Last Updated on January 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468
“Patterns” centers on the unmet needs of a love-starved woman. While the woman in the poem yearns for an ecstatic eroticism, her civilization has denied her a sexually responsive identity. Her unbearably constricted clothing articulates the theme of a world that has instituted a set of social controls that do not accommodate or recognize female sexuality. She is trapped in a system that has deprived her of her inmost identity as a passionate, sensual, and free-spirited young woman. Psychologically, her emotional state suggests suppressed hysteria, the result of a society that requires female passivity and affords few opportunities for spontaneous expression of feeling. A corollary of this theme is that of the female body. Although her social mask is that of a decorous product of her society, the socially constructed femininity represented by her gown and the formal garden acts as a prison for her body, which yearns to be free. This awareness of her own body is an inherently enlivening one, leading her to think of the fulfilling experience of sexual love.
Like her garden, which is perfectly pruned and arranged after the custom of the day, the lady is likewise beautifully organized. However, as she paces along the mazelike patterns of her garden, she feels imprisoned in a social system and in a false identity that denies her what she truly wants. A woman’s capacity for passion and its cruel restriction becomes a figure for yet another theme—the general denial of personal freedom in a repressive society. Just as the form of the poem contains both free-flowing elements and formal poetic devices, the image of the woman’s nude body pressed against her lover in uniform indicates an eroticism based on the balanced interplay of nature and cultural order. It is the one-sided, overly masculine and puritanical dominance over both the natural world and women’s lives that is the problem; the poem suggests that it is necessary to permit the sense of freedom and guilt-free sensuality, associated here with the female body, to act as a welcome counterpoise to the claims of civilization.
The final theme in the poem is of war. The sharp cry of pain that concludes the poem can be interpreted not only as a defiance of conventional morality but also as a protest against the inhumanity of war. The woman becomes a tragic figure, victimized by male-dominated modes of aggression that leave her languishing in an unvisited garden. The profane invocation of the deity at the end is not only a protest against war—it is also an opposition of the war by connecting the women’s passions with what is truly sacred. It is her celebration of the body and its erotic life that preserves what is holy in the face of the misguided patterns of her culture.
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