Robert Lowell

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Lowell, Robert (Vol. 1)

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Lowell, Robert 1917–

A major American poet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, Lowell is also a playwright and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)

[No] one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell's, it seems to me….

Underneath all these poems "there is one story and one story only"; when this essential theme or subject is understood, the unity of attitudes and judgments underlying the variety of the poems becomes startlingly explicit. The poems understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites. In this struggle one opposite is that cake of custom in which all of us lie embedded like lungfish—the [stasis] or inertia of the stubborn self, the obstinate persistence in evil that is damnation. Into this realm of necessity the poems push everything that is closed, turned inward, incestuous, that blinds or binds: the Old Law, imperialism, militarism, capitalism, Calvinism, Authority, the Father, the "proper Bostonians," the rich who will "do everything for the poor except get off their backs." But struggling within this like leaven, falling to it like light, is everything that is free or open, that grows or is willing to change: here is the generosity or openness or willingness that is itself salvation; here is "accessibility to experience"; this is the realm of freedom, of the Grace that has replaced the Law, of the perfect liberator whom the poet calls Christ.

Consequently the poems can have two possible movements or organizations: they can move from what is closed to what is open, or from what is open to what is closed…. [Normally] the poems move into liberation….

Anyone who compares Mr. Lowell's earlier and later poems will see this movement from constriction to liberation as his work's ruling principle of growth. The grim, violent, sordid constriction of his earliest poems—most of them omitted from Lord Weary's Castle—seems to be temperamental, the Old Adam which the poet grew from and only partially transcends….

Mr. Lowell has a completely unscientific but thoroughly historical mind. It is literary and traditional as well; he can use the past so effectively because he thinks so much as it did. He seems to be condemned both to read history and to repeat it….

Mr. Lowell is a thoroughly professional poet, and the degree of intensity of his poems is equalled by their degree of organization. Inside its elaborate stanzas the poem is put together like a mosaic: the shifts of movement, the varied pauses, the alternation in the length of sentences, and the counterpoint between lines and sentences are the outer form of a subject matter that has been given a dramatic, dialectical internal organization; and it is hard to exaggerate the strength and life, the constant richness and surprise of metaphor and sound and motion, of the language itself…. Mr. Lowell's poetry is a unique fusion of modernist and traditional poetry, and there exist side by side in it certain effects that one would have thought mutually exclusive; but it is essentially a post- or anti-modernist poetry, and as such is certain to be influential.

Randall Jarrell, "From the Kingdom of Necessity" (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), in his Poetry and the Age, Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 188-99.

Critical interest has concerned itself largely with four aspects of Lowell's writing: thematically, his Catholicism and his radicalism; technically, his traditionalism and his violence. But the terms are misleading. The Catholicism—which is at least three-quarters anti-Calvinism—is certainly ubiquitous; the radicalism is a curious mixture of Jeremiah, St. Francis of Assisi,...

(This entire section contains 6644 words.)

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and Karl Marx; the traditionalism resides largely in technical detail—and that with a difference—; and the violence is both thematic and technical to an explosive degree….

Lowell is a serious, intelligent, gifted, and powerful—albeit sometimes misguided—poet. He is basically a poet of revolt, and that revolt is specifically directed against the Calvinism of his heritage, which he identifies with the Old Law of the Hebraic dispensation, and against all the historical, social, political, and economic patterns of a New-England-led America. But, like the Saxon who could denounce the conquerors only by learning the Norman language—and thereby began to be Normanized—, Lowell adopts the "poetic vocabulary" and the habits of mind of the opposition. He leans toward organization by reverie and association, the acceptance of a solipsistic universe, which is the ultimate product of the disappearance of God from the Ockhamist-Calvinist conception of being. In his denial of Calvinistic total depravity, predestinarianism, and faith without works, he does not reach the affirmation of Aristotelian-Thomistic reason, freedom, and individual responsibility. He does not find the joy of the risen Christ, nor the emancipation of rational Christianity. He has not escaped the tragic Christ and the voluntaristic universe of Calvin.

