Robert Lowell

Start Free Trial

Robert Lowell Poetry: American Poets Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

American and European history and historical figures—military, political, and religious—and other writers and their works were very much present in Robert Lowell’s consciousness. This influence is reflected in all his poetry, although the learning is worn more lightly after The Mills of the Kavanaughs. As evident in his poetry as his historical sense and awareness of literary tradition is the intensity of his mental and emotional life, expressed indirectly through the vehicles of historical and fictional personas in his early poetry, and in undisguised, if more or less fictionalized, autobiography, beginning with Life Studies. Lowell’s is a poetry in the Symbolist tradition; its symbols, whether used to convey religious significance (as in his first two books) or to express psychological realities (as in his subsequent works) are remarkable for their irreducible ambiguity. Ambiguity is indeed an essential feature of Lowell’s mature vision. Symbolic resonance is accompanied in his work by a wealth of named particulars of the represented world; Norman Mailer has aptly described Lowell’s language as “particular, with a wicked sense of names, details, places.” His craftsmanship in prosody is remarkable in his early metrical verse, with its complex stanzaic forms and tension between the syntactical and the metrical structures. It is equally remarkable, albeit less flamboyant, in his later poetry, whether metrical or free verse. A gristly texture, partly the product of heavy alliteration, is characteristic of the sound of Lowell’s verse. Also contributing to this characteristic choppiness is a syntax in which the subject-verb-adjunct sequence is frequently deferred or interrupted, especially by strings of adjectives, or broken off, leaving fragments interspersing the sentences.

Lowell’s poetic career is remarkable for the number of times and the extent to which he transformed his art and for the frequency with which he revised his poems in public, publishing successive versions of a poem or different treatments of a single subject in successive volumes or incorporating passages from earlier pieces in new ones.

Lord Weary’s Castle

Lowell’s voice in Lord Weary’s Castle is that of a Catholic convert raging against the spiritual depravity of the Protestant and secular culture of New England, of which his own family was so much a part, and that of a conscientious objector decrying the waging of war. A note reveals that the book’s title comes from an old ballad that tells of “Lambkin,” a good mason who “built Lord Weary’s castle” but was never paid for his work; in Lowell’s poems, the mason Lambkin becomes a figure for Christ and Lord Weary for the people who wrong God in their lives. The verse of this early collection is in strict metrical forms, which are strained by features in tension with the metrical pattern, such as terminal caesura followed by violent enjambment. Prominently heavy alliteration also helps to weave its characteristically rough texture.

Of the poems in this book, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” an elegy for Lowell’s cousin Warren Winslow, whose ship had disappeared at sea in the war, has been the most frequently anthologized and extensively discussed. The poem is in seven parts, all in rhymed iambic pentameter verse, varied, except in parts 2 and 5, by occasional trimeter lines.

Part 1 is a dramatic account, with much vivid and grotesque physical detail, of the recovery and sea burial of the drowned sailor’s body, derived not from actual experience (Lowell’s cousin’s body was apparently never found) but, as Hugh Staples has shown, from Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod (1865). It presents the sea as implacable in its power and the loss of life as irrevocable.

Parts 2 to 4 elaborate on the...

(This entire section contains 7380 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

power of the sea and view the newly dead sailor as joining dead generations of Quaker whalers who foolishly dared the sea’s and the whale’s might; Lowell takes his imagery from Herman Melville’sMoby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) and associates the fatal presumption of the Quaker sailors with Ahab’s obsessive and fatal quest of the white whale. The whale in whose pursuit the earlier generations of sailors lost their lives is multivalent in its symbolic associations—at once the wrathful, inscrutable Jehovah of the Old Testament and the merciful Christ of the New.

In part 3, “only bones abide/ There . . . where their boats were tossed/ Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news/ of IS, the whited monster” alludes, Staples suggests, both to such a biblical passage as Exodus 3:14—(“And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me to you”—and to Christ under the epithet “Iesus Salvator.” Lowell’s dead cousin, who joins the whalers in their “graveyard,” is implicated in their guilt, together with the war-waging society of which he was a member.

Part 4 closes with the question, “Who will dance/ The mast-lashed master of Leviathans/ Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?”—ambiguously alluding at once to Ahab and to the Christ whom the whalers are seen as having crucified again in their slaughter of the whale, as the contemporary soldier/sailors do in their killing in war.

