Lowell, Robert 1917–1977
Poet, playwright, translator, editor, and critic, Lowell is considered to be the greatest American poet of his generation. Acknowledging the influence of Williams, Ransom, and Tate, Lowell considered himself a "formal" poet, especially in contrast to poets of his generation such as Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti. Lowell's concern with the past and with tradition is evidenced in the subject matter of his drama: he used themes from Melville and Hawthorne in his Old Glory dramatic trilogy and translated Greek and Roman classics in a modern idiom. Throughout his career, Lowell remained an innovative stylist, constantly exploring the possibilities of poetic expression. His work is characterized by a strength and vitality controlled by his innate sense of form. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 73-76.)
"Life Studies" is probably one of the four most important volumes of new poetry in English since Four Quartets. One reason for this judgment would certainly be that Lowell had profited from the other three: Paterson, The Pisan Cantos, and Howl and Other Poems. (p. 96)
Lowell also showed an extraordinary ability to profit by the advice given him over the years by people like Frost, Eberhart, Tate, Blackmur, Jarrell, Fiedler, Bewley, and Arrowsmith. Fortunately for him, these critics agreed in estimating his strengths and weaknesses. They all said he had a great talent for the strong metrical line, the rich image, and the complex mosaic structure. Some frankly envied his hereditary grasp of the New England mingle of European and American materials. In different ways all pointed to the same shortcomings: a lack of lovingness, inability to manage narrative, ventriloquism, "monotonous violence" in prosody and in imagery, imagery that reflected a bleak Protestant temper even while alluding to the most unctuous or baroque Catholic emblems. Lowell countered these strictures (or turned defects into virtues) in the fifteen poems of Part IV of the Life Studies volume by using strategies new to his work.
First, he took up in them the familiar subject matter of the American writer, his own early childhood and youth. Second, by opening his prosody to free verse, he moved like many other poets in the fifties into the camp of William Carlos Williams (whose work he had always, in fact, admired). Not so obvious, but vital to the enthusiastic reception of the volume as a whole, were two other strategies which are outstanding in the series of fifteen "Life Studies" poems and are not to be found in such concentrated form elsewhere in Lowell's writing to date. They serve to set these poems off as a distinct work. First, "Life Studies" … is not a connected narrative, but it has a very strong mythic structure: a combination of the two Freudian myths of maturation and the family romance. The reason no one has pointed out these schemata, I suppose, is that both myths have been so widely internalized by now that we take them for granted. What I call the Freudian maturation myth might at first seem, indeed, only a behavioral platitude. But Freud's insistence upon genital adulthood and social responsibility, adopted by Lowell in "Life Studies," is a quite particular model for the life scheme and self-valuation of many poeple today; in this sense it is a myth. And finally, as if in answer to those who charged him with dour rigidity of feeling, Lowell adopted a comic strategy for "Life Studies," pitching it in the seriocomic (at times almost black) vein that has so widely supplanted the tragic in recent writing. (pp. 96-7)
[The] comic vein of "Life Studies" is wry, not ebullient. Were it not true in this way to Lowell's mind and experience, the series of poems could hardly have been so successful. Just as characteristic, I should say, is the fact that Lowell's comic vein is rhetorically well supported, on a theory of the comic that, again, owes much to Freud…. To Freud, a certain kind of laughter is the final proof of adulthood: when we can react to a punishing or humiliating situation with a laugh instead of a moan of despair, we are saying, "I am too grownup to allow this to distress me!" Laughter of adulthood is an assertion of superiority and at the same time a healthy release of otherwise destructive pressure.
Lowell's use of the secular Freudian myths succeeded where he had formerly achieved but limited results with "plots" drawn from Christian salvation dogma or dreamridden psychodrama. In "Life Studies" his version of the family romance centers in the maturation story of Robert, Junior. The odds are against his achieving adulthood, for his mother has been so overpowered by her own "Freudian papá" that she inevitably sets about castrating her weak husband, Robert, Senior. The son has no proper father figure to model himself upon; but he unconsciously falls into two relationships, both comic, that save his virility even while they dangerously imperil his maturation. First, he and his Grandfather Winslow pair up; later, Robert carries on an intrigue with his mother so as (symbolically, in the Freudian sense) to cuckold his father. At last, both parents die; Robert is the victim of psychic crises, but "Life Studies" ends on a firm, and comic, note of resolution and redemption. He, too, is now a parent, his wife no castrater but on the contrary a redeemer, an Alcestis; he finally comes to share the primitive, vital instinct for self-survival and self-perpetuation found in the maternal animal. Because his own life is vitally related to his child's, it has a value grounded in the continuity of all life.
