Last Updated November 3, 2023.
“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 shadeOf a lime tree. For my passionWars 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 gownIs the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,A basin in the midst of hedges grownSo thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,But she guesses he is near,And the sliding of the waterSeems the stroking of a dearHand 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,”...
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“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.