Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11752
Lowell, Robert 1917–1977
Though also a playwright, critic, and translator, it is preeminently as poet that Lowell distinguished himself in American letters. Lowell relentlessly probed the dark side of the human condition through symbol, myth, and history using rich imagery and highly descriptive language. His raw honesty, especially displayed in Life Studies, is said to be the origin of the contemporary confessional movement. The theme of history, both personal and national, runs throughout his works. Lowell's self-avowed goal was to "deal with all experience in a variety of styles, without a conflict of form and content." Lowell was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Robert Lowell … is one of the most history-conscious American writers of our time precisely because he has a quarrel with history.
If history is the past, and the past is unchangeable, then Lowell's quarrel with it is futile. [Lowell's philosophy of history is close to Henri] Bergson's conception of time past as impinging on time present in the dramatic duration of the experiencing mind. Now his relation to this past is extremely tense, and also complex; to understand it is to see how his poetry comes toward our history, and how our history painfully procreated it in its own inverted image.
As an American, Lowell is the heir of the New England past; this shows clearly in so many poems that … project family history into public history. On the other hand, to inherit New England means to inherit a secession from Europe, from that older past and wider cultural horizon in which Lowell feels involved as a Westerner: "I write the Wonders of the Christian Religion, flying from the Depravations of Europe, to the American Strand…." (pp. 219-20)
His direct inheritance was a promise, but a disinheriting one. The Pilgrim Fathers were indeed "children of Light," but of a blighting light, the light of Lucifer:
Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones And fenced their gardens with the Redman's bones; Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland, Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva's night, They planted here the Serpent's seeds of light; And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock The riotous glass houses built on rock, And candles gutter by an empty altar, And light is where the landless blood of Cain Is burning, burning the unburied grain….
Few people would miss here, as in so much else that Lowell wrote, the forceful way in which history begets poetry, and poetry in its turn accuses history, through the alchemy of metaphor: the puns on the Netherlands, on Lucifer, on the searchlights, on the "riotous" houses built on Biblical rock, but too brittle to stand the coming quake, are not clever word play, but a structural device bent on eliciting its fearful meaning from the landscape of history, down to our own time…. Humor is not absent from this flash of telescoped vision [from Life Studies], or, for that matter, from all of [the volume] with its affectionate family sketches, or from its predecessor, The Mills of the Kavanaughs.
But the earlier volumes—Land of Unlikeness, Lord Weary's Castle —have little or no humor, being attuned to a mood of bitterness that might well make them offensive to whoever refuses to share Lowell's fiery conversion. Who is, after all, this New Englander who repudiates his spiritual lineage? Isn't he simply a renegade? If so, the poetry will have to be accepted as a merely private expression of troubled genius in a...
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historical context to which it is irrelevant. A personal conversion to the long-abandoned dogmas of Papist Rome, even if it results in magnificent verse, cannot have any bearing on the realities of Protestant Yankeedom: can you abolish three hundred years of history by a stroke of pen?
At this point the historical sense will intercede for the "unhouseled" poet by reminding us that his secession from his secessionist forebears actually continues their own attitude, whatever the motivating ideology. (pp. 220-22)
Lowell, like other American writers of note, stands apart from his native land within his native land, and thus takes up the posture of the prophet. It would seem that America is one vast community of "sinners in the hands of any angry God;" will it mend its way and avoid the threatening doom? The conscientious objector cannot tell; he sees what he sees, and he feels it is his mission to awaken, not to soothe. In "Where the Rainbow Ends," his native Boston swings dangerously between salvation and destruction:
I saw my city in the Scales, the pans Of judgment rising and descending…. (p. 223)
Christ is envisaged as the liberating force behind the accusing violence of the prophet; Lowell is an apocalyptic believer, like Blake or Hopkins, and "Colloquy in Black Rock" embodies to perfection his imaginative thrust from the machine-like rhythm of an earthbound beginning to the transcendent lightning of the crowning line:
…—my heart, The blue kingfisher dives on you in fire.
It is this moral tension, translated into a uniquely taut compactness of style, that enables Lowell to sustain a successful dialogue with formidable literary ancestors like Melville. "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," one of the modern poet's highest achievements, is precisely such a dialogue. (pp. 224-25)
Lowell's sense of history is eschatological and not, properly speaking, "historical," for he speaks like an angry prophet, not like a Hegelian historicist or hopeful humanist. Later poems concerned with Rome, such as "Beyond the Alps," "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid," "For George Santayana," develop in a … meditative tone, but still questioning history in the alternatives of power, reason, and faith; and the eschatological note is not wanting either.