There is an exact congruence between this "plot" and the basic Freudian theme and variations involving the individual's struggle to become a mature adult in the setting of his family and society. It is confirmed in detail by the prose autobiography, "91 Revere Street," in which Lowell tells the story of his life from beginning school to early adolescence. The result is, therefore, anything but a confessional piece in the crude sense of an unguarded outpouring of anguish and guilt. On the contrary. "Life Studies," like the works of St. Augustine and Rousseau, is the effort of a skilled rhetorician to persuade his audience that he has in fact survived his trial. (pp. 97-8)
One of the rhetorical functions of the comic in "Life Studies" is to show that the poet's genealogical ties to the colonial past are a mixed blessing. If, as it has been said, people envy Lowell for his lineage, let them realize that the actual personal links were a considerable handicap, humanly speaking. The poet shows us the ambiguities of his family history as the rhetor might do, to capture the goodwill of a largely plebeian audience. The rhetorical advantage of the Freudian myth so insistently employed in "Life Studies" is that it works with an audience that needs only to be human. (p. 102)
In the "Life Studies" series his adoption of a new, resolute stand toward life achieved a poetic presentation … largely by means of the Freudian myth of the psyche's progress from infantile Oedipal hostility and narcissism to the verge of adulthood and responsible paternity. Insofar as mine is merely an "interpretation" of "Life Studies," it may or may not be of much value. It is of greater critical importance, I think, to recognize that these fifteen poems are a literary entity, requiring the critic to treat them as such. If I can succeed in persuading the reader to entertain the possibility that "Life Studies" is a comic work, that too has some importance. What I should like most of all to accomplish, however, is to invite attention to the nature of the changes Lowell made in his style, because an understanding of these changes helps us to appreciate the problems of contemporary poetry more fully. I believe, in fact, that the redemptive movement in "Life Studies" is to be found in the evident renewal of the poet's speech, as well as in the progress his persona makes toward adulthood in the Freudian sense. (pp. 105-06)
George McFadden, "'Life Studies'—Robert Lowell's Comic Breakthrough," in PMLA, 90 (copyright © 1975 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), January, 1975, pp. 96-106.
In the twentieth century we prefer to think of our poets as rebels and innovators, and it is not difficult to fit Lowell into these categories. At the same time he remains very much a traditionalist, nourished by his New England roots, steeped in the classics, preoccupied with technique, shored up by Christian and post-Christian values. (p. 248)
If he were less of a traditionalist, his sporadic radical decisions and statements … would be less meaningful. Though he is not a man of action, he has a great intuitive gift for symbolic gesture. And though he is more deeply committed to the past than most contemporaries, the vibrant touch of his poetry is on the nerve of the modern. At one time Lowell was regarded as a New England poet, but despite his family connections he is no Yankee versifier and is not to be classified among the regionalists…. His abortive conversion to Catholicism, the influence of which dominated his early work, must be considered among his radical dissents. He remains an essentially Protestant spirit.
Lowell is fascinated by "the prose grip on things." In Life Studies, which looms as one of the watersheds of modern literature, he attempted to recapture a portion of the territory that poetry has for so long yielded to the novel. In Notebook, now retitled History in its expanded form, he has aimed at closing the gap between public and private events. One of his signal intuitions is the connection between terror as a fact of our political life and as a principle of the imagination, what Burckhardt in his study of the Renaissance called "terribilità," a term equally applicable to the sculpture of Michelangelo and the politics of Cesare Borgia. The two dominant figures in his landscape are Milton's Lucifer and Captain Ahab, "these two sublime ambitions," as he defines them, "that are doomed and ready, for their idealism, to face any amount of violence." In his poetry Lowell investigates states of crisis as permanent aspects of being. His work is invested with the quality of a mind that suffers history. Evil, guilt, and power are his insistent themes. Sometimes he magnifies the trivial to satisfy his taste for enormity. (pp. 248-49)
One of the disarming features of Lowell's work is that it does not pretend to aspire to the condition of an absolute art. He tells us the time in the right kind of voice for the day. He does not try to overpower us with a show of strength; instead, with his nervous vivacity, he hurries to build a chain of fortifications out of sand, or even dust. A revisionist by nature, he is forever tinkering with his old lines, rewriting his old poems, revamping his syntax, and periodically reordering his existence.
