Robert Lowell

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Robert Lowell American Literature Analysis

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Nearly all Lowell’s poems have a richness of imagery, a wide range of references and allusions, and a density of syntax. His first two books stress religious themes and subjects. Such poems as “The Drunken Fisherman” and “Between the Porch and the Altar” clearly demonstrate his abiding religious concerns. They are difficult to unravel and do not easily yield themselves to the reader. Lowell was, as he often mentioned, trying to write poems in the manner of Hart Crane while under the critical influence of the New Critics. The last stanza of “The Drunken Fisherman” shows the richness and the difficulties of such poems.

Is there no way to cast my hookOut of this dynamited brook?This Fisher’s sons must cast aboutWhen shallow waters peter out.I will catch Christ with a greased worm,And when the Prince of Darkness stalksMy bloodstream to its Stygian term . . .On water the Man-Fisher walks.

The poem is undoubtedly powerful, but it is not the best or most typical type of Lowell poem. Here he is trying to be another T. S. Eliot—writing learned and academic poetry with religious and mythic themes. He was not the equal of the Eliot of the Four Quartets (1943), however, and his natural bent lay elsewhere.

Life Studies led to the coinage of the term “confessional poet.” The subjects of its poetry were Lowell’s parents and grandparents, his bouts of madness, and his friends. The style is also freer and looser; in place of learned allusions there are ironic references to the misspelling of “Lowell” on his mother’s coffin. In “Waking in the Blue,” Lowell describes the inmates in McLeans Hospital for the “mentally ill.” Lowell does not stand aloof but includes himself within the group of “thoroughbred mental cases.” The last two lines convey Lowell’s recognition of his state and make the reader a participant, not merely an observer: “We are all old-timers,/ each of us holds a locked razor.” It is a direct and immensely moving poetry.

Lowell never ceased to write “confessional” poetry, but he expanded the range of his poetry by turning to political subjects. “For the Union Dead” is an indictment of modern life and leaders: There are no more Colonel Shaws to lead Negro infantry but only politicians who refuse to allow Negro children to attend school with whites. Lowell makes clear that twentieth century materialistic society has perverted once-noble values. A few years later, his politics became much more direct. In “Near the Ocean,” for example, he portrays Lyndon Johnson “swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick/ of his ghost-written rhetoric!” Later, Lowell was a part of the march on Washington to stop the Vietnam War and wrote about his experience in a number of poems in Notebook. There are also studies of such leaders and power figures as Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, and Adolf Hitler.

One aspect of Lowell’s poetry that is often ignored by critics is the many elegies on and tributes to his friends and fellow poets. In Life Studies, there are poems on Ford Madox Ford, Delmore Schwartz, and Hart Crane. The finest ones, however, come from Notebook , especially the poem on Robert Frost. Lowell portrays Frost not as a genial New England sage but as a tortured man with “the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs.” Lowell’s Frost says at the end of the poem, “When I am too full of joy, I think/ how little good my health did anyone near me.” There are poems on T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and a moving elegy...

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to his friend Randall Jarrell. Lowell was the greatest elegiac poet of his time, whether the subject was his family, his friends, fellow poets, or great men. “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” are among the finest elegies in American literature.

The later books of Lowell show one surprising change; where before he had written in loose verse paragraphs and occasionally in stanzas, he now takes up the sonnet form. All the poems in Notebook and most of the other later books are written in a very idiosyncratic sonnet form. Lowell usually keeps to the sonnet’s fourteen-line pattern but does not use rhyme or observe the usual Italian or English sonnet divisions. “Dolphin,” for example, begins with a traditional quatrain but then does not continue the quatrain pattern; it breaks the meaning at the seventh line. The last section does, however, provide a counter-statement to those first seven lines which speak of being guided by a muse in the way that Jean Racine was:

I have sat and listened to too manywords of the collaborating muse,and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,not avoiding injury to others,not avoiding injury to myself—to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting.

