Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Constraints Placed on Life by Systems of Convention
The idea of patterns, from which the poem gets its name, has to do with patterns of form and custom. The speaker's life, like the landscaping of her garden or her brocaded gown, is a kind of pattern: everything is beautiful, but hard and fixed. The pattern is a set of rules for living in a pretty way, but obeying the rules comes at a high cost. In fulfilling the pattern, the speaker feels at a greater distance from herself and the life she might access otherwise.
The garden itself is a kind of pattern, one that is both constraining and liberating. On the one hand, the garden is a "maze" of "patterned paths" along which her lover pursues her, but on the other hand it also serves as a kind of container for her grief after she learns of his death.
War, too, is described as an arbitrary pattern which claims men's lives without offering equivalent value or consolation.
Restrictions Placed on Women's Sexual and Emotional Lives
The speaker is constricted by the role she has to play as an upper-class woman. Lowell conveys this through the image of the brocaded gown she wears, which is stiff and hard: "Not a softness anywhere about me, / Only whale-bone and brocade." The speaker's hardness is contrasted with the softness and color of the daffodils and "bright blue squills" of her garden, as well as with the soft woman beneath her dress.
Indeed, the speaker longs to embrace her "passion," which "wars" against her "stiff brocade." She weeps because, unlike the flowers around her, she is fixed and unaffected by the breeze. Yet she knows that "underneath my stiffened gown" there is a soft woman "bathing in a marble fountain." She imagines herself bathing naked in a fountain, guessing that her lover is hiding somewhere near, possibly watching her. The water on her skin is like the "stroking of a dear / Hand upon her," and this sexual longing continues as she imagines herself "pink and silver" running through the garden while her lover chases her, "Till he caught me in the shade, / And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me."
The poem as a whole contrasts the sexual fantasy of being naked with one's lover in a garden with the bleak reality of being clothed in a hard shell and unable—given society's constraints on women's sexuality and love—to access these aspects of life. The speaker's imagination is the only way of breaking out of the pattern that constrains her.
Imagination and Art as Providers of Agency
The speaker's final question—"Christ! What are patterns for?"—raises the question of why she allows herself to live the way she does and calls into question, perhaps, her fantasy of life with her lover. Her fantasy is an expression of her longing to break out of the "pattern" of respectability that constrains her. In that sense, it is a prelude to action, but in another sense the poem ends with a note of hopelessness, as she resigns herself to the prison of the clothing she wears, which guards her "from embrace / By each button, hook, and lace." Even though it seems like her hope to break out of a pattern or to start a new one has died with her fiancé, it also seems that the poem itself (written in the first person from the speaker's own point of view) is evidence of defiant expression of individual desire and thus a sort of radical agency in itself.