, or are they related by some deep philosophy of life? To me Miss Lowell, in even firmer accents than Robert Frost or than Stuart Pratt Sherman, is preaching the philosophy of Puritanism and is at the same time, especially in her earlier volumes, longing to escape from it. This regard for morality, this stern preaching of duty, this conviction that moral laws infringed lead only to punishment by nature or by God, is evident in every one of her books. I do not think that she has been unaware of her doctrines; but I fancy she has not realized how much of a propagandist for them she is. In her early work she was quite unashamed. She spoke occasionally almost with the accents of Gipsy Smith or Billy Sunday. In "Azure and Gold" we find a trite stanza that might come almost from a Y. M. C. A. hymn book:
Here is philosophy concealed by no Maeterlinckian gauzes. Again we have it in "Fatigue":
Dower me with strength and curb all foolish eagerness—
The law exacts obedience. Instruct, I will conform.
She doesn't particularly wish to conform, mind you; but she will!
Over and over in the dramatic poems the story reiterates this idea of retribution for sin or dalliance. "The Great Adventure of Max Breuck" has it—Max loses all that is best to him in life because he tarries a moment by the way. Paul Jannes in "The Shadow" is turned from the pathway of sanity by his absorption in a shadow on his wall, the image of his own desire, the image from which he cannot escape. Lady Hamilton and Nelson are victims of their passion. Their tragedy is the most moving in "Can Grande's Castle." In "Guns as Keys: and the Great Gate Swings" Admiral Perry seizes on and opens to the world the mysteries of Japan—but what will be the consequences, Miss Lowell asks:
Occident—Orient—after fifty years.
In "A Tale of Starvation" the old man gives up life in his quest for the beautiful and, as he finds, the foolish. Napoleon is a figure which appeals to Miss Lowell as a symbol of lofty ambition brought low. In "Hammers" she paints him magnificently.
Unfaithfulness, adultery, she again and again uses as the theme for grim tragedy: in "Pickthorn Manor," in "The Cremona Violin," in "Reaping," in "The Ring and the Castle," and others. Along with this is the other motif, the longing for escape, the desire to flee from the standards that life imposes. In the early books she feels this more keenly. Twice, she compares this mood to a pathway, leading somewhere. Where? In "The Way" she sees
… spanning the river a bridge, frail promise to longing desire
and in "A Coloured Print by Shokei"—
For it must lead to a happy land,
This little path by a waterfall spanned.
Even more definitely personal she repeats this longing for change in "The Starling."
I weary for desires never guessed,
For alien passions, strange imaginings,
To be some other person for a day.
In her latest volumes her philosophy of retributive justice is thoroughly crystallized. With the exception of two pieces of purely descriptive writing, all of the verses in Legends are on the one theme. "Memorandum Confided by a Yucca to a Passion-Vine" is the story of the fox who was desirous of the moon, and the consequences of his fearful quest. Says the fox:
"And I have come here to drink this poison and die."
"A Legend of Porcelain" is the story of expiation for sin—
Snared by beauty, she permitted her august father's house to go unguarded.
"Many Swans," an Indian variant of the Prometheus story, tells how "Many Swans" desired the possession of a gift of Heaven against which fate had warned him and which, then, accomplished the destruction of himself and his people.
"Witch-Woman" is the bizarre story of evil love—
These kisses shot with poison,
These thoughts cutting me like red knives.
"The Ring and the Castle" is a terrifying study of insanity and murder resulting from adulterous love:
"Benjamin Bailey, Benjamin Bailey, sinners repent when they come to die."
"The Statue in the Garden" is not unlike "The Shadow" in its symbolism—a man is again absorbed in a concrete image of ideal beauty or love, and is pursued by this image.
In the vivid and almost brutal "Dried Marjoram," a mother tries to expiate her son's sin. "Before the Storm" is the legend of old Peter Rugg who is trying to find his destination through the ages—it is perhaps humorous that the object of the search is in this case not love nor beauty—but Boston! "Four Sides to a House" is a story of revenge, and of the ultimate disaster which a murdered man brings upon his murderers. There it is! Take it for what you will—obsession or philosophy—it is the secret of Miss Lowell's work; and yet, though she shrinks from seizing the object of desire, though she shows the retribution that inevitably follows, she admires those who seize it.
There is not so much of the prude in Miss Lowell as I may appear to think. She does not say, "Don't! Don't! Don't!" She simply sees with terrible clarity what is likely to happen to you if you do. She cannot bring herself to believe that happiness ever follows fulfilled desire. It is destruction to "follow your instincts." Napoleon fires her imagination. "Impudent! Audacious! But, by Jove, he blinds the eyes!" And for John Keats, who is almost her greatest hero, she has a wistful regard—he found beauty and seized it, in spite of all.
Now comes a sprig little gentleman,
And turns over your manuscript with his mincing fingers,
And tabulates places and dates.
He says your moon was a copy-book maxim,
And talks about the spirit of solitude,
And the salvation of genius through the social order.
I wish you were here to damn him
With a good, round, agreeable oath, John Keats,
But just snap your fingers,
You and the moon will still love,
When he and his papers have slithered away
In the bodies of innumerable worms.
Miss Lowell's own life has been fulfilled by the most rigorous discipline. Ever since she undertook to write poetry, she has made its creation, its entertainment, and its criticism her entire existence. She spends at least half her days in one of the most beautiful private libraries in the world—her own. Her life is organized for literature and is arranged to meet the demands made of it by the instinct to create! She understands life thoroughly; but she is afraid of it. She has spent her whole poetical career in disciplining her emotions. It is her mind only that wanders far afield. She has more intellectual curiosity than any other woman I have ever known. If she were a man, she would probably employ the best athletic trainer in the country to keep her in shape for her greatly varied tasks, tasks which she imposes on herself, like The Life of John Keats. These tasks are exacting and worth while, and in accomplishing them she never pauses midway. She has been known to read hundreds of reference books to obtain the atmosphere for one poem. If you should tell her that she could have achieved the same effect with less use of accurate detail, she would give you the retort courteous that a poem, to be a poem to her, must be intellectually satisfying; that halftruths do not satisfy her.
Although she is constantly picturing the downfall of arrogant power, she is herself an aristocrat of no mean positivity. While she recognizes the worth of democracy, beauty, to her, is possible only through the refinements of life. She is intolerant; but, in the main, of one thing only—stupidity. Her mind works with almost miraculous rapidity. Those who arrive at conclusions more slowly, often find themselves lost in the maze of her questioning. She occasionally forgets that conclusions reached more slowly may be quite as sound.
Her thirst for constructive thinking has made necessary her critical writings and her interest in the spread of enthusiasm for poetics. It is the same interest that prompts her to devour practically all of the new detective novels. It is the same instinct which led her to undertake the writing of a biography—which is, after all, the detection and reconstruction of a series of facts grouped around a working theory, then a proof of that theory by a proper presentation of the facts.
Her enemies—and she has many—are mostly those who resent her intolerance of intellectual sloppiness and her strong sense of moral values. She attends many banquets and her presence is often the cause of a torrent of disagreement.
What are her critical opinions of her contemporaries? You may find them in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry or, better still, in the anonymous A Critical Fable, a pamphlet written in the tradition of Miss Lowell's greatuncle's A Fable for Critics. In this are recorded her latest critical ideas. She denies that she wrote the screed, and for present purposes I accept the denial. Nevertheless, its dicta are from the oracle of Brookline—her sibylline accents breathe through its pages. It is thoroughly in the Amy Lowell tradition. Its author has sat before the Lowell hearth and has heard the flow of brittle wisdom that greets the crackling flames and assaults the orchids from the Lowell greenhouses. Yes—it is as much in the Lowell tradition as are the family heirlooms and the orchids.
Her imagery, careful, direct, vivid, according to the imagist creed, occasionally takes the breath away by its strangeness. She tends to choose a hard image for representing soft things. She is forever comparing people to flowers, natural objects to jewels—
… and one Rubens dame,
A peony just burst out,
With flaunting crimson flesh.
The notes rose into the wild sun-mote
Which slanted through the window.
They lay like coloured beads a-row,
They knocked together and parted,
And started to dance…
Her style is varied and practically always musical. For one who has been noted for her championship of free rhythms, she is remarkably devoted to form. Even her poems which at first reading seem chaotic gain in structural roundness as they are studied. She has molded her mind carefully to the pattern she desires, and it is according to this pattern that her poetry is made. Her rhythms vary from the boom and surge of polyphonic prose such as we find in the memorable close of "The Bronze Horses"—
The boat draws away from the Riva. The great bronze horses mingle their outlines with the distant mountains. Dim gold, subdued green-gold, flashing faintly to the faint, bright peaks above them. Granite and metal, earth over water. Down the canal, old, beautiful horses, pride of Venice, of Constantinople, of Rome. Wars bite you with their little flames and pass away, but roses and oleanders strew their petals before your going, and you move like a constellation in a space of crimson stars.
So the horses float along the canal, between barred and shuttered palaces, splendid against marble walls in the fire of the sun.
—to lilting delicacies such as the following:
It is Chou-Kiou who paints the fighting crickets
On the egg-shell cups;
Who covers the Wa-Wa cups
With little bully boys;
Who sketches Manchu ladies, Tartar ladies,
Chasing crimson butterflies with faint silk fans,
On the slim teapots of young bamboo.
Bustling all day between the kilns and the warehouses.
A breath of peach-bloom silk
Turning a pathway—
Puff! She is gone,
As a peach-blossom painted on paper
Caught in a corner of the wind.
This suiting of mood and story to rhythm is characteristic of Miss Lowell and is one of her greatest gifts as a poet.
Her best work is her latest. In a certain sense she will probably never surpass the vision and the execution of Can Grande's Castle, but in Legends and new poems not yet gathered in book form, she exhibits a smoothness and a dramatic fervor greater than in any previous work. She gives way with infrequency to the sharp, muted, and sometimes inept phrases which marred many early poems. She has not written so thoroughly prosaic a piece as "The Forsaken" in many years—nor do we now find such unfortunate couplets as
And fragrant as fir-trees are
When breezes in their needles jar.
Her later style is fluid and gracile, the thought deeper, the dream clearer. She deals with life more directly, as if she had suddenly come to understand both herself and the world better and was no longer afraid to speak boldly and truly. She puts down the veil. She comes out from her harem of fretwork and jewels, from her passionate absorption in gardens, from her wayward habit of being distracted from the point by the sudden sight and smell of flowers. She speaks with accents which are at the same time firm and beautiful. So great is the vitality possessed by her, that this progress has been possible. Heaven grant that she will use all her energy from now on in creating poetry and criticisms and in delivering her fervid lectures, that she may not again feel that literature and life require her to propagate a "school" of poetry or nourish another flock of poets. No matter how great her influence may have been in producing the new poetry in America, she has never furthered a poet greater than herself; and to herself, rather than to Johnny Jones or even John Keats, she should turn the efforts of what should prove her most productive years—the next ten!
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3522
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Amy Lowell," in Essays in Appreciation, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1936, pp. 157—74.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1925, Lowes describes Lowell's enduring contribution to English poetry.]
We are still far too close to the brilliant and arresting personality which was Amy Lowell for a dispassionate appraisal of the one thing for which above all else she cared—her poetry. She was herself, through her vividness and force, the most disturbing factor in our judgment, and no one who knew her can write with entire detachment about her work. One can only speak with sincerity, and trust that one's opinions are not too far from the truth. What, then, accepting once for all these limitations, has she left which has enduring value? All else is after all of secondary moment, and for our purpose we may disregard it here.
When an eager intellectual curiosity is coupled with a spirit of adventure and an indomitable will, things will happen. And when with these qualities there is conjoined a no less eager sense of beauty as revealed in line and light and colour and the potentialities of words and rhythms, the thing that happens will be poetry. And the poetry so engendered will be apt to add to the sum of beauty and to enrich our sense of it in unexpected and sometimes disconcerting ways. And it will also inevitably, in common with all adventuring (and with most things else), fail twice to once that it triumphantly succeeds. Those are the glories—attainment and attempts alike—of the spirit of adventure, and in that inextinguishable spirit the poetry of Amy Lowell is steeped.
I am not sure that this is not indeed its most distinctive characteristic. It flashes like a banner through the pages of Can Grande's Castle, and Legends, and Men, Women and Ghosts. But I suspect that its even more significant expression is found in poems which to all seeming are utterly bare of it. Let me quote one of them which happens to be explicit in its title:
—High, white stillness, cut suddenly by a falling curve of black; then a wind in the whiteness, and the friendly signal of the earthborn height, set over against the slow, indifferent movement of the higher height out toward a kindred deep: first a picture, succinct and sparing as a Chinese print; then all at once a touch which opens vistas—in that moment at the window is the sudden thrill of unforeseen experience which is at the heart of all adventure. And the poem is typical of a hundred others. At any moment the familiar may assume one of a thousand fleeting aspects of freshness or surprise. To catch this evanescence, above all to fix it, is perennial adventure and an endless quest. Often enough the swift irradiation is uncaptured, or it dims beneath the intractable medium of words, or in the effort to escape that dulling its intensity is overwrought. But all that is part of the adventure. And more than any recent poet Amy Lowell sought and missed and won triumphantly experience and expression of those flashes of sudden beauty which pass before most of us can say: 'Lo! there!'—which pass before many of us even know they are.
For she has been for years enlarging our boundaries through her own keen, clear perceptions of beauty that most of us have missed, and through her fearlessness in saying precisely what she saw. It was very often not what we saw, and we were apt to question its existence, or at best to dub the thing extreme. It often was; all ardent spirits overshoot the mark. But when the mark was hit (and that is the sole matter of importance), some familiar, even hackneyed object or experience stood sharply out in fresh and often startling beauty. No poet writing today, I think, save Thomas Hardy, saw and heard with more acute perception, or saw and heard and felt so many shades and tones and shapes of things—brilliant and subtle and fugitive and firm. And joined with this quick sensitiveness to physical impressions was an intellectual honesty as sensitive—a passion for truth which never knowingly falsified the report of what was seen. And that alert and vivid sense of beauty, restless with a poet's craving for expression, yet in expression lucidly exact, has schooled us, skeptical and reluctant scholars, to a quickened vision of strange loveliness in familiar things.
I know that to some this emphasis on the familiar will seem capriciously misplaced. But Amy Lowell lived with equal intensity in two worlds. One was the world of the crowded pages of 'The Bronze Horses,' and 'Sea-Blue and Blood-Red,' and 'Guns as Keys; and the Great Gate Swings,' and 'Witch-Woman,' and ['Memorandum Confided by a Yucca to a Passion-Vine,'] and 'Many Swans': the world of the Orient, and of strange legends and superstitions, and of a Past which lay as in a mirror before her, dazzling in its brilliancy and tumultuous with movement—a world as remote as the planet Mars from Brookline Village, Massachusetts. The other was rooted deep in those things which were to her the centre—the things which were her own. And the poems which are touched with perhaps the most enduring beauty are those at the heart of which are the objects of her passionate attachment: her garden, the great room in which from sunset till sunrise she lived and talked and wrote, the shifting play of light and colour on trees and birds and sky outside her window, and (merged with all and crowning all) she to whom was dedicated, in John Keats, 'This, and all my books.' 'Madonna of the Evening Flowers,' 'Vernal Equinox,' 'Bright Sunlight,' 'July Midnight,' 'The Garden by Moonlight,' 'A Sprig of Rosemary,' 'Penumbra,' 'Prime,' 'Vespers,' 'Summer Night Piece'; 'The Corner of Night and Morning,' 'Beech, Pine, and Sunlight,' 'Planning the Garden,' 'Dog-Days,' 'To Winkey,' 'Lilacs,' 'Purple Grackles'—behind these lies a depth and inwardness unborrowed of the eye:
A black cat among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock.
The garden is very still,
It is dazed with moonlight,
Contented with perfume,
Dreaming the opium dreams of its folded poppies.
Firefly lights open and vanish
High as the tip buds of the golden glow,
Low as the sweet alyssum flowers at my feet…
Only the cat, padding between the roses,
Shakes a branch and breaks the chequered pattern
As water is broken by the falling of a leaf.
Then you come,
And you are quiet like the garden,
And white like the alyssum flowers,
And beautiful as the silent sparks of the fireflies.
Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?
They knew my mother,
But who belonging to me will they know
When I am gone?
No one can read that and fail to understand that it was through no happy accident but by virtue of a subtle kinship that the poems of Fir-Flower Tablets are, in their exquisite art, among the masterpieces of their kind. They are unique, I suppose, in that their translator knew no Chinese. There is no need to rehearse the story which the book tells for itself of the intimate collaboration with Mrs. Ayscough, who, through her insight into the genius of the language, was to her friend 'the pathway to a new world,' so that the long and arduous task became 'an exciting and inspiring thing.' It was one of the great adventures. And in nothing that Miss Lowell did are the finest qualities of her art more unerringly displayed. Its clarity is no less luminous, but its incised sharpness of line is softened, and its vividness acquires a purer tone. It is as if the mellow serenity of the age-old Orient had descended upon the more restless, keen-edged beauty of a newer world:
The village is hazy, hazy,
And mist sucks over the open moor….
My private rooms are quiet,
And calm with the leisure of moonlight through an open door.
Something of the magic of that tranquil line pervades the volume. And paradoxical as it may seem, more than anywhere else except in her own garden or her own highwalled room, one feels that here Amy Lowell was at home. And one feels, too, that had she lived in the eighth century, by the Peach-Flower Pool and the Swallow Mountains and the Yellow Crane Tower, she would have seen essentially what Li T'ai-po and Tu Fu saw, and would have expressed its breath and finer spirit in a fashion fundamentally the same.
Precisely what is Amy Lowell and what Li T'ai-po, I neither know nor greatly care. But I do know that she has taken things of beauty which to their readers for centuries were (as they felt them) 'like Spring flowers,' 'like the branches of trees reflected in water—the branches of still trees,' and through her unison with their spirit has recreated their delicate, lingering charm.
I have dwelt on the later lyrics because I believe that among them are the poems which are most surely marked for immortality. But these moments when swift, penetrating vision is subdued to keeping with the mood which it has stirred are but one element in an astonishing profusion. Those of us who have followed the rapid sequence of Miss Lowell's books—or rather, the succession of absorbing interests out of which they sprang—have marvelled at the unabated zest with which fresh fields were entered, searchingly explored, and then annexed. For Amy Lowell had to a high degree the instincts of the scholar bound up, in a nature of singular complexity, with the spirit of adventure and the artist's compelling bent. Sometimes one quality was uppermost, sometimes another; custom never staled her infinite variety. But in the longer, more ambitious poems the student in her, for both good and ill, walked pari passu with the adventurer and the poet. In the difficult art of research she was self-taught, but no trained investigator ever brought to his task more tireless energy or a more obstinate determination to find out everything which for the purpose of the moment could be learned. That I know, for I have seen it. What it gave to her poems was a veracity in fundamentals as remarkable as it is by most of her readers unsuspected. For necessarily the artist has transmuted what the investigator brought. Between what I have been saying and this declaration of her own in Legends there is not the slightest inconsistency:
I have changed, added, subtracted, jumbled several together at will, left out portions; in short, made them over to suit my particular vision…. The truth of poetry is imaginative, not literal, and it is as a poet that I have conceived and written my book.
So did Chaucer, so did Coleridge, so did Keats. Read side by side with 'Many Swans' the stark, primitive Kathlemet legend which so kindled Amy Lowell's imagination; compare with the 'Legend of Porcelain' the books on Chinese pottery which gave to it its lavishness of exquisite detail—do this (to take no more examples), and there will come fresh understanding of the ways of the imagination with its delved and garnered stuff. 'Not that exact knowledge could help the act of creation,' wrote Miss Lowell of Keats, 'but that, with knowledge as a springboard, imagination could leap with more certainty of aim.' One could reconstruct Amy Lowell's ripest Ars Poetica from passages scattered through the pages of John Keats, and that last sentence reflects her own experience.
Heaven forbid, however, that I should convey to anyone (if such there be!) who does not know Can Grande's Castle or Legends the notion that they are academic. They exhaust, on the contrary, one's adjectives (Miss Lowell's were inexhaustible) even to suggest their flashing, impetuous movement, the gaiety and gusto with which their bright, pure, sharply cut images pour along, their combined sweep and concentration, the dramatic contrasts and the stir and tumult of their incidents. I know no writer of English whose command of the rich vocabulary of sensuous impressions approaches Amy Lowell's; the almost physical impact of it startles one each time one turns her pages. But just these qualities which I have mentioned constitute, and always have, a peril to the artist.
There is in Miss Lowell's Critical Fable a tour de force of self-portraiture—or rather, a gay, sparkling, whimsical portrait of herself as she knew that others saw her. It was not meant to be taken too seriously. But behind its 'gorgeous nonsense' (to use a phrase of Coleridge's) is the humorous detachment of a keen intellect turned with disarming candour upon itself. And one stroke of characterization is particularly apposite here:
Armed to the teeth like an old Samurai,
Juggling with jewels like the ancient genii,
Hung all over with mouse-traps of metres, and cages
Of bright-plumaged rhythms, with pages and pages
Of colours slit up into streaming confetti
Which give the appearance of something sunsetty,
And gorgeous, and flowing—a curious sight
She makes in her progress, a modern White Knight,
Forever explaining her latest inventions….