Part 5 presents a horrific scene of whale butchering as a sort of vision of apocalypse; drawing on the exegetical tradition that sees Jonah as a prefiguration of Christ, Lowell concludes this section with a prayer to the hacked, ripped whale, in the richness of its symbolic associations, “Hide,/ Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side.” The scene then switches abruptly from the violence of the sea to the pastoral serenity of the Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England, destroyed in the Reformation but recently restored. While the first of part 6’s two stanzas presents an attractive landscape, the Virgin Mother in the second stanza offers no accessible comfort: “There’s no comeliness/ At all or charm in that expressionless/ Face . . ./ This face, . . ./ Expressionless, expresses God.”

The final part returns the reader to the death-dealing sea, closing with a vision of Creation in which, even as “the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime,” “blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.” After this formulation of the implacability and inscrutability of God’s will, the poem closes with the line, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will,” offering, despite its recollection of the covenant at the end of the flood, no reassurance to the individual human creature who sins and dies, but only an assertion of an ultimate abiding that may or may not prove gracious to him or her.

The inscrutability and violence of God’s ways in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” as well as the crassness and violence of the ways of people are typical of Lord Weary’s Castle. This poem is also representative as a family elegy, a subgenre that was to become one of Lowell’s most characteristic and successful. “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” is another poem in which the poet confronts his dead ancestors, again censoriously. The cenotaph of his ancestors John and Mary Winslow is mentioned as one of the monuments in the graveyard behind King’s Chapel, where the poet’s persona meditates amid “baroque/ And prodigal embellishments,” that are in vain against the grime and noise of the impinging city (a subway “Blacker than these black stones” lies beneath the graveyard, and its train “grinds . . ./ And screeches”). Unmentioned by name, but part of the public history to which the poem makes reference, is another ancestor, Josiah Winslow, who was noted as an Indian fighter and served as governor of Plymouth during the war against the Indian leader King Philip (the English name for Metacomet, or Metacom). The conquered Indian was beheaded and his head set on a pole in Plymouth. In Lowell’s poem, King Philip’s head “Grins on a platter” and delivers a jeremiad to his and his people’s buried killers, the poet’s ancestors, evoking “nature and the land/ That fed the hunter’s gashed and green perfection” in implicit contrast to the urban scene that has been sketched earlier in the poem, mocking the Puritans’ notions of election as of no avail to save them. In the last of the poem’s five rather long verse-paragraphs, the persona of the poet “ponder[s] on the railing” of the graveyard, wondering who the remote ancestor was “Who sowed so ill for his descent.” The poem closes with paradise-garden imagery to answer the image at the beginning of the poem of the cemetery as the fallen garden, and in accord with Lowell’s Catholic belief of the time, with an image of Mary conceiving Christ by the divine “Bridegroom,” presumably suggesting divine mercy for both victims and victors.

The Mills of the Kavanaughs

Lowell’s next significant collection, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, marks a sharp departure from the style and the outlook of Lord Weary’s Castle. The long title poem and the other six poems of this volume are all at least partially dramatic monologue, and they deal mostly with situations of extremity—incest, madness, death—in the personal lives of their characters. They seem to follow from “Between the Porch and the Altar,” a multipart poem of adulterous love in Lord Weary’s Castle, with a third-person narrative section and a section of dramatic monologue by a woman, “Katherine’s Dream.” The Catholicism of the earlier book is gone, however; neither Christ nor Mary comes to offer the people of these poems a way to transcend the ills of their worlds. While Lord Weary’s Castle is densely interlarded with biblical allusions, The Mills of the Kavanaughs draws heavily on classical literature. The allusions here are significantly different in their operation from those in the earlier book: While the apparatus of Catholic symbols was imposed on events by the poet in his interpretation of them, the myth of Persephone is very much a part of Anne Kavanaugh’s consciousness and, as Richard Fein has pointed out, enters into her own efforts to interpret her situation, and the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) is similarly familiar to the old man in “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid,” who assimilates his personal life to his literary experience. Jarrell remarked that the title poem is an unremitting succession of nightmares and nightmarish visions all at the same high level of intensity, and several reviewers of the book objected to its monotonous violence. With hindsight, subsequent critics have seen the characters of the poems here as vehicles for Lowell to convey experiences of his own, including that of madness, that he would speak of straightforwardly in the first person in Life Studies. Certainly one acquainted with the poet’s life will recognize autobiographical elements in “The Mills of the Kavanaughs”—the morally problematic heritage and the declining vitality and fortunes of an eminent family (the Kavanaugh family emblem, “Cut down we flourish,” is that of the Winslows), Lowell’s father’s failed military career, and his own mental illness. Anne Kavanaugh seems to combine elements of Lowell’s mother and of his wives. One of the remarkable features of the poem, indeed, is the extent to which it sympathetically conveys a woman’s experience of a man who fails her; in this it is heralded by “Katherine’s Dream” and anticipates “’To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage’” in Life Studies, the poems given to painfully moving quotations of Hardwick’s letters in The Dolphin, and many other later poems.