"It may be," he has remarked, "that some people have turned to my poems because of the very things that are wrong with me, I mean the difficulty I have with ordinary living, the impracticability, the myopia." Nobody else sounds quite like that. He makes us excruciatingly aware of the thrashing of the self behind the lines; of the intense fragility of the psyche trying to get a foothold in an "air of lost connections," struggling to stay human and alive. He is a poet who will even take the risk of sounding flat or dawdling in the hope that it might be true. What we get from these poems is the sense of a life … a life that has been turned into a style. (pp. 249-50)
Stanley Kunitz, "Poet of Terribilita," in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (© 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975, pp. 247-50.
Violence is Lowell's essential subject, terrible in its variety (of time, of place, of motive, of nature) and terrible in its unchangingness…. From his earliest poems to his latest, he has been preoccupied with violence. The national violence that is war, in poems about Napoleon, the Somme, Alexander, Hitler, Hamburg, the American Civil War, the Cuban missile crisis. The supra-national violence that is myth, in poems about the Gorgon, Odysseus, Clytemnestra. The domestic violence that is nagging or infidelity or divorce or murder or the war between children and parents. The personal or psychic violence that is nightmare or madness or suicide. Lowell has written poems on all of these and more. I cannot imagine a kind of violence, a time and a place for it, that he has not imagined on his and our behalf.
'I am against violence,' he said in an interview. 'If I were still Calvinist, I would call it the hell-fire.' And at once we are aware, as Lowell is, of the problems and paradoxes. For you do not have to go along with the lavish dilution of the word 'violent' (like that of the word 'obscene') to acknowledge that the burning-glass of hell-fire is a violent doctrine, violent in its extremity and in its inflictions.
So we have to ask, too, how Lowell manages to avoid, if he does, the nemesis that lies in wait for all imaginings of violence—even or especially the denunciations of violence: that to imagine it may be to minister to it. Isn't Lowell famous for the violence of his ways with language, with poetic forms, with writer-reader understandings? And how can there be an art which preaches non-violence and practises violence?…
Lowell has thought hard, and felt deeply, about violence. His own life … is contemporary with that of the words 'non-violence' and 'non-violent' (both born 1920, fathered by—and mothered by—Gandhi). The last half-century has tried to make imaginable an opposite of violence and an alternative to it, has tried to create 'the principle and practice of abstaining from the use of violence'. The attempt is noble in its aspiration; grim in its recognition that our century stands in hideous need of such a word and concept; inspiring in that it has at least partially succeeded in bringing to birth and to life such a word; and dispiriting in that it has succeeded only partially….
Lowell's sense of violence and of 'the war of words' is evident in the first sentence of his most famous early poem, 'The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket', which uses the word 'violently' but has just previously tranquillised it by using it of the sea's 'breaking' (when the sea breaks violently, it is mercifully intransitive—it breaks, it does not necessarily break anything); and Lowell then calms the word again, but sinisterly, by following it at once with the image of night as a hostile convoy…. About recent violence Lowell has said: 'Other things are boring for these young people, and violence isn't boring.' Yet Lowell as a poet stands in a tense relation to boredom—how can he create non-violent excitements that will not be incitements? (p. 314)
'In the Lowell country,' one of his critics, Marjorie Perloff, has said, 'objects never touch gently; there is always a head-on collision.' But often in a Lowell poem there are not two realised presences which can collide; in the absence of one of the terms, the collision remains a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation. 'In a day when poets long to be irresistible forces, he is an immovable object,' said Lowell's best critic, Randall Jarrell. Lowell may yearn, of course, to be both, but he knows what a collision there would have to be, and he allows only one of the terms a collidable reality….
Phrases in Lowell like 'hit the streets', or 'strike for shore', or 'clashing colours' or 'clashing outfits', at once evoke a potential violence (they have both a violence of expression and a hardened unfeelingness, such as we hear by now in a cliché like 'a sickening thud') and also are phantasmal, precipitating no real pain of violence—it is streets that are hit, not people, and colours that clash, not people. So I think that those critics of Lowell are right who feel a disconcerting unreality in his violence of expression, but wrong when they make this an accusation against the poetry. 'She thundered on the keyboard of her dummy piano': that thunders on neither a real piano nor a dummy one, and itself constitutes a strange art of the shadowily unimaginable or inaudible. The unreality is sometimes an evocation of an absent reality, imaginable but not here fully imagined; and the point of this is to escape the very collusion with violence of which hostile critics have accused him….
