Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

Lowell is a twentieth century writer whose preoccupation with the dark side of human nature and of modern culture led him to a study of the American colonial mind. No more an apologist for Puritanism than was Nathaniel Hawthorne in the nineteenth century, he could not on the other hand accept the optimistic tradition in American letters that, beginning with Edwards’s contemporary Benjamin Franklin and proceeding through the transcendentalists of Lowell’s New England and Walt Whitman, discounted or minimized the effects of what Puritans had generally identified as original sin.

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Edwards, born only three years before Franklin, exemplifies a religious commitment about to yield to a rationalist, humanist, and increasingly secular outlook. Edwards was a brilliant conservative fighting a rearguard action against irresistible change. Although destined to fail, Edwards unflinchingly faced the reality of powers that defy and belie purely rationalist accounts of human nature. In doing away with an angry God, the generations after Edwards were banishing the most plausible available explanation for many of the afflictions that have since become likely to be summed up in an expression such as “the human condition.”

Beginning in his second stanza, Lowell has Edwards address a “you” who remains unspecified until the fifth stanza, when the addressee becomes Hawley, for Edwards as well as for his readers a disturbing example of deviant human behavior. It is easy enough—too easy, in fact—to see Hawley as the victim of ministerial mischief, a precarious temperament driven into psychosis by a kind of religious reign of terror. Such a characterization, however, ignores the fact that the modern world has its Josiah Hawleys, too.

Edwards himself would not have characterized death as “the Black Widow,” as Lowell does, but death was nevertheless a terrible prospect to one who could not be sure whether he was destined for heaven or hell. Compounding that dilemma, Lowell’s Edwards asks, “How will the heart endure?” and wonders what a life is worth. The poem seems to seek an explanation for the guilt that so many people feel (including rejectors of Calvinism). It questions the disappearance in recent times of the majestic calm that leading intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau displayed while upholding self-reliance as an antidote to the mind troubled by a legacy of sin and corruption.

For many readers, “To die and know it” means something different from what it would mean to Edwards. Lowell’s black widow has no anger to appease, and no appeal is possible. Lowell has Edwards ask the question “But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?” For Lowell, it is less a moral question than a psychological one. His Edwards continues to be a kindred spirit despite the death of his theology, for even if his answers are not sufficient, at least he knew how to ask the right questions.

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