Life Studies

After an eight-year silence, Lowell published Life Studies. The book is in four parts: The first consists of four poems close in form and mode (two are dramatic monologues) to Lowell’s previous work, although the poem that opens the book, “Beyond the Alps,” definitely announces a change of stance from the Catholicism of Lord Weary’s Castle; the second is an autobiographical prose piece on the poet’s childhood; the third consists of four poems on writers who influenced Lowell (Ford, George Santayana, Delmore Schwartz, and Hart Crane); and the fourth, which gives the book its title, “Life Studies,” contains the poems that drew the epithet “confessional.”

“Beyond the Alps” is actually a sequence of three sonnets, each with a different complex rhyme scheme. The speaker is on the train going from Rome to Paris in 1950, the year the pope proclaimed the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption. At the end of the octet of the first sonnet, the speaker says, “Much against my will/ I left the City of God where it belongs”; in the sestet, he characterizes the figure who has ruled there in his time, Benito Mussolini, as “one of us/ only, pure prose.” The central sonnet treats the proclamation of Mary’s assumption as dogma, undercutting it by a description of the pope listening to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square that implies he too is “pure prose”: “His electric razor purred,/ his pet canary chirped on his left hand.” In the final sonnet, the “mountain-climbing train had come to earth,” and the speaker somewhat ruefully owns that “There were no tickets for that altitude/ once held by Hellas.”

In the third and fourth parts of this volume, Lowell turns from the accentual syllabic metrics of his previous poetry to free-verse rhythms much closer to those of conversation and, especially after the first part, from the relative impersonality and obliqueness of the earlier poetry to the confessional mode that Life Studies helped to pioneer. If the artifice is no longer obtrusive and the verse relatively transparent in part 4, however, the poetry is no less artful in its construction: Rhyme and half-rhyme, used occasionally rather than systematically, help to make the lines perceptible as units and to bind together stanzas; and alliteration continues to give the language a gristly texture. In imagery as well as in sound, these poems—sequences as well as individual poems—are unified.

The poems in the first section of part 4, arranged in order of the chronology of their events in the poet’s life, focus successively on Lowell’s grandfather (the first three), his father (the next three), his mother (a further three), and an adult mental breakdown of his own (the final two). The last two in the first section take place in the world of Lowell’s adult married life, and there is a continuity between their imagery of place and that of the poems in the second section, which focus on the writer’s present, even if that present is preoccupied with memories (in “Memories of West Street and Lepke”). In “Man and Wife” and “’To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage’” in the second section, Lowell’s marriage, in the background in “Waking in the Blue” and “Home After Three Months Away” at the end of the first section, comes into the foreground. The particulars of decor, attire, and gesture with which these poems are richly furnished serve not to invoke an anagogic level of meaning, but at once to create a sense of actual experience in all its centrifugal detail and to convey character and psychological fate.

“Skunk Hour,” the poem that closes the book, while highly particular in its dramatized situation, nevertheless has, more than any of the rest of these confessional pieces, a degree of independence from temporal succession, which, besides its power, has probably been a factor in the frequency with which it has been chosen to represent Lowell in anthologies. The eight six-line stanzas of “Skunk Hour” carry the speaker from detached, amusingly sharp observations of the foibles and failings of fellow residents of his New England summer resort town and the “illness” of its season to direct, mordantly sharp confession of his own neurotic behavior and his mind’s and spirit’s illness, and finally to the richly ambiguous image of vitality and survival in the face of the town’s enervation, the season’s fading, and the speaker’s despair that concludes Life Studies. The first four stanzas are devoted to social observation—of “Nautilus Island’s hermit/ heiress” who is “in her dotage” and “buys up all/ the eyesores facing her shore,/ and lets them fall”; of the disappearance of the “summer millionaire,/ who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean/ catalogue,” and the sale of his yacht; of the “fairy/ decorator [who] brightens his shop for fall,” but finds “no money in his work” and would “rather marry.” Significantly, where the first-person pronoun appears, it is in the plural (“our summer millionaire,” “our fairy decorator”); the poet speaks as a townsman, one of a community (albeit a derelict one). By the fifth stanza, however, he has ceased to be one of the people; now, apart from them, he tells the reader that he “climbed the hill’s skull,” where “I watched for love-cars.” In a scene of anguished isolation suggestive of Saint John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul,” he declares, “My mind’s not right.” By the end of the sixth stanza, his voice has come to echo that of John Milton’s Satan: “I myself am hell;/ nobody’s here.” From this nadir, his attention swings to be arrested, in the final two stanzas, by “a mother skunk with her column of kittens” that “march[es] . . . up Main Street,” “swills the garbage pail . . ./ and will not scare.” If her crassness is appalling, her vitality is indeed a “rich air” against the town’s stale atmosphere and the speaker’s self-constructed cell. The significance of the image is as intractable in its ambiguity as its subject is stubborn in her determination to feed on the sour cream in the garbage.