Like all poets, Lowell is sensitive to such potent absences; a recent poem, 'The Airport', can say 'Your absence is presence', and we know what loving pressure this has and is about. Lowell's poems have always been alive with these vigorous spectral combats, at once violent (they disturb) and non-violent (one sense cannot strangle itself). So one characteristic response to Lowell's phrasing has always been to wonder for a second if you are misreading it. The early poems are muscular with these ripples of misconstruction….
The characteristic early or middle poem by Lowell has such a combative fending off, like that of a pugnacious referee in the ring, necessarily pugnacious, perhaps, in his peace-keeping. There is a description of Hermes and his wand, 'His caduceus shadow-bowing behind him', which calls up and fends off 'shadow-boxing'—the perfect image for that combative non-combatancy of Lowell's which yet is not hollow or rigged, but is a brave, imaginative attempt to deal with the problems of an uncollusive imagination of violence.
But Lowell has grown older, and his sense of how to deal with combat and violence has calmed and changed. In Life Studies, his turning-point, the extraordinary autobiographical prose of '91 Revere Street' was devoted largely to the paradoxes of his father's life in the navy and at home, mostly both at once. Lowell as a child loved toy-soldiers, he tells us; and his father is loved as a toy-sailor. '91 Revere Street' should be read as an affectionate (not scornful or cutting) evocation of the absurdities and decencies of a civilianised military world. 'As a civilian he kept his high sense of form, his humour, his accuracy, but this accuracy was henceforth unimportant, recreational, hors de combat.' Hors de combat is the right Lowell phrase for a violence acknowledged but not entered upon.
In the very first poem in Lowell's first British volume, Poems 1938–1949, 'The Exile's Return', the liberating soldiers 'ground arms'. Lowell has come to distrust even the violence with which arms may be grounded—the violence of the command or of the butts hitting the ground—and his most recent poetry is an attempt to advance non-violence by a less violent staving off or holding at arm's length or coming between the combatants. So 'the war of words' has been replaced by something calmer, a contrariety of ideas expressing the old avoided combat in terms of a sentiment not a wording….
Lowell's forthcoming volume, Day by Day, is about his recent life in England, his marriage, his memories of family and school, his present home in Kent and the necessity now to move from its lavish sprawl. The poem called 'The Day' begins with a new sense of the hors de combat, which depends less upon a contrariety of phrasing or diction and more upon the image of a harmlessness of violence:
the day is still here
like lightning on an open field,
terra firma and transient
swimming in variation,
fresh as when man first broke
like the crocus all over the earth.
'Broke', but like a flower bursting up and open, not like a destruction or a fracture or a disease; 'like lightning', but 'on an open field'. There is an openness of violent non-violence about the very idea…. These recent poems of Lowell's which have appeared in magazines suggest that in Day by Day there will be the promise of a new safety provided for him and by him, and that the attempt to create a positive non-violence, one that recognises what it is up against but finds ways of not allowing itself to be up against it in any kind of punch-up, will take new and more gentle forms and words…. [New] efforts of imagination are made by the poet whose art is an art of conscientious objection…. (p. 315)
Christopher Ricks, "Robert Lowell at 60," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Christopher Ricks), March 10, 1977, pp. 314-15.
Lowell has written in these ten years a number of verse sequences containing poems good, not so good, and indifferent. These are sonnet-length productions, for the most part, and, caught up as they are in the flow of sequences that pursue a decidedly uncertain course, they are not likely to draw to themselves the kind of attention once directed at classic set-pieces like "Skunk Hour," "Falling Asleep Over The Aeneid," or "For The Union Dead." A part of Lowell's audience has tended to lose touch with him as readers have become less secure about the isolable merits of individual poems—as they have found him more elusive, less committed to the creation of memorizable classics than to the discovery of fluid forms adequate to contain the shifts in his own temper and interests. It may well be, of course, that Lowell has not done his best writing in these years, but many readers seem primarily troubled by the fact that they do not really know how to tell what are and are not the palpable merits of the verse he has in fact produced. How is one to judge a sequence moving only in parts, sometimes casual almost to the point of uncaring? Lowell 'trained' his audience to expect classics, which he nicely provided in book after book for more than twenty years.