Will C. Jumper, "Whom Seek Ye?: A Note on Robert Lowell's Poetry," in Hudson Review, Spring, 1956, pp. 117-25.

Robert Lowell's poetic style has been marked by a peculiar force, one that might well have been called violence but for its learning, bookishness, and nostalgia for traditional order. In the book that made him famous, Lord Weary's Castle, he wrote with the precision of passion, he cut his phrases as fine as Braille; but between the elegantly turned tumult of style and the invocation of Catholic glory and order, he was saved not only from violence but also from confronting his own past too directly, from getting too close to rude experience. The formal beauty of his style was extraordinary. Yet shaken as I was by Lord Weary's Castle, I felt that Lowell had not only learned (or intuited) a style from reading many books, but that this same rapid and mountainous eloquence had kept him chaste before life, had saved him from some more necessary and desperate encounter with himself. There was something clingingly literary about the tone of these strong poems, as there was about his going to prison during the war as a Catholic conscientious objector. He seemed to be more intense about life than intimate with it….

It is [the] vividness, the energy and texture of each image, that is Lowell's distinct achievement. He specializes in place, in eloquent vertigo, in stylizing the communion with self that is the essence of dramatic monologue, and I can't think of any poet of his generation who has polished the dramatic sense, rare enough, to such acuteness.

In [Lowell's] poems twentieth-century poetry comes back to its great tradition as plain speech; comes back, in Pasternak's phrase, "to its sister, life."

Alfred Kazin, "In Praise of Robert Lowell" (1959), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 225-30.

Robert Lowell's poetry has been a long struggle to remove the mask, to make his speaker unequivocally himself. As with Thomas, whose style Lowell's sometimes (especially in a few earlier poems) resembles, his chief mask has been that of the 'crucified' man, overwhelmed by compassion and at the same time a boisterous participant in the human ordeal. He departs from Thomas in the specific meaning of the mask: for him it is a mask of moral guilt, like Eliot's, for the present decadence of values and the crash of a great tradition. He is after all a Lowell, and he charges himself with all the meanness of contemporary New England as he sees it—sunken in commercialist degradation, the net result of the nastiness behind its long history going back to the repressive Puritanism and to the heartless extermination of the Indians. A Catholic convert for a number of years, Lowell worked this perspective into his poetry as Eliot has done with his Anglicanism, but with a 'jackhammer' passion. He is also a social critic as uncompromising in his strictures as any Marxist….

Lowell's 1951 volume, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, moves into the foreground themes more or less suppressed previously. In these poems, Lowell gives freer play to his driving motives of distorted and blocked love, mental exacerbation verging into insanity, and symbolic and actual homicide and suicide….

It is important, I think, to remember one implication of what writers like Robert Lowell are doing: that their individual lives have profound meaning and worth, and that therapeutic confession will lead to the realization of these values.

M. L. Rosenthal, "Robert Lowell and the Poetry of Confession" (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.), in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 226-37.

Lowell, for people who came to maturity during the second World War, was not our poet in the way that Eliot and Auden and Thomas and even Archibald MacLeish was "our poet" for a large body of people…. Lowell was something we reacted to and against, but there was never a sense of coziness about the whole thing, especially if one met it, except briefly, in cool print. He was, rather, an other and representative reality. One reacted to what he represented, religiously and aesthetically, as much as to whatever it was that he was. And finally he sent us back to his constituents, so that he hardly seemed an individual force but a literary figure, that is, a complex type…. Lowell was a reminder of pain. He dramatized, not knowing it himself any more than the rest of us, that pain was normal for our generation because of the irreconcilabilities we had chosen as our substance, and then the ultimate numbness that great pain imposes. It always surprises me to contemplate how many of my contemporaries carry lead or the weight of prison sentences or the shock of the violence of the state in its many forms as part of their physiology…. Pain was what we expected society to impose, and all our cultural conditioning had led us to associate purgation and genuine suffering with that pain.