For the Union Dead

In For the Union Dead, Lowell’s poetry continues to speak in the personal voice that emerged in Life Studies. Poems such as “Eye and Tooth” and “Myopia: A Night” are of the eye turned inward, focused on the “I,” its tormenting memories and self-hatred. Others, notably “The Old Flame,” “The Scream,” “The Public Garden,” and “Returning,” revisit scenes of the poet’s past as child or lover; interestingly, both “The Old Flame” and “The Public Garden” incorporate passages from poems in The Mills of the Kavanaughs, where the experiences in question were ascribed to dramatic characters rather than to the poet’s self. A difference from the Life Studies poems is that these are separate lyrics and do not fit together into sequences. The theme of the cultural heritage of New England, treated in Lord Weary’s Castle, is again treated here in a poem that speaks of Hawthorne and one that addresses Jonathan Edwards in intimate tones and with great sympathy. (A similar intimacy and sympathy inform the poem addressed to Caligula, by whose name Lowell had been called by his classmates at St. Mark’s.) There is, besides, a new element in this book: The poet deals with contemporary society and politics, not, as he had in Lord Weary’s Castle, in Christian terms, as features of a world for which apocalypse was imminent, but with the same keen, painful observation and moral concern he had, since Life Studies, been bringing to bear on his personal life; he deals with them, indeed, as part and parcel of his personal experience.

The title poem, “For the Union Dead,” revisits the old Boston Aquarium that the poet had gone to as a child, even as “The Public Garden” revisits that old “stamping ground” of Lowell and his wife. The difference is that while in the latter “the city and its cruising cars surround” a private failure to “catch fire,” in “For the Union Dead” the aquarium is presented not as part of a personal landscape only, but, closed, its fish replaced by “giant finned cars,” as emblematic of the course of the culture of Boston, New England, and America. The other complex emblem in the poem is the monument to Colonel Shaw, friend and in-law to the poet’s Lowell ancestors, who led the first regiment of free blacks in an attack on a fort defending Charleston Harbor, in which he and about half of his black soldiers were killed. The poem is in a sense another of Lowell’s family elegies, but it opens beyond family history to national history. As the aquarium’s fish have been replaced by finned cars, the monument to the Civil War hero is now “propped by a plank splint” as support against the “earthquake” produced by excavation for a parking garage, and it has come to “stick like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat.” In a city of giant cars and parking garages, the martyred leader, “lean/ as a compass-needle,” who “seems to wince at pleasure,” is “out of bounds”; such firm sense of direction and such asceticism are no longer virtues the populace is comfortable contemplating or moved to emulate.

The poem is not, however, a sentimental one of pure nostalgia for an earlier period of the society’s life or of the poet’s, for the heroism of war before the World Wars or for the lost aquarium and the child’s pleasure in it. The fish that lived in the aquarium tanks are described as “cowed, compliant,” and the child’s eagerness was “to burst the bubbles/ drifting from their noses.” Colonel Shaw is said to have enjoyed “man’s lovely,/ peculiar power to choose life and die”—hardly an unequivocal good, albeit preferable to the power to choose “a Mosler Safe, the ’Rock of Ages’/ that survived the blast” at Hiroshima to safeguard one’s material wealth. Nor is the contemporary landscape presented as wholly desert; the steamshovels that excavate for the parking garages are “yellow dinosaur steamshovels . . . grunting/ as they cropped up tons of mush and grass,” creatures not without appeal. Indeed, the attractiveness of martyrdom, as Lowell presents it, may not be that far removed from the appeal of fish behind glass or steamshovels behind barbed wire: “I often sigh still,” says the poem’s speaker, “for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom/ of the fish and reptile.” There is, finally, an irreducible ambiguity in the poem’s treatment of past and present, aquarium and garage, Union soldier and contemporary Bostonian.