Nobody who knows the most engaging figure in 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' will miss the half-rueful, half amusedly tolerant point of that. It reminds one irresistibly of an equally candid remark of Coleridge's about his talk:
The second sort [of talkers] is of those who use five hundred more ideas, images, reasons, etc., than there is any need of to arrive at their object, till the only object arrived at is that the mind's eye of the bystander is dazzled with colours succeeding so rapidly as to leave one vague impression that there has been a great blaze of colours all about something. Now this is my case, and a grievous fault it is. My illustrations swallow up my thesis.
It was Coleridge, as it happens, who, in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Christabel' and 'Kubla Khan,' was to Amy Lowell the supreme artist of them all; and both he and she were clear-sighted enough to recognize, the one in his conversation and the other in her verse, the common defect of their quality, which was a too free spending of their affluence—an excess sometimes magnificent, but still excess. And one feels this in Miss Lowell's poetry, I think, precisely where the check of the familiar is withdrawn, and her intensely pictorial imagination revels at will in the exercise of its visualizing energy upon objects and events which (as she says in the Preface to Can Grande's Castle) she 'cannot have experienced,' yet which 'seem as actual as [her] own existence.' Of their vivid actuality there can be no question, but we are often dazzled by the unrelieved profusion of brilliant imagery, and instead of the sense of a large simplicity which the Chinese poems leave, we carry away that other impression of the 'great blaze of colours all about something,' which succeeded the most amazing talk of modern times. But that after all is not quite the whole story. I must once more fall back upon Coleridge—who in some mysterious fashion has taken possession of this paragraph! He is speaking of the hero of Miss Lowell's own 'Sea-Blue and Blood-Red': 'To the same enthusiastic sensibilities,' he observes, 'which made a fool of him with regard to his Emma, his country owed the victories of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.' Very well! To the same enthusiastic sensibilities which sometimes overloaded every rift with ore, we owe the thronging impressions which are elsewhere wrought with sovereign restraint into close-girt, straight-sandalled verse.
I am keeping clear of all the theories, whether of Imagism, or cadenced verse, or polyphonic prose. Provocative ideas shot like sparks from an anvil when Amy Lowell talked or wrote, and, being half superb free-lance and half crusader, she delighted in the clash of controversy which she stirred. But I think she had herself ceased to care greatly for what, in effect, were battles long ago. Her past work spoke for itself; there were endless fresh experiences to capture and interpret; and her invincible alacrity of spirit turned to those. The period of dashing swordplay had served its turn. The thing that matters now is the beauty which has emerged serenely from the practice of the theories which once evoked the flashing of so many harmless blades. And this peculiar beauty at its rarest (for perfection is an angel visitant) suggests the clarity of radiant air, and the pure lines of a pattern cut in polished stone—'clear, reticent, superbly final.'
You stand poised
In the blue and buoyant air,
Cinctured by bright winds,
Treading the sunlight.
And the waves which precede you
Ripple and stir
The sands at my feet.
If those eight lines of 'Venus Transiens' were the only fragment left of an unknown poet, we should recognize that the craftsmanship which wrought their cool, controlled, and shining beauty was unique. And one of the paradoxes of genius is the fact that the most prodigal of poets in her diction could vie, when her art was surest, with the most restrained. Set over against the gorgeous panorama of any section of Can Grande's Castle this:
I might be sighting a tea-clipper,
Tacking into the blue bay,
Just back from Canton
With her hold full of green and blue porcelain,
And a Chinese coolie leaning over the rail
Gazing at the white spire
With dull, sea-spent eyes.
One would not give up either; together they sum up in little the two ruling impulses, peripheral and central (to use a critic's phraseology) of a poet who (to use her own!) 'when not hurricaning's astoundingly terse.' She is, at will, precisely that. Every volume is packed with undetachable examples, succinct, crisp, often trenchant; bright and brief (in the words of a poet whom Miss Lowell did not love!)—bright as 'the flashing of a shield.' But for renewed assurance one need only turn, in What's O'clock, to 'The Anniversary,' and 'Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme,' and (for that matter) 'Evelyn Ray.' Moreover, the exactness which Miss Lowell loved is nowhere more remarkable than in her sense of the savour and 'feel' of words:
Or (as Keats would say), 'Look at flowers—you know what she says about flowers': blue bells that are 'Deep tunnels of blue and white dimness, Cool wine-tunnels for bees'; 'a tide of poppies, Crinkled and frail and flowing in the breeze'; 'The scent of hyacinths, like a pale mist'——
Yes, I know that it will be said again and yet again that all this is but the beauty of the senses, 'untouched by solemn thought.' I shall not argue that. Perhaps '[Its] nature is not therefore less divine.' At all events Miss Lowell found sufficient answer in a Chinese print:
But in this last book one feels, I think, a deepening of experience, and a beauty less dependent on the eye. The poignant susceptibility to sense impressions is still there:
Yet there are sights I see and sounds I hear
Which ripple me like water as they pass.
There is still the delight in words that are carven and vivid and luminous as gems; the delight in rhythms as free yet as poised as the flight of a gull. And at times there is prodigality in each. But there has been nothing before in Miss Lowell's poetry quite like the 'half quizzical, half wistful,' altogether winning self-revelation in 'The Sisters'; or the mocking lightness of touch and ironic suggestion of 'The Slippers of the Goddess of Beauty'; or the breadth and warmth and (in its true sense) homeliness of 'Lilacs,' or the sheer lyric intensity of 'Fool o' the Moon.' I am not forgetting 'Meeting-House Hill'; 'Purple Grackles'; that buoyant skit on John Keats which bears the title 'View of Teignmouth in Devonshire'; the 'Summer Night Piece' which, like 'Madonna of the Evening Flowers,' is a dedication; 'Prime' and 'Vespers'; the lines 'To Carl Sandburg'; the sonnets to Eleanora Duse. But these bear, some in rare degree, the stamp of a familiar loveliness. It is the new paths broken that are significant—now sadly so. For the ripest years, with disciplined powers and deepening experience behind them and fresh fields before, were yet to come. Dis aliter visum. She has added new beauty to English poetry. How great that contribution is will first be clearly seen when time has winnowed, and her enduring work is brought together in one rare and shining book. It would have been still richer had she lived. For to the very end her gallant banner flew. And two lines in this last volume sum up alike what was and might have been:
I ride, ride,
Seeking those adventures to which I am dedicate.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1506
SOURCE: "Why We Should Read Poetry," in Poetry and Poets, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930, pp. 1-9.
[In the following essay, Lowell delivers her thoughts on the value of poetry.]
Why should one read Poetry? That seems to me a good deal like asking: Why should one eat? One eats because one has to, to support life, but every time one sits down to dinner one does not say, 'I must eat this meal so that I may not die.' On the contrary, we eat because we are hungry, and so eating appears to us as a pleasant and desirable thing to do.
The necessity for poetry is one of the most fundamental traits of the human race. But naturally we do not take that into account, any more than we take into account that dinner, and the next day again, dinner, is the condition of our remaining alive. Without poetry the soul and heart of man starves and dies. The only difference between them is that all men know, if they turn their minds to it, that without food they would die, and comparatively few people know that without poetry they would die.
When trying to explain anything, I usually find that the Bible, that great collection of magnificent and varied poetry, has said it before in the best possible way. Now the Bible says that 'man shall not live by bread alone.' Which, in modern words, means—cannot live on the purely material things. It is true, he cannot, and he never does. If he did, every bookshop would shut, every theatre would close its doors, every florist and picture dealer would go out of business, even the baseball grounds would close. For what is baseball but a superb epic of man's swiftness and sureness, and his putting forth the utmost of the sobriety and vigour that is in him in an ecstasy of vitality and movement? And the men who watch are carried away by this ecstasy, out of themselves and the routine of their daily lives, into a world romantic with physical force. But you object that they don't think of it in this way. Of course they don't; if they did they would be poets, and most men are not poets. But this is really what stirs them, for without it, throwing a little ball about a field, and trying to hit it with a stick, isn't really very interesting. A baseball game is a sort of moving picture of what Homer wrote in his Iliad. I do not believe there is a boy in America who would not like Butcher and Lang's translation of the Odyssey, if no one had ever told him it was a schoolbook.
That is what poetry really is. It is the height and quintessence of emotion, of every sort of emotion. But it is always somebody feeling something at white heat, and it is as vital as the description of a battle would be, told by a soldier who had been in it.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do not mean that every book, or every play, contains this true poetry. Many, most, alas! are poor imitations; some are merely sordid and vulgar. But books and plays exist because man is groping for a life beyond himself, for a beauty he needs, and is seeking to find. And the books and plays which live are those which satisfy this need.
Somebody once said to me that to make goodness dull was a great crime. In poetry, those men who have written without original and vital feeling, without a flaming imagination, have much to answer for. It is owing to them that poetry has come to mean a stupid and insipid sort of stuff, quite remote from people's lives, fit only for sentimental youth and nodding old age. That sort of poetry is what is technically called 'derivative,' which means that the author copies some one else's emotion, often some one else's words, and commonplace verses are written about flowers, and moonlight, and love, and death, by people who would never be moved by any of these things if sincere poets had not been writing about them from the beginning of the world. People who like to hear the things they are used to repeated say, 'That is beautiful poetry'; simple, straightforward people say, 'Perhaps it is. But I don't care for poetry.' But once in a while there comes along a man with knowledge and courage enough to say, 'That is not poetry at all, but insincere bosh!'
Again I do not mean that all poetry can be enjoyed by everybody. People have different tastes and different training. A man at forty seldom cares for the books which delighted him as a boy. People stop developing at all ages. Some men never mature beyond their teens; others go on growing and changing until old age. Because B likes a book is no reason why A should. And we are the inheritors of so splendid a literature that there are plenty of books for everybody. Many people enjoy Kipling's poems who would be confused by Keats; others delight in Burns who would be utterly without sympathy for Blake. The people who like Tennyson do not, as a rule, care much about Walt Whitman, and the admirers of Poe and Coleridge may find Wordsworth unattractive, and again his disciples might feel antagonized by Rossetti and Swinburne. It does not matter, so long as one finds one's own sustenance. Only, the happy men who can enjoy them all are the richest. The true test of poetry is sincerity and vitality. It is not rhyme, or metre, or subject. It is nothing in the world but the soul of man as it really is. Carlyle's French Revolution is a great epic poem; so are Trevelyan's three volumes on Garibaldi and the Italian War of Independence. That they are written in prose has nothing to do with the matter. That most poems are written rhythmically, and that rhythm has come to be the great technical fact of poetry, was, primarily, because men under stress of emotion tend to talk in a rhythmed speech. Read Lincoln's 'Address at Gettysburg' and 'Second Inaugural,' and you will see.
Nothing is more foolish than to say that only such and such forms are proper to poetry. Every form is proper to poetry, so long as it is the sincere expression of a man's thought. That insincere men try bizarre forms of verse to gain a personal notoriety is true, but it seems not very difficult to distinguish them from the real artists. And so long as men feel, and think, and have the need of expressing themselves, so long will their modes of expression change. For expression tends to become hackneyed and devitalized, and new methods must be found for keeping the sense of palpitant vigour.
There are signs that we are living at the beginning of a great poetic renaissance. Only three weeks ago the New York Times printed some remarks of Mr. Brett, the head of The Macmillan Company, in which he said that poetry was pushing itself into the best-seller class. And the other day a London publisher, Mr. Heinemann, announced that he should not publish so many novels, as they were a drug on the market. England has several magazines devoted exclusively to poetry and poetic drama. Masefield is paid enormous sums for his work, and a little book entitled The Georgian Book of Poetry, containing the work of some of the younger men, which has been out barely two years, is already in its ninth edition. Here, in America, we have The Poetry Journal, published in Boston, and Poetry, published in Chicago. England counts among her poets W. B. Yeats, Robert Bridges, John Masefield, Wilfred Wilson Gibson, D. H. Lawrence, F. L. Flint, James Stevens, Rudyard Kipling, and, although on a somewhat more popular level, Alfred Noyes. England also boasts, as partly her own, the Bengal poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize, and Ezra Pound, who, although an American by birth and happily therefore ours to claim, lives in London. In America we have Josephine Preston Peabody, Bliss Carman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Anna Hempstead Branch, Hermann Hagedorn, Grace Fallow Norton, Fanny Stearns Davis, and Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. These lists represent poets with many differing thoughts and modes of thought, but they point to the great vitality of poetry at the moment.
Have I answered the question? I think I have. We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods—in the most beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his love, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.
Poetry and history are the textbooks to the heart of man, and poetry is at once the most intimate and the most enduring.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6641
SOURCE: "Amy Lowell: The Success," in Imagism & the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry, 1931. Reprint by The Humanities Press, 1960, pp. 197-223.
[In the following essay, Hughes surveys Lowell's literary career, evaluating each of her poetry collections and critical works.]
Amy Lowell was born at Brookline, Massachusetts, February 9, 1874, the descendant of a long line of well-bred New Englanders, several of whom were men of letters. Her mother's father was Minister to England, and her paternal grandfather's cousin was the distinguished poet, James Russell Lowell. Her mother was a highly cultivated woman, a musician and a linguist, and it was from her that Miss Lowell derived much of her interest in the arts and her early knowledge of the French language and literature. She was educated privately, and spent a great deal of time, even as a child, traveling abroad. As a young woman she continued her travels, spending one winter on the Nile, another in California, and still another in Greece and Turkey, not to mention several summer trips to the principal European countries.
It is not at all strange that in this environment, and with such rich experiences, Miss Lowell should have tried her hand at literary expression. Yet the fact is that the creative impulse developed in her slowly. She is said to have begun writing poems at the age of thirteen (like most other girls), but it was not until she was twenty-eight that she decided to become a poet, and she was thirty-four when her first poems appeared in print. Two years later she gathered into a volume all her early poetic efforts which she considered worthy of preservation, and these were published as A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass. This book did not startle anyone. It contained only conventional poems: uninspired lyrics on the usual themes, a group of sonnets, and some children's verses. It was exactly the sort of first book of poems to be expected from a young woman of Miss Lowell's social and intellectual class. Louis Untermeyer, in his American Poetry Since 1900, says it is so trite that one can hardly believe Amy Lowell the author of it. He thinks it showed no promise of the originality which distinguished much of her later work. Most critics, I believe, held the same view, though it has been suggested by one that in the poem which opens the volume, "Before the Altar," we have a definite indication of the author's tendency toward free verse and an individual technique.
What we can say certainly is that in these trial verses Miss Lowell showed an authentic, if not extraordinary, poetic sensibility; that she proved herself a conscientious craftsman; and that she revealed several of her major passions: Keats being one, Japanese art another, and colorful gardens a third. These passions were lifelong with Miss Lowell, and recur regularly in her writing.
In A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass Amy Lowell paid her tribute to poetic convention. Never again was she to accept so complacently the patterns and the diction of popular English verse. Henceforth she was to play the part of chief experimenter in the laboratory of Anglo-American poetry—experimenter and interpreter both. She was always willing to employ fixed forms, and to write in perfect meter with perfect rime, but after 1912 she strove for newer imagery and diction, and her best energy went toward the making of vers libre and the still more radical polyphonic prose.
Two things conspired to drive Miss Lowell from the sanctuary presided over by Keats and his fellow romanticists. One was her study of modern French poetry; the other was her association in London with Ezra Pound and those who were to become the imagists. She visited London during the summer of 1913. She came in contact with poetic minds more original than her own. She saw the stirrings of a new force. What she had learned from reading the French poets (the Parnassians and the symbolists) helped her to grasp the theories advanced by the London group, and presently she found herself an absolute convert to the principles of the "new" poetry. Before leaving America she had written one poem in free form, unrimed. This she gave to Pound for use in Des Imagistes, and at once set about writing others of the same sort.
A year later she was in London again. This time she was surer of herself and of her mission. She had been asked to deliver in Boston a series of lectures on modern French poetry, and the summer trip to Europe was to provide her with additional knowledge of the subject. Also she had been thinking about the poets whom Pound had gathered around him. Her typically American flair for organization and promotion had set her imagination working, and she now had plans for advancing the cause of imagism….
In October 1914, shortly after Miss Lowell returned to America with the manuscript of Some Imagist Poets in her bag, a new volume of her own verse was published. This was Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, an assortment of work which demonstrated clearly all the new interests and influences to which her poetic consciousness had been subjected during the preceding two years. In her preface to the book, she states her "immense debt" to the French—particularly in the matter of technique; and declares herself to be strongly under the spell of the Parnassians. She does not mention imagism, but she discusses briefly the principles of vers libre, and suggests that Flint's phrase, "unrimed cadence," is an appropriate English equivalent for the French term. She mentions also that three of the poems in the book are written in a form which, so far as she knows, "has never before been attempted in English." She means, of course, what later came to be known as "polyphonic prose." The invention of the form she ascribes to Paul Fort. But nowhere in the preface does she mention any of the London poets—perhaps because no one of them was well known, perhaps because she was not quite conscious of her indebtedness to them. Yet anyone who reads through the book can see that she owed something to several of her fellow imagists. Take an obvious example:
White and Green
Hey! My daffodil-crowned,
Slim and without sandals!
As the sudden spurt of flame upon darkness
So my eyeballs are startled with you,
Supple-limbed youth among the fruit trees,
Light runner through tasseled orchards.
You are an almond flower unsheathed
Leaping and flickering between the budded branches.
This is not derived from the French. Nor is it original Amy Lowell. It is simply a poem in the manner of H. D., bungled slightly by the imitator's hand. "The Pike" is in Flint's style:
In the brown water,
Thick and silver-sheened in the sunshine,
Liquid and cool in the shade of the reeds,
A pike dozed.
Lost among the shadows of stems
He lay unnoticed.
Suddenly he flicked his tail,
And a green-and-copper brightness
Ran under the water.
In other poems one may easily find traces of Pound and Aldington and Fletcher. It was natural for Amy Lowell to imitate—her curiosity was extraordinary, and her love of experiment amounted to a passion. What she admired she emulated, and she was not always scrupulous in the matter of acknowledgments. Catch any one of the other imagists off guard and he will confess that some time or other he has been startled to find Miss Lowell proudly exhibiting jewels filched from his own store. I do not mean to imply that the other imagists never borrowed methods—some of them even borrowed in return from Miss Lowell, but they were at great pains to say so; and besides, her indebtedness was always greater than theirs. Her most distinctive contribution to the imagist movement (in the opinion of her colleagues) was her business sense and her indefatigable enthusiasm for propaganda. She was their Barnum. They were amused by her flamboyant methods; they were content to profit from her success.
What impressed them most in her poetry was her polyphonic prose. Not that they all liked it, but they felt that in spite of what it owed to Saint-Pol-Roux and Paul Fort, it was an actual contribution to modern poetic technique. John Gould Fletcher was so struck by the effectiveness of this method that he adopted it in several of his own compositions (see Breakers and Granite), and Richard Aldington, writing in the Egoist for November 16, 1914, not only praises the polyphonic prose pieces included in Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, but advises "all young poets to study these poems attentively," and adds "I am not a bit ashamed to confess that I have myself imitated Miss Lowell in this, and produced a couple of works in the same style."
It is easy to understand how any writer interested in new effects would be tempted to essay the polyphonic form, if for nothing more than his own amusement. No medium offers better opportunity for a display of virtuosity. Particularly arresting, and probably most successful of Miss Lowell's early examples of the method, is the melodramatic narrative, "In a Castle," wherein cadence and rime are cunningly interwoven. This is the opening movement:
Over the yawning chimney hangs the fog. Drip—hiss—drip—hiss—fall the raindrops on the oaken log which burns, and steams, and smokes the ceiling beams. Drip—hiss—the rain never stops.
The wide, state bed shivers beneath its velvet coverlet. Above, dim, in the smoke, a tarnished coronet gleams dully. Overhead hammers and chinks the rain. Fearfully wails the wind down distant corridors, and there comes the swish and sigh of rushes lifted off the floors. The arras blows sidewise out from the wall, and then falls back again.
It is my lady's key, confided with much nice cunning, whisperingly. He enters on a sob of wind, which gutters the candles almost to swaling. The fire flutters and drops. Drip—hiss—the rain never stops. He shuts the door. The rushes fall again to stillness along the floor. Outside, the wind goes wailing.
Even so brief an extract is enough to demonstrate the extraordinary scope of this "many-voiced" form, this omnibus capable of carrying at one time all the devices of poetic expression: meter, cadence, prose rhythms, assonance, alliteration, rime, and return. Amy Lowell was peculiarly fitted to do the pioneer work in English polyphonic prose, for she was nothing if not a virtuoso. Her pleasure was to make words dance surprisingly; to startle her readers with pyrotechnic displays of color and curious medleys of sound. Depth she sometimes attempted, but seldom attained. Brilliance was her forte. And so it was that although Sword Blades and Poppy Seed contained many varieties of verse, conventional and otherwise, its significance centered in these introductory specimens of a novel and exotic technique.
A year after the appearance of these poems, Miss Lowell brought out her valuable essays, Six French Poets, which grew from the series of lectures she delivered in Boston during the winter of 1914-1915. In the brief preface she deplores the ignorance of Englishmen and Americans in the matter of contemporary French poetry and dedicates her own abilities to its correction. How enthusiastically she approached her subject may be judged from her statement that "France has just been passing through one of the great poetical epochs of her career—one of the great poetical epochs of the world." The six essays of the book deal in turn with Emile Verhaeren, Albert Samain, Remy de Gourmont, Henri de Régnier, Francis Jammes, and Paul Fort. Miss Lowell does not give her reasons for choosing these particular poets; she leaves us to assume that they are the best representatives of their period. With this choice F. S. Flint, for one, takes issue. In the Egoist for January 1, 1916, he writes reminiscently of a discussion he and Miss Lowell had on the subject, and restates his position.