Hence Lowell's painful poetry was accepted for the moral and emotional orders it sanctioned. Now with For the Union Dead he has written a book that carries this painfulness one step further, and he has written a genuinely popular book—people who wouldn't otherwise read poetry read it. At the same time I find it very hard to defend For the Union Dead on poetic terms…. The poems are post-Christian; even more than that: they are poems of a world that has denied its second and would deny a third chance by taking the whole matter out of the hands of any god at all…. Reason and measure are simply not relevant terms….

With this book it seems to me that Lowell has moved past the pain and disgust of his earlier work toward impatience. This may be our great collective psychosis right now, and once again Lowell has taken on himself a representative role. But with impatience, which won't do in art or science, comes the more specifically poetry-destroying force of futility and guilt. Whatever the personal position of the man writing poetry, poetry is not guilty; the author may hold what attitude he will, the poem has to be free, innocent….

It is hard to deny or even question his expressive integrity. It would be silly to thrust aside the moral and personal charm of the poems. Only a large talent like Lowell's urges that we ask whether expressiveness and integrity are quite enough. The book has as its continuous subject the poetic sensibility in a world that is over-humanized, bleared and smeared with point-less and devastating toil, the legacy of wasted power and emotions, the corruption of meaning with false and irrelevant symbols…. These poems, however, present a human condition to which there is no solution. All literature does. It may be wisdom on our part to admit that there are in experience as well as art insoluble problems, even that we are freshly creating problems that have as their chief characteristic built-in insolubility. Where this leaves us, For the Union Dead suggests. Artistically, even if this is so, it seems necessary to assert that expression, integrity, and representativeness are not in themselves valid. Art is a shaping spirit.

Thomas Parkinson, "For the Union Dead," in Salmagundi, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1965 (and in Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Parkinson, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 143-51).

For an age of world wars and prison states, when the Faustian myth of science produces the grotesquerie of fall-out shelters, the decorous emotion seems a fascinated disgust. After outrage has exhausted itself in contempt, after the mind has got the habit of Dallas and South Africa, the shudder of curiosity remains. Every morning we think, something new and insufferable is about to happen: what is it? Among living poets writing in English nobody has expressed this emotion with the force and subtley of Robert Lowell….

Lowell has said it was hard for him to find a subject and a language of his own. He can describe himself as writing a rather formal style coming out of Tate, Hart Crane, Ransom, and Eliot. But when he composed the brilliant, influential poems that were collected in Life Studies (1959), he took a line less reminiscent of those masters than of Pound. At last he had discovered his language and subject…. Without losing the tone of fascinated disgust, he now found it possible not only to treat himself as part of history but to treat history as part of himself. The course of his life became the analogue of the life of his era; the sufferings of the poet became a mirror of the sufferings of whole classes and nations. It was not as a judge that he now claimed his authority: it was as the heroic artist, the man capable of turning vision into act. Through the title of his book Lowell gave himself the status of a craftsman who reveals life in general by the rendering of his own life….

Imitations is Lowell's attempt to find his voice in the high places of literature, to fashion retrospectively a tradition for his accomplishment. He is legitimizing his progeny, replacing the Lowells and Winslows by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Rilke. In drawing up such a genealogical tree, Lowell again implies that he has found his essential identity not in a social class or in a religious communion but in his character as a writer. So it seems appropriate that the bulk of the models belong to the Symbolist tradition. For Symbolism is the movement that defined the creative mind as the supreme object of poetic contemplation….

What appears most astonishing about the recent work is the way old motifs persist in new transformations with deepening significance…. But in the new poems of private recollection Lowell inclines to emphasize the hold that history has on the present, the powerlessness of the self to resist the determination of open or hidden memories. The insatiable consciousness of the poet comments sardonically on the very self-censuring auto-analysis that produced Life Studies.

At the opposite extreme from the private self the poet can now draw human as well as Symbolist analogies between the terrible numbers of suffering people and his own unique experiences.

Irvin Ehrenpreis, "The Age of Lowell," in Stratford upon Avon Studies 7, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Edward Arnold, 1965.