Most of his readers could not be asked to shift gears and read the later volumes—Notebook, For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin, and others—as though a brilliant poetic graph of lived experience were ample substitute. That many of the individual items in the late sequences stand with the best Lowell has done; that the sequences as a whole press the reader for a quality of sustained and discriminative attention few long poems can claim, were not possibilities every loyal reader has been willing to confront.
There is more. It has become possible to say that Lowell does not write the kind of poetry an American poet ought to write…. Lowell, it would seem, has chosen to respond to the wrong poetic modes, to challenge the wrong forbears, to revise the wrong ratios. (pp. 4-5)
Robert Lowell is the contemporary poet who has most persuasively established the status of the poem as classic, he is the figure who may most appropriately guide us back in the direction of the text itself…. If Lowell's recent books have not, for some of us, ministered to the expectations aroused by earlier books, they have surely spoken with sufficient authority to many readers and to a whole generation of younger poets. It is the object of this special tribute to Robert Lowell to redefine attention to poetry as primarily attention to poems, and to indicate that Lowell's work—more than the work of any other recent poet—continues to repay the kind of close study we consider appropriate in our approaches to Stevens, to Yeats, and to Pound. (pp. 5-6)
Robert Boyers, "Preface: For Robert Lowell, on His 60th Birthday," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1977 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1977, pp. 3-6.
[One] can't think about literature in the twentieth century without thinking about the body of Lowell's work. He has stayed alive as a poet by never drawing a line around what a poem can or should be. Again and again, his style has changed in an attempt to deal with intractable, unfashionable, or intolerable subject matter. He has kept his poetry close to the intuitions, concerns, obsessions that dominate his mind. Many of us would be terrified to face or write the record of our lives. He says at the end of The Dolphin: "my eyes have seen what my hand did."…
His whole career has been an embodiment of the traditional formal possibilities of English—in terms of meter, rhyme, stanzaic form, even genre—as well as an unending argument with the expressive limits and assumptions of the language. Perhaps this is why critics are often at first bewildered by his new work, and compare it unfavorably to his next-to-last. (p. 54)
I think I am not alone in feeling that—personally, and as a nation—one way we have come to understand and judge ourselves is by reading Robert Lowell. (p. 55)
Frank Bidart, "On Robert Lowell," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1977 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1977, pp. 54-5.
"Quaker Graveyard" is not a political poem. I had assumed that it was, that its rage against the war and puritan will and the Quakers of Nantucket who financed the butchery of whales was an attack on American capitalism. But a political criticism of any social order implies both that a saner one can be imagined and the hope or conviction that it can be achieved…. I went back to the poem looking for the vision of an alternative world. There is none. There's grief and moral rage but the poem imagines the whole of human life as sterile violence … and it identifies finally with the inhuman justice of God…. (p. 57)
[The poet is] forced to step outside the human process and claim the vision of some imperturbable godhead in which the long violence of human history looks small. But in "Quaker Graveyard" it is important to say that is the position the poem finally arrives at because it is a poem of process, and of anguish. Warren Winslow drowns, the Quakers drown, the wounded whale churns in an imagination of suffering and violence which it is the imperative of the poem to find release from, and each successive section of the poem is an attempt to discover a way out. (p. 58)
It is possible, I suppose, to object to the brilliance of the writing. Charles Olson is said to have complained that Lowell lacquered each of his poems and hung it in a museum. But this judgement, like the 'confessional' revolution envisaged by the professoriat, seems to be based on the sociology of Kenyon College or the fact of meter or Lowell's early models, on everything but a reading of the poems. Finish in poetry is, as Olson insisted, a question of form following function. "The Quaker Graveyard" is brilliantly written…. But its brilliance seems neither dictated nor wrought; it is headlong, furious, and casual. There are moments that hover near grandiloquence—"Ask for no Orphean lute …" but they didn't bother me then and don't much now. (p. 60)
In the speed of the writing, the syntax comes apart; it dissolves into emotion, into music and the subterranean connections among images. Throughout the poem it is characteristic that the important associations occur in subordinate clauses or compounds so breathless that you have to sort your way back quite consciously to the starting point. This resembles the syntactical strategies of the French surrealists, particularly Desnos and Peret. The main clause is a pushing off place and the poem makes its meaning out of its momentum. It's a way of coming to terms with experience under pressure and not some extrinsic decision about style. (pp. 61-2)
The current taste is for the explicit, however weird. Surrealism comes to mean the manufacture of peculiar imagery and not something in the sinews of a poem. The fish in "For the Union Dead" are a midpoint in this levelling process. They are transformed into sharks and then into cars as "a savage servility slides by on grease," but the delivery is slower, the context narrative and topographical. It is pretty much the same image as in "The Quaker Graveyard," but it has been clarified like broth….