When, in the summer of 1914, she told me of her intention to write this book and of the names of the poets she had chosen, I objected to Samain. Samain, I said, was exquisite, but not important; and he could only be read a few pages at a time without weariness. Stuart Merrill and Francis Vielé-Griffin, I went on, are both more considerable poets; both are Americans, and the public to which you make your first appeal is American; if you will not have them, Rimbaud and Laforgue are immensely more important than Samain; and since you insist on including Remy de Gourmont as one of your poets, you might increase your number to seven, in many ways an appropriate number where poets are concerned; and so on. But she would hear nothing of it.
Yet he thinks that the book is in the main excellent, and he bestows particular praise on the prose translations which Miss Lowell made from the work of the six poets and which she included as an appendix. "The best translations," he says, and in this field Flint's word must be considered authoritative, "the best translations into English that so far exist of the six poets in question, or, it might truly be said, of the French poets of the symbolist generation."
Elsewhere in the same article he speaks of Miss Lowell's devotion to the French poets, and takes the opportunity to describe the strong effect created upon him and other members of the London group by her informal readings of French poetry. He recalls the scenes at the Berkeley Hotel:
No one, I suppose, will have listened to Miss Lowell's causerie in so happy a setting as the sitting-room of her hotel, where she talked to us in the August of 1914. Through the long French window open in the corner could be seen the length of Piccadilly, its great electric globes, its shiny roadway, and, on the left, the tops of the trees of Green Park, dark grey in the moonlight; the noise of the motor-buses and of the taxis reached us in a muted murmur, and at the corner of the park opposite, beneath a street lamp, stood a newsboy, whose headlines we strained our eyes from time to time to catch. It was in this tenseness created by the expectation of news that Miss Lowell read Paul Fort or Henri de Régnier to us (she reads French beautifully); and it is the emotions of those evenings, more than anything else, that her book brings back to me.
The War shortened Miss Lowell's stay in London, but it did not interfere with her work. If anything it increased her productivity, for her next book of original verse, Men, Women, and Ghosts, exhibited a tremendous amount of writing done in a relatively short space of time. Too much writing, probably, for the actual amount of legitimate emotion behind it. But Miss Lowell was always brimming over with energy, and at that stage of her career when she had just caught the public attention she was totally unrestrained. Men, Women, and Ghosts includes three hundred and sixty pages of verse, yet we are told in the preface that the author has excluded "all purely lyrical poems," leaving only "stories." But the "stories" are more varied than one would suppose. There are narratives in conventional form, others in free verse, and still others in polyphonic prose. There are short pieces, primarily descriptive, in which there is certainly no story, except by vague implication. There are historical romances (swiftly impressionistic), New England dialect tales (not-too-successful tours de force) and modern war episodes. In fact there is a vast array of miscellaneous subjects, strung on a thread of theory. Miss Lowell had dedicated herself to the task of exploring the possibilities of rhythm—particularly the rhythms of free verse—and she was therefore ranging far in search of material. One day she would attempt to reproduce "the circular movement of a hoop bowling along the ground," again "the suave, continuous tone of a violin." From an effort to capture the grace of eighteenth-century Venice she would turn to the angularity of rustic New England, and thence to the Aquarium or a Boston drawing-room. It was certainly cold-blooded, this combination of note-taking and laboratory transcription. The surprising thing is that its results were so animated. Amy Lowell herself was so vital that she imparted warmth to the most mechanical exercise. When emotion was lacking she created the illusion of emotion—which is almost the same thing in a work of art.
There are, I think, many poems in Men, Women, and Ghosts which are mediocre or worse. They represent the inevitable failures of the prolific and experimental poet. But there there are a few which "come off" excellently, and which represent minor triumphs in the field of modern poetry. "Patterns" is one of these, and "Malmaison" another. Both are stories in the true sense, the former an outstanding example of Miss Lowell's skill in the manipulation of free-verse rhythms and of her effective use of color and form to convey emotion, the latter a proof of the adaptability of polyphonic prose to the requirements of dramatic narrative. Both are interesting, also, as specimens of sustained imagistic writing.
Never was Miss Lowell more deft than in "Patterns," where cadence follows the shifting mood as easily, as infallibly, as its shadow follows a bird; and the curves of the song are tipped with felicitous rime. The setting is a garden, the time is summer, and the speaker a maiden of an earlier century, whose lover is fighting in Flanders:
I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jeweled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.
The fullness of summer, the beauty and softness of the flowers, waken her passion, which "wars against the stiff brocade," and listening to the "splashing of waterdrops in the marble fountain," she dreams of herself as a bather, spied upon by her lover:
But the dream is a pathetic one, for her lover has been killed in action, and now her proud fidelity gives rise to a cruel vision of the future:
Apart from the technical expertness of this poem, and its resultant emotional force, there are other reasons for considering it representative of Miss Lowell's best poetic vein. First, it has a garden setting; second, it deals with persons of refinement; third, its action is laid in the romantic past. With such elements she was always happy, and always reasonably competent. Instinctively and by familiarity with them, she understood them. With coarser and more typically modern elements she was not at ease—in spite of much determination and good will.
After this third book of verse, which on the whole tended to strengthen her literary position in America, Miss Lowell published another volume of prose criticism, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, by means of which she hoped to clarify the confusion which existed in the public mind regarding the poets of the American renaissance. As in the case of her treatment of French poetry, she here limits herself to six representative figures, and devotes to each a combined biographical and critical analysis. Imagism she treats as the third stage in the development of the new poetry, and after giving considerable space to the imagist principles and something of the history of the movement, she examines in detail the lives and poetic works of H. D. and John Gould Fletcher.
The book was found useful, and still is—although its real mission was an ephemeral one. Its chief value today is historical, for as a document it is important; as criticism it has been superseded by more discriminating works. At the time of writing this book, Miss Lowell was too much a part of the general movement, and of the imagist movement in particular, to be a thoroughly just interpreter of the new American poetry. She strove for impartiality, but in vain. Consequently, those critics who desired to do so, found it comparatively easy to demonstrate her critical faults and to show her in the rôle of propagandist.
Perhaps the most annoyed of the critics was Conrad Aiken, who [in his Scepticisms, 1919] found the book intolerably egotistical, colloquial to the point of vulgarity, malicious in its partisanship, and fundamentally false in its logic. After perusing it carefully he concluded that "a certain intellectual unripeness and sketchiness, a proneness to hasty and self-satisfying conclusions without careful or accurate survey of the facts, make of Miss Lowell an amateur rather than a serious critic. She is engaging, clever, an industrious assimilator of current ideas, and to some degree she sifts among them the bad from the good; but the instant she enters the psychological or philosophical or reflective spheres she proves herself a child, swayed very largely by her emotions and desires."
And T. S. Eliot, reviewing the book in the Egoist for April 1918, greatly deplored its bad taste and its nationalism. It strikes him as "a most unfortunate thing that this all-American propaganda should continue," and he believes that "Literature must be judged by language, not by place…. Provinciality of material may be a virtue….; provinciality of point of view is a vice."
Having done what she deemed her duty by the principal American poets of the time, Miss Lowell lost not a moment in pursuing her own creative career. Can Grande's Castle revealed her at the height of her enthusiasm for polyphonic prose. Four long poems made up the book—poems which gave the author full scope for her ambitions as a narrator and as a technical experimentalist. "Sea-Blue and Blood-Red" retells, with the dexterous speed of a motion picture, the story of Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson. "Guns as Keys: and the Great Gate Swings" gives a kaleidoscopic picture of the emergence of Japan from her state of isolation, and indicates by cleverly arranged incidents and symbols, the spiritual conflicts and tragedies resulting from the commercial invasion of the Orient by the nations of the West. "Hedge Island" attempts
to portray the passing of Old England, and to bring into the net of rhapsody all the bits of landscape, the snatches of song, the city scenes and sounds, which can serve to awaken memories of an England that is now little more than a dream, and which can form a poetic contrast with the modern order. "The Bronze Horses" is the most ambitious of the four narratives, and occupies nearly half the book. Its conception is unusually good, I believe, and its execution, though un-even, is at times brilliant. Miss Lowell takes as her theme the four horses of Saint Mark's Church, Venice, and from their history weaves a rich tapestry of color and movement. From the days of ancient Rome and Constantinople, we follow the destiny of these horses, finding in them the never-changing symbol of glory and victory, watching with them the rise and fall of empires. We leave them in 1915, when Venice is endangered by German bombs and it is decreed that the beautiful bronze horses must be sent to Rome for safety:
The boat draws away from the Riva. The great bronze horses mingle their outlines with the distant mountains. Dim gold, subdued green-gold, flashing faintly to the faint, bright peaks above them. Granite and metal, earth over water. Down the canal, old, beautiful horses, pride of Venice, of Constantinople, of Rome. Wars bite you with their little flames and pass away, but roses and oleanders strew their petals before your going, and you move like a constellation in a space of crimson stars.
So the horses float along the canal, between barred and shuttered palaces, splendid against marble walls in the fire of the sun.
It was a good choice of theme for a pretentious piece of polyphonic writing. It lent itself perfectly to the orchestral effects which Miss Lowell set out to achieve, and it brought into happy union her technical virtuosity and her considerable knowledge of the European scene.
Inasmuch as both Men, Women, and Ghosts and Can Grande's Castle were limited almost entirely to narrative poems, Miss Lowell now found herself burdened with a tremendous accumulation of lyrics. For at no time had she ceased writing in lyric vein. In the spring of 1919, therefore, she issued as Pictures of the Floating World, a collection of short poems written during the preceding five years. As the title indicates (it is a rendering of the Japanase Ukiyo-e, a name commonly applied to the realistic color-prints of which Miss Lowell was so fond), many of the poems in this book are on Oriental themes, and some of them are written in imitation of Oriental style. Since the beginning of her career as a poet, Miss Lowell had manifested an unusual interest in the poetry and painting of China and Japan, but not until the publication of Pictures of the Floating World did she reveal the full extent of that interest. The short poems which begin the volume are called "Lacquer Prints," and are in the spirit of Japanese hokku and tanka, though no effort is made to reproduce the actual syllabic pattern of these exotic forms. In most instances Miss Lowell succeeds admirably in attaining the compression as well as the psychological values of her models, and although experts have detected non-Japanese characteristics in some of them, they agree that on the whole the poems are valuable examples of the influence of Japanese art on a Western mind. In such fancies as the following we have the authentic spirit of the hokku:
To A Husband:
Brighter than fireflies upon the Uji River
Are your words in the dark, Beloved.
Silver-green lanterns tossing among windy branches:
So an old man thinks
Of the loves of his youth.
The pieces written under Chinese influence—"Chinoiseries"—are fewer in number, and perhaps less convincing in effect. Still, they have considerable charm, and their composition was useful to Miss Lowell as a preparation for her more extended effort in the same field which resulted in Fir-Flower Tablets, a collection of translations from the Chinese, made in collaboration with Mrs. Florence Ayscough.
Whatever else may be said of Amy Lowell as a poetic interpreter of the Orient, it is undeniable that she went to great pains to fit herself for such an office. She steeped herself in the pictorial art of both countries, and read in-numerable books relating to their history, life, and culture. She was in close association with several Orientalists of Boston (including her brother Percival, who had lived for several years in Korea and Japan and was the author of four books dealing with the Far East); she learned what she could from Ezra Pound, John Gould Fletcher, and other contemporary poets interested in Oriental poetry; and she derived a considerable amount of help from the French writers of the nineteenth century who had participated in the movement called "Japonisme." This lastnamed source has been skilfully traced in a recent study by Professor William Leonard Schwartz, and now appears more important than one might have suspected. [In Modern Language Notes, March, 1928] Professor Schwartz proves, among other things, that in at least three of Miss Lowell's poems she paraphrased prose passages from the work of Edmond de Goncourt, and although she did not attempt to conceal the fact (so literal are the renderings from the French), she made no mention of her indebtedness.
Only a small proportion of Pictures of the Floating World is written in actual imitation of foreign models, yet the Oriental influence is dominant throughout the book. Fantastic imagery conveying evanescent moods is the artistic aim involved; an aim which sometimes carried the poet too far, and seduced her into conceits which even to a tolerant reader appear absurd. Such incongruous similes as:
Chink against my ribs
And roll about like silver hailstones.
Little hot apples of fire,
Burst out of the flaming stem
Of my heart,
give no pleasure to the discriminating mind, nor do they plead well the cause of imagism. Fortunately, they are not really typical of the book, though they do illustrate its chief weakness, which is the tendency toward far-fetched and rather puerile imagery.
Miss Lowell's next venture was a return to narrative. Having treated in Can Grande's Castle the historical themes which appealed most to her, she now determined to exploit the field of folklore, and the result was a collection of eleven rather long poems published as Legends. Some were based on familiar tales, others were inventions. Their settings include China, Peru, Yucatan, England, New England, and the Indian country of North America. How many and what varied sources contributed to their making is indicated in the author's preface, where she specifies a number of reference books, and emphasizes the fact that those unspecified are much more numerous. In other words we have in Legends one more example of Miss Lowell's indefatigable curiosity and energy. She was an inveterate explorer of literature, and a tireless creator, or perhaps we should say, re-creator. So fanatical was she on the subject of writing, so ardent in her search for material, that she could not bear to let even the slightest fluttering idea escape her net. The poems in Legends are not by any means her worst work, nor are they her best. They stand upon a level of mediocre competency. They represent maturity of technique (in all Miss Lowell's favorite modes), and their subject-matter is legitimate. Yet somehow, it seems to me, they do not get beyond the category of tours de force. Artful but uninspring, they neither add to nor detract from her reputation as a poet.
Her next appearance before the public was in a mask, and Harlequin as Critic was her rôle. Taking her cue from her illustrious relative, James Russell Lowell, whose Fable for Critics had appeared more than sixty years before, she composed A Critical Fable, in which she exhibited twenty-one modern American poets (including herself) impaled on the needles of a flashing wit. The book was published anonymously, and so ingeniously had Miss Lowell concealed her personal characteristics of thought and style that few readers guessed the truth of its authorship. Two years later the truth came from the author herself.
A Critical Fable presents Miss Lowell in her most joyous mood, a mood of utter abandon. Taking the rollicking measure of "'T was the night before Christmas," and riming in couplets and triplets, with plenty of ear-tickling feminine rimes to break the monotony, she races and cuts capers until one is dizzy with following her. How easily she could do this sort of stunt, and what pleasure it afforded her, can be sensed by any reader. But as an amusing comment on her technical facility, I reproduce here a letter (now published for the first time) which Miss Lowell wrote to John Gould Fletcher from her home at Brookline, Massachusetts, on December 6, 1915:
DEAR J. G. F.: Tonight you said a thing
Which left me much upset and wondering.
You seemed to feel that riming was so hard,
To have the knack made any man a bard.
To turn out couplets fast as you could think
Was quite a worthy use of printer's ink.
But pointing to your friend whom I'll not name
I said his verse would put a child to shame.
To reach the end within a given time
And wind up sharply on a tidy rime
Seemed to call forth a terrible commotion
And make his brain whirl like a stormy ocean.
Such tricks he used to cause his words to fall
Each on its accent! And that isn't all.
Some verbs expanded with that fearful "did,"
Others condensed; and nothing neatly hid.
Was that a style of which one could be proud?
I asked you, and my horror cried out loud.
You shook your head. "He rimes so easily,"
You sadly murmured, "it amazes me."
I vowed to you that I could do it too.
"But he does not repeat his rimes," said you.
I told you I could rime for half a day,
You doubted me. And now, behold my way!
Not wishing to admit that I'm defeated
I've done the thing, and not a rime repeated.
I could go on like this till you were dead,
But it is late and I must go to bed.
I've proved my point and if these lines don't go well
They took me just ten minutes.
P.S. The postscript holds the letter's kernel,
So tell me, did you take the Poetry Journal?
It must be admitted that in A Critical Fable she did not allow her pleasure in riming to run away with her intellect. The fact that the rimes came so easily made it possible for her to concentrate on what she had to say. And she had plenty to say. She packed more solid stuff into this crazy jingle than she ever had into her serious prose works. And she was wittier than she had ever been. The frenzied pace of the poem, together with the wild music of its unrestrained rimes, seems to have intoxicated her mind to a degree of extraordinary brilliance.
Particularly interesting to us at this time, of course, is the passage relating to herself. In order to safeguard her anonymity she had, naturally, to adopt the attitude most likely to throw readers off the track leading to her own door. She therefore composed a spirited eulogy of her work, and poohpoohed those critics who denied her a place among the immortals. The ruse (not unlike those to be found in detective stories) worked admirably. She describes herself as a powerful, bewildering poet, whom few can appreciate:
Conceive, if you can, an electrical storm
Of a swiftness and fury surpassing the norm;
Conceive that this cyclone has caught up the rainbow
And dashed dizzily on with it streaming in tow.
Imagine a sky all split open and scissored
By lightnings, and then you can picture this blizzard.
That is, if you'll also imagine the clashes
Of tropical thunder, the incessant crashes
Which shiver the hearing and leave it in ashes.
Remember, meanwhile, that the sky is prismatic
And outrageous with color. The effect is erratic
And jarring to some, but to others ecstatic,
Depending, of course, on the idiosyncratic
Response of beholders. When you come to think of it,
A good deal is demanded by those on the brink of it.
Yet she is careful to note that technical brilliance does not substitute for, but merely conceals, emotional integrity.
Despite her traducers, there's always a heart
Hid away in her poems for the seeking; impassioned,
Beneath silver surfaces cunningly fashioned
To baffle coarse pryings, it waits for the touch
Of a man who takes surfaces only as such.
She is very insistent on the subtlety of her poetry, and expresses much pity for him who cannot divine it. She also spends some time defending her erudition and bestowing praise on her versatility. As for the final judgment on the value of her contribution to American literature:
The future's her goose and I dare say she'll wing it.
Though the triumph will need her own power to sing it.
Although I'm no prophet, I'll hazard a guess
She'll be rated by time as more rather than less.
Just how much of this egotism was assumed for the occasion and how much was honestly felt is a question which I cannot answer. It must be admitted, however, that Miss Lowell was never lacking in self-confidence.
A Critical Fable was the last book of verse published by Amy Lowell before her death from a paralytic stroke on May 12, 1925. But the last few years of her life were crowded with work. She completed in time for publication shortly before her death a monumental biography and critical analysis of John Keats, and she composed enough poems to form the three volumes which were published posthumously. One of these, What's O'Clock?, she herself prepared for the press; the other two, East Wind, and Ballads for Sale, were edited by her literary executors. On the whole these later poems are less daring than their predecessors. Their tone is quieter, their moods more tender. They reveal less of the note-taking method of composition, and more meditation. The peace of garden-flowers has closed in on the poet's mind and softened the edges of her fancy. She still turns to the far corners of the earth for symbols of beauty:
So I start, but never rest
North or South or East or West.
Each horizon has its claim
Solace to a different aim.
Four-soul'd like the wind am I,
Voyaging an endless sky,
But she brings them all back to the New England garden. She will gather pearls from the Orient, and coral from distant seas, but their exotic beauty cannot match the beauty of lilacs:
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.
It was her country. And when she sang of it she was at her best. It was then that she sang most with her own voice. In the eleven volumes of her poetry there are many voices, and sometimes hers is not the strongest. It is hard to estimate even now the value of her contribution, for although the total of her work is before us, its diversity is baffling, and the personality behind it is still too strongly felt. So dominant a woman was she, so persuasive a propagandist, so clever a poetic craftsman, that one prefers to evade the critical issue, and leave it all to time. Louis Untermeyer once said, "No poet living in America has been more fought for, fought against, and generally fought about than Amy Lowell." That is true, and we are still somewhat blinded by the smoke of battle.
To Miss Lowell's strongest admirers she was a great poet, the greatest woman poet of her time; to her detractors she was only a side show, a specimen of blatant Americanism—dynamic, superficial, and, in its worst sense, successful. At any rate she was, by popular standards, a success. Everything she touched prospered. She was a born promoter, and she was in the right country for the exercise of her talent. But it is not necessary either to elevate to elevate her to the plane of the immortals or to set her down a wearer of false fame. One may take a middle course, and agree with D. H. Lawrence that "In everything she did she was a good amateur." That is the course I am inclined to take.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6879
SOURCE: "Men, Women and Ghosts," and "Can Grande's Castle," in Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, with Extracts from Her Correspondence, 1935. Reprinted by Archon Books, 1966, pp. 375-83, 467-80.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1935, Damon examines Lowell's narrative poetry of the years 1914-1918, collected in Men, Women and Ghosts and Can Grande's Castle.]
[Men, Women and Ghosts] is a collection of the narrative poems which Amy Lowell had written since she sent off the manuscript of Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. The earliest was probably 'The Allies,' which is dated August 14, 1914; the last were written while she was assembling the book. All lyrics were purposely excluded, as being out of key. Already there were enough of them for a volume by themselves, but Miss Lowell was more interested in acquainting the public with the larger forms she was developing. A half of her new book was in free verse; a third was in rhymed meter; and the rest was polyphonic prose.
Of the thirty titles, twelve deal with war, including the four 'Bronze Tablets' about Napoleon and the five contemporary 'War Pictures.' Three of these, and five others, are studies of love and passion. Except for the ghoststory, 'Cross-Roads,' love is treated exclusively from the woman's point of view.