Lowell as much as any current poet deserves systematic study in universities. He is entwined in the great moral issues of our age with compelling fullness, reacting against the savagery and barbarism of great and small wars, apprehending passionately the solitude and waste of the individual caught in a world that, in Rilke's phrase, has "fallen into the hands of men." He is in effect the poetic conscience tormented by its perception of reality and its imagination of possibilities in this most terrible of centuries, once spoken of with unconscious irony as The American Century. And he sees this century within the total web of the past and as a trouble to be seen in the major languages of the world. He is neither a temporal nor a spatial provincial. American historical life is seen as an experienced whole, and the ancestral voices of his poetry are familial, of New England, and at the same time universal spirits. His work is not national in any sense, but local and international, representing his identity as a New England writer and his obligations as a member of the international poetic community….

The religious and moral problems poetically treated by Lowell should satisfy the most disaffiliated student's demand for relevance. And when the issues of this work are seen in the perspective that Lowell takes as his proper burden, the student is forced beyond the bounds of his own life and culture to see what informs human potentiality in the widest reference.

Thomas Parkinson, "Introduction: Robert Lowell and the Uses of Modern Poetry in the University," in his Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 1-11.

Robert Lowell's best poems tick like time bombs. His collection, Near the Ocean, has for me the true authority….

Lowell's poems insist that there is one thing even more magnificent than invention: discovery….

[Part of] Lowell's … authoritative strength is his resourcefulness with clichés. Some of his most telling revelations come when clichés are suddenly seized with fierce acumen. To shun clichés altogether would be to seem high-stepping and remote. Not to scrutinize them would be to surrender.

Christopher Ricks, "Authority in Poems," in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 203-15.

[Lowell's] desire for a way [to interpret our time] is an anguish for which one feels sympathy and respect. His agony and his sense of inadequacy and loss are truly what hold [Near the Ocean] together. Yet his is not the agony of a Juvenal watching the wanton destruction of something fine by men of egregious appetites for the material and the carnal, but rather that of a man who cannot decide, who cannot make up his mind, who sees nothing to believe in, who is forced back on his own reserves and judges these to be too slender. Mr. Lowell searches the present without understanding and without at all liking what he sees. He searches the past without comfort; all he finds there are ancestors whom he cannot follow, whose love he has lost or somehow forfeited, and for whom he has found no substitute.

F. H. Griffin Taylor, in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South), Spring, 1969, p. 301.

Robert Lowell is surely our link to the now nearly mythic father of contemporary poetry, T. S. Eliot. Like Eliot's, Lowell's enduring interests have been history, Christianity, and madness; and by virtue of an analogy which both have struck between private neurosis and cultural crack-up, Eliot and Lowell have both written poems which are at once aesthetic objects and social commentaries. Moreover, Eliot's one poetic difficulty—how to represent boredom, disintegration, and ecstasy without being merely boring, messy, and silly—is thoroughly Lowell's. And Lowell has often met the problem rather as Eliot did: by a reliance on allusion, translation, and imitation. Eliot's bookish technique, his own enormously successful creation, has fallen fully into Lowell's hands.

All this is by way of attesting to Lowell's greatness. Whatever else, he is our most important poet. But the price of such greatness, as other poets have discovered, is profound. For like Eliot after "Ash Wednesday," Lowell is now at the point where he can no longer afford a mistake. One slip of the mantle, one gauche break in the statuesque stance, and the imposing façade falls into mere imposture. An uneven poem becomes a grotesque failure, an exploratory move becomes a chill and empty gesture.

Donald Sheehan, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1969 (© 1969 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 285.

Robert Lowell's Notebook 1967–68 shows a remarkable emergence from the pit of bitterness and despair that marked his volumes of only a few years ago, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean. In those books one felt a misery and weariness of life…. Lowell has not at all lost his awareness of the ugliness present in our world, as it cracks and reforms. He is intimately involved with the political issues of the day and he never forgets the brutalities of the past, whether they be the work of a Hitler or an Attila. But the poems in this Notebook are irradiated with the flow of love…. What we are watching here is the flow of a poet's mind and thoughts, working upon the moments, lives, events, and intuitions that have struck his imagination.

