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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

“Patterns” is a 1917 modernist poem written by American poet Amy Lowell. Originally published in the magazine The Little Review , the poem received positive attention, and “Patterns” became one of the most popular poems in Lowell’s literary opus. Filled with rich and vivid imagery, the poem tells the story...

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“Patterns” is a 1917 modernist poem written by American poet Amy Lowell. Originally published in the magazine The Little Review, the poem received positive attention, and “Patterns” became one of the most popular poems in Lowell’s literary opus. Filled with rich and vivid imagery, the poem tells the story of a woman who yearns for the love of her late fiancé, who has tragically been killed in the war. “Patterns” is not a typical love poem; rather, it is a poem about a love that should have been and the systems that made it impossible.

The main patterns the poem addresses—such as the limited roles allowed for women, symbolized by the speaker’s gown, and the “pattern called a war”—are underscored by the poem’s form, in which repetition and rhyme are held in tension against the inconsistent line lengths and lack of overall rhyme scheme. The first stanza, for instance, repeats several phrases in various iterations (e.g., “I walk down the garden paths,” “I walk down the patterned garden paths,” and “I wander down / The garden paths”) and rhymes in an unpredictable abbacdeca sequence. (It should also be noted that “fan,” which is marked as d in the rhyme scheme given above, presents a near or slant rhyme with “gown” and “down,” represented above as c.) These formal tensions mirror the tension between the organic—that is, the body, nature, love, desire, and so on—and the patterns civilization imposes upon it, which the speaker ultimately realizes offer more harm than good.

The poem proceeds by the juxtaposition of sensuous and tactile imagery—which is tied to the fluidity of nature and feeling—with stiff, intricate, and artificial images that reinforce the rigid patterning of civilized society. The woman’s clothing and adornment are described as “stiff,” “rigid,” “brocaded,” “powdered,” “jewelled,” “Boned and stayed,” and (most tellingly, perhaps) “correct.” In direct contrast, Lowell describes the blooming flowers of the woman’s garden, which “Flutter in the breeze / As they please,” and the “splashing of waterdrops / In the marble fountain.” The sensations of the outside world around her induce a sensuous dream state in the speaker; as Lowell writes in the second stanza, the woman’s passion is aligned with nature’s flow and set in direct contrast to her patterned gown:

I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade. 

The “dripping” of the water in her fountain reminds the woman of her own body and desire, which are initially dissociated from the woman’s first-person narration by the use of the third person (“she” and “her”) and described as both truly and figuratively below the artificial entrapment of her gown: 

Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker returns to the use of the first person (“I”) to more specifically describe her dreamlike vision of herself and her lover, and continues to describe her dream using the conditional mood—a tense which Lowell begins to use at the end of the previous stanza:

What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

The speaker’s fantasy proceeds by lines like “I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,” “he would stumble after,” and “I would choose / To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths.” These uses of “would” and “should” serve both to prolong the fantasy state, stringing it along through each detail, and to continually remind the reader that it is indeed fantasy. (These verb tenses also presage a similar choice in describing the speaker’s loss: “In a month he would have been my husband. / In a month, here, underneath this lime, / We would have broke the pattern.”) The image of consummation in the fourth stanza does, however, return to the usual past tense:

. . . he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.

Through this, it is as if the speaker has truly united with her lover in the only way possible after his death: through the use of imagination and language.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

An eighteenth century Englishwoman walks through an elegantly patterned garden. The carefully arranged garden paths and flower beds cause her to reflect that her society has similarly arranged her, seeing to it that she will passively endure her stiff, brocaded gown, her powdered hair, and a jewelled fan after the fashion of the day. Although her pink and silver gown and high-heeled ribboned shoes are decorative, the woman feels imprisoned, sealed off from the softness and passion of her heart, her true self.

At first she feels that both she and the flowers are locked into rigid patterns, but she begins to realize that her situation is mocked by the wider liberty of nature. Inspired by the greater freedom of the flowers and trees, she passes a marble fountain and sees herself bathing nude in the basin, all the while imagining that her lover is hiding in the nearby hedge, observing her. Continuing the fantasy, she imagines the water sliding over her body as would her lover’s hand. The sensuality of summer makes her wish to shed her restrictive, conventionally feminine clothing for a newly liberated body whose nudity expresses a more desirable combination of pink and silver.