'Patterns,' the first poem in the book, and the first of her poems to become very popular, remains as great as it seemed on first reading. A dramatic monologue expressing the tragedy of woman in wartime, it transcends both war and love, and is ultimately an expression of the repressed rebellion against the conventions and laws of life that bind the heart of every living soul. As though aware of this universal application, Miss Lowell translated it from the present time back into the Queen Anne period, the 'stiff brocaded gown' of those years being a symbol at once handsomer and more expressive. The dextrous use of the paeonic meter (which usually is light and tripping) to convey the despair of a ruined life, and the balancing of irregular lines to produce a sense of regularity, could have been done only by an expert craftsman. The emotional structure of the poem, including the drop of the voice almost a minor third at the beginning of the third strophe, and the brief interruption of the prose (the letter), culminating in the strangled explosion, half oath, half prayer, 'Christ! What are patterns for?' at the end, is sheer genius. This dramatic appeal of a universal subject, with the honesty of the treatment and the glamour of the setting, triumphed completely over what in 1916 seemed like daring frankness. It has always been a favorite with readers, and once, in a western convent, it was even acted, a little girl being cast as 'Pink and Silver.'
'Pickthorn Manor' also deals with woman's love in a period also vaguely Queen Anne. The heroine of 'Patterns' loses her betrothed in Flanders; the Lady Eunice is a bride who falls helplessly in love while her husband is fighting in the same fatal place. He returns, and in a scuffle drowns with his bride. The central meaning of the poem, however, 'pertains entirely to the realm of psychology'; it is that of—
a person allowing his mind to dwell for so long upon a thing that he becomes as it were hypnotized into believing his dream actual. This is the meaning of Eunice taking Gervais for her husband. It is as it were an idée fixe which blinds her to reality, and around that obsession, grown horrible by its result, the poem is woven, [according to Lowell in a letter to Winifred Bryher, June 29, 1918.]
'The Cremona Violin,' the third poem in the book, is another study of the neglected woman who falls into adultery. Her husband, however, is not a soldier: he is a concert-master, wholly devoted to his music.
In 'The Cremona Violin,' my idea was not so much that Herr Altgelt's music absorbed him away from his wife, as it was that she was held in subjection to him by this same music. I think my sympathies were not entirely with Charlotta, for, if a person marries an artist, it is quite clear that they must admit the position of art in the other's life to be paramount; and this does not at all mean that the artist does not give all of himself to the person he loves, but simply that he is dedicated to an ideal which includes the person he loves, and carries him, and the object of his love, beyond. I think Herr Altgelt was extremely fond of his wife; I think, in fact, that he adored her; but it was also a condition of his being that he was forced to give himself to his music. This she failed to understand, and put down as neglect. It was merely a necessity of the situation, and which in marrying him she should have firmly recognized and agreed to. In other words, she was too selfish to be the wife of an artist, although she had enough artistic feeling to be attracted and held by this very art, which, in the final count, she was so terribly jealous of. She broke the violin, not in a rage at him, but in a rage at its being the reason that kept her from following her own purely selfish inclinations.
The concert-master's profession allowed Amy Lowell to experiment in extending the effects of free verse. As she explained in her Preface, Debussy's piano-pieces had suggested using the movement of poetry much as the composer uses the movement of music. This was not the Imagist method of approximating the sister art: it was more directly imitative; but it brought into her work the ever-changing motility which the Imagists had overlooked. The Imagist lyrics are static in mood from the first line to the last; Amy Lowell's experiments were deliberately dynamic. In 'The Cremona Violin,' the story proper is told in rime royal, while the passages describing the concert run through all meters and rhythms into free verse. In the poem on Stravinsky's 'Grotesques,' she set herself to translating a real piece of music into free verse, with such remarkable success that those who have read the poem have no difficulty with the quartet. In 'A Roxbury Garden,' Amy Lowell tried a cognate experiment: that of reproducing the rhythm of hoops and of battledore and shuttlecock in free verse.
'The Cross-Roads' is a tale of a suicide's ghost which waits with its rotting body in its cross-roads grave until the funeral of the woman passes; the poem ends as his avenging ghost pursues her out of sight. Miss Lowell was all but a complete sceptic about the supernatural. She had a famous story about her reading with Evangeline Adams, the astrologer, who told her that she was very soothing to insane persons, and that all the other members of her family were mad. Another time, the daughter of her scrub-woman developed such mediumistic powers that the police were called in; but Miss Lowell walked with the girl in the garden until she confessed the fraud and never attempted it again. Yet the subject fascinated Miss Lowell, none the less: she knew and could discuss all the theories. While she ridiculed the ordinary evidence which such authorities as Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle offered as proof of an after-life, she insisted that there were some things which had not yet been explained. She believed in the secret room at Glamis Castle: her parents had been visiting there at a time when the age-old mystery was told the heir, and they had watched his light-heartedness vanish and his disposition sadden. Within a few months she was to visit Patience Worth. An Adventure, by C. A. E. Moberly and E. F. Jourdain, which had been published anonymously in 1911, interested her strongly, though she declared that if psychic auras could really saturate physical surroundings, she would have seen her father, whose coffin once stood in the very room where she worked night after night. Her own nerves were capable of affecting her imagination (she knew that Blake was speaking truth when he said he could stare at a knot-hole until he became terrified); but she was too interested in such tendencies not to enjoy them. In 'The Cross-Roads,' for the first time in her poetry, she expressed this side of her nature; while in 'Nightmare,' inspired by the letter N of George Cruikshank's Comic Alphabet, she expressed her delight in a playful supernaturalism which always pleased and never disturbed her.
The poems about the World War speak for themselves. 'The Allies' represents a serpent of men marching to destroy the red eagle of militarism. In the long column are a teacher, poet, mill-owner, and others, all determined to make the world safe again. 'The Bombardment' depicts the destructiveness of war: the inspiration of the poet, the life-work of the scientist, the arts (represented by the cathedral), and the crafts (the bohemian glass) are all destroyed, while the lives of women and children are threatened, in a conflagration under a heavy rain shot through with shells. The childishness of the whole thing is symbolized in 'Lead Soldiers,' where the problem is reduced to the microcosm of a nursery. Tommy playing with his soldiers is the spirit of militarism; the nursery fire is patriotism; the china mandarin on the bookcase is the inherited wisdom of mankind; the rose he holds represents the arts. In the manoeuvres against an imaginary enemy, Tommy slips and upsets the pitcher on the wash-stand; but it is blood, not water, that flows. Meanwhile the mandarin bleeds helplessly to death, his rose broken.
'Bronze Tablets' is a series of poems written around one of Miss Lowell's great heroes, Napoleon, whom she admired, not so much as general or emperor as liberator and personality. He appears in only one of the poems—'Malmaison'; and in that he hardly speaks, for the real subject is the tragedy of the Empress Josephine. (When Miss Lowell saw 'Malmaison' featured in the Little Review, she thought it the best poem she had ever written; and indeed it drew quite a little sheaf of congratulatory letters from strangers.) In 'The Fruit Shop,' an impoverished aristocrat, spending her last coins for fruit, just catches a glimpse of Napoleon's chaise as he departs for the war. 'The Hammers' is a sequence of sound-pictures of events connected with his fall: the building of the British ships; the destruction of his emblems on the Paris shop-signs; the eradication of the names of his victories from the arch in the Place du Carrousel; the flight after Waterloo; the making of his coffin. But in the last of the 'Bronze Tablets,' his statue on the Place Vendôme column dizzies the travellers. 'Malmaison' and 'The Hammers' are in polyphonic prose, from the changing rhythms of which Amy Lowell developed a new way of telling her story; she evoked it through a series of dissolving views, which imply the history without stating it.
'1777,' another historial poem, contrasts revolutionary Boston with decadent Venice—a contrast of two republics, two kinds of women, two seasons, two sets of color. The garden in '1777' was her own garden at Sevenels, which also inspired 'A Roxbury Garden' with its little girls at play. Besides this poem, and 'Lead Soldiers,' there are two other poems about children. 'The Paper Wind Mill' recounts a child's tragedy that actually happened to August Belmont at the Hague, while his father was Minister there; in Miss Lowell's poem, it becomes the tragedy of grasping the ideal and finding it dead. 'The Red Lacquer Music Stand' is the episode which terminates the first book of Goethe's autobiography, retold in an American setting. It becomes a symbol of the destructive effect of even the most spontaneous religion upon the joys of childhood.
'The Overgrown Pasture' is a group of four dramatic monologues in Yankee settings. Miss Lowell believed that the New England countryside had been drained twice of its best blood (by the westward emigration and the Civil War), and that this draining accounted for its decadence. Frost once asked her what was wrong with the place; she replied, 'Read your own poems and find out.' When Ellery Sedgwick, of the Atlantic Monthly, was dubious about the dialect of 'Off the Turnpike,' she wrote him (October 26, 1915):
But I must defend myself against your strictures about New England dialect. As a matter of fact, there is not a single expression in that poem that I did not find precedent for in Alice Brown's 'Meadow Grass.' After I had written it, I carefully took out her books and went through them with a view to correcting my own expressions, and I was astonished to find how very accurate I had been. I think it must be atavism, for although you yourself may have been brought up nearer the pumpkin fields than I, do not forget that my grandfather Lawrence was a farmer boy; and also I have been living cheek by jowl with the natives every summer for fifteen years.
Mary Aldis planned to present the first three of these pieces in her experimental theater with Mrs. Russell acting at least one of them; unfortunately, the scheme was never carried through, because of Miss Lowell's inability to arrange a date. On August 22, 1916, Miss Lowell wrote Mrs. Aldis:
In regard to the place in 'Off the Turnpike' where the woman sits down hard on pulling the hand, which you and Mr. Brown are afraid may bring a laugh, I can only say that it depends entirely upon the actress. A good actress ought to be able to command laughs or prevent them, as she chooses. I have never had anybody laugh in that place when I have read the poem, and it seems to me that if you take the part of the woman, there will be no difficulty there; and if anyone else takes the part, perhaps I could coach her so as to prevent the thing from appearing humorous. The peculiar quality of the Yankee mind is this constant darting from humor to tragedy, what one might almost call humor in tragedy; and without it, one does not have quite the proper psychology. But if we find in rehearsal that the thing does not get over in the right way, it will be quite easy to delete that line or substitute another. I am not at all pigheaded about such things….
You do not say anything about 'Number 3 on the Docket' in this letter. But I trust you are going to give that too, as it is far and away the most popular of that Yankee series. I have received quite a number of letters from people, speaking of its absolute truth.
Only one poem in the book can really be called personal; that is 'The Dinner-Party,' where Miss Lowell expresses the helpless rage of all original thinkers amongst the polite sceptics 'mildly protesting against my coarseness in being alive.' It was inspired by a dinner she had attended that spring in New York. 'Spring Day' (which begins with the famous bathtub) really belongs to the group 'Towns in Colour,' a series which is primarily visual, and thus allied to and yet contrasted with her experiments in music. The Preface acknowledges the influence of Fletcher's unrelated method, especially in his 'London Excursion.'
'Red Slippers,' the first of this group, contrasts the conventional ideal of beauty with its reality. One sleety December dusk, waiting in her automobile on Washington Street for Mrs. Russell, who was Christmas-shopping, Miss Lowell saw a window display of red slippers. The handsome colors and forms stirred her well-stored memory to its depths, raising momentarily to the threshold glints and gleams of many beautiful 'unrelated' things—stalactites of blood, crimson Japanese bridges, scarlet tanagers, firecrackers. It was the first stage of the creative process, which she caught as part of the poem itself. But past her vision the crowd hurried, to stare in an adjoining window, where an artificial lotus opened to reveal a doll, then shut again. This contraption was awkward, sentimental, tawdry, and meaningless; but it fitted the crowd's idea of what beauty ought to be, so they accepted it as such, never perceiving its real ugliness. 'One has often seen shoes, but whoever saw a cardboard lotus bud before?' Amy Lowell asked ironically.
'Afternoon Rain in State Street' is another color-study of Boston; so is 'The Aquarium,' which was written 'after many visits to City Point.' 'An Opera House' and 'Thompson's Lunch Room' are similar studies of New York subjects.
Sometimes travellers from a rise look back to their starting point, and are surprised to see how far they have gone already; and if Miss Lowell looked back from 'Towns in Colour,' to 'New York at Night' in her first book (a conventional protest against a city more like nineteenth-century London than twentieth-century New York), she was entitled to congratulate herself on her amazing progress; for then she was behind the times, now she was ahead of it. But more likely, she was merely distressed that she had ever let herself print that insincere thing.
So rapidly did Men, Women and Ghosts sell that on October 26, the eighth day after publication, a second edition of six hundred copies was ordered.
Can Grande's Castle
Every poet who is seriously interested in literature as an art, sooner or later gets tired of the constant implication that he must have experienced personally everything of which he writes; therefore, to offset this vulgar error (that his works are fragments of a veiled autobiography) he attempts something that he could not possibly have experienced. Amy Lowell had been particularly plagued by this attitude. Friends and foes, too often overlooking the essentially dramatic (or objective) nature of her work, identified poet and poem so much, that the person of the one obscured the sincerity of the other. The columnists, for example, were still filling their daily inches with mechanical guffaws over the thought of Amy Lowell shingling a roof, Amy Lowell taking a bath, and so on. Perhaps this was one reason why she chose subjects so remote from Brookline. The castle of Can Grande was the refuge of Dante; in her title it represents the poet's refuge from the world, and the high point from which he can view it. (But it is a tower of stone, not of ivory.) The motto of her book she took from Aldington's 'At the British Museum.' 'That simply means, as you will observe,' she wrote Untermeyer on May 14, 1918, 'that I could not possibly have experienced these things: I must have read about them; but that the reading becomes real.'
And any poet who is not content to remain definitely minor must progress beyond the brief poems which are all he can manage at first. The lyric points toward the character sketch, the character sketch toward the drama. And in those tragic years 1914-18, every headline in every newspaper pointed daily toward the Titanic drama of the nations. Dante began with Hell and attained Heaven; Amy Lowell began with War and attained Art. As she explained in her Preface, the four poems—
all owe their existence to the war, for I suppose that, had there been no war, I should never have thought of them. They are scarcely war poems, in the strict sense of that word, nor are they allegories in which the present is made to masquerade as the past. Rather, they are the result of a vision thrown suddenly back upon remote events to explain a strange and terrible reality. 'Explain' is hardly the word, for to explain the subtle causes which force men, once in so often, to attempt to break the civilization they have been at pains to rear, and so oblige other, saner, men to oppose them, is scarcely the province of poetry. Poetry works more deviously, but perhaps not less conclusively.
…For an artist to shut himself up in the proverbial 'ivory tower' and never look out of the window is merely a tacit admission that it is his ancestors, not he, who possess the faculty of creation. This is the real decadence: to see through the eyes of dead men. Yet today can never be adequately expressed, largely because we are a part of it and only a part. For that reason one is flung backwards to a time which is not thrown out of proportion by any personal experience, and which on that very account lies extended in something like its proper perspective.
Circumstances beget an interest in like circumstances, and a poet, suddenly finding himself in the midst of war, turns naturally to the experiences of other men in other wars. He discovers something which has always hitherto struck him as preposterous, that life goes on in spite of war. That war itself is an expression of life, a barbaric expression on one side calling for an heroic expression on the other. It is as if a door in his brain crashed open and he looked into a distance of which he had heard but never before seen. History has become life, and he stands aghast and exhilarated before it.
The subject of her book, then, is war—not the World War, nor war in the abstract, but a study of various wars in the past. Inevitably, Amy Lowell's conceptions were affected by the Boston historians. Parkman, Prescott, and Motley had viewed history as a series of picturesque scenes, which they re-created in a highly literary form. John Fiske was transitional to the Adams brothers, Henry and Brooks, who philosophized on the hidden laws of history. The earlier group treated it artistically, the latter reduced it to a science; and Amy Lowell combined the brilliant presentation of the one with the analytic intelligence of the other. In Can Grande's Castle—particularly in 'The Bronze Horses'—she accepts Brooks Adams's theory that civilizations arise cyclically upon economic success, then decay as the racial energy runs out; she also accepts Henry Adams's theory that international crises recur more and more frequently as the speed of history accelerates. But Amy Lowell, in organizing and completing her theory, won a place of her own amongst the historical philosophers. To her, art was not only the expression of a civilization: it was life's highest achievement and its only permanence—it was almost civilization itself. The economic system is the root, the popular pleasures are the transient flower, and the arts are the seed-bearing fruit. In giving art this importance, she was unknowingly reviving, secularizing, and extending the old Puritan theory that man was created for the purpose of being happy, and that individual happiness was proof of a life in accord with the will of God.
Her method of presenting her material was predetermined by this philosophy of history. The surface of these poems is a brilliant series of magic-lantern dissolving views of the past. They depict various civilizations at those critical points when one is hurled against another, to the subjugation and even the destruction of the physically weaker. But the real subject is not historical: it is rather the survival of civilization in the eternal struggle against war. The superficial pictures are splendid with the colors of life; they represent the arts and amusements which constitute a civilization; but behind these pictures are at work the acquisitive and destructive forces which give meaning to the poems—a meaning anything but splendid. The surface is life, the depths are death; combined, the result is history.
In reading Can Grande's Castle, then, one must watch the flow of seemingly unrelated pictures of carnivals and triumphs and love-affairs and horse-races with an eye to what they signify in human society, for they were selected to illustrate and explain the civilization under discussion. The flow is life itself; war is the death-force that destroys them. The splendor of the surface sheds no glamour upon the meaning; Amy Lowell was not glorifying war.
Carlyle's French Revolution (which she had called 'a great epic poem'), Hardy's Dynasts (which so curiously anticipated the moving eye of the cinema), and Griffith's mammoth films (Intolerance had been released in 1916) may be considered as precursors of her method of presentation. Nevertheless, springing as it did from her own conception of history, it was entirely original, and so completely expressive of her meaning and appropriate to her poems as to be inevitable. Its validity is amply proved by the many later writers, in both prose and verse, who have used it for their own historical writings.
Her metrical form was equally her own: it was her 'polyphonic prose,' now developed so far beyond Paul Fort's alternation of alexandrines and prose, that the fundamental conception was entirely different. In a later lecture she described her search for a measure that would be epical:
For years, I had been pondering this difficulty. How to get the breadth, the serious scope and grandeur, into the new work that the old had. We could do much with our medium that the older poets could not do; but they could do things with theirs which we could not touch…
It was this very pattern-weaving I was seeking when I hit upon what has most misleadingly come to be called 'polyphonic prose.'…
…The work of the French poet, Paul Fort, gave me my first inkling of a new form. Working from his advance, I gradually evolved a system of verse which should make use of the old as well as the new, and so, employing all the voices proper to poetry, should at once fuse them to its purpose and create a new medium out of the result. I wanted an orchestral effect, and the delicate flute-notes of vers libre must be augmented by other instruments, no matter where I got them.
…The object was to find a new form for epic poetry … The modern epic, as I conceived it, should be based rather upon drama than upon narrative. This came partly from the greater speed and vividness demanded today of all the arts; and partly from the realization that, without the formality of metre, a sustained narrative of considerable length tends to become prose … Epic poems on the old pattern did not seem to fit in with the workings of the modern poet's mind. At least it would appear so, since he was not moved to write them. But I was moved; I had conceived some subjects which could come under no other head. I believed that the musicians had got hold of the right idea, and in 'polyphonic prose' it seemed to me that I had stumbled upon a form which could sustain the grandeur of a large conception, and treat it at once musically, dramatically, lyrically, and pictorially….
Amy Lowell's narrative structures also were original; but as each poem has an architecture of its own, and as that architecture is the final expression of her meaning, each must be discussed separately.
'Sea-Blue and Blood-Red,' the first of these poems, is a tale of the love of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, admiral and actress, from the Battle of the Nile and their first meeting, to his death at Trafalgar and her miserable grave in the lumber-yard at Calais, with its wooden marker slowly being chipped away by souvenir-hunters. It is a poem colorsaturated and choral, a series of glowing historical frescoes. Nelson's triumphs are those of reactionary England crushing French liberalism: he is the 'Savior of banks'; his victories 'stamp out liberty'; or, as he sees it, 'It is Duty and Kings. Caste versus riff-raff.' Amy Lowell's enthusiasm for Napoleon (who does not appear in this poem) was that of Beethoven's when he dedicated the Heroic Symphony to the Liberator—a dedication he blotted out when Napoleon was crowned.
The lovers are the other side of the two makers of history; and their tale is a queer mixture of coarseness and idealism. Amy Lowell's attitude towards 'quivering, blood-swept, vivid Lady Hamilton' is best summed up in 'The woman is undoubtedly mad, but it is a madness which kindles.' The whole poem is kindled by her; yet Miss Lowell also felt her to be somewhat of a fool. 'A fig for good taste!'—and the exuberance of her frocks and deeds cancels their vulgarity; but there is sure misery at the end. 'Wife in the sight of Heaven'—but the rest of Nelson's letter (which Miss Lowell owned) has never been printed, is perhaps unprintable; and Parliament was not to see with Heaven's eyes.
'I have been very accurate in these historical poems,' Miss Lowell wrote Barrett Wendell, 'perhaps more accurate than a poet has any business to be. In fact, fearing in some way to travesty my originals, every remark that Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton make in the first poem has been copied from their letters. My facts are correct throughout; my fancies—do they equal them?'