Louis L. Martz, in Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1970, p. 252.

In Life Studies, one concludes, Lowell is trying to fuse two modes: (1) the romantic mode which projects the poet's "I" in the act of self-discovery, and (2) the Tolstoyan or Chekhovian mode usually called realism. I would posit that it is his superb manipulation of the realistic convention, rather than the titillating confessional content, that is responsible for the so-called "breakthrough" of Life Studies and that distinguishes Lowell's confessional poetry from that of his less accomplished disciples.

Marjorie G. Perloff, "Realism and the Confessional Mode of Robert Lowell," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 470-87.

Rebels against tradition, yet forebears of traditions, the Lowells were energetic, curious, and inventive—but also conservative; individualistic—but also formal and ceremonious. In Robert Lowell these paradoxes would be sharpened into a poetry equally remarkable for a sense of the apocalyptic present and a knowledge of past history, for force and control, for richness and restraint. Under the pressure of such a system of contraries, Lowell's poetic manner has changed drastically during the last thirty years. His earliest verse was characterized by a tone of baroque exaltation—for instance, in "The Drunken Fisherman"…. By the sixties, Lowell's poetry had experienced many modifications. No longer oratorical and less pointedly symbolic, it might be dramatic—as in "The Drinker"… [or] intensely personal, even confessional—as in "Forth of July in Maine"…. Despite such striking external shifts, all of Lowell's work exhibits the same preoccupations. His basic subject has always been the fate of selfhood in time, and his basic method the examination of the convergence in man of past history and present circumstance. Much that seems contradictory in Lowell's development becomes clear when we understand that he imaginatively projects a system of tensions and contrasts which is designed to express both his will to believe and his capacity for doubt, his necessary reverence toward man or God as well as his inevitable irreverence toward the universe…. Lowell is essentially an ironist, interested in enigma rather than certitude, in awareness more than in knowledge. (pp. 5-7)

In the American romantic tradition, [Lowell] not only merged poetry with religion but equated both with culture, and thus attempted to be oratorical and satirical, exalted and apocalyptic, visionary and prophetic, idealistic and pessimistic, hortatory and violent. Yearning for a civilization in which men bear a likeness to God, he finds in the modern world only St. Augustine's regio dissimilitudinis—capitalism, war, secularized consciousness. (p. 11)

The major modes of Lord Weary's Castle [for which Lowell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize] are (1) the definition of the individual through suprapersonal structures and (2) the dramatization of the self's terrifying alienation from these through the divorce of observation from feeling and of sensibility from culture. "In Memory of Arthur Winslow" combines these modes. (p. 18)

His third volume, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), showed further development of his technical range. Having explored Puritan and Catholic Christian humanism in his first two books, he now gave up orthodox affiliation with any church and proceeded to use Western civilization and his personal crisis as material for his poetry…. Earlier, Lowell's language had been characterized by its tension, a straining to push to and beyond the capacities of language. In The Mills of the Kavanaughs he moved toward the language of urbanity, where the strain exists in the sensibility and consists in the attempt to conceal the strain which periodically leaps through the conversational surface. Lowell reined his tendency toward generalization and accusation and developed single-mindedly his talent for complex plots, conversational ease, and vivid characters. While his verse shows a marked decrease in religious fervor it correspondingly increases in sensuous observation, interest in sexual passion, preoccupation with individual yearning and frustration, and emphasis on particularized character. Love and morality are the central themes of The Mills of the Kavanaughs. (pp. 19-20)

In Imitations a single mode of the imagination predominates: the poet confronts and understands himself through engagement with all that is not-the-self—others' selves, as in "For Anna Akmatova"; historical objects, as in "A Roman Sarcophagus"; other poets, as in the Gautier elegies; myth, as in "Helen." But the self confronts itself chiefly through what Lowell calls the "mania" in man and physical nature. (p. 24)

After the completion of Life Studies Lowell felt emptied of self, uninterested in individuality…. It remained for him to join the modes of Imitations and Life Studies by investigating simultaneously the sense that self makes out of the history it hoards and the culture that draws back the self which would be lost through fleeing it. The possibilities of this synthesis provides the "new main artery of emphasis and inspiration" of For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean.