Near the Ocean

The title sequence of Near the Ocean consists of five numbered poems. The first two of these (“Waking Early Sunday Morning” and “Fourth of July in Maine”) and the last (“Near the Ocean”) are composed in rhymed couplets of iambic tetrameter lines, arranged in eight-line stanzas. This is the stanza form of Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” and “Upon Appleton House,” a formal resemblance that may be taken to link Lowell’s efforts to mediate between the private and the public realms of experience with the similar achievement of his seventeenth century predecessor. Of the remaining poems in the sequence, the third (“The Opposite House”) is in nine-line stanzas of unrhymed short-line free verse; the fourth (“Central Park”) is in iambic tetrameter couplets grouped in verse paragraphs. One cannot help being struck at the relative traditional formality of this verse after the free verse of Life Studies and For the Union Dead. Also very striking in the stanzaic verse is the fact that every one of the long stanzas is closed, giving each a tendency toward autonomy and setting the poem trembling with centrifugal forces. The blockiness and relative independence of these individual stanzas that yet for the most part do not stand quite free anticipates the fourteen-line blank verse units that will constitute Notebook, 1967-1968.

Another striking feature of Near the Ocean—speaking, now, of the whole book—is that it consists partly of original poems, partly of translations (of Horace, Juvenal, and Dante). Lowell said in an interview that his translation enabled him to bring into English something that he would not dare write in English himself although he wished he could; thus, even where the translations are close, they are, to an important extent, expressions of Lowell’s sensibility. If the translations are, thus, more of Lowell himself than one might at first take them to be, the original poems turn out to engage his poetic predecessors as significantly as do the translations. “Waking Early Sunday Morning” has its meaning in relation to Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”; “Central Park” similarly evokes and responds to the “Sunday in the Park” section of Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958). The title poem of the sequence can be interpreted as a sort of Lowellian “Dover Beach.”

While the poet of “Sunday Morning” was content that Earth should turn out to “Seem all of paradise that we shall know,” the poet of “Waking Early Sunday Morning” finds no “heavenly fellowship/ Of men that perish and of summer morn” (Stevens) to supersede the failed fellowship of “the Faithful at Church,” where the Bible is “chopped and crucified/ in hymns we hear but do not read.” Lowell finds instead that “Only man thinning out his kind/ sounds through the Sabbath noon,” and instead of the vision of earth as a paradisal garden with deer, whistling quail, ripening berries, and flocks of pigeons that closes Stevens’s poem, Lowell sees the planet as a joyless “ghost/ orbiting forever lost,” its people “fall[ing]/ in small war on the heels of small/ war.” The world of Lowell’s poem is a more complicated one than that of Stevens’s in that it has a political aspect; the state with its monstrous militarism and the vulgarity of its leader, which is seen as “this Sunday morning, free to chaff/ his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,/ swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick/ of his ghost-written rhetoric,” is part of what the speaker here must assimilate. Furthermore the spiritual yearning of the speaker in Lowell’s poem is more complex than that of the speaker in Stevens’s poem. The poem opens with his cry, “O to break loose,” but not simply “to break loose”; rather “to break loose like the chinook/ salmon” that overcomes the current to reach its river birthplace “alive enough to spawn and die.” The release longed for is the release of suicide. This is not all, though. Further on, the speaker voices an exclamation: “O that the spirit could remain/ tinged but untarnished by its strain!” This cry is preceded by a passage describing a glass of water fuzzed with condensation that looks silvery in the light of the sky; when it is seen from a shifted perspective, with brown wood behind it, the wood comes “to darken it, but not to stain.” Salmon and a glass of water, like key images in other Lowell poems, are profoundly ambiguous; there is no claim for objectivity in the anatomy of his world by a speaker who looks on it through the dark glass of his own psychology—which is itself part of the world that the poem presents.

Notebook, 1967-1968

In Notebook, 1967-1968, Lowell again effects a striking formal transformation. The fourteen-line pieces in blank verse that Lowell used to register his various preoccupations—his marriage, wife and daughter, love affairs; his dreams; the Vietnam War, the Pentagon March, Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, other political events by which he was affected or in which he was involved; other writers, both his friends among contemporaries and the predecessors who contributed to the literary tradition that he inherited; figures of history—were, he said in his “Afterthought” to Notebook, 1967-1968, “written as one poem.” The organization of the pieces is partially according to Lowell’s order of composition/experience, partially according to subject, setting, or season. Individual poems do, however, resist being subsumed in the whole book, either the original or the expanded edition, in part because they are sonnetlike in more than number of lines and meter. In particular, Lowell’s tendency to epigrammatic conclusions helps endow individual poems with an autonomy stronger than the centripetal force exerted by a loosely seasonal organization.