Only a scholar could have been so accurate and so thorough; yet the scholarship is always subordinate to the poetry, and never intrudes; wherefore Miss Lowell was hardly of the 'Erudite School of Poetry.'
The structure of the poem is comparatively simple, being the tale of this single love affair at the focus of imperial conflicts. But the ordinary way of telling a story would not do; instead, we are given a series of pictures, through which one guesses at the amour, much as persons in Neapolitan society doubtless did. The admiral's ships anchor under the flaming mountain ('the red thread to the blue thread cleaves'); he presents the Ambassadress with a satinwood table; they are seen much together; they are missed from a reception, and glimpsed disappearing through a postern; there is gossip…. So the tale contin ues. Realism merges into symbolism, then re-emerges; for Nelson himself is the blue of the sea, Emma the blood-red Vesuvian flame. They are two threads, red and blue, whose interweaving and unravelling is the leitmotif marking the beginning and end of episodes, and binding the whole poem together. In fact, the significance of each event becomes so intense as to make that event a symbol, which is in turn a stage in the story. Thus the admiral's ship coming to anchor beneath the volcano is no mere preparation for the meeting of the lovers: it is Nelson himself as lover—the warrior, after his great achievements, returning to haven for rest, restoration, happiness, which he finds through a woman. Only by following the series of symbols can the plot be followed; but such was Amy Lowell's skill, that no audience ever was baffled by the meaning of the poems in Can Grande's Castle.
'Guns as Keys: and the Great Gate Swings' takes us from Europe to the other side of the world, in 1853-54, when Occident and Orient—America and Japan—meet. It is the first momentous confronting of the white and yellow races in modern times. The United States sees the chance to acquire another market, and sends Perry to obtain a treaty by means of a show of warships, which he does, thus ending the seclusion behind which Japan has lived its idyllic life.
The theme is Commercialism versus Art. 'I wanted to place in juxtaposition the delicacy and artistic clarity of Japan and the artistic ignorance and gallant self-confidence of America…. Which of them has gained most by this meeting, it would be difficult to say.' The poem leaves no doubt. America gained its market, but at what cost!
Commerce-raiding a nation; pulling apart the curtains of a temple and calling it trade. Magnificent mission! … Romance and heroism; and all to make one dollar two. For centuries men have pursued the will-o'-the-wisp—trade. And what have they got?
What indeed but an exchange? While Japanese art inspired a Whistler in America, American guns inspired a Japanese army and navy.
The sands of centuries run fast, one slides, and another, each falling into a smother of dust.
A locomotive in pay for a Whistler; telegraph wires buying a revolution; weights and measures and Audubon's birds in exchange for fear. Yellow monkey-men leaping out of Pandora's box, shaking the rocks of the Western coastline. Golden California bartering panic for prints. The dressing-gowns of a continent won at the cost of security. Artists and philosophers lost in the hour-glass sand pouring through and open Gate.
'You have blown off the locks of the East, and what is coming will come.' The war which inspired this poem is still in the future.
It is divided into two parts. Part I alternates polyphonic prose (the voyage of the dynamic, aggressive, commercial Americans) with free verse lyrics (the life of the static, pacific, aesthetic Japanese). As there was no communication between the two countries, there was the more reason for not relating the stages of the sea-voyage to events in Japan. The print-like lyrics, therefore, summarize Japanese civilization in its respective attitudes towards nature, sex, popular and aristocratic entertainments, the state, the church, the stage, politics, and death. Part II is a pictorial narrative of the negotiations. The Postlude, dated 1903, partially answers the questions: 'Then wait—wait for fifty years—and see who has conquered.' In Japan, a disillusioned student commits suicide; in America, crowds throng the memorial exhibition of Whistler's paintings. These two episodes 'are facts, but they hardly epitomize the whole truth. Still they are striking, occurring as they did in the same year.'
What I meant to give in both those postludes was the effect that each country had upon the other. In the Japanese section, how difficult it was for the Oriental to assimilate the Occidental habits of thought, how he broke in the effort; in the American part, how, in conquering Japan for our commerce, as we thought, we had ourselves been conquered on the aesthetic plane, and our habits of thought insensibly modified by contact with the Japanese.
'Hedge Island, a Retrospect and a Prophecy,' the third and shortest of the four poems, is a paean over the vitality of England in the Napoleonic days—the England of hedges (which always impress the New Englander used to rambling stone walls) and of coaches, which had been her love ever since as a young girl she had persuaded her mother to give her W. Outram Tristram's anecdotal Coaching Days and Coaching Ways.
The hedgerows, starring out from London, are the setting; between them roll the coaches to the compass-points. We ride in the Glasgow mail through its first night as far as Derby. Then follows a series of pictures, hearty as Rowlandson, lively as Cruikshank, quaint as Hugh Thomson, summarizing English civilization: romance, in an elopement to Gretna Green; literature, agriculture, religion, and fashion, as travellers; eating, in a dinner at the George; drinking; Christmas, a fog, a gibbet, snow, as they affect the coaches; royalism, in a procession of the mails to celebrate the King's birthday; and physical courage, in all England driving to a prize-fight.
But everything changes; a warning tone is heard, repeated:
Ah, hedges of England, have you led to this? Do you always conduct to galleried inns, snug bars, beds hung with flowered chintz, sheets smelling of lavender?
What of the target practice off Spithead?…
It is the navy. Some pages on, the army appears:
'Damn the soldiers! Drive through them, Watson.' A fine, manly business; are we slaves? 'Britons never—never—' Waves lap the shore of England, waves like watchdogs growling; and long hedges bind her like a bundle. Sit safe, England, trussed and knotted; while your strings hold, all will be well.
A puff of steam—Industrialism—and the coaches disappear. Soldiers marching—to the World War. But the Prophecy is a cheer, a triumphant 'England forever!' gathering volume as the poem ends.
'The Bronze Horses' is the last poem of the book, and the longest.
In 'Guns as Keys' Amy Lowell had stated her belief: 'Your gains are not in silver, mariners, but in the songs of violins, and the thin voices whispering through printed books.' In 'The Bronze Horses' we behold Art, the climax of civilization, triumphing across centuries, surviving the wreck of empires; the one thing permanent in the course of war and greed.
The conception is enormous. Four civilizations are represented, four different ideals of happiness; they are contrasted with opposing civilizations; the more vigorous triumphs; and the conquered collapses under stress of war, evades it, or endures it. The four wars are respectively wars of conquest, of religion, of liberation, of mere madness; but all are destructive and glut the greed of the conquerors. Yet the bronze horses, always the spoil, survive unharmed.
The poem begins at the center of civilization, Rome under Vespasian, in 71 A.D. Patrician (the languid lady in her bath) and plebeian (the bored workman) are alike spoiled, stale, enervate, for the armies ravage the rest of the world to provide them with luxuries. These wars are the Roman economic system. Now the city is regaled with a triumph: Titus has conquered Judea, whose most sacred treasures are paraded through the streets. Jehovah has fallen before Jupiter; but that overthrow reminds us that Jupiter also will fall to another god, under the onslaught of other armies. And the bronze horses, who placidly watch the procession, have also been spoils of war—a glance backward, showing that the beginning of the poem is hardly the beginning of the subject.
In the second section, the poem leaps forward to the Eastern Empire, Constantinople of A.D. 1204. It is a city made enormously rich by commerce; its chief amusement is betting on the races. But the Fourth Crusade is launched; the Roman Church conquers the Greek Church, and the city of gold is destroyed for its gold by the pious crusaders.
The third section describes Venice of A.D. 1797, with its carnivals and frivolous love-making, under the tyranny of a corrupt oligarchy, aided by the Inquisition. General Bonaparte's armies try to liberate the Venetians, but they bewail the loss of their beautiful horses more than they rejoice over freedom; and 'tomorrow come the Austrians.'
The last section leaps forward only a comparatively few years (so fast has history speeded up) to Venice again in 1915, at the time of Italy's break with Austria and her entry into the World War. Venice is bombed. Her churches are banked with sandbags, and the bronze horses are sent to Rome for safe-keeping. The poem ends as they glide down the canals, completing a cycle, as it seems, by returning to the city where they stood nearly two thousand years before.
But the ending is no ending, as the beginning was no beginning. The horses are not to remain there; and the poem stops with a glance forward. 'For how long? Ask the guns…'
Framing the poem, so to speak, are four preludes on elemental themes: fire, the life-giver and transmuter, in which the metals, rising from the other three elements, take forms which endure until the fire comes again. It would seem as if each section were dominated by an element; for clearly Rome is of the earth, Constantinople perishes in a conflagration, Venice is built upon the waters, and her last trial comes from the air. But Miss Lowell, while she admitted the fact, denied that it was intentional. Yet how far unconscious intent builds a structure is yet to be determined.
Can Grande's Castle was Amy Lowell's first completely original book—original in meter, method, structure, and meaning. It has a glory and exultation to it that reminds one of Blake's America: turning the pages is like an increase of light on the retina. Never did she produce anything more purely splendid, though some of her later work was richer.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1474
SOURCE: "The Range of Symbolism in Poetry," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, July, 1949, pp. 442-51.
[In the following excerpt, Carlson discusses Lowell's varied use of symbolism in her poetry.]
Taken as a whole, Amy Lowell's verse represents the rich and significant variety of symbolism in modern poetry. In some, especially the early derivative pieces like "Before the Altar" and "Fool o' the Moon," the symbols are conventional and allegorical; the same is true of the short symbolical tales like "The Fool Errant," "On the Mantelpiece," "The Shadow," and "The Way." More frequently, however, conventional and creative symbols are interwoven, as in "In a Time of Dearth," where sand, caravan, Arab horses, and mirage suggest lack of inspiration, romantic splendor, free abandon, and illusion respectively; and the matches and newspapers signify artifical stimulation and the attempt to shut out the fact that the creative springs have dried up. "The Poem" illustrates the same dramatic interplay of conventional and realistic symbols: the twig, a literary symbol of the poem properly nourished, and the nail, an original symbol of poetic stimulus neglected and withered. "Pyrotechnics" contrasts natural, ideal beauty—stars, rockets—and the display of the tawdry and the artificial—the set pieces, King, Queen, Generals. "The Precinct. Rochester" also, for purposes of contrast and irony, combines traditional, creative, and realistic elements: the Roman wall symbolizes the protective barriers around institutional religion, whereas the sheltered, wasted life within is suggested by the overripe, unplucked fruit; the living needs of humanity are represented by the discontented people, clamoring for the necessities of life; and the patchwork of religious solutions, by the restored cathedral.
A conscious symbolist, Amy Lowell devoted one of her books, Legends, almost solely to symbolical tales and leg ends. In its Preface she stated that "stories, as such, they emphatically are not," but rather "speculative or apprehended truth" with a "curious substratum of reality," which when remolded gives insight into life for the contemporary reader. "I have changed, added, subtracted, jumbled several together at will, left out portions; in short, made them over to suit my particular vision." Since most of these legends are retold so as to suggest the author's meaning, the symbols may be called augmented myth symbols. In "Many Swans" an Indian sun-myth is used to interpret a theme similar to that of Steinbeck's The Pearl: the achievement of an ideal that conflicts with an established way of life results in a loss of both the culture and the ideal. Amy Lowell described "Many Swans" as "a double allegory, the sun-myth being one, and the other being the destruction of the Indian races through the allimposing power and intelligence of the white man." One lyric, she explained, "was meant to show the fatal and cruel blunder of trying to do away with the religion and ritualistic dances of the Indians" by means of "a debauched and poisoned form" of Christianity.
In his comments on "Sea-Blue and Blood-Red" S. Foster Damon points out (Amy Lowell, 1935) yet another kind of symbolism. Two threads, red and blue, are interwoven in this poem as leitmotifs at the beginning and end of each episode and as symbols integrating the series of historical scenes into one whole. Blue is associated with Lord Nelson, the sea, masculine power, and virility; red, with Lady Hamilton, Vesuvius smoldering, femininity, passion. "The significance of each event becomes so intense as to make that event a symbol, which is in turn a stage in the story…. Only by following the series of symbols can the plot be followed…." For example, in Naples, Nelson and Lady Hamilton ride by as the living exemplars of courage, daring to be themselves in the here and now, amid a setting of effete and impotent Catholicism.
A predilection for the dramatic symbol is also apparent in "A Tale of Starvation," "Astigmatism," "After Hearing a Waltz by Bartok," "Dreams in War Time," and "Patterns." In "The Coal Picker" the story is a symbol of the transcendental idea that beauty may be found in everything, however commonplace. In "1777" an effective dramatic contrast of American and Mediterranean civilizations is unified by the dominant symbolic motif of the trumpet-vine, sounding forth the promise of a vigorous, revolutionary, self-reliant nation, and by the falling leaves, brown and yellow, suggesting a decadent and dying culture. A variant of this inductive dramatization of a realized value is Miss Lowell's use of a sequence of apparently unrelated scenes to suggest an underlying truth. "Malmaison," for example, traces the decline and loss of the love between Napoleon and Empress Josephine in a series of dramatic pictures or conversations that convey the emotive and psychological meaning of the experience as well as the known facts.
The highest creative symbolism is to be found in two of Amy Lowell's most powerful poems, "Patterns" and "Lilacs." In the former the garden paths, the stiff brocaded gown, and the war represent the larger social pattern symbolized by the drama itself: the social convention that makes woman a victim of man's tragic folly in a man's world. Out of historically accurate materials, the author has woven a pattern of symbols into a symbol of patterning pressures, making the title word and idea a new symbol in literature. Similarly in "Lilacs," a Persian flower imported by the Puritans becomes the symbol of New England culture and its quiet sense of beauty. In these two poems the symbol functions on the highest creative level.
Of psychological and Freudian symbolism there is a good deal in Amy Lowell's poetry. "The Doll" and "Pity 'Tis, 'Tis True" deal with the mother complex or obsession to have a child. "The House in Main St." has to do with "a sort of Freudian complex." Frustration is the subject of "The Red Knight," "Appuldurcombe Park," and "The Basket," as well as "Number 3 on the Docket," which involves a persecution complex. Tragedies of abnormal fixation form the central themes in "After Hearing a Waltz by Bartok," "The Real Estate Agent's Tale," and "Pickthorn Manor." For a phobia that leads to suicide, there is "The Notebook in the Gate-legged Table."
In "The Book of Hours of Sister Clothilde" the basic idea seems to be that the worship of the Virgin is a sublimated adoration of sex fulfilment. The unconscious, Freudian symbolism is subtly handled. Although Miss Lowell refused to explain this poem, she admitted that the key to its meaning was the use of a poisonous snake for the Virgin's robe. Clothilde's subconscious sexual excitement is suggested by such details as the "simple green" changing to hot flames; Clothilde's queer and trembling excitement of waiting, her indifference to the bite of the snake; "the red spots, in a flushed excess, pulse and start"; and her treasuring of the snake skin later, its dazzling sensuous appeal worshiped by Clothilde. Clothilde symbolizes the young natural self that cannot be entirely sublimated, and of course the snake is a traditional symbol of sex. Old François, the gardener, also seems to be a symbol; perhaps he represents the censorship of conventional morality: he kills desire (the snake), protects the innocent against further ill effects (sucks the wound), and makes an object lesson of the incident (warns the other sisters).
The most ambitious and the most obscure of the symbolical poems, however, is without doubt "The Basket." Here the poet deals in the cryptic, striking image-symbols of the surrealist. A young man, a poet, is passionately in love with Annette; but Annette is unresponsive to his ardor, "And he, the undesired, burns and is consumed." The silver thread separating their shadows on the wall suggests their spiritual separation; the nuts in the basket, the dried fruits of his desire; their shells, the husks of his passion; the eyes that she quietly consumes, the excessive admiration that she thrives on. Her embroidery, upon which she lavishes her energy and interest, has a religious motif: here again probably the author wished to put in opposition the sentimentality of formal religion and the reality of art and love. After the fire destroys Annette and the house, leaving a ruin of ice, he sees eyes of geranium red (the symbols of his unquenched desire, of his futile, unrequited love).
Although this poem has been called "a symbolic puzzle," to the reader familiar with the range and variety of symbolism in modern art "The Basket" probably offers little difficulty. Certainly the symbols used do not depend upon any private experience of the poet's or upon acquaintance with a special background of literature. For that reason they are not really cryptic, however obscure they may seem to the reader not accustomed to this mode of symbolic expression. The symbols in this poem may be called contextual, because within the context of the emotional experience described they are consistent and meaningful without benefit of footnotes or exegesis by the author.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7810
SOURCE: "John Keats and High Noon—Last Poems: 1922-1925," in The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered, Archon Books, 1975, pp. 139-75
[In the following excerpt, Ruihley analyzes Lowell's later poetry, describing developments of form, style, and theme.]
In the years which immediately followed [Amy Lowell's] death, three new volumes were issued, What's O'clock, 1925, East Wind, 1926, and Ballads For Sale, 1927, all taken from her bulging folders of unpublished material. Though they varied a great deal in quality, each gave evidence of the new powers of expression which the poet had acquired in the last few years of her life.
The poems of East Wind were the first in order of time, the poet having worked on this manuscript as early as 1921. A collection of tales of rural New England life, the thirteen poems continue the vein of gloom begun in "The Overgrown Pasture" sequence of Men, Women, and Ghosts. The peculiarity of these compositions is the lack of poetic quality in their form. In her zeal for innovation, Amy Lowell had devised a flat, free verse monologue whose jaggedness and use of dialect she hoped to turn to expressive account. The form justifies itself to a certain extent in "Off The Turnpike" and "Number Three On The Docket" from the earlier book. Both of these poems are studies of mental derangement produced by loneliness and emotional repression. As characters, Hiram's widow in the first and the husband-slayer in the second poem are well realized and the emotional force the poems generate is due in part to the blighted quality of their speech. This was the poet's expressive intention, but her successes in the form are few in number, while the extreme irregularity of the lines cancels all poetic effect.
In the poems collected in East Wind the direction of advance was in the tightening of form. Nearly half of the thirteen poems are now written in meter. Moreover, "The Doll" is a further departure in that the woman who speaks the lines is a sophisticated artist instead of an unlettered country person. This persona, never used before, allowed the poet a new refinement and range of observation. The story she recounts is that of two old maids with a pathological attachment to a large French doll, and the tale of the two starved lives is controlled and filtered by the speaker's urbane wit.
"[That] Day That Was That Day," the second notable poem in East Wind, is an advance for another reason. Written in the shapeless verse of the earlier work, it is the story of a woman driven to suicide by the emotional poverty of her life. Like Hiram's widow and the husband-killer mentioned above, Minnie Green is one of Miss Lowell's few successes in realizing human character. The same pinched quality of speech used in the other poems contributes to our sense of her plight, but this is relieved here by three interludes of a highly poetic quality. At first glance it would seem that the poet is merely sketching in some decorative background for her tale, but this does not account for the deep resonance of the lines,
The wind rose, and the wind fell,
And the day that was that day
Floated under a high Heaven.
"Home! Home! Home!"
Sang a robin in a spice-bush.
#x0022;Sun on a roof-tree! Sun on a roof-tree!"
Rang thin clouds
In a chord of silver across a placid sky….
In their proper setting in the poem the three interludes are very striking. Their effect is to place these meager lives in a cosmic setting. In contrast to Minnie's choked life, Miss Lowell gives us the largeness and mystery of man's natural setting.
Ballads For Sale was the last of Miss Lowell's books to be published. This thick miscellany was well edited by Mrs. Russell, but the task she undertook was not solvable in any way that would do justice to Miss Lowell's gifts and the artistic stage she had reached at the end of her life. The poems consisted of the overflow from the poet's files, including many rejects from books she had published early in her career. Had Miss Lowell lived to fulfill her promise, it is likely that most of these poems would have been destroyed, but Mrs. Russell did not have that option.
Among these slight and brittle pieces there were a few poems of real substance, including some representing her most accomplished technique. One such poem is "Paradox," a lyric of extraordinary evocative power. Nothing else she wrote equals this poem in its ability to fuse a jewel-like hardness and brilliance with a compelling statement of her feelings about the would-be Beloved. Part of the beauty of expression consists in the gradual building of linked images of the Beloved and a fantastic jeweled garden so that a very complex structure of poetic associations emerges.
You are an amethyst to me,
Beating dark slabs of purple
Against quiet smoothnesses of heliotrope,
Sending the wine-color of torches
Rattling up against an avalanche of pale windy leaves….
An amethyst garden you are to me,
And in your sands I write my poems,
And plant my heart for you in deathless yew-trees
That their leaves may shield you from the falling snow….
Other poems of interest in the book include a full and literal account of Amy's relationship with Mrs. Russell written for her "On Christmas Eve" as a gift, an elaborate love lyric, "Thorn Piece," the terse eroticism of "Carrefour," and a caustic self-portrait in "New Heavens For Old." In addition to these there is also the fine lyric, "On Looking at a Copy of Alice Meynell's Poems" which seems to belong among the poems of this kind collected in What's O'Clock. This last named volume, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 and has been the most popular of her books as well, is the vindication of Miss Lowell's belief in the value of unhurried development and accumulation of powers. Its quality consists of a heightening of all that had gone before. It is not the journey completed but the sun at high noon after which there was to be the softened forms and golden light of afternoon.
One of the reasons for her success was that Miss Lowell had found a means to do justice to her impressions and, at the same time, to integrate these with reflective, ratiocinative, and more purely emotive elements. That this was possible was due to her ten years of continual experimentation with novel forms of verse, which gained her a reputation as literary radical and filled her volumes with hundreds of pages of verbal exercises, all of which were needed to bring her designs to completion. But this does not mean that Miss Lowell ever devised one all-purpose formula for her work. It was not a question of a single method she consciously developed but rather of the possibility of composing in polyphonic sequence.