And this won't do for Lowell because the power of his imagery has always been subliminal; it exists as the nervous underside of the thing said. (p. 62)
[The tone in "Fourth of July in Maine"] has to do with rendering…. It is not the experience but a way of handling the experience. The imagery accumulates its desolating evidence, but in such a way that the terror in the poetry is perceived while the novelistic pathos is felt. The subterranean images, whether "consciously wrought" or not, are intellectual. In this way, it is exactly a metaphysical poem as nothing in Lord Weary's Castle is. (p. 64)
[To see how "The Quaker Graveyard" works], look at the third section of the poem. If you ask yourself how the language or the thought proceeds, it's not easy to say. First sentence: All you recovered died with you. Second sentence: Guns blast the eelgrass. Third sentence: They died …; only bones abide. Characteristically, the Quaker sailors appear at the extremity of a dependent clause; then their fate is seized on, midway through the section, as a subject, and the stanza unravels again into violence as the sailors drown proclaiming their justification. And it does not seem arbitrary. It seems inevitable, because this hopelessly repeated unravelling into violence is both the poem's theme and the source of its momentum. Hell is repetition and the structure of anger is repetition. In this poem history is also repetition, as it is the structure of religious incantation. They are all married here, desperately, and the grace of the poem has to exist in modulation of tone. This modulation, like the different textures of an abstract expressionist painting or like the very different modulations, that create the texture of Whitman's poems—"Song of Myself" comes to mind—is the grandeur and originality of "The Quaker Graveyard." Not theme, not irony or intimacy or the consciously wrought, but absolute attention to feeling at that moment in the poem's process. (pp. 65-6)
Lost innocence is not the subject of the poem. There is a kind of pleading between the poet and the innocence of his cousin, the ensign who went to the war and did his duty. "All you recovered … died with you". But the innocence of the child, of the ensign, of the figureheads is only one syntactical leap away from the stupidity and self-righteousness of the Quaker sailors … who are swallowed up without understanding a thing. Their eyes are "cabin-windows on a stranded hulk/Heavy with sand." (p. 66)
[The] killing of the Whale [is] also an image of the crucifixion of Christ, but in the poem this act is the source and culmination of evil. "When the whale's viscera go … its corruption over-runs this world." There is no sense here of the crucifixion as a redemption. I can imagine that three or four pages of theological explication could put it there, but it isn't in the poem. Typologically the legal torture and murder of the man-god is not the fall; in the Christian myth it is not cruelty and violence but pride and disobedience through which men fell. One can make a series of arguments, threading back through the blasphemous pride of Ahab to the dominion given man by God in the epigraph to the poem, and emerge with a case for cruelty as a form of pride, but cruelty is not pride. They're different things, and it is cruelty and death, not pride and the fall, that preoccupy the poet, no matter how much of Melville or theology we haul in to square this vision with orthodoxy. (p. 67)
Sexual wounding: it is certainly there in section V, both in the imagery and in the way the section functions, literally, as a climax to the poem. This is the fall, the moment when corruption overruns the world. And the rhetorical question, "Sailor, will your sword / Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?" wants to make us all complicit. The passage is Calvinist in feeling; every day is judgement day…. In sexual imagery, not only the penetration by the death lance but the singing of the stars, the dismemberment of the masthead, we are all judged…. [We] look at the sickening cruelty it actually describes. It's a relief and much easier to talk about myth or symbolic sexuality. This is an image of killing written by a pacifist who was willing to go to prison.
It makes death horrifying; it makes the war horrifying, and the commerce of the Nantucket Quakers whom Melville reminded his readers to think of when they lit their cozy whale-oil lamps. "Light is where the landed blood of Cain …".