Then a very unconventional fifteenth line is added to complete the poem: “[M]y eyes have seen what my hand did.” Some of Lowell’s experiments with sonnet form seem casual and erratic, but “Dolphin” breathes a new life into the most fixed form in literature. Lowell was nevertheless worried that he had not successfully escaped the trap of that form. In an “Afterthought” to Notebook he said, “Even with this license, I fear I have failed to avoid the themes and gigantism of the sonnet.”

“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”

First published: 1959 (collected in Collected Poems, 2003)

Type of work: Poem

A moving elegy on the poet’s uncle analyzes the divisions in the Lowell and Winslow families.

“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” does not begin like an elegy, focusing instead on Lowell’s childhood affection for his grandfather Winslow and his distance from his own parents. It begins, “’I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa!’” Grandfather Winslow’s world was one of adventure and freedom. “the decor/ was manly, comfortable,/ overbearing, disproportioned.” At his farm are photographs of silver mines and “pitchers of ice-tea,/ oranges, lemons, mints, and peppermints,/ and the jug of shandygaff.” Most significant is the fact that “[n]o one had died there in my lifetime.” The boy (young Lowell) is busy playing with a “pile of black earth” and one of “lime,” an image of play and death that runs through the poem.

The pastoral innocence of the first part of the poem is swiftly challenged. The boy is now inappropriately dressed and is described as a “stuffed toucan/ with a bibulous, multicolored beak.” There is a recognition of failure; Great Aunt Sara had once slaved away at perfecting her ability on the piano, only to fail to appear at the recital. She now plays on a “dummy” and “noiseless” piano. Uncle Devereux, however, is still as young as the posters and photographs that fill the cottage he is closing “for the winter.” Suddenly, reality intrudes upon the stasis of old photographs: “My Uncle was dying at twenty-nine.” Devereux resists the fact of death by sailing with his wife “for Europe on a last honeymoon” in a joyous affirmation of life. His parents are shocked at his seeming frivolity. The child has altered as well; he becomes an observer of bizarre and unfamilial behavior, an accomplice rather than an innocent child.

The last part of the poem contrasts Devereux’s appearance with his fate. He appears to be “as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse,” but he is “dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease.” The last image of the poem is of the boy mixing “earth and lime,/ a black pile and a white pile.” He becomes a mythic figure sifting the sands of life and death; the innocent play of the earlier image of mixing earth and lime has become ominous. The last two lines have a child’s simplicity and all the weight of fact: “Come winter,/ Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.”

“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” is an unusual elegy. It mourns the loss not only of a person but also of a hitherto unchanging and innocent world. Another change from the traditional elegy is that the main focus is the boy, not Uncle Devereux. His loss of innocence, his being cast out of an Edenic refuge, seems to be stressed much more than the actual death of Devereux Winslow. Lowell has expanded the usual range of the elegy to include the observer and a whole society.

“Skunk Hour”

First published: 1959 (collected in Life Studies, 1959)

Type of work: Poem

Lowell provides a devastating analysis of the material and spiritual decay in modern life that contrasts to instinctual nature.

“Skunk Hour” is the last poem in Life Studies, and as such it was meant to sum up the themes and tone of the collection and suggest some sort of resolution. The first four stanzas portray a decayed Maine coastal town. The “hermit heiress” who should be a leader in the society isolates herself; her main activity is buying up houses near her to ensure her privacy and isolation: “[S]he buys up all/ the eyesores facing her shore,/ and lets them fall.” She contributes to the decay rather than overcoming it by her wealth and position. In the third stanza, “our summer millionaire” has departed, and “[t]he season’s ill.” The change is also suggested by an image: “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” The last stanza in this sequence portrays a “fairy decorator” whose trendy and unsuccessful shop is filled with the tools (fishnets and orange cork) that were once used by fishermen. Since “there is no money in his work,/ he’d rather marry.” Love and marriage have become commodities in a once fruitful and organic society that is now sunk in decay.