Already in her pre-Imagist period she was writing in the rhymed vers libre of the French, a mixed form seen at its best in "Patterns." Somewhat later, in 1913 and 1914, she wrote extensively both in strict meters and in free verse of a high technical quality. Next came the quasiepics in polyphonic prose, 1917-1918, with their requirement that she deal with a great variety of complex material within a single poem. As she was successful in doing this, she gained skill in the control of unwiedly subject matter, and her composition gained a fluidity corresponding to these demands. All that remained was to use this suppleness to combine the various "voices"—her term for the different modes and devices of poetry—and one could have a poem which expanded and contracted, alternating between meter and free verse, as well as the many variations of these Miss Lowell herself had devised.
Quite often rhymed metrical verse was used as a point of departure for a delicate music which hovers above the banality of strict design as the rhythms stretch to fit each expressive purpose and rhyme-words fall expectedly like bell-notes. Examples of this technique can be found in "Texas," "Fool O' The Moon," "The Swans," and "Merely Statement." But this is one limited use of the form and its essential characteristic is its variability. One of the fullest uses of her technique can be found in the elegiac poem, "The Vow," inspired by a visit the poet made to Charleston, South Carolina in 1922.
As Foster Damon has pointed out [in Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, 1935] Miss Lowell had lively feelings about the Civil War as the result of the animated family discussions of it she recalled from her childhood. In "The Vow" these memories combined with her taste for tropical richness and the sentiment which is best expressed in her line, "O loveliness of old, decaying haunted things" from another poem on Charleston's past. Moreover, Amy Lowell could identify with her subjects: the two proud ladies who sacrificed themselves by vowing never to leave their own garden until the South was free of Northern rule. The fact that both their ideals and their conduct were unrealistic merely added to the poignancy of the situation.
On the basis of these fused meanings and the impressions she gathered during her visit, Miss Lowell sets out to organize her far-ranging poem. The subject is the Pringle sisters and their useless defiance, but the note struck is that of human incompletion, a theme enlarged and dignified by association with the events of the Civil War:
Tread softly, softly,
Scuffle no dust.
No common thoughts shall thrust
Upon this peaceful decay,
This mold and rust of yesterday.
This is an altar with its incense blown away
By the indifferent wind of a long, sad night;
These are the precincts of the dead who die
You who haunt this place
May deign some gesture of forgiveness
To those of our sundered race
Who come in all humility
Asking an alms of pardon.
Suffer us to feel an ease,
A benefice of love poured down on us from these magnolia-trees.
That, when we leave you, we shall know the bitter wound
Of our long mutual scourging healed at last and sound….
The elegaic tone is sustained here in lines whose very appearance suggests the reticence of the emotions involved. As she tells us, her words are directed by the need she feels for reconciliation of the "sundered race," and this has its verbal counterpart in the widely separated endrhymes: softly, haply, humility, magnolia-trees—which drop down through the passage drawing it together with the most tenuous of bonds. In the last three lines quoted above there is a reference to love pouring down from the magnolias, and here the lines expand in summary of what has been said and in anticipation of the descriptive and narrative section that follows:
The poem continues in this vein, giving us the story of the Pringle sisters detail by detail, and with the curious, abrupt interruptions of thought seen above: "How lightly the wind…" which hold the poem to a high level of lyrical intensity. The vow having been made for so high a cause, the sisters play their chosen role to the end and leave their home and garden only in death. The beautiful conclusion of the poem is a variant of the opening, but its tone is more gathered, more firm, and more hurried. The poet reflects now that it is her obligation to find a moral in this gloomy story and press on with her other concerns.
I have given this account of the poem in order to show the diverse parts of which it is composed. In the opening passage Miss Lowell uses the rhymes and strongly marked stresses found in meter to concentrate and heighthen her emotional statement. But she has also used her freedom as a vers-libriste to bend and reorder the lines to match the shifting content of her thought. We find her doing this in the three long lines in the middle of this section. As her subject changes in the stanza that follows, so does her style, the lines exploding into energetic free verse as she turns to the tropical setting and the heroic acts and attitudes of the sisters. In this section the poet makes use of lyrical interjections in the style of her coruscating polyphonic prose developed some years earlier. Reduced in this way to short, disconnected passages and exploited for its brilliance, the high intensity form adds measurably to the poem's expressive effect. At the end of the long poem the verses are rounded by a return to the pattern of the opening, as noted above, but with the shift to a changed point of view as the result of the completed experience.
Part of the appeal of "The Vow" consists in a rhetorical excellence I have not described, but the purpose here is to illustrate the polyphonic sequence. Miss Lowell's most mature technical achievement, it is a real innovation which appears to be unique in English verse. By this means, the many "voices" of poetry—rhyme, meter, stanza, refrain, free verse, the intricate sound patterns of her polyphonic prose, and, finally, the use of key images or ideas which she called "return"—became fully available to catch the fleeting shapes of her thought. If this suggests clutter, it should be remembered that the technique consisted in the selection of those voices appropriate to the subject and that these are used in the polyphonic sequence required. There is also the element of spontaneity mentioned above. Had this technique been the result of a calculated plan, the freshness and charm inherent in it would have vanished.
One is led to this conclusion by a careful reading of polyphonic pieces such as "Purple Grackles." Here the artistry consists in the alternation of descriptive passages of colloquial tone, like stanza one, with statements of a higher order of intensity and poetic form, as in stanza two. These components are drawn together by an effective use of refrain, "The grackles have come," and in the conclusion there is a marked alteration in mood as the poet ponders the meaning of seasonal change. What had been a festive and humorous mixing between the poet-hostess and a horde of kingly guests changes to a lesson in the nature of things when they suddenly disappear. At this point in the poem, the witty and loosely structured lines contract and harden—become, in a word, the perfect expression of the sharpened awareness she now turns on the scene about her. The section is introduced by a last use of her refrain and a subtle intrusion of rhyme in "purple head" and "flower beds," very widely separated, which adds to the sense of finality in the passage:
Come! Yes, they surely came.
But they have gone.
A moment ago the oak was full of them,
They are not there now.
Not a speck of a black wing,
Not an eye-peep of a purple head.
The grackles have gone,
And I watch an Autumn storm
Stripping the garden,
Shouting black rain challenges
To an old, limp summer
Laid down to die in the flower-beds.
"Lilacs," also written at this time, is another New England poem of complex intentions. As we see in the opening lines, it is more austere than "Purple Grackles," the poet achieving the ultimate simplication by reducing her statement to the naming of a series of distinct but somehow evocative colors. This passage is followed by other sharply focused images which are rendered with an uncanny purity and freshness of line. So true are all these pictures that the objects appear in a new light—and what is usually taken as a miscellaneous catalogue turns out to be the features of a "face." It is the face of New England, and through the key symbolism of the lilac blooms Miss Lowell has elicited the spirit of a land and a people—
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts.
Somehow, the many bright images forming the body of this poem coalesce into a coherent design, and the division of the lines into three distinct movements makes possible the gradual rise to the assertion of a mystical identity between poet and country.
The merit of "Lilacs" consists in the discovery of oneness under the veil of diverse appearances, and it does this partly by the use of a unifying design. In "East, West, North, and South of a Man" the poet begins with a closely delimited theme, the four aspects of a man, and moves outward to diversity in a poem consisting of four loosely related movements. In fact, one may wonder if this is a single poem at all, or at least if this could be one man as the poet tells us in her title. But the purpose here is to dramatize her subject by the use of extreme instances presented in brilliant and contrasting images. Three of her portraits are in free verse but in the portrait of the itinerant peddler, the poet has used a jingling, broken-ended meter to suggest the inconsequence of the merchant's concerns. For the others, the warrior, the lover, and the scholar, she has used an expansive form of free verse and sumptuous settings to turn our thought in a transcendental direction. We can see this in the similes she uses in the opening lines of the poem, with their echo of the rhythm and refrain of the medieval ballad:
Beginning with a knight seated on a horse, a practical man of action, we have next a reference to clouds and already in the fifth line of this poem, rhythm and image are intended to suggest infinite dimensions. Dimensions of this kind are also attributed to the handsome, gorgeously arrayed lover—"His voice is the sun in mid-heaven/Pouring on whirled ochre dahlias"—and in the climactic portrait of the scholar, said to be Miss Lowell herself, the poet sets before us the infinitude of the mind as the final measure of man:
The walls of forbidden cities fall before him;
He has but to tap a sheepskin to experience kingdoms,
And circumstance drips from his fingers like dust….
He eats the centuries
And lives a new life every twenty-four hours,
So lengthening his own to an incalculable figure….
The sense of magnitude we have in this poem is expressed in "The Green Parakeet" as well, but in the latter poem it is an ironic commentary on a story of tragic deprivation. On the one hand we see the world of nature with its startling beauty and freshness, symbolized by the parakeet as well as by talking and whimsical vines, trees, and barberry bushes. On the other, there is the mixed nature of man. As the poem begins, the protagonist ravishes a young, innocent girl. Although she does not resist and she conceives a love for him at once, the hero has deprived the girl of her purity, represented here by the death of the pet parakeet. Stricken by guilt, the lover first runs away to watch her from a distance.
I stared at her from the farther side
Of Hell, no space is great beside
This space. I could not set her face
Across such vastitude of space,
And over it drowsed a darkened thing:
A monster parakeet's green wing,
The air was starred with parakeets.
I turned and rushed into the streets….
After a few days of covert observation of the deserted girl, some "odd obedience" in his feet compels him to rush out into the country. He then wears out his life moving restlessly from one place to another, "Bent double underneath the load / Of memory and second sight," while the specter of the bird haunts him. The story of guilty love is told in tight tetrameter couplets. Opening out from this are a number of polyphonic interludes developed along highly fanciful lines, whose effect is to interweave this tragedy with the life of natural things. At the conclusion of the poem the poet gives us a final image of the innocent creatures of nature set in contrast with the fevered state of man.
The man scuffed across a bridge and up a steep hill. "Quietly, quietly," whispered the barberrybushes, and hid their scarlet tongues under their leaves. "Weep, Tree-Brothers," said the grapevines. But the long lines of trees only rustled and played hide and seek with the peeping moon. They were too tall to pay much heed to anything so small as an old man limping up a hill.
Besides the impressions and combined forms we find in these polyphonic sequences, Amy Lowell was also writing many lyrics during the last years of her life. Some of these are among her best work of this type. The emotions are very fully developed and the content is matched by a corresponding richness of poetic invention. Perhaps the best single example would be "Song for a Viola D'Amore." Like many other lyrics she wrote at this time, the "Song" was inspired by Miss Lowell's feelings for her companion [Ada Russell], but there is another and contrasting group even more expressive of the poet's inner history. These are the poems of asepsis: the bleeding of life by the denial of vital experience.
The sense of tragic incompleteness, Miss Lowell's foremost theme, is presented with great emphasis in her poem, "New Heavens For Old."
The poem is somewhat theatrical and over-drawn but it is interesting as a revelation of Miss Lowell's attitudes. Her description of the youth, "her fellows" who shout for her in this poem bearing "vermilion banners," defying the propriety represented by "the iron fronts of the houses"—this description is interesting in that it does not apply at all to her own time, but it is an accurate account of developments forty-five years after her death. There is an element of clairvoyance and even of prophecy here; but she does not tell us to what extent she sympathizes with the rebelliousness of her fellows. What is clear is that she places herself on the side of adventure and self-expression and equates excessive constraints with death.
The stiffling of the inner self is also her theme in the deeply meditated lyric, "On Looking at a Copy of Alice Meynell's Poems, Given Me Years Ago By A Friend." This poem, treating Miss Lowell's loveless state, was inspired by news of the death of Alice Meynell and is addressed to Frances Dabney, a close friend who had died many years before. The history to which it refers concerns Miss Lowell's visit to Devonshire in 1899, in the company of Miss Dabney, when the future poet was suffering from a nervous breakdown. As stated above, the illness persisted through the remainder of Miss Lowell's youth, and in this poem she tells of the cause of the malady. It was not the English sea air which she required but a chance at life. For this reason Miss Dabney's gift of the book of poems was ironic. The theme of Miss Meynell's verse was the very experience through which Miss Lowell was passing, and reading the poems only sharpened her sense of loss:
Silent the sea, the earth, the sky,
And in my heart a silent weeping,
Who has not sown can know no reaping
Bitter conclusion and no lie….
No future where there is no past!
O cherishing grief which laid me bare,
I wrapped you like a wintry air
About me. Poor enthusiast!
These are the unpromising ingredients the poet transmutes into a preternatural radance. But it would be wrong to assume that this is so because the feelings involved are in some way pleasing to her or that her exaltation is due to the stoic fortitude she expresses at the end of the poem. Instead, we must look for the answer in another order of experience she also traces in the poem. This reveals itself in the hypnotic or hallucinatory quality of the images with which she evokes the Devonshire sea-coast, the poetry of Miss Meynell:
…like bronze cathedral bells
Down ancient lawns, or citadels
Thundering with gongs where choirs sang….
and the act of remembrance itself that she compares to a winking, spectral light. This experience of a deeper order of existence cannot be described, except as she suggests it in her images, but its importance lies in the fact that it has invested and transformed the pain and deformity of life with which this poem began.
The same process is at work in "Nuit Blanche," one of the most accomplished of Amy Lowell's lyrics. The French title means "white night" or sleeplessness, but the meaning is modified if we reflect that Miss Lowell slept during the day and worked in quiet and seclusion at night. Taking these circumstances into account, the poem would seem to express a total vacancy of life, the exhaustion of normal interests and energies. However, the withdrawal of feeling does not include indifference to sexual passion. And we learn as well that it is not satiety that has inspired her fatigue but a long-continued incompletion. Out of this basic discord, the poet has fashioned a superb glissando, sound and image being molded into a single seamless whole.
I want no horns to rouse me up tonight,
And trumpets make too clamorous a ring
To fit my mood, it is so weary white
I have no wish for doing any thing.
A music coaxed from humming strings would please;
Not plucked, but drawn in creeping cadences
Across a sunset wall where some Marquise
Picks a pale rose amid strange silences.
The predominance of single syllable words here is important to her esthetic design. Along with the drawn-out pentameters, this slows the movement of her lines, the pronounced end-rhymes in alternate succession having the same retarding effect. The purpose is to suggest a slow awakening, and the mood set for this is symbolized by a continual stress on whiteness beginning with the title of the poem and ending with its last syllable. Nevertheless, her subject is not whiteness or nullity of life. Though this is the poet's mood, the scene to which she awakes is a romantic one, and we are aware from the first syllables that it is not an earthly ground.
This is expressed, first of all, by the sounds of music which recall the concerts Miss Lowell gave in her white and crystal library. In the poem, as it did in real life, the music stretches to enclose a garden, and here we have the heroine of "Patterns" again, now very subdued, but engaged in the same task of defining herself and the terms of her existence. It is sunset here, not the brilliant daylight of "Patterns," and there is no defiance at all. The brisk paced sweep through a spring-time garden is replaced by lanquid movements whose meaning is focused in the pale rose the heroine picks "amid strange silences." If the rose symbolizes the bloodlessness of her life, the "strange silences" suggest her suffocated state, and in the third stanza this tragic figure dissolves completely into the twilight landscape:
Ghostly and vaporous her gown sweeps by
The twilight dusking wall. I hear her feet
Delaying on the gravel, and a sigh,
Briefly permitted, touches the air like sleet.
After this there is a transition to night and the poet herself reappears.
And it is dark. I hear her feet no more.
A red moon leers beyond the lily-tank,
A drunken moon, ogling a sycamore,
Running long fingers down its shining flank.
A lurching moon, as nimble as a clown,
Cuddling the flowers and trees which burn like glass.
Red, kissing lips I feel you on my gown—
Kiss me, red lips, and then pass—pass.
Music, you are pitiless tonight,
And I so old, so cold, so languorously white.
At first sight it seems that there has been a falling away from the elevation of the first three stanzas. Here we have the moon as clown in lustful relation with the objects of the garden. But then we notice the artistry that moves the poem first from humming strings to the faded marquise and finally embraces a sharply contrasting scene. The subject now is the pain of bondage to the flesh. This is vividly expressed in the most poignant passage in the poem: "Red, kissing lips I feel you on my gown—/ Kiss me, red lips, and then pass—pass." At this point there is a sudden break in the form and tone of the poem, which is the verbal equivalent of the snapping of her mood. No longer equal to the spirituality of the music and the harmonies of the moonlit scene, there is a collapse to awareness of the discords of her life.
"Nuit Blanche" and "Alice Meynell" can be seen in this way as admixtures of tragic incompletion and the glimpsing of transcendent design. In "Folie de Minuit," on the other hand, we have a direct challenge to the flawed state in which man finds himself. In the poem she wrote to a pious friend many years earlier ("To Elizabeth Ward Perkins"), Miss Lowell had stood uneasily outside a church door incapable of the surrender of her viewpoint for the sake of the comfort inside. In "Folie de Minuit," she enters a cathedral as an invader with the purpose of summoning God with an offering of music which she is still playing, now hopelessly, at the end of the poem.
As the poem implies, man not only suffers personal unfulfilment, but as sentient and rational being, he suffers also because of the withdrawal of the fatherhood of his Creator. Unique and isolated in the natural scheme of things, man can only complete his own selfhood in converse with the corresponding Power he expresses. To speak in mono logue is unsatisfying. Only the responses of an equal can tell us of ourselves. "Folie de Minuit" was a reaction, in part, to an earnest rereading of the Bible Miss Lowell undertook at this time. In her conception, the god-man Christ bears unmistakable signs of divinity. But Jesus lived long ago and since the passing of that era God has been noticeably quiescent. At least, this was Miss Lowell's view and the cathedral we enter in her poem is a cold and untenanted religious museum.
The quality of her emotion is given at once in a fervid opening passage where trochaic accents, emphatic rhymes (word-lord, city-pity, cold-boldest), and the insistence on O and or combinations, as in snow and lord, all contribute to the intensity of effect:
No word, no word, O Lord God!
Hanging above the shivering pillars
Like thunder over a brazen city.
Pity, is there pity?
Does pity pour from the multiform points
Of snow crystals?
If the throats of the organ pipes
Are numb with cold,
Can the boldest bellows' blast
Melt their now dumb hosannas?
We notice first the explosive energy which seems to topple or transform the holy precincts around the poet. Part of this establishment or religious machinery is the idea of the loving God, but the Deity which is conceived here is a remote and terrifying power like "thunder over a brazen city." In contrast, man has a need for pity—not because he is weak but because he is in darkness. This darkness hangs over the whole poem, filling the cathedral and acting as the backdrop to the theatrical "midnight burials" of stanza four. In this context, the poet asks how man can expect pity in a universe symbolized by the icy perfection of the snowflake. Such hopes are illusory, it seems, but these same "multiform points," obviously the product of intelligence, show that the universe is "haunted."
Since this is her conviction, a possibility that remains is to dwell on those precincts and those passages of history where the Divine was manifest in another form. This would seem to be true of ancient Palestine and the European "age of faith" which furnish the content for the section which follows, including its effulgent image of Christ:
No word, august and brooding God!
No shriveled spectre of an aching tone
Can pierce those banners
Which hide your face, your hands,
Your feet at whose slight tread
Frore water curds to freckled sands
In this passage the use of s sounds which unify the section as a whole, the use of the dental sounds d and t in the last three lines, and the unexpected rhyme in sands-hands add to the tightness of design. Following on this, the poet says that she had hoped to break the silence of the church with golden anthems of the kind sung by the victorious Hebrews.
Though this was her purpose, everything she sees in the cathedral is choked with silence and dust, and this has affected her as well. In an extraordinary image, "My fingertips are cast in a shard of silence," she gives us her sense of the spiritual impotence of man. Without an answer from the God of the shadows, there is no possibility of communion or means by which man may truly define himself. This is the cause for the despair of the poem:
Pity me, then,
Who cry with wingless psalms,
Spellbound in midnight and chill organ pipes….
But it is also important to note that none of these considerations deters the poet, who is still playing religious anthems at the end of the poem.
The failure of the spiritual quest that Miss Lowell describes in "Folie de Minuit" must be qualified by reference to the mystical order of experience we have traced in her poetry. Mystic awareness is the implied subject of many poems in What's O'clock and it is the predominate note of the volume. First of all, it is at the center of her long, blank-verse narrative, "Which Being Interpreted Is As May Be or Otherwise," whose setting is the belfry of a cathedral and whose story is a symbolic contest between earth forces, represented by the statute of a satanic king, and the forces of spiritual aspiration, represented by the frail and other-worldly scholar, Neron. In the vividly imagined "In Excelsis," remarkable for its ability to sustain the note of rapture or ecstasy, adoration of the beloved one becomes fused with religious emotion. And "Evelyn Ray," a narrative lyric, interweaves a stark human tragedy with one of the poet's most evocative numinous landscapes.
This same dual theme is found in the six sonnets written for "Eleonora Duse," that may be considered a conscious summation of the thought and experience of the poet. The occasion that inspired them favored this purpose. The poems were composed in December, 1923, at the height of her powers and in her last recorded "burst" of poetic creativity. Because of her circumstances at this moment and the circumstances of Duse, it was natural that the poet would be led to a special view of life and the place of the artist. However, the reader of these sonnets should not be misled into seeing them as a romanticizing of the lives and attitudes described. The strangeness of the poem is not due to sentimental distortion but rather to its fidelity to the nature of the two women involved. For this reason, we are obliged to accept these revelations in the character and form which Miss Lowell gave them.