In For the Union Dead old poems are revived, previous themes are reinvigorated, the vatic utterance of his earliest manner and the confessional tone of his most recent are recalled. It is not so much a coming to grips with a new poetry as a completion of all that was implied in the earlier. (p. 35)

Lowell's continuing concern with the relations between politics, society, and individual conscience is the subject of Notebook 1967–68 … [which is] unified through the development, restatement, and repetition of several themes and concerns: (1) growing, a theme embodied particularly in poems on Lowell's daughter, Harriet; (2) the relation between the past—what one grows from—and the present that one daily grows into (this theme leads Lowell to reflect on his childhood); (3) the contexts of growing: history (of Lowell's ancestors, of America, and of Europe), politics, and consciousness; (4) concern with the poet's personal history; (5) achievement of an uneasy, but joyful, acceptance of the dark side of history, politics, and modern life, so that even the apocalyptic poem "Dies Irae" can be subtitled "A Hope"…; (6) a willing involvement of himself with the tragedies of family, society, other persons, and self. (pp. 41-2)

Lowell has refused to be a platonist, an imagination, and has insisted on being a man of imagination. Serving and leading his culture by opening, through his work, the lines along which it might evolve, he has built a career like those of Jonson, Dryden, Goethe, Howells, and James. His power as a poet derives from his understanding that, like these writers, he can be a man of letters only insofar as he can remain a man among men. (p. 46)

Jay Martin, in his Robert Lowell ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 92), University of Minnesota Press, 1970.

[The] extraordinary energy of [Lowell's] early style … which frequently bursts out into an uncontrolled splutter, comes more under control as Lowell's writing matures; but there are few writers whose poems have so given the sense that they are held in place by main force, ready to explode at any moment. Even the quieter late poems have this quality, and there is that about their quietness which makes it frequently appear like lassitude, as though this poetry only too well remembered the early work…. Lowell is an historically minded poet. His work draws in intimate ways on earlier poetry. He has written "Imitations" of one sort or another throughout his career. (pp. 20-1)

Robert Lowell's early work is in many ways a rhetorical poetry, and this rhetorical quality is a very odd thing in the twentieth century. It might be better to say that it is a poetry trying hard to be rhetorical, often in the grand manner, in the face of the fear that any rhetoric has ceased to be viable. (p. 25)

One of the more remarkable and praiseworthy qualities of Lowell as a poet and as a person is that he is so immediately involved in the scene we recognize as the life we live now. His poetry is topical; it is inhabited by people we know (we even know Lowell's Romans)…. He has been praised and condemned, but I think too much of the criticism has dwelt on the highly discussable surface…. And if it is not precisely easy, it is at least obvious to search for the sources of his Christian imagery, to note his movement into a post-Christian mentality, to discuss the dangers of imitating European poets, or to debate the implications of confession and self-revelation in poetry. These are not bad things to do. There is certainly enough excuse for these kinds of criticism, for Lowell's is by no means an easy poetry. It often demands explication, and added to this there is the boldness of his various public stances, which have often attracted a great deal of comment. One of the frustrating but significant things about Lowell is that he often invites us to think about his poetry in ways that so easily slip into gossip.

All of these pursuits can so easily prevent us from asking what seem to me the really significant questions that we ought at this time to be asking about Lowell's poetry. One of the questions might be: what is there in his very great talent that it must be so self-destructive, so often determined to drive out the reasons for its own existence? Another question, closely related but larger, is: what is the fundamental pattern of experience in his poetry? (pp. 43-4)

Lowell's poetry is very much of a piece. His late poetry is not separated sharply from his early poetry, but is a direct development from it. My major premise is that the fundamental situation, the relationship of the self and the world, has remained essentially the same throughout Lowell's poetry. That relationship has grown more intense, and though the images and situations have changed, the pattern has remained the same…. As Lowell's poetry moves into and beyond Life Studies, the metric becomes muted and the rhetoric introverted. But the rhetorical process itself continues…. I do not want to seem to be in the position of minimizing the development in Lowell…. The language of his poetry has changed, and as we all know, in poetry language is everything…. What I do want to say is that it is silly to "refute" the earlier poetry by the later, and that the later develops directly out of the earlier. (pp. 48-50)

