The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” is a richly autobiographical poem of 152 lines, divided into four parts. The shortest part is an eleven-line description of the poet at only five-and-a-half, dressed in a sailor blouse; the longest parts (I and IV) are about fifty lines each and narrate an account of Robert Lowell’s memory of a young uncle, who was shortly to die of Hodgkin’s disease. Lowell’s Life Studies volume (1959), to which this poem makes a significant contribution, contains many clearly rendered portraits of the poet and his extended, old-moneyed family. These poems mark a turning away from the well-wrought, high modernist poems of Lowell’s youth to personal, unguarded, and even “confessional” poems, as they were called by early critics. The later poems came out of Lowell’s battles with mental illness, his brief imprisonment as a conscientious objector, his difficulties in love and marriage, and his rich memories of the Bostonian Lowells and Winslows. In this poem, the portrait of three Winslow generations—grandparents, parents, and child—is wonderfully restrained, at times charming, and finally disturbing.

After the title there stands a caption: “1922: the stone porch of my Grandfather’s summer house.” Part I has several verse paragraphs devoted to this setting. The small child, Robert, is sitting on his grandfather Winslow’s porch; nearby, a tenant farmer has placed a pile of earth and lime in preparation for mixing cement for a root-house. This is a...

(The entire section is 626 words.)