The history began in the Boston theater in 1902 when a performance by Duse stirred new life in the neurasthenic, twenty-eight year old Miss Lowell. In terms of tragic deprivations there were similarities in the lives of the two women. We know from Miss Lowell's earliest poem that she saw in Duse the mastery and transcendence of this experience. That it could produce an awareness that would serve the purposes of art was a second discovery for her. For this reason it was Duse—with her uncanny power to detect and transmit the spiritual vibration—and not a poet of impressive formal achievement who always remained Miss Lowell's artistic ideal.
Nevertheless, Miss Lowell was unable to see Duse from 1902 to 1923 and when she encountered her again both of them were drawing to the close of their lives. Though these facts do not appear in her poem, Duse at this time was broken by age and ill health and accepted the hardships of an American tour only to gain funds for an art theater she hoped to establish in Italy. In view of these handicaps, the emaciated and white-haired actress must have made a remarkable effort. The tour calling for her appearance even as a young woman, became a succession of triumphs. Near the close of her New York engagement, Amy saw her in two performances, and then again on December 4 and 6 in Boston. The two had exchanged letters and after the second of the Boston appearances Duse came to spend a day at Sevenels. The day-long visit was a success, and that encounter, plus other performances Miss Lowell was able to see before the sudden death of the actress a few months later, furnished the inspiration for her poem:
Seeing's believing, so the ancient word
Chills buds to shrivelled powder flecks, turns flax
To smoky heaps of straw whose small flames wax
Only to gasp and die. The thing's absurd!
Have blind men ever seen or deaf men heard?
What one beholds but measures what one lacks.
Where is the prism to draw gold from blacks,
Or flash the iris colors of a bird?
Not in the eye, be sure, nor in the ear,
Nor in an instrument of twisted glass,
Yet there are sights I see and sounds I hear
Which ripple me like water as they pass.
This that I give you for a dear love's sake
Is curling noise of waves marching along a lake.
The dematerialization of vision, an important element in this poem, is supported by a sound-patterning which stresses high, light sounds (chills, shrivelled, iris, eye, twisted, blind, etc.) as well as a pattern of images which suggest an airy dryness: "Chills buds to shrivelled powder flecks." Emerging from this is the affirmation of the mystical insight on which Duse's power is based. Through this gift we become aware of the incompleteness of the phenomenal world which is shown to depend on essences of which we have no direct sensory awareness. In spite of its limitations, the world of sense participates in the transcendent design and is capable of stirring profound emotions: "Yet there are sights I see…." After this amendment of her thesis, the poet concludes the sonnet by saying that she is writing these poems to express her love for Duse.
In sonnet two we are told of the poem's character as a letter to her friend; and there is a second challenge to the empiricist who would confine the world to what we can see:
Seeing's believing? What then would you see?
A chamfered dragon? Three spear-heads of steel?
A motto done in flowered charactry?
The thin outline of Mercury's winged heel?
Look closer, do you see a name, a face,
Or just a cloud dropped down before a holy place?
The images have the crisp, linear quality we found in sonnet one and we find again in lines six and seven with their account of the decisive effect of Duse on her life: "Like melted ice/I took the form and froze so" … Given the facts of their encounter, we are able to accept the note of worship in the last line as well as the reverence she expresses in sonnet three:
Lady, to whose enchantment I took shape
So long ago, though carven to your grace,
Bearing, like quickened wood, your sweet sad face
Cut in my flesh, yet may I not escape
My limitations: words that jibe and gape
After your loveliness and make grimace
And travesty where they should interlace
The weave of sun-spun ocean round a cape….
Eloquent as these lines are, they are a diminuendo from the fever of the two preceding sonnets in which the poet affirms her transcendental vision. The headlong rush there is replaced by a slow, curved movement as the poet goes on to describe the meaning of Duse for her life and what Duse is in herself. For this purpose abstract or conceptual language is inadequate, so she turns to nature to suggest the qualities of the artist, concluding with a statement of Duse's affect on her world: "All that you are mingles as one sole cry/To point a world aright which is so much awry."
These lines anticipate the theme Miss Lowell develops in the two sonnets that follow. The first of these, number four, emphasizes the special character of Duse's art. So great is the understanding of this artist that it seems to embrace the whole experience of mankind. Because of her awareness of human nature and its needs, Duse acts as a moral force which calls men to their higher selves, being picked, the poet says:
…to pierce, reveal, and soothe again.
Shattering by means of you the tinsel creeds
Offered as meat to the pinched hearts of man.
So, sacrificing you, she fed those others
Who bless you in their prayers even before their mothers.
The somewhat flattened tone of the last line calls attention to a peculiarity of her form. In all six sonnets the last line is drawn out by an extra two or four syllables like a whip snapped at the end, breaking the symmetry for a moment and propelling the reader to the next sonnet. It is likely that the device originated by accident when the poet found she had twelve syllables, an alexandrine, at the end of sonnet one. But from that point forward its use is deliberate, and it achieves her purpose in giving added weight to the final statement.
Sonnet five extends and varies the treatment of the theme introduced in three, but there is a new inrush of feeling as the poet turns to consider Duse in the character now of prophetess.
Life seized you with her iron hands and shook
The fire of your boundless burning out
To fall on us, poor little ragged rout
Of common men, till like a flaming book
We, letters of a message, flashed and took
The fiery flare of prophecy, devout
Tourches to bear your oil, a dazzling shout,
The liquid golden running of a brook.
Who, being upborne on racing streams of light,
Seeing new heavens sprung from dusty hells,
Considered you, and what might be your plight,
Robbed, plundered—since Life's cruel plan compels
The perfect sacrifice of one great soul
To make a myriad others even a whit more whole.
This is the most declamatory of the six sonnets, if that word can be taken in a favorable sense, the purpose of the poet being to proclaim the transcendent stature of Duse. The sense of urgency which fills her mind is expressed in the strongly marked accents and rhymes ("Robbed, plundered"—"Life seized you"; shook - book - brook etc.), but it comes as well from the meaning of her statements. There is an urgent need to affirm, for the experience involved turns on a tragic opposition. As men are drawn up by the fire of the prophetess and her revelation of a divine message, so they become her "torches" and finally are "upborne on racing streams of light"—this same process of spiritualization exacts unfulfillment and exhaustion for Duse, a tragedy which the poet generalizes as a law of the race in the concluding three lines of the poem.
This being true, Duse is both victor and vanquished as we reach the last section of the poem. But sonnet six, very likely the peak of Miss Lowell's art, is informed by a profundity of vision which transforms once more our view of Duse and permits the poet to conclude her poem on a note of somber exaltation:
Seeing you stand once more before my eyes
In your pale dignity and tenderness,
Wearing your frailty like a mistry dress
Draped over the great glamor which denie
To years their domination, all disguise
Time can achieve is but to add a stress,
A finer finess, as though some caress
Touched you a moment to a strange surprise.
Seeing you after these long lengths of years
I only know the glory come again,
A majesty bewildered by my tears,
A golden sun spangling slant shafts of rain,
Moonlight delaying by a sick man's bed,
A rush of daffodils where wastes of dried leaves spread.
Taking account of this sonnet as a whole, we notice first the perfect correspondence between idea and form. Since her purpose is to express a rarefied state of mind, she has given her lines the same delicate tonality that we found in sonnet one. This is emphasized by the lightness and the chiming of the sounds—dignity, frailty, and misty all falling together in a sequence of two lines—as well as the graceful pauses in rhythm which follow the final word of nearly every line. The image which this sonnet evokes is that of the beauty of Duse as she appeared before her audiences in 1923, audiences which were often discomfited by her thinness and pallor but stayed on to be caught in the web woven by her hands and the rapt perfection of her movements. As always, she had refused to wear makeup on this last tour. "I make myself up morally," she said, and did nothing to disguise her white hair.
It is essential to know these facts in order to do justice to the poet's conception. Duse, never possesed of physical allure, was now the shell of her former self. But it does not follow from this that the poet was deceived or deceiving. Rather, this was her meaning in a deeper sense. The beauty that she saw in Duse was not in the flesh at all, and the passage of years had only accentuated it. This is the "great glamour" which enchanted her, which can annul time, and which she hastens to conjoin with those superb images of renewal and healing in the concluding lines of the poem. In doing this she crystalizes the main theme of her poetry: divinity is one whether glimpsed in a sunset, a landscape, or a human face. But this perception is not new to poetry. What is unique here is the evidence of her experience. If we look back now to the glowing images of this poem and ponder what she tells us there about her response to Duse, we can only conclude that she was participating in an exalted spiritual reality and this ecstasy is the record she left of it in her poetry.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6553
SOURCE: "Imagist and Impassionist: The Major Lyrics," in Amy Lowell, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 120-39.
[In the following essay, Benvenuto examines the stylistic and thematic aspects of Lowell's lyrical poetry in the collections, Pictures of the Floating World and What's O'Clock.]
While [Amy] Lowell was writing the dramatic and narrative poems of Men, Women and Ghosts, Can Grande's Castle, and Legends, she was developing steadily as a lyric poet as well…. [Her] discovery of imagism resulted in such finely wrought lyrics as "Taxi" and "Aubade" in Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. And although she often wrote with other ends in mind than those of imagism, the imagist principles taught her to focus on relevant detail and on sensory, nondiscursive language, and to value such qualities as concision and vividness as the identifying traits of modern poetry. Pictures of the Floating World, published in 1919, and What's O'Clock, published posthumously in 1925, show her often achieving these effects in her major lyrics—both in the shorter, suggestive picture poems most often associated with imagism, and in her longer lyrical meditations. By 1919, moreover, Lowell had begun to study seriously Japanese and Chinese poetry, a lifelong interest that would culminate in the collaborative translation with Florence Ayscough of Chinese lyrics in Fir-Flower Tablets (1921). The reticence, economy, and suggestiveness that Lowell found in such Oriental forms as the Japanese haiku reinforced the lessons of the imagists. Also, the emphasis, in imagist and much Oriental poetry, on objectivity, nuance, and exact language, taught Lowell to write of her own inmost feelings with greater detachment and to evoke, even from some of her most personal poems, strong transpersonal emotions.
IMAGIST ICONS: "WRITTEN PICTURES"
Although the imagists had denied that they were a school of painters, one of their aims was surely to make the reader "see"—to render particular moments and scenes out of colors and objects. And Lowell, who explored the analogies between poetry and music, was equally interested in what poetry could learn from painting—as her title, Pictures of the Floating World, suggests. While writing Fir-Flower Tablets, moreover, she had to work with a form of verse that Florence Ayscough translates as "Hanging-onthe-Wall Poems," or "Written Pictures," a form that specifically identifies poetry as a pictorial or visual art: "A beautiful thought perpetrated in beautiful handwriting and hung upon the wall to suggest a mental picture." Lowell was not concerned with only the surface of things, but she was drawn to sensory and especially visual experience, and she wrote a number of descriptive poems that read essentially like word-paintings, such as "A Bather," from Pictures of the Floating World:
Thick dappled by circles of sunshine and fluttering shade,
Your bright, naked body advances, blown over by leaves,
Half-quenched in their various green, just a point of you showing,
A knee or a thigh, sudden glimpsed, then at once blotted into
The filmy and flickering forest, to start out again
Triumphant in smooth, supple roundness, edged sharp as white ivory,
Cool, perfect, with rose rarely tinting your lips and your breasts,
Swelling out from the green in the opulent curves of ripe fruit,
And hidden, like fruit, by the swift intermittence of leaves.
Subtitled "After a Picture by Andreas Zorn," and delicately colored with green, ivory, and rose, "A Bather" is clearly more impressionistic than imagistic. It is also a composition, in the pictorial sense, using light and shade to reveal and obscure the body of the woman, which we see only in fragments or as ivorylike points in the flickering green. In the poem, of course, as opposed to the painting, the woman can move; and as she approaches the stream in which she will bathe, she weaves in and out of the forest, showing a sudden glimpse of knee or thigh, then blending black into the vegetation, only to start out again.
This image of the weaving human figure is carried beyond the purposes and the possibilities of mere surface description, however; it reveals the poem's theme, a vision of the woman's body as interwoven with nature—distinct like a bright thread in a dark cloth, but inseparable from the cloth. The woman's breasts are not merely like ripe fruit, but swell out of the leaves in the place where fruit would naturally be, suggesting that the woman is herself a tree of life. Her approach to the stream is accompanied by an urgency in the landscape for her to merge totally with it. The water is "impatient" to take her; the sky floats "solemnly" over her beauty; the river attempts to keep her "submerged and quiescent," while over her "glories / The Summer." Fusing with nature to become its spirit or life-force, she does not lose her identity as a woman but expands the significance of womanhood, becoming a symbol that Lowell discovers and examines:
The verbal picture has gone beyond sense experience to a mental image, to a sacramental attitude.
The difference between "A Bather" and an early poem like "Teatro Bambino" is not difficult to see. Besides a more natural language in "A Bather," its mythological allusion grows organically out of the poem instead of being forced on it. Similarly, the bather who is the chalice of the human race is a more substantial and a more symbolic figure than an earlier and similar portrait of a woman—the fountain siren of "Clear, with Light Variable Winds."
"A Bather" is typical of Lowell's growing power, but it represents only one of several kinds of lyrics that she wrote extensively. The imagist influence, which is not strong in "A Bather," is much more pronounced in the shorter haikulike poems that appear in Pictures of the Floating World and What's O'clock. Many of these, although they have the gemlike hardness and exact language favored by the imagists, admittedly give little more than surface description—miniature pictures of trees, leaves, rivers, the sky:
Upon the maple leaves
The dew shines red,
But on the lotus blossom
It has the pale transparence of tears.
Others end with an idea or a symbol that their material does not justify, as in "Ombre Chinoise," which is nonetheless a beautiful poem:
Red foxgloves against a yellow wall streaked with plum-coloured shadows;
A lady with a blue and red sunshade;
The slow dash of waves upon a parapet.
That is all.
As solid as the centre of a ring of fine gold.
But we must approach even these miniature picture poems with some care, as Foster Damon illustrates in his reading of "Outside a Gate": "On the floor of the empty palanquin / The plum-petals constantly increase." It is, as Damon points out [in Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, 1935], an imagist love poem: "The plum-petals indicate that it is spring; the palanquin is the equipage of a noble; its place at the gate shows that he is visiting; the accumulation of petals shows that his visit is a long one—and to whom does one pay long visits in spring but to one's beloved?" The so-called thinness, that is, of a number of Lowell's lyrics can be more apparent than real, and surface details can signal the presence of underlying emotions or events.
For precise description, with details that are hard and clear and yet suggestive, "Wind and Silver," from What's O'Clock, is one of Lowell's best short lyrics and one of the most purely imagistic:
The Autumn moon floats in the thin sky;
And the fish-ponds shake their backs and flash their dragon scales
As she passes over them.
The poem suggests a unity in nature, a oneness between sky and earth, moon and pond. The moon "floats," as if it were in water, or as if the ponds were reflected and repeated in the sky. The fish-ponds become fish and assume the denser materiality of animal bodies. But as they "shake their backs and flash their dragon scales," the ponds also take on the property of the moon, reflecting and repeating its light on earth…. [The] moon is an important symbol in Lowell's poetry, and it is often described in goddesslike terms or as an unattainable enchantress. The metaphorical dragon, on the other hand, evokes the familiar beast from folklore and legend that holds the princess captive or guards the entrance to a magic castle or cave. Frazer says that dragons are often identified in folktales as water spirits inhabiting and controlling fountains or lakes, and that young women were sometimes sacrificed to them as brides. "Wind and Silver" at least hints at such associations. The moon, a feminine symbol and identified as "she," transforms the ponds into something bestial and alive, a dragon that flashes at her as if to allure or pursue.
And yet the floating moon and the lit ponds have exchanged identities. A similar idea informs "The Sand Altar," which is on the same page as "Wind and Silver" in The Complete Poetical Works, and which can be taken as a companion piece to it.
With a red grain and a blue grain, placed in precisely the proper positions, I made a beautiful god, with plumes of yard-long feathers and a swivel eye.
And with a red grain and a blue grain, placed in precisely the proper positions, I made a dragon, with scaly wings and a curling, iniquitous tail.
Then I reflected:
If, with the same materials, I can make both god and dragon, of what use is the higher mathematics?
Having said this, I went outdoors and stood under a tree and listened to the frogs singing their evening songs in the green darkness.
"The Sand Altar" focuses on the very activity that creates a unity of opposites, thus bringing to consciousness the submerged imaginative operations that resulted in the unifying images and metaphors of "Wind and Silver." In both poems, however, the interconnection or common origin of bestial and ideal images questions the dualistic view of the universe as divided between divine and demonic forces. "The Sand Altar," with its moral (as well as mathematical) perplexity, is a more explicit challenge than "Wind and Silver," but neither poem attempts to state a particular philosophy. Rather, Lowell retreats from her discovery that the same materials produce "both god and dragon," back to external nature, to the neighborhood of ponds, as suggested by the frogs. They sing undisturbed, not to a contrasting image of light, but within a green, encompassing darkness.
We do not always find such suggestiveness and depth in Lowell's pictorial lyrics, but for that matter we do not always find them in any poet. The longer written pictures range from the self-conscious word-painting of the poem immediately preceding "A Bather" and aptly named "Impressionist Picture of a Garden":
Give me sunlight, cupped in a paint brush,
And smear the red of peonies
Over my garden.
Splash blue upon it,
The hard blue of Canterbury bells…
—where there is little more than an itemization of colors and flowers—to the sexually suggestive, eerie garden in "Sultry":
To those who can see them, there are eyes,
Leopard eyes of marigolds crouching above red earth,
Bulging eyes of fruits and rubies in the heavilyhanging trees,
Broken eyes of queasy cupids staring from the gloom of myrtles.
I came here for solitude
And I am plucked at by a host of eyes.
The imagery recalls Lowell's earlier poem, "The Basket," in which a woman eats human eyes as calmly as if they were shelled nuts. Here, a garden of eyes threatens to devour a woman. Seeking solitude, she finds herself the focus of a cunning, waiting nature which, with its eyes of leopards and cupids and bulging red fruit, surrounds her with images of fecundity and an intimidating, almost certainly sexual, power.
At the center of the picture, pointing at her, is a statue of Hermes, a god notorious for his amorous interests and called the "ever-smitten Hermes" by Keats in "Lamia." Lowell would surely be aware of the parallel between her poem and the opening scene of Keats's, in which an invisible, shy nymph is revealed to Hermes by a lamia whose body is marked with leopardlike spots and peacock eyes—after which Hermes sexually possesses the nymph. Lowell's Hermes, in a garden where eyes pluck at her and all of nature seems lewdly voyeuristic, is satyrlike and "more savage than the goat-legged Pan." He catches "men's eyes" with his youth, his manhood, and the reticence of [his] everlasting revelation. Capturing her attention, Hermes forces Lowell to see, to become "a cunning eye" and thus partake in the sexual character of the garden; and he awakens her imagination, causing her to seek in the distant past for the original Hermes, in an attempt to enter the world or reality of his revelation.
She finds the hidden, original force that this "time-gnawed" statue reveals, but it does not renew her:
Yours are the eyes of a bull and a panther,
For all that they are chiselled out and the sockets empty.
Clothed in a garden,
In innumerable gardens,
Borrowing the eyes of fruits and flowers—
And mine also, cold, impossible god,
So that I stare back at myself
And see myself with loathing.
Having originally gone to the garden to be alone, she now sees herself as others, or as nature and Hermes, see her. The intense self-consciousness of staring at herself results in a self-rejection that recalls her fearful prophesy in "A Fairy Tale," that she would "never … be fulfilled by love." But of course "Sultry" is considerably more complex than the early autobiographical poem; Hermes, the object and the cause of sexual awareness, is at once predatory, fruitful, and an empty ruin. And it is not clear whether Lowell's self-hatred results from her admission of her sexual unattractiveness to a Hermes or to any man, or from her rejection of his intimidating and sexually restrictive point of view—a refusal to see herself as a sexual object. Whether the mode of seeing is loathsome, or the woman seen, or both, the experience is destructive, reducing Lowell to a "shadow, tortured out of semblance," who can "see nothing." The vivid picture of a garden of eyes ends in sightlessness.
LOVE POEMS: THE LADY OF HER CHOICE
The single most important figure in Lowell's lyrics is Ada Dwyer Russell, her housemate and companion for the last decade of her life. Dwyer unquestionably gave Lowell emotional ballast and crucial support in the years of controversy and illness that followed 1914. Lowell nicknamed her friend "Peter"—the rock; and she resented and feared the separations caused by Dwyer's occasional visits to her family. Whether the two women were physical lovers has not, to my knowledge, been confirmed. Jean Gould [in Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement, 1975] refers to, but does not elaborate upon, Low ell's "bisexual tendencies" and "psychosexual conflict." Many of Lowell's narratives and monologues … deal with male-female relations, but the tendency of these is to end in frustration ("The Cremona Violin," "The Rosebud Wall-Paper"); bitterness ("Patterns"); or psychic or physical destruction ("The Basket," "The Great Adventure of Max Breuck"). Of course, conflict, tension, and even violence are common elements of narrative, and Lowell's men are as likely to become victims as are her women. Still, just as there is a great difference between the female-centered, nurturing nature of "A Bather" and Hermes' leering, aggressive garden in "Sultry," so the contrast between the narratives about heterosexual love and the love lyrics to Ada Dwyer is striking. The Ada Dwyer poems are marked by tenderness and fulfillment, and often rise to a tone of rapturous adoration.