But, just as there is disgust with the mothering sea in the bilge and backwash throughout the poem, there is a deep abhorrence of sexual violence, of sexuality as violence…. The fact is that there is an element of cruelty in human sexuality, though that isn't the reason for the Puritan distrust of sex. The Puritans distrusted sexuality because the sexual act dissolved human will for a moment, because—for a moment—men fell into the roots of their mammal nature. You can't have an orgasm and be a soldier of Christ. Thus Samson Agonistes. And the Puritan solution, hidden but real in the history of imagination whether in Rome or the Enlightenment, was to turn sex into an instrument of will, of the conscious cruelty which flowered in the writings of Sade. It is there in our history and Lowell is right to connect it with the annihilative rage of capitalism. Flesh is languor ("All of life's grandeur / is something with a girl in summer …") but it is also rage. It marries us to the world and the world is full of violence and cruelty. This is part of the bind of the poem which is also the Calvinist bind of determinism and free will. The way out is not-world, an identification at the end of the poem with the "unmarried" Atlantic and the Lord who survives the rainbow-covenant of evolution. (pp. 68-9)
Pound says somewhere, sounding like a surly Matthew Arnold, that a history of poetry that's worth anything ought to be able to point to specific poems and passages in poems and say here, here and here are inventions that made something new possible in poetry. This is one of those places.
Its occurrence makes emotional sense because it follows section V. It is the peace of the satisfaction of the body's rage, a landscape of streams and country lanes. The nineteenth century would have described the writing as chaste or exquisite and I'm not sure we have better words to praise it with. It's wonderfully plain and exact:
Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar. There's no comeliness
At all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
Non est species, neque decor,
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,
Not Calvary's cross nor the crib at Bethlehem
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.
This is another temple, not the god of sorrows but the goddess of an almost incomprehensible peace. It appears to be the emphatically Catholic moment in the poem…. But I don't think it is Catholic, or not especially Catholic, and that is its interest.
The crucial phrase is "past castled Sion." Lowell is not after sacramental mediation but a contemplative peace beyond any manifestation in the flesh, beyond thought or understanding, and most especially beyond desire. This isn't incompatible with Catholic theology, but it's not central to its spirit which is embodiment: the Orphean lute and the crib at Bethlehem. This apprehension of God, of a pure, calm, and utterly clear consciousness, belongs equally to all mysticisms, Christian or otherwise, and it has always seemed to me that the figure of Our Lady here looks a lot like Guatama Buddha. It is the embodiment of what can't be embodied. This is a contradiction, but it is one that belongs to any intellectual pointing toward mystical apprehension. It is the contradiction that made the world-denial of Buddhists and Cathars at the same time utterly compassionate toward and alert to the world and flesh and makes the Buddhist Gary Snyder our best poet of nature. This is not the rejection of the world which the last lines of the poem suggest; it's something else and for me it's something much more attractive as a possibility of imagination.
But how does it square with the last lines? I don't think it does. Nor does it contradict them. That's the aesthetic daring of this section. What the Lady of Walsingham represents is past contention. She's just there. The method of the poem simply includes her among its elements, past argument, as a possibility through which all the painful seeing in the poem can be transformed and granted peace. She floats; everything else in the poem rises and breaks, relentlessly, like waves. (pp. 70-1)
[Hearing Lowell read "Near the Ocean"] I began to understand the risks attendant on backing away from the drama and self-drama of Lord Weary's Castle. Pain has its own grandeur. This disenchanted seeing was not serene neutrality—it was not serene at all; it had the clarity of a diminished sense of things not flinched at. (p. 72)
Robert Hass, "Lowell's Graveyard," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1977 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1977, pp. 56-72.
The unchanging element of Lowell's poetry was that whatever he was writing about in whichever one of his many styles, the words loomed everywhere as if in some huge magnifying lens of etymology and idiom and sound—and yet were always in the stream of English speech.
Lowell's genius and his grinding labor brought to verse in English not only technical mastery on a scale otherwise scarcely attempted in this century, but then his courage and honesty brought, to crib from myself, "a new generosity and dignity to the whole enterprise of poetry." He was not afraid of mistakes and made plenty of them, or so it seemed to me, in the mulled-over Notebooks. (pp. 14-15)
John Thompson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), October 27, 1977.
In his prime, and occasionally in his last volumes, Robert Lowell was one of America's five-star poets. And what made him great, more than his dramatic instinct or his bristling sense of language, was his soldierly dedication to honesty, to reporting what was, to cutting through all the posturing and triviality to the meaning of events. One misses him. One wishes he were sending dispatches from the after-life; they would be so perceptive, unsentimental, reliable.
Carll Tucker, "Soldier Lowell, 1917–1977," in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), October 29, 1977, p. 64.