Despite the frequency of the memorable concluding line or couplet, however, and despite the fact that these poems often embrace what Lowell called “the themes and gigantism of the sonnet,” they do not have the sort of logical structure characteristic of the traditional sonnet. Their movement is typically associative, sometimes obscurely so; their phrases frequently do not join into complete sentences. The first poem in the section called “October and November” in Notebook, 1967-1968, “Che Guevara,” can be taken as representative in its technique and in the spheres of reference—contemporary public affairs, the poet’s personal life, the historical past—that it telescopes. Beginning with the notation, “Week of Che Guevara,” it sketches Che’s assassination and conveys Lowell’s attitude toward it (as an instance at once of violence begetting violence and of a spirit having a certain grandeur being done in by meaner ones) in a series of participles and absolute constructions taking the first five lines. The scene then switches, by the mere transition of an “as” (which disappears in subsequent revision) indicating temporal simultaneity, to the poet’s autumn in Manhattan, presented first through features indicating the season and evoking a mood—still-green leaves “burn to frittered reds,” an oak tree “swells with goiters”—then through ones adumbrating the socioeconomic realities of the city—its “high white stone buildings over-/ shadow the poor”—then sliding through progressive subordination to the personal—“where our clasped, illicit hands/ pulse.” Abruptly the final couplet first returns readers to the public event with which the poem began; then, taking up an association of the mentioned oak tree, the final couplet throws it into historical perspective, in a resonant, memorable conclusion: “Rest for the outlaw . . . kings once hid in oaks,/ with prices on their heads, and watched for game.”

Both the heterogeneity of material treated as readers move from poem to poem, section to section, and the quick shifts within individual poems that are characteristic of their style (Lowell at one point makes explicit reference to this stylistic trait, saying, in the second poem of the “Harvard” section, “My mind can’t hold the focus for a minute./ A sentence? A paragraph? . . ./ Flash-visions . . .”), create the impression of a mind besieged by an unremitting succession of disparate experiences that cannot be checked in their passing. When, in the second poem of Notebook, 1967-1968, the poet, killing a fly that has been “wham[ming] back and forth across” his daughter’s bed, says “another instant’s added/ to the horrifying mortmain of/ ephemera,” he strikes a keynote for the whole book.

The succession of experiences do not, of course, all come from external events, but also from Lowell’s reading and memory. The order in which subjects appear from poem to poem reflects his mental associations and the tensions in his thought as much as the flux of events in his life. In two poems on the Pentagon March, Lowell expresses his ambivalence toward pacifism and military valor. In the first, he compares the marchers he is among to “green Union Army recruits/ for the first Bull Run” and characterizes the soldiers who face them by a series of images, “the Martian, the ape, the hero,/ his new-fangled rifle, his green new steel helmet,” conveying a profound ambivalence, confounding the two groups even as he distinguishes them and simultaneously both exalting and deflating each of them. The second poem on the march, which closes with Lowell helped staggering to his feet to “flee” the soldiers, is followed by an elegy on his ancestor Charles Russell Lowell, a “Union martyr,” a cavalry officer who, struck and dying, “had himself strapped to the saddle . . . bound to death.” It all seems to add up to the coexistence in Lowell’s mind of pacifist convictions and an admiration for military heroism, which, Richard Fein has remarked, could not be more tellingly displayed.

“Obit,” the poem that Lowell uses to end his book, looks toward the ending of the flux of experience in death, toward “the eternal return of earth’s fairer children” (that has been adumbrated in the seasonal basis of the book’s structure and in its attention to the poet’s growing daughter), and back toward the onset and passage of moments of consciousness, as lovers’ “unconquered flux, insensate oneness, their painful ’it was. . . .’” The question that constitutes the final couplet is not the typical rhetorical question. “After loving you so much, can I forget/ you for eternity, and have no other choice?” asks Lowell, while the accumulated context of this poem and of the whole book that precedes it indicate that his intellect would answer yes, his inclination, no.


Lowell did not stay satisfied with either the pieces or the whole of Notebook, 1967-1968. First, he revised poems and added to sections to produce the expanded Notebook; then, he separated the poems dealing with his marital life into For Lizzie and Harriet and rearranged the rest into a sequence following the chronology of history, filling in gaps with new poems and sometimes turning what began as autobiographical poems into poems associating the same attitudes or experiences with historical or mythological figures; this revised sequence constitutes the volume Lowell titled History.

