“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” does not begin like an elegy, focusing instead on Lowell’s childhood affection for his grandfather Winslow and his distance from his own parents. It begins, “’I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa!’” Grandfather Winslow’s world was one of adventure and freedom. “the decor/ was manly, comfortable,/ overbearing, disproportioned.” At his farm are photographs of silver mines and “pitchers of ice-tea,/ oranges, lemons, mints, and peppermints,/ and the jug of shandygaff.” Most significant is the fact that “[n]o one had died there in my lifetime.” The boy (young Lowell) is busy playing with a “pile of black earth” and one of “lime,” an image of play and death that runs through the poem.
The pastoral innocence of the first part of the poem is swiftly challenged. The boy is now inappropriately dressed and is described as a “stuffed toucan/ with a bibulous, multicolored beak.” There is a recognition of failure; Great Aunt Sara had once slaved away at perfecting her ability on the piano, only to fail to appear at the recital. She now plays on a “dummy” and “noiseless” piano. Uncle Devereux, however, is still as young as the posters and photographs that fill the cottage he is closing “for the winter.” Suddenly, reality intrudes upon the stasis of old photographs: “My Uncle was dying at twenty-nine.” Devereux resists the fact of death by sailing with his wife “for Europe on a last honeymoon” in a joyous affirmation of life. His parents are shocked at his seeming frivolity. The child has altered as well; he becomes an observer of bizarre and unfamilial behavior, an accomplice rather than an innocent child.
The last part of the poem contrasts Devereux’s appearance with his fate. He appears to be “as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse,” but he is “dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease.” The last image of the poem is of the boy mixing “earth and lime,/ a black pile and a white pile.” He becomes a mythic figure sifting the sands of life and death; the innocent play of the earlier image of mixing earth and lime has become ominous. The last two lines have a child’s simplicity and all the weight of fact: “Come winter,/ Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.”
“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” is an unusual elegy. It mourns the loss not only of a person but also of a hitherto unchanging and innocent world. Another change from the traditional elegy is that the main focus is the boy, not Uncle Devereux. His loss of innocence, his being cast out of an Edenic refuge, seems to be stressed much more than the actual death of Devereux Winslow. Lowell has expanded the usual range of the elegy to include the observer and a whole society.