[The generation of American poets to which Robert Lowell belonged] were pioneers of guilt. Not the fashionable Fifth Avenue malaise of the Fifties; I mean the real thing. Night after drunken night, all night, they talked about "responsibility." If there was a god they were sinners. If there was not a god they were still sinners. Why? It is not easy to say; I am sure the answer will occupy many volumes in years to come. But one thing is clear. They had inherited from their elders—Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams, Auden, even Frost—an enormous metaphysical awareness, an enormous apparatus for moral, psychological, and aesthetic inquiry, without anything to use it on. They were in a vacancy ("the unredeemable world"). They had neither faith nor doubt, neither art for its own sake nor the natural environment. Everything had been used up….
Guilt gave way to humiliation.
And humiliation craved more guilt. Lowell was a voracious feeder on criticism. No matter what you said against his poems, he took it in, enlarged it, and gave it back. Yes, he said, mea culpa, I can't integrate my metaphors, my language is unnatural, my poems are self-indulgent, I don't know foreign languages, and my translations are awful. But he went on doing the same things to the end, just as he went on denying, obliterating, his own best talents. He had a brilliant critical mind and refused to write criticism; he could probably have been the best epigrammatist in English since Ben Jonson and he refused to write epigrams.
New England puritanism was what fueled Lowell. He was born to it, though if he hadn't been he would have found something else—guilt invents its own crimes…. If existence itself is presumptuous, then existence in a theocracy whose rationale has departed, a brutal witch-killing theocracy at that, is an iota worse. Melville and Hawthorne had known it, and Lowell knew it even more keenly, looking from the cold vacancy of modern spiritual nihilism with all its intellectual technique. He had no recourse but to study himself, his own existence. Who was he? What was he? Could something better be invented? Perhaps poetry could accomplish that.
Even in his early poems, in Lord Weary's Castle (1946), notwithstanding their devotional Catholic fomentation, the secular personal element had been not only evident but the most genuine part, as Lowell himself saw afterward. In Life Studies (1959) he turned to candid, open autobiography, and in all the books since then his self-searching continued, however his styles varied. One notices the commonness of glass in all this poetry—windows, eyeglasses, fish tanks—and of photographs too, reality caught and objectified through a glass lens. Lowell always seemed to be up against a transparent barrier, either inside looking out or outside looking in. And what he got, what we get, are only snapshots: Lowell the child, Lowell the awkward lover, Lowell the agonized moralist—static and already yellowing. The man himself is elusive, the warm living organism, always somewhere on the other side of the glass. This is true as much of his inner being as of his outer; both are objectified and fragmented, tiles of a broken mosaic. One can read all his poems, first to last, and in spite of the self-confessions, self-advertisements, and what some call self-betrayals, one still will not know what kind of person Lowell really was.
Yet perhaps just because of this, some poems, even a good many, are very moving. They are truly pathetic, with the pathos of the lost and undiscoverable self, guilt that finds no expiation because it finds no terms in which to conceive its own criminality. (pp. 110-11)
Lowell's new book, Day by Day …, was published a short time before his death…. The book is a miscellaneous one, almost jumbled, and I expect reviewers will vary considerably in their opinions of it—as they usually have with Lowell's earlier books, for that matter. Many of the new poems seem extremely self-indulgent, not only in their reverting continually to the poet himself and his repetitive, now sometimes trivial, complaints, but also in their obscurity of private reference…. Some poems are awkward, others slack. But a fair number, it seems to me, are quite good, and a few very fine…. The book is in effect a summation of Lowell's whole work, since it contains poems in most of the styles he has used before, and … consequently it is in some respects a clarification, even a justification, and is valuable on these grounds alone;… it is a more genial, easier performance than Notebooks or History…. (pp. 111-12)
I have had many letters from other poets recently, both from well-known poets and from the very young, writing their responses to his death with remarkable unanimity of feeling. They all say that although they dislike elements of his work and deprecate the worst aspects of his influence on American poetry in general during the past two decades, they are deeply upset by the news of his dying, much more deeply than they would have expected. I feel the same. It is because I see myself in Lowell. I see all of us—poets of latter-day America—in him. He was truly the figure of the embattled artist (though one uses such post-romantic terms with reluctance now), the artist fighting a degraded society, a cruel history, an absurd universe, and most of all a sense of lack in his own being, fighting in complete honesty and utterly refusing to compromise….
Lowell was a great flawed poet (for greatness always has its flaw and often depends on it). Without doubt he was a great exemplar. (p. 112)
Hayden Carruth, "An Appreciation of Robert Lowell," in Harper's (copyright © 1977 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the December, 1977 issue by special permission), December, 1977, pp. 110-12.