Although the arrangement of History, as contrasted with that of Notebook, might at first seem superficial, the book has a thematic focus for which the ordering of poems in accord with the dates of their subject is appropriate. Stephen Yenser has pointed to the section called “The Powerful” in Notebook, an expanded version of that called “Power” in Notebook, 1967-1968, as the germ of History’s structure and theme. The poem that originally ended the chronological sequence of poems on historical figures in this section becomes, slightly revised, the conclusion of the whole book. It is a summational poem that articulates the relationship among the book’s principal subjects—the mythical and legendary heroes and villains, the historical political and military leaders, the writers, and Lowell himself as writer and as a citizen and public man. Originally titled “New Year’s 1968,” it is, significantly, retitled “End of a Year.” In a book dominated by the elegiac mode, it is an elegy of elegies. From an opening couplet that declares, “These conquered kings pass furiously away/ gods die in flesh and spirit and live in print,” it moves to qualify that continued “life” in print as one of misquotation, then to look at the poet’s writing of a run-out year “in bad, straightforward, nonscanning sentences,” the year’s “hero” the poet himself, of unsound mind (demens), his story, given in the imagery of the stories of “conquered kings,” one of running his ship on the rocks. From the image of the foundering ship, the text slides to the scene present to the poet, where slush-ice in the Hudson “is rose-heather in the New York sunset”; then, dispensing with the requirements of complete clauses, the poem concludes abruptly and hauntingly with a juxtaposition of images of the landscape before the poet and the carbon that inks copies of his typescript (earlier in the poem compare to a Rosetta Stone): “bright sky, bright sky, carbon scarred with ciphers.”

The Dolphin

The thread of personal life that was drawn out of the weave of Notebook to constitute For Lizzie and Harriet is continued in The Dolphin, a slim volume that continues the use of the fourteen-line blank-verse form. A feature that significantly differentiates The Dolphin from those others is the use of a central symbol, accreting in complexity and ambiguity over the course of the book. The dolphin, with variants (mermaid, “baby killer whale”) and in its various attractive and fearsome aspects (graceful, playful swimmer; powerful predator), is associated with Blackwood, and the contradictory connotations of Lowell’s symbol reflect his ambivalence toward her. In the course of the book, Blackwood is progressively mythicized and becomes a gigantic, ambiguous, and disturbing character set forth in the image of the dolphin, while Elizabeth, the wife Lowell is in the process of leaving, becomes an ever clearer, ever more human voice, presented principally through quotation from her letters.

“Fishnet” and “Dolphin,” respectively the opening and closing poems of the book and serving as its frame, have become the best-known pieces of this collection. “Fishnet” begins with one of the series of nominals detached from any predication common in Lowell’s poems of the Notebook form: “Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise,/ your wandering silences and bright trouvailles,/ dolphin let loose to catch the flashing fish.” Already in its initial appearance, the dolphin symbol is ambiguous, associated with the appealing image of the “bright trouvailles,” but presented as catching “the flashing fish” rather than as a flashing fish itself. In other poems the reader will find dolphin-Blackwood presented both as a fish that the poet angles for and as a creature that may devour him. After its opening catalog of images, this first poem turns to reflect on the fates of poets; they “die adolescents, their beat embalms them.” After several years of writing in the same verse form, Lowell was conscious that it was risky to continue with it any longer. (In a 1971 interview, he said of the form, “I mustn’t tempt it.”) The conclusion of the poem is affirmative in some of its diction, but ambivalent in its imagery. The poet presents his activity as a writer as “knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope,” the “undoing” presumably being a reference to his habitual revising and recasting of his previous work. In the closing couplet, the product of this work is presented as surviving, but hardly in the manner in which, say, Elizabethan sonneteers spoke of their poetry as surviving: “the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,/ nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future.” It seems that Lowell foresees a time when his poetry will have ceased not only to be part of a life being lived, but also to be unintelligible.

The final poem addresses “My Dolphin” as a guide, guiding “by surprise,” “surprise” being conspicuous as the last word of the first line in each of the “frame” poems. The language in which the dolphin’s activity is described is again ambivalent: She “made for my body/ caught in its hangman’s-knot of sinking lines,” the fishnet of the opening poem turned against its maker, become at once noose and weight. Focusing on his own making, the poet indicates that in his use of his life in his art, both in what he has altered and in what he has told as it was, he has done injury to others and to himself, and he calls the book that is ending “an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting,” the ambiguity of “for” pointed up by the inversion of normal word order in the participial phrase. Ambiguity of reference is particularly insistent in the final line, “my eyes have seen what my hand did,” which points at once to the poet’s registering of his life in his poems and to his awareness of what his writings have done with and to his life. Such ambiguity is appropriate to the complexities of experience and of language.