I suppose that it is almost too obvious to say that "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" is a kind of epitome of Lowell's early verse. The extremely dense rhetoric of the poem displays almost too fully the energy of his early work. (p. 51)

Probably the most constant preoccupation of Lowell's poetry has been with the question of salvation…. [Even] Lowell's early poems with their Christian frame of reference constantly raise the possibility that any mode of salvation has disappeared from the world. The possibility that there is no salvation, no way out, becomes stronger in Lowell's later work. It would be quite wrong, however, to say that the question of salvation ever becomes irrelevant. (p. 52)

Lowell's capacity for moral indignation, one of the more attractive features of his work, has remained high…. In everything Lowell has written, from the early, powerfully stumbling poems in Land of Unlikeness to the very recent poetry, we hear what is essentially the same voice, commenting on the outrages of its society.

When you turn this capacity for moral outrage inside out, it becomes that estrangement of the personality from its environment which … is always seen in the implacability and impenetrability of nature in Lowell's poems…. The assumption underlying such an art, one that can be described by the aesthetics of tension, is that there is some possibility of maintaining the integrity of the person; the struggle is always conducted with the possibility of breaking through the wall of circumstance, or at least with the dignity and importance of the struggle kept in view.

This assumption seems to be wearing very thin indeed in Lowell's latest work. For this reason, though his preoccupation with the pressures of mortality is as great as ever, the pattern of experience that I have described has become severely attenuated, and one of the most interesting movements in his poetry has nearly vanished. (pp. 59-63)

R. K. Meiners, in his Everything to be Endured: An Essay on Robert Lowell and Modern Poetry (© 1970 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), published by University of Missouri Press, 1970.

[Notebook 1967–68] is a collection of over 270 sonnets loosely organized around the political and personal events surrounding his life in the latter part of the sixties. The fact that Lowell has chosen the sonnet and, further, that he expresses a wide variety of poetic themes, elegies, panegyrics, self-mockeries, love poems, descriptions of historical and literary events and personalities, will surely persuade these readers that Lowell is indeed embarking once again in new literary directions….

When one speaks of changes in style or theme in Lowell's poetry one speaks of degree rather than kind, and the changes themselves are what one would expect in the course of a major poet's growth. What has remained wanting in the evaluation of Lowell's work is the detachment necessary to perceive the consistency of outrage and personal torment through all the volumes. In addition, this declaration of protest has always been couched in familial, historical, and highly moralistic terms….

Part of that consistent morality is an intense distrust of the nature of man, and it is the precept of innate depravity that has continued to make the life and work of Jonathan Edwards a source of infatuation for Lowell….

In the course of the past quarter century Lowell's denominational loyalties have shifted, but his moral out-rage in no way is diminished, and if his protest is no longer sectarian, it is surely no less searing….

The Robert Lowell who emerges at the end of the 1960s still offers no reconciliation between the two forces that he sees as constituting the nature of man that is, stubborn inertia vs. the willingness to grow and change], but neither has he abandoned the search for it. In the larger sense, all of Lowell's verse is "confessional" in that he has found the truest metaphor for the division of the nature of man to be within himself—though the same tensions extend outward to embrace American, and particularly New England, historical predecessors; his own family, both ancestors and new descendants; his literary colleagues; and, finally, the whole of twentieth-century society.

George Lensing, "The Consistency of Robert Lowell," in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 338-44.