As the loved one, Dwyer takes on several roles or identities, which Lowell develops in some detail in the section of Pictures of the Floating World called "Two Speak Together," a collection of poems dealing with her and her companion. Dwyer is nature's symbol, a presence that combines and evokes the beautiful flowers and trees in Lowell's garden:
When I think of you, Beloved,
I see a smooth and stately garden
With parterres of gold and crimson tulips
And bursting lilac leaves.
("Mise en Scene")
In "Wheat-in-the-Ear," where she is a radiant gem, a spear that burns, Dwyer combines matter and light, form and energy.
You flash in front of the cedars and the tall spruces,
And I see that you are fire—
Sacrificial fire on a jade altar,
Spear-tongue of white, ceremonial fire.
She is, in the metaphoric "The Weather-Cock Points South," like an unblemished white flower from which Lowell carefully peels the petals.
One by one
I parted you from your leaves,
Until you stood up like a white flower
Swaying slightly in the evening wind.
Again, but even more explicitly than in "A Bather," a woman's body becomes and takes the place of a plant.
The nakedness in "Wheat-in-the-Ear" and the sensuous, figurative disrobing here recall Lowell's fascination with the nude female body. At the same time, Ada Dwyer was past fifty when the "Two Speak Together" poems appeared, and it is unlikely that Lowell meant the nakedness to be taken literally. Rather, her love for the other woman has stripped their relationship of the patterns that restrain and war against passion; or, to take another idea from "Patterns," Dwyer acts out the desire to become one with nature and to reveal her hidden self. She thus shows Lowell a fresh, ageless beauty. Moreover, an image of a jade cup in "Wheat-in-the-Ear" connects her to the more universal symbol of womanhood in "A Bather"—the "chalice" that "holds" the human race.
Ultimately, Dwyer's nakedness is that of an ideal made flesh, a sacramental revelation of holiness or even divinity in human form, and with very different associations from those of Hermes. In "Mise en Scene," Dwyer's shawl flares behind her like the "draperies of a painted Madonna." Two poems later in the sequence, Dwyer is the "Madonna of the Evening Flowers," at whose feet Lowell longs "to kneel." She is also a modern Venus in "Venus Transiens":
Was Venus more beautiful
Than you are,
When she topped
The crinkled waves,
On her plaited shell?
By finding in Dwyer the beauty of the Madonna and of a goddess of love, Lowell combines two usually opposed images of woman.
The religious associations suggested by the Madonna and Venus are carried even further and made more explicit. Dwyer—whose beauty inspired Lowell the poet and whose love sustained Lowell the person—becomes a source of sacramental nourishment, the bread and wine of Lowell's life:
When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.
Only a letter distinguishes between "savour" and "Saviour," thus strengthening the associations with Christ of the bread and wine. In "Orange of Midsummer," Lowell goes beyond the symbolic bread and wine to blood itself, which Dwyer, like Christ, gives her to drink in a cup—in effect, the chalice, which Lowell identifies with womanhood.
"Are you thirsty?" said you,
And held out a cup.
But the water in the cup was scarlet and crimson
Like the poppies in your hands.
"It looks like blood," I said.
"Like blood," you said,
But drink it, my Beloved."
Not surprisingly, when Ada Dwyer is separated from her, Lowell feels empty and desolate; the nights frighten her, and nature seems meaningless or incomplete, as in "Left Behind":
I cannot look at the flowers,
Nor the lifting leaves of the trees.
Without you, there is no garden,
No bright colours,
No shining leaves.
There is only space,
Stretching endlessly forward….
Without Dwyer, a city she is visiting seems "incoherent" and "trivial," and Lowell's "brain aches with emptiness" ("The Sixteenth Floor.") In "Autumn," someone brings Lowell a bright yellow dahlia, an image of "Fecundity." But Dwyer's absence makes Lowell barren, and she offers to send the flower to her friend, who has taken with her "All I once possessed." With Ada Dwyer gone, the center of the garden, of life, falls apart; without its symbolic flower, its nourishing cup, imagination remains passive before the fecund dahlia. In "Frimaire," the last of the "Two Speak Together" poems, Lowell imagines herself and Dwyer as the last two flowers in a late autumn garden, and wonders anxiously about their final separation: which one of them will die first, leaving the other alone? But a haiku, from "The Anniversary" in What's O'clock, states an even closer relationship to her friend, and keeps the flower (and the nourishment) metaphor:
You wrong me, saying:
One death will not kill us both.
Your veins hold my sap.
What's O'Clock also contains the beautiful "Song for a Viola D'Amore," which begins, "The lady of my choice is bright / As a clematis at the touch of night," and which is almost certainly an Ada Dwyer poem; and "Vespers," in which Dwyer is again necessary for nature to have meaning. The foxgloves in the poem would burn to her, as to a Venus or Madonna:
Last night, at sunset,
The foxgloves were like tall altar candles.
Could I have lifted you to the roof of the greenhouse, my Dear,
I should have understood their burning.
"Vespers" is followed by "In Excelsis," the most comprehensive of the Ada Dwyer love poems, the one in which Lowell brings together the various images, symbols, and intimations of the others:
Your shadow is sunlight on a plate of silver;
Your footsteps, the seeding-place of lilies;
Your hands moving, a chime of bells across a windless air.
A profusion of images and details portrays the "you," the loved one, as an encompassing, pervasive force, so that Dwyer's presence—which is like sunlight and water, the sound of bees and wasps, "the perfume of jonquils"—is as close and as vast as that of nature's. As the central figure in the garden, she makes it fruitful—her footsteps are "the seeding place of lilies"; and she feeds, with a sacramental meal, Lowell the gardener: "I drink your lips, / I eat the whiteness of your hands and feet." Though inaccessible as the clouds, the loved one touches the heart mysteriously, like a rainbow. Gould calls "In Excelsis" an "adoration." And in fact, more than anything else, it resembles a modern psalm, a devotional hymn not just to Ada Dwyer, who is not named in any of these poems, but to the redeeming power of love—a human force that virtually takes the place of God and gives meaning and beauty to life, prompting Lowell to respond with "those things" that make her a poet.
But though the lover feels the wonder and power of love, the experience is not the transcendental visitation that came upon the early romantics; nor does Lowell, who once thought of writing a book on Matthew Arnold, seek relief from a Victorian crisis of faith. The experience remains finite, within the familiar world of earth and sky, and the lovers do not have to remain true to each other for protection against a world that is not as true or beautiful as it seemed. Rather, Lowell sings "Glory! Glory!" because Dwyer's presence and love have lit the darkling plain.
SPRING AND FALL: INTIMATIONS OF MORTALITY
In "Frimaire," as already mentioned, Lowell wonders whether she or Ada Dwyer will be the first to die. In "Penumbra," the poem immediately preceding "Frimaire," Lowell thinks of her own death, and wonders what it will be like for Dwyer then. Lowell claims that she will not really be absent, because her house and garden, her pictures and books, which she has known so long and loved so well, will speak to Dwyer for her. But in "The Garden by Moonlight," Lowell directs her companion to a row of orange lilies. "They knew my mother," she says, "But who belonging to me will they know / When I am gone." Despite the high spirits that she showed almost to the end, Lowell thought about mortality more as she grew older and more infirm, and in some of the finest of her later lyrics she took up such issues as the possibilities of permanence in a world governed by change, and explored the connections between time present and time lost.
Two companion poems in What's O'Clock, "Lilacs" and "Purple Grackles," juxtapose the two seasons spring and fall, with "Lilacs" celebrating the spring that the flower stands for—"May is lilac here in New England"—and "Purple Grackles" memorializing the death of summer as signaled by the birds clustering in the fall. From May in the one poem to September in the other, a season of fulfillment changes into a time portending decay.
"Lilacs" represents the best of the familiar Lowell, the Lowell commonly identified as a word-painter, or imagist turned into an elaborate chronicler of bright surfaces:
Colour of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
But the lilacs provide more than a colorful picture. As the lilacs "are everywhere" now, so they "were everywhere" in the past, thus connecting the present with an earlier New England. Now they watch a deserted house. Earlier, they "tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon," and "flaunted the fragrance" of their blossoms "Through the wide doors of Custom Houses … When a ship was in from China." Like sirens of nature, the lilacs tempt the "quill-driving" Custom House clerks until they writhe on their high stools and write poetry "on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers." The scene is like a page out of Wordsworth. Quit your books, the lilacs seem to be saying, "May is a month for flitting." But unlike Wordsworth, Lowell makes no claim for a greater moral wisdom in nature. The lilacs simply oppose their beauty to the pursuit of profit, as they stir the restless imaginations of a people devoted to commerce.
Immigrants themselves, moreover, like the New Englanders, the lilacs have spread "From Canada to Narragansett Bay" to become the symbol or emblem of the region's inner self: "You are the great flood of our souls / Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts." Lowell's language makes one body, one being, out of the flowers and the people—the "heart-shaped leaves" of the one matching and mirroring the leaf-shaped "hearts" of the other. The common identity is pressed even closer in the "heartleaves" of the poem's beautiful final lines:
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilacs in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.
As the speaker turns herself into a lilac, thus both personifying the flower and using it as a metaphor for herself, self-discovery and the recognition of a collective, lasting regional identity take place together.
In What's O'Clock, "Lilacs" is immediately followed by "Purple Grackles," and as the season changes from May to September, so does the color of the landscape to the darker purple and black of the grackles. Unlike the deeprooted, permanent lilacs, moreover, the grackles are only temporary visitors, stopping each year for a short stay in Lowell's garden on their migration south. Their sudden appearance startles and delights her, and though its meaning is essentially somber, the poem opens with an amused, celebratory welcoming of the birds:
The grackles have come.
The smoothness of the morning is puckered with
their incessant chatter.
A sociable lot, these purple grackles,
Thousands of them strung across a long run of wind,
Thousands of them beating the air-ways with quick wing-jerks,
Spinning down the currents of the South.
Her attitude even becomes whimsical as Lowell wonders if the grackles are perhaps really blackberries, they cluster in the trees so thickly, or like highwaymen and thieves, except that they are so loud and unstealthy. Only when she realizes that they are stealing her summer does a different note enter, for the dark birds force her to see that her "hydrangea blooms are rusty," that the golden hearts of the flowers are changing to "lusterless seeds," and that the sun is as pale as a shrinking lemon. She "did not see this yesterday, / But to-day the grackles have come."
Though the seasonal changes are taking place as close to Lowell as her own garden, and though the grackles envelop her, she does not become one with them or their world as she did with the lilacs. Even when the antics of the birds delight her, as when they use her rainfilled gutter for bathing because she has not provided them with a suitable bath, her language suggests that she remains indoors, watching them from behind the safety of her window. She speaks of herself as their host, but knows that they do not take her into account or consider her important:
Appropriating my delightful gutter with so extravagant an ease,
You are as cool a pirate as ever scuttled a ship,
And are you not scuttling my Summer with every peck of your sharp bill?
It is an amusing, even a touching scene, and the one in which Lowell comes closest to the foreign, animal independence of the grackles—to the otherness of nature. She addresses the bird, as she repeatedly did the lilacs, with the conversational "you." Elsewhere in the poem she uses the more distant and impersonal "they." But Lowell can come this close to the grackles because her window separates her from them; and the scene as a whole, an incident in the "scuttling" of her summer, underscores her helplessness as a human to do anything about the changes that nature brings.
While she can "only stare stupidly out of the window," the grackles depart as suddenly and mysteriously as they arrived, "and it is a year gone by":
And I watch an Autumn storm
Stripping the garden,
Shouting black rain challenges
To an old, limp Summer
Laid down to die in the flower-beds.
Tragedy has evolved out of whimsical, comic beginnings, as a world full of movement and sound becomes old and limp, and as a deadly black rain replaces the lively black birds. The world of "Lilacs" seems far removed, yet its companion poem mourns for the world that poem celebrated.
Taken together, "Lilacs" and "Purple Grackles" encompass the spring and fall of external nature. "On Looking at a Copy of Alice Meynell's Poems" moves the cycle inward to the soul's experiences of youth and age, past and present. Lowell's friend Frances Dabney had given her the volume of Meynell's poems in the late 1890s, while the two of them were in Devonshire, England, where Lowell hoped to shake off a severe nervous depression. Reading the book again, after Meynell's death in 1922, Lowell recalls that earlier painful time when she and Dabney read it first:
You gave this book to me to ease
The smart in me you could not heal.
Your gift a mirror—woe or weal.
We sat beneath the apple-trees.
And I remember how they rang,
These words, like bronze cathedral bells
Down ancient lawns, or citadels
Thundering with gongs where choirs sang.
Silent the sea, the earth, the sky,
And in my heart a silent weeping.
Who has not sown can know no reaping!
Bitter conclusion and no lie.
O heart that sorrows, heart that bleeds,
Heart that was never mine, your words
Were like the pecking Autumn birds
Stealing away my garnered seeds.
No future where there is no past!
O cherishing grief which laid me bare,
I wrapped you like a wintry air
About me. Poor enthusiast!
Lowell remembers her early womanhood, not as the traditional springtime of youth, but as a barren, bitter season. The Meynell poems, in which she sees herself as in a "mirror," are like a "wintry air," or "Autumn birds" stealing the last of her pent-up, unfruitful feelings. The silent, almost colorless landscape of the beginning of the poem also mirrors, and is made the projection of, her silent suffering, while a ship that "sleeps" motionlessly for three hours symbolizes the inertia of her feelings, the state she is stuck in. Yet while the landscape portrays her, her condition remains invisible to her friend. Instead of intimacy and sharing between the two women, there is separation and blindness. Lowell remembers Dabney with kindness, but a harsh accusation—were you made of "wood or stone?"—reveals her essential loneliness, her sense of being in the company of a stranger instead of a friend. Even Meynell's poems, in which Lowell finds a fellow sufferer in a stranger, seem distant and of another time, like cathedral bells over "ancient lawns" or thunderings in empty choir lofts—with Lowell's image echoing Shakespeare's powerful metaphor for the autum of life: "those boughs which shake against the cold / Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." Lowell's fear, moreover, in what should be the springtime of her life, is that she will have no harvest, will "know no reaping." In 1899 she had not yet discovered the outlet of poetry, but rather finds her feelings appropriated and expressed in the verses of another. In more than one sense of the term, then, she has come to a "Bitter conclusion."
The last stanzas of the poem return to the present. The episode seems "strange" in 1922, when Lowell can remember but is no longer possessed by the griefs of 1899. Meynell's poems do not move her as they did, or ring like bells, but are simply well-crafted lines fading into the past they belong to: "The ink is pale, the letters fade. / The verses seem to be well made." Reminding her that the time that they mirrored is dead, they lead her to think of death—first Dabney's, then Meynell's:
And you are dead these drifted years,
How many I forget. And she
Who wrote the book, her tragedy
Long since dried up its scalding tears.
I read of her death yesterday,
Frail lady whom I never knew
And knew so well. Would I could strew
Her grave with pansies, blue and grey.
Would I could stand a little space
Under a blowing, brightening sky,
And watch the sad leaves fall and lie
Gently upon that lonely place.
So cried her heart, a feverish thing.
But clay is still, and clay is cold,
And I was young, and I am old,
And in December what birds sing!
In effect, the poem portrays a spiritual wasteland, the soul's encounter with desolate or destructive truths. Though the present has moved beyond the past, there is little indication of a change for the better in the quarter century since Lowell first read Meynell. If anything, as the last surviver of the trio in the poem, her loneliness is even more complete. Time brings death, not renewal, and the autumn landscape remains or edges closer to winter, when the autumn of harvesting birds changes into birdless December. Like the motionless ship, like Lowell's old nervous prostration, the seasonal cycle gets stuck and breaks down.
Thus, the In Memoriam stanza that Lowell had used in one of her earliest poems is particularly appropriate for this, one of her last. For "On Looking at a Copy of Alice Meynell's Poems" is a memorial to all three of the women in it: to the well-meaning but imperceptive friend who became a stranger, to the poet whose tragedy has long since cooled, and to the earlier self from whom Lowell is as separated now as she is from the other two. Not only have past emotions and relationships died, they have left little trace in the present; their having been brings little comfort. Hence, Lowell does not recall the past to keep it in memory, but to have done with it:
Go, wistful book, go back again
Upon your shelf and gather dust.
I've seen the glitter through the rust
Of old, long years, I've known the pain.
I've recollected both of you,
But I shall recollect no more.
Between us I must shut the door.
The living have so much to do.
Perhaps not all is dark in this essentially dark and troubled poem, which is itself a hard-won harvest of the past, despite Lowell's fear that she would know no reaping of her old suffering. The distant emotions still glitter through the rust of time, even if they can no longer be felt. And she looks ahead to the business of living. But even here, Lowell speaks with more resignation than eagerness or sense of triumph over mortality, in a tone not unlike that of Hopkins when, in another poem about isolation and hoarded pain, he called himself "a lonely began."
The "Alice Meynell" poem is powerful in its very negations—its sense of helplessness, loss, and the corroding, killing years. A sonnet to Eleanora Duse, one of six written at about the same time as "Alice Meynell," deals just as honestly with similar ideas, but celebrates the power of a soul to survive the years and even grow more luminous as mortality approaches:
Seeing you stand once more before my eyes
In your pale dignity and tenderness,
Wearing your frailty like a misty dress
Draped over the great glamour which denies
To years their domination, all disguise
Time can achieve is but to add a stress,
A finer fineness, as though some caress
Touched you a moment to a strange surprise.
Lowell had not seen Duse since 1902, when she was inspired by the actress to write her first poem. Now, in 1923, Duse was sixty-five years old, gaunt, white haired, and, like Lowell, near death. But in the sonnet, the frail body is only an outward, almost transparent dress, through which Lowell can see and affirm something that is permanent or eternal, so that "after these long lengths of years … the glory come[s] again"—thus uniting past and present as one time. Duse, though not idealized as a Madonna or a Venus, but merely human, becomes Lowell's symbol of man's victory over time. Though the body ages, it is not vanquished by time, but becomes more spiritual. And all time can do to the soul is give a finer edge to its power to transcend time.
In what G. R. Ruihley aptly calls "those superb images of renewal and healing in the concluding lines of the poem," [in The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered, 1975] Lowell extends the power to defeat time into nature, making it a natural principle or force—in the sun that shines through shafts of rain; in the moon, Lowell's familiar symbol of transcendent beauty, lighting up a sick man's bed; in the daffodils, flowers of spring, growing in a waste of leaves. Images of spring and fall, the promising and the perishing, appear together in a beautifully written traditional sonnet in which Lowell uses the precision and natural speech of the New Poetry. And like most of Lowell's best work, it is faithful to the appearance and inquiring into the mysteries of life.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415
Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975, 372 p.
Biography of Lowell that emphasizes her role as a leading figure among the Imagist poets.
Sprague, Rosemary. "Amy Lowell." In Imaginary Gardens: A Study of Five American Poets, pp. 49-96. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1969.
Largely biographical exploration of Lowell's career that highlights her efforts as a poetic innovator and experimenter.
Aiken, Conrad. "The Technique of Polyphonic Prose: Amy Lowell." In Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry, pp. 115-25. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919.
Outlines the artistic limitations of Lowell's Can Grande's Castle.
Ambrose, Jane P. "Amy Lowell and the Music of Her Poetry." The New England Quarterly LXII, No. 1 (March 1989): 45-62.
Analysis of musical elements in Lowell's poetry.
Ayscough, Florence. "Amy Lowell and the Far East." The Bookman LXIII, No. 1 (March 1926): 11-18.
Overview of Lowell's Oriental poems in which Ayscough recounts the experiments in technique Lowell conducted during their collaboration.
Flint, F. Cudworth. Amy Lowell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969, 48 p.
Biographical and critical assessment of Lowell's literary career.
Katz, Michael. "Amy Lowell and the Orient." Comparative Literature Studies XVIII, No. 2 (June 1981): 124-40.
Discusses Far Eastern influences in Lowell's poetry as far back as Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914).
Macleish, Archibald. "Amy Lowell and the Art of Poetry." North American Review CCXXI (March 1925): 508-21.
Praises Lowell's talents and asserts her poetic significance.
Schwartz, William Leonard. "A Study of Amy Lowell's Far Eastern Verse." Modern Language Notes XLIII, No. 3 (March 1928): 145-52.
Concludes that Lowell was more a propagandist than an interpreter of Far Eastern poetry.
Untermeyer, Louis. "Amy Lowell." In American Poetry Since 1900, pp. 135-56. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1923.
Lauds Lowell's poetic versatility and technical virtuosity.
Walker, Cheryl. "Amy Lowell and the Androgynous Persona." In Masks: Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets, pp. 16-43. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Interprets Lowell's poetry from a feminist perspective, analyzing the politics of gender in her writings.
Wood, Clement. Amy Lowell. New York: Harold Vinal, 1926, 185 p.
Critical study of Lowell that reveals a consistent contempt for her work.
Kilmer, Joyce. "The New Spirit in Poetry: Amy Lowell." In Literature in the Making by Some of Its Makers, pp. 253—62. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917.
Interview in which Kilmer elicits Lowell's theories of poetry.
Additional coverage of Lowell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 54, 140; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8.