Day by Day

In his last book of poems, Day by Day, Lowell left the fourteen-line blank-verse form in which he had been working for nearly a decade to write poems in a free verse more transparent and less marked with features such as sound repetition than that of Life Studies or For the Union Dead. The syntax has the looseness of the poems of Notebook and its progeny, without the tightness of their metrical form to resist its centrifugal pressures. Although lacking a single central symbol such as that of The Dolphin, this book has a central and insistent theme: age, the fear of aging and pain, the prospect of death. This theme is introduced in the first poem, “Ulysses and Circe”; in Lowell’s interpretation of Ulysses’ story, the old veteran of the Trojan wars, leaving a troubled affair with the young Circe, returns to Ithaca to find his wife “well-furnished with her entourage” and himself superfluous. Humiliated, cuckolded, his infuriated mind is set on the murder of Penelope’s lovers. The situation of the aged lover and husband, here presented through the retelling of a much-retold tale, is presented through autobiographical poetry in the rest of the book.

The bulk of the book, its third part, bearing the title of the book, stays exceedingly close to a journal’s day-by-day record of events and emotions. This final part is itself divided into three sections. The first covers a summer in England with Caroline, her daughters, and their son. There is a measure of detachment and a certain urbanity in the reflections on the fate of England’s great houses in poems such as “Domesday Book” and “Milgate.” These poems of summer’s fullness are all haunted, however, by intimations of coming emptiness; every subject becomes an occasion for meditation on infirmity and mortality. Most poignant, perhaps, is the edge given to the poet’s sense of his age and apprehension of his death by his observation of his young son; a poem named for him, “Sheridan,” finds its way to that ancient image of death, the scythe, presented, as is usual in Lowell’s poetry, as a particular in the represented scene: “High-hung/ the period scythe silvers in the sun,/ a cutting edge, a bounding line,/ between the child’s world and the earth.” The second section of Day by Day covers a stay in Boston without Caroline, framed by poems of Caroline’s departure and her return. This interlude is one for reencounter with figures and events of the past: A poem, “To Mother,” ends “It has taken me the time since you died/ to discover you are as human as I am . . ./ if I am”; there is an imaginary dialogue with his father; his grandfather looms in two poems. A terrible memory from his St. Mark’s days is told—being taunted to tears by his classmates and possibly having deserved it, having made a habit of harping on the defects of other boys to their friends; Lowell comes to a harsh self-judgment that “even now/ my callous unconscious drives me/ to torture my closest friend.”

The third and final section, the most wrenching, records living with Caroline, ill from an old spinal injury, and a mental breakdown and then recovery. Lowell envisions himself and Caroline bound together as “seesaw inseparables,” always “one up, the other down,” represents her as experiencing “my sickness only as desertion.” In sickness, his fear of sickness and expectance of death evoke nostalgia for his lost Catholic faith: “The Queen of Heaven, I miss her,/ we were divorced.” Voices and memories crowd on Lowell in this section, which begins, in “Turtle,” with an invocation to memory. In that poem, a memory of hunting snapping turtles turns into a nightmare of death. In “Unwanted,” words from an article on John Berryman, remembered words from a family psychiatrist with an ambiguous relation to his mother, and remembered words of his mother converge on his consciousness to bring home the recognition of his having been an unwanted child and of the impact of that on his psychological development—“to give my simple autobiography a plot,” as the poet says wryly.

The last three poems bring the book to a gentle conclusion. “The Downlook” turns back with nostalgia to the previous year in Lowell’s and Caroline’s love, evoked in pastoral imagery as a time when “nothing dared impede/ the flow of the body’s thousand rivulets of welcome”; such turning back in memory is a conclusion in “days of the downlook.” The penultimate poem is a “Thanks for Recovery”; the last is an “Epilogue” that is an apologia, in which the poet regrets that “Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme,” have been no help to him in this book, complains that his writings seem to him snapshots, neither fully true to life nor truly imaginary, but concludes by accepting and justifying his work as a response to the fact of mortality, giving “each figure in the photograph,/ his living name.”


Robert Lowell American Literature Analysis


Lowell, Robert (Vol. 1)