She imagines herself running fluidly through the maze of paths, laughing, pursued by her lover, who will eventually catch and embrace her, the buttons of his military uniform pressing sensuously against her flesh, allowing her to achieve the erotic release she has been seeking. Her desire is to be free and, by exposing and then contrasting her nude body to his military uniform, to free him as well. In reality, the woman’s body is still in its heavy, fussy clothing, and she can release herself only in dream and wishful thinking.

Her sense of frustration is explained more fully when the reader learns that in her bosom is a letter brought that morning which informs her that her lover, Lord Hartwell, has died in action while serving under his commander, the duke, in Flanders. This revelation further explains the entrapment and despair she has felt while walking in a seemingly beautiful and tranquil garden. Although in another month they would have been man and wife, the woman now regards the future as a meaningless cycle of seasons in which, winter or summer, she will pace her manicured garden forlornly, her body stiffened by the stays, bones, and buttons of her repressive clothing. In addition to the constraints of her patterned garden and of her clothing, which reflect her society’s regulation of her sexuality and personal freedom, she realizes that the business of war is an even more crushing pattern that has intruded into her life. Reflecting on war’s official and socially sanctioned pattern of aggression, the woman reaches a catharsis by taking the name of Christ in vain. This daring profanity is followed by a defiant questioning of the meaning of all the societal patterns that have controlled her life and shaped her destiny.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

“Patterns” is a poem composed in the light of the Imagist movement in modern poetry, for which Amy Lowell had great sympathy. She eventually became one of its major proponents and leaders. Imagists sought to break with the traditional forms of poetry, preferring unrhymed and unmetered (“free”) verse and a more colloquial, economical diction closer to prose or to the rhythms of speech. In “Patterns,” her best-known poem, Lowell used an irregular rhyme scheme to suggest that expression must follow the movement of the natural speaking voice rather than customary poetic diction. The lack of formal constraints in “Patterns” creates a free-flowing style that passes effortlessly from verse to prose and back again, according to the mood or emotional needs of the narrative voice.

Although Lowell employs recognizable poetic devices, she is also using her poem as a way to tell a story—complete with a heroine and a supporting set of characters—as a piece of prose would. This story of a woman in crisis is facilitated through the technique of dramatic monologue, which allows the poet to explore the psychology of her narrator. In addition, dramatic monologue reinforces Lowell’s conviction that poetry is an oral art that should be heard to be completely understood. The woman’s unaffected but impassioned human cry of pain at the end suggests a speaking voice breaking out in anguished spontaneity.

The lack of a formal rhyme scheme in “Patterns” does not mean that Lowell is simply writing a form of cut-up prose. While not following a strict meter, the lines in “Patterns” can be defined as loosely iambic and as having from two to four accents a line with varying numbers of syllables. More important, the poem is composed of interweaving sound patterns that establish a musical or cadenced rhythm. This musicality is one of the attributes of “Patterns” that distinguishes it from that of a prose narrative. In addition, Lowell uses such formal poetic devices as internal rhymes (quills, daffodils), end rhymes (brocade, shade), assonance (paths, patterned, daffodils), and consonance (gown, fan). It is this interplay between formal devices and freer verse that is also germane to the poem’s theme of the necessary balance between freedom and constraint.

A final important aspect of “Patterns” is Lowell’s selection of vivid images. Readers must draw their own inferences from her images, however—she feels no need to supply an extended explanatory commentary. When the narrator is brought the letter announcing the death of her lover, for example, the letters on the page are compared to writhing snakes. This image may call to mind the serpent in the Garden of Eden, bringing sin and death, but Lowell does not provide this interpretation herself, instead letting the image resonate in its own way for each reader. The poem’s economical but sensuous images especially concern the garden and the gown, and when these images are carried from stanza to stanza, one begins to understand that they are also being deployed as symbols. For instance, the imagery of the woman’s gown, with its stiffness and its stays, develops into a symbol of society’s cruel repression of healthy instinct.

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