The next two stanzas shift from an analysis of the society to one person. He is the Lowell speaker, mad and in search of sexual experience. The setting is ominous: “One dark night,” which is not merely the time of day but also an allusion to Saint John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. The speaker’s car climbs “the hill’s skull” (a reference to Golgotha) to look for “love-cars.” The cars lie “hull to hull” where “the graveyard shelves on the town.” It is a wonderful image of mechanical sexuality amid the grotesque graveyard that overlooks the town. All that the speaker can do is declare, “My mind’s not right.” This section culminates with another declaration: “I myself am hell;/ nobody’s here.” The first line echoes John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, while the last line repeats the isolation and decay that began the poem.

Both society and the individual are sick and perverted; there seems to be no hope anywhere. The last two stanzas, however, turn the poem around. Suddenly a group of skunks appears marching down Main Street, strutting by the no longer life-giving “chalk-dray and spar spire/ of the Trinitarian Church.” In the last stanza, the mad speaker of the second section of the poem watches as “a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail./ She jabs her wedge-head in a cup/ of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,/ and will not scare.” The skunks are a remarkable and very appropriate modern symbol. They do not redeem the society of the speaker, but they do provide an alternative. They live off the decay that was so noteworthy in the first section of the poem. In addition, they will not “scare” or give in to an overly morbid consciousness as the speaker so obviously does. The scene also shows a mother nurturing her “kittens,” something that cannot be found in the decayed and isolated society.

“Skunk Hour” became one of Lowell’s most popular poems. It perfectly captures the troubles of society and the individual while also offering a powerful and natural symbol that opposes both. Modern poetry can no longer draw on the traditional natural symbolism of centuries before. Lowell could not instantly evoke eagles or hawks in his poetry, and he had the genius to discover a modern symbolism.

“For the Union Dead”

First published: 1960 (collected in For the Union Dead, 1964)

Type of work: Poem

This work contrasts the aristocratic code of the nineteenth century and modern materialism.

“For the Union Dead” is an unusually public poem; Lowell wrote it to deliver on the Boston Common before a large audience. It is also one of his finest poems. It begins with a childhood memory of the South Boston Aquarium, where his hand had “tingled/ to burst the bubbles/ drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.” Now, however, the aquarium “stands in a Sahara of snow.” The “broken windows are boarded,” and the “airy tanks are dry.” Lowell has found perfect images of emptiness and desolation in what was once a place of life-giving joy. Next he notices “the new barbed and galvanized/ fence on the Boston Common.” Once a symbol of openness and community, the common is now enclosed.

The only thriving elements are the parking spaces that “luxuriate like civic/ sand-piles in the heart of Boston.” The construction of an “underworld garage” is shaking the famous seventeenth century Massachusetts Statehouse. The images are no longer of fish but have become “yellow dinosaur steamshovels.” A mechanical and destructive world is replacing the traditional Puritan one. The only reminders of that heritage are the ironic “Puritan-pumpkin colored girders” that brace the “tingling Statehouse.”

Lowell then shifts to imagery based on a statue and bas-relief of a Civil War hero, Colonel Shaw, a New Englander who led a regiment of free black soldiers in an attack on the fort at Charleston. The famous bas-relief of Colonel Shaw and his regiment has also been assaulted by the modern instruments of destruction and needs to be “propped by a plank splint.” What the statue represents has also changed; no longer does Boston support the abolitionist cause or lead Negro infantry in a noble cause. Now, “[t]heir monument sticks like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat.” Colonel Shaw still possesses some of those older virtues: “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,/ a greyhound’s gentle tautness.” Shaw’s father had thought an appropriate monument would be “the ditch,/ where his son’s body was thrown/ and lost with his ’niggers.’” Lowell then makes another contrast between the past and the present. The “ditch is nearer,” and the only monument from the recent war is an advertisement that “shows Hiroshima boiling/ over a Mosler Safe.” War is no longer noble but has become mechanized and more destructive; advertisements replace the statues of Civil War heros.

Colonel Shaw awaits the “blessed break” that will complete his cause, but instead “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” as they attempt to enter an all-white school. The image of the “bubble” encloses the fish in the aquarium, Colonel Shaw, and the black children, but there is no “blessed break.” There is only a final and devastating symbol:

Everywhere,giant finned cars nose forward like fish;a savage servilityslides by on grease.