One can imagine Robert Lowell striking a bargain with himself. His eighth volume of poetry would do something new again. After the New England meditations and taut religious fusions of his early work; Life Studies, the brilliant family chronicle that probed psychic imprisonment, loss and the gallantry of any good writer's survival; the more patently public but no less masterful For the Union Dead; the "imitations" of foreign and classical writers—surely his reputation was secure. His poetic manner had broadened too. More contemporaneous now, as charged with wit, learning, and sheer mental power as ever, it supported better than at first meanings dense with complication. But something had gone wrong. Perhaps his fame had not been good for him. He seemed to be repeating himself. Near the Ocean, his most recent volume, travelled through the Lowell country but lacked creative hum. Was he about to stall?

If so, he would not strain for change, for that course would involve denying both himself and his achievement. One cannot, after all, be born anew; the emotions are too conservative. Hence the bargain: to allow his sensibility play for discovery, he would trust it. In turn he could set rules for it—ballast for an experiment in free floating, something dependable to assure morale. The result, it seems to me, is Notebook, 1967–68, a purposefully random series of fourteen-line poems, kin to sonnet but unrhymed. The book spans a cycle of seasons, flashes of history, and such crucial recent national events as the march on the Pentagon, the McCarthy campaign, the upheavals at Columbia, Robert Kennedy's death, and the Democratic convention in Chicago. From shared material and a deliberate stanza it fashions impressions of a private person, a poetry of momentary perceptions and thoughts….

[This] is vintage Lowell: the fondness for narrative and for foreign phrases; sudden shifts of intensities and mood; snatches of conversation and historical details that assert actuality while dramatizing the narrator's inner state; images recurring to the past, whether familial, historical or prehistorical. One of Lowell's authentic contributions to the dramatic monologue has been his ability to make poetry out of a narrator's weak ego (one reason why he is the poet of what remains of our Establishment, whose ego is also in danger of imminent collapse). Impressionable, flamboyant, barely capable of holding experience together, it floats between the perceived present and the remembered and fantasied past, providing the dynamic for the poems. The overriding concerns here are also characteristic. Gloom pervades his poetry. In it one grows old, suffers loss upon loss and dies; work comes to nothing, perhaps achieves a ripple's duration or status. Time-ridden existence, intensely lived, concomitantly feared and hated, and necessarily anguished, seizes his imagination….

Unfortunately, most of the poems [in Notebook] are not that good, revealing carelessness of one sort or another. Often the fourteen-line form seems to trap Lowell into investing matters with an importance they do not have…. Such embarrassment of conception and craft, however, from a poet of known scrupulosity, argue a new willingness to confuse work sheets with finished work. Apparently Lowell's bargain with himself included unexamined permission to be shoddy. Notebook betrays self-indulgence. Too many of the poems fail, and the title does not change the matter….

[The] real subject of Notebook is depression—encompassing, settled, the habitual complement of those deep angers, paralyses and specific griefs he explored in his earlier, better poetry. That is why the book makes tedious reading. It is repetitious, seems indeed "famished for human chances." Lacking engaging drama and direction because in it Lowell neither relives old pains nor accepts the new ones of growth, it projects generalized mournfulness.

Paul Schwaber, "Robert Lowell in Mid-Career," in Western Humanities Review, Autumn, 1971, pp. 348-54.

[The] world of Lowell's poems [in Notebook] is utterly more engrossing, dazzling, breathtaking even than could be believed on the evidence of his previous volumes. The Notebook's sonnets are incredibly audacious and roomy in their willingness, their eagerness to speak about all the things a fully alive person should care about: Don Giovanni, George Eliot, Randall Jarrell, a Cranach hunting scene, Abraham Lincoln, the Archduke Trio, Back Bay Station, the bathtub stoppers at the Parker House, Bishop Berkeley—the poems take on as much of the world's culture and furniture as might be encountered in writers of prose like George Eliot or Jarrell or Bishop Berkeley….

[Whether] or not you can accept Notebook for the one poem Lowell says it was written as, is less important than recognizing the richness of its parts, the throw-away marvels of what you're likely to encounter without preparation and with astonished delight….

But if the book coheres in any large sense it must be through the pervading elegiac sense of time passed, life shortening, death coming up for its claim.

William H. Pritchard, "Positives" (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), in Poetry, December, 1971, pp. 166-68.


Robert Lowell Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Lowell, Robert (Vol. 11)