A short poem in free verse, “Meeting-House Hill” contains a single stanza composed of twenty-five lines. Although the title may be taken literally because Amy Lowell is describing the scene of an actual meeting house at the top of a hill, it also serves as a metaphor for the convergence of two cultures. The poem is written in the first person. As the speaker of the poem, Lowell addresses the reader directly, sharing her experience of observing the beauty of two vividly described scenes, one real and one imagined.
The first fifteen lines focus on the scene immediately before Lowell: the blue bay, the church in the city square, the spire reaching toward the sky. In line 16 this perspective changes as Lowell imagines seeing a clipper ship in the distance. The final nine lines describe the imaginary ship in as much detail as the actual scene that lies before her.
Lowell shows that the simple charm of an ordinary New England church matches the more exotic beauty of a “tea-clipper” returning from China. In so doing she moves the reader from the familiar reality of the meeting house to the imagined enchantment of the ship with its cargo of “green and blue porcelain.” Focusing her attention on the ship and the “Chinese coolie” on its deck, she seems to wonder how the church would appear to him as he gazes at it from the ship. As Lowell reflects on the beauty of the two scenes, she shares with the reader the intense emotion she experiences when she perceives the blending of the two cultures into one image of spiritual beauty.
Coming from the wealthy and distinguished Lowell family of New England, Lowell traveled extensively in foreign countries. In contrasting the familiar loveliness of the church with the beauty of a tea-clipper just back from Canton, China, she reveals her fascination with ships and ocean travel and her appreciation for the beauty of foreign scenes. The poem reflects her lifelong interest in the Far East. In collaboration with Florence Ayscough, she published a collection of translations of ancient Chinese poetry, Fir Flower Tablets, in 1921. Her work was also influenced by her study of the concise haiku form of Japanese poetry, which is devoted to some aspect of nature. With its visual images, concern with shapes and moods of nature, and suggestion of a divine presence, “Meeting-House Hill” reflects the major qualities of the haiku.
In “Meeting-House Hill” Lowell employs a technique that became her trademark: word painting. The visual images provide an impression of reality that approximates the style used by Impressionist painters of the nineteenth century. Impressionist painting was characterized by short brush strokes, bright colors, and the play of light on objects. Lowell provides a word picture of the church through direct observation of the natural elements. Through her powers of intuition she extends the emotional experience to include the depiction of the ship that exists only in her mind.
Alliteration is the poem’s most obvious poetic device. Lowell employs a variety of alliterative techniques to achieve a harmonious effect. In the phrases “blue bay beyond” and “shrill and sweet to me like the sudden springing of a tune,” repetition of the initial consonant sound occurs in words within the same line. A more subtle form of alliteration occurs in the poem’s first three lines, each of which ends with a word beginning with the letter t: “I must be mad, or very tired,/ When the curve of a blue bay beyond a railroad track/ Is shrill and sweet to me like the sudden springing of a tune.”
(This entire section contains 513 words.)
other instances alliteration comes from repetition of initial consonant sounds from previous lines. The following passage, for example, compares the church to the ancient Parthenon of Greece and later refers to the “pillars of its portico”: “Amazes my eyes as though it were the Parthenon./ Clear, reticent, superbly final,/ With the pillars of its portico refined to a cautious elegance.” Lowell enhances the alliterative effect by repeating the initialr sound of “rising” in the second syllable of “unresisting” in “Rising into an unresisting sky.” These variations imbue the words with a melodious quality and create a sense of balance in the form of the poem.
Lowell is known as an Imagist, one who stresses clarity and succinctness in presenting poetic images. Sensuous imagery and precise economy of words characterize her poem. In describing the scenes she uses images of color. The whiteness of the church that “amazes” her eyes suggests purity. The green and blue colors of the porcelain in the hold of the imagined ship represent the sea and sky, as well as the beauty of East Asian art. In the phrase “curve of a blue bay,” color combines with shape to create a vivid image.
In addition to the sight images, Lowell includes sounds engaging the aural sense and atmospheric images that appeal to the thermal sense. The light, high sounds coming “shrill and sweet” like the “sudden springing of a tune” capture her attention even before she sees the church. Atmospheric images add to the sensory impression. The church spire is “cool,” and the ship’s sails are “straining before a two-reef breeze.”
The poem does not follow a set metrical pattern; instead it intertwines lines as long as sixteen to eighteen syllables with lines of only five to six syllables. Like the brush strokes of an Impressionist painting, short lines containing only one-or two-syllable words strengthen Lowell’s imagery.