Once more, Lowell uses a mechanical symbol and opposes it to a natural one. No longer do aristocrats serve the republic; everyone is now mired in “servility” and a corrupt selfishness.

“For the Union Dead” is one of Lowell’s finest poems; it brings together a number of image patterns and themes. The “fish” in the childhood reminiscence become “dinosaurs,” then a “fishbone” that sticks in the city’s throat, and finally “giant finned cars.” The “bubbles” from those fish enclose (or imprison) the fish, Colonel Shaw, and the “Negro school-children”; all wait for the “blessed break,” but it has receded rather than come closer in twentieth century Boston. The poem also successfully blends the public with the private interests, something that Lowell did not always achieve.

“Waking Early Sunday Morning”

First published: 1967 (collected in Near the Ocean, 1967)

Type of work: Poem

The poem portrays the universal desire for freedom and a natural life and how obstacles such as religion, politics, and human nature prevent it.

“Waking Early Sunday Morning” is the first section in the long poem called “Near the Ocean”; it attempts to find some relief or escape from humanity’s disturbed, anxious, and apparently unnatural condition. It begins with that desire for an instinctual escape: “O to break loose, like the chinook/ salmon jumping and falling back.” This leads to a childhood memory of freedom, “the unpolluted joy/ and criminal leisure of a boy.” Such escapes are quickly closed, however, and the imagery shifts to the “sure of foot” and natural “vermin” in the walls of his house. In addition, dawn brings no renewal in this fallen world but only “business as usual in eclipse.” Everything is stained or tarnished, so the speaker turns to religion, to the congregation at Sunday worship; however, that is no solution. Each day God recedes and “shines through a darker glass.”

Having rejected the impossible instinctual life and the evasive spiritual one, he turns to another possibility: “O to break loose. All life’s grandeur/ is something with a girl in summer.” Love (or sex), however, has lost its power in a politically dominated world in which “earth licks its open sores” and man is “thinning out his kind.” The last stanza reduces the escape to a plea for mercy.

Pity the planet, all joy gonefrom this sweet volcanic cone;peace to our children when they fallin small war on the heels of smallwar—until the end of timeto police the earth, a ghostorbiting forever lostin our monotonous sublime.

The Vietnam War and American foreign policy in general do not bring peace, only war upon war. Noble aims have become illusory, ghostlike, and all joy is gone from the planet. The image of humankind “orbiting forever lost” is frightening and unrelieved. The universal desire to be free is frustrated not only by human nature but even more so by an environment of war and hostility.

“The Nihilist as Hero”

First published: 1967 (collected in Notebook, 1967-1968, 1969)

Type of work: Poem

This paradoxical analysis of the claims of stasis and change is one which Lowell refuses to resolve.

“The Nihilist as Hero” is a sonnet from Notebook and a poem that reveals much about Lowell as a poet and a man. The poem begins with a quote from poet Paul Valery about sustaining a work of art beyond a single line. It is a vision of poetry as formal perfection. Lowell then announces a very different view of the nature of art: “I want words meat-hooked from the living steer.” Such direct (confessional?) poetry is blocked, however, by the “metal log,/ beautiful unchanging fire of childhood/ betraying a monotony of vision.” Life, too, is not based on stasis but “by definition breeds on change”; however, change means only that “each season we scrap new cars and wars and women.” It is an endless round of activity without hope or joy. The last lines of the sonnet bring the contrasts together. First, he states that when he is “ill or delicate,/ the pinched flame of my match turns unchanging green.” The image of an illusionary stasis echoes the “tinfoil” flame of childhood. The last two lines complete the poem by balancing the two sides: “A nihilist wants to live in the world as is,/ and yet gaze the everlasting hills to rubble.”

There is no easy solution; one desires both reality and destruction, an unchanging art and a live one, stasis and continual activity. This does not mean that Lowell is a nihilist; he recognizes the claims of both sides and cannot find a way to synthesize them. Humans are doomed to live with a dream of perfection in an imperfect world. It is a haunting conclusion to one of Lowell’s most revealing poems.


Robert Lowell Poetry: American Poets Analysis