Because his commitment to spiritual values is so thorough, whatever direction his religious allegiance may have taken since his conversion to Catholicism, Robert Lowell can sustain his poetry at a declamatory pitch that would prove dangerous to a less gifted imagination. There is despair in his faith, and cruelty in his love; but he agrees with his countryman Robert Frost that fire is better than ice. If rebellion is the best way an American has to establish a connection with his tradition, then Lowell's New England ancestry counts for something. The sociologist, the scientific historian has to do with facts and laws; who but the poet can afford to have "a lover's quarrel" with history? This is his way of being available to history-ridden mankind. (p. 228)
Glauco Cambon, "Robert Lowell: History as Eschatology" (originally published in a slightly different version in Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, Vol. XLVII, 1962), in his The Inclusive Flame (copyright © 1963 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 219-28.
It is difficult to know how anyone actually relates to a man like Robert Lowell. Certainly, for many of us, he is more than the sum of his poems, more a palpable presence than a tissue of convictions and doubts. We are aware of him always in his role as poet, but our notions of this role have distinctly expanded under the influence of his example. If Robert Lowell would not presume to accept Shelley's designation as "unacknowledged legislator of the world," he might lay claim to the office of unofficial spokesman to that small portion of the human brain we manage somehow to preserve against the clamor and violence that wither consciousness. Steadily, Robert Lowell has shown us not what it means to be a man in our time, for this we can know all too clearly by looking at ourselves, or at those around us; no, he has given us a portrait of a sensibility in retreat, in part from the world, but chiefly from the self he has become in response to that world. What we have come to expect from Robert Lowell in his poems and in his appearances before us as a man is a rather graphic demonstration of how little we have left that we can try to preserve. (p. 36)
Those who have sought in Lowell's poems for strategies to ward off intimations of disaster, or metaphysical dread, have no doubt come away disappointed. When a fine poetcritic like Robert Bly [see CLC, Vol. 4] complains about the failure of Lowell and his friends to achieve "a clear view of modern literature or politics," and about "their insistence on the value of alienation," he betrays expectations which measure the great distance between his own view of what is possible in the modern world, and Lowell's. In the view of Robert Bly and the gifted people around him, one decides either for or against alienation. One's poetry is either reducible to or suggestive of a program. One's emotional commitments are firm, rather than ambiguous, and doubts will disappear at the behest of will. Really, it is a most attractive way of looking at things, only of course it is but one way among many, and it is in the nature of human experience that those who believe such propositions as Bly's viable, will have an inordinate capacity for self-deception, or dishonesty. These are qualities conspicuously lacking in Robert Lowell, as even his severest critics have had to agree. And their absence has not made him or his work more appealing. (p. 37)
What is it then that has so drawn a generation of literate people to Robert Lowell?… Robert Lowell has been "our poet" because he has had trouble getting through each day, and told us why. We do not identify with him, we envy him, foolishly, sentimentally, but definitively. He sees, and suffers, and we would suffer with him if only we could convince ourselves there were something in it for us. Ultimately, we decide, it is enough that Robert Lowell sees and suffers for us all, a distinction we might have permitted him to share with Sylvia Plath had she lived to a riper age.
It is an extraordinary relationship for a poet to have developed with his audience, and to maintain this relationship, Lowell has had to violate the integrity and unity of his personality…. [The] man has become the posture, and nothing in the poems or utterances rings false—but it is a posture that addresses us, a role, not a man. So perfect has been the assumption of this role that we rarely notice how it dictates gestures and commitments wholly at odds with the man's temperamental indisposition to indulge such things. What most of us applaud when he publicly insults the President of the United States, or counsels young men to resist the laws of their country, or storms the Pentagon, is his temerity and conscience. What we are less likely to consider are the doubts, the irony that are so much a part of the commitment, and which in fact call into question the very meaning of the various enterprises. But then, nothing has become more paradigmatically demonstrative of purity of intention in our time than failure, and those of us who have found even the lesser failures a bit more costly than we are willing to allow ourselves must often have silently thanked Robert Lowell for permitting us to deplore and pity his. He is our truest victim, for we have together cast him in such a way that he can only assuage, never goad. And if he has been a witting and willing accomplice in the entire operation, by so much has it been the worse for him. (pp. 37-9)
[What] is new in Notebook, beyond the concern with power and health, the relation between personal vigor and political commitment, is the relative delight Lowell is able to take in things, in people, in the procession that is history, replete as it is with murder and disaster. He no longer seems to want to turn away from the gaudy spectacle, and the boredom that is consequent upon the turning in of all experience upon the relatively static responsiveness of the self has largely disappeared. There will never be anything remotely playful in Lowell's work, we may suppose, nor could we ever desire such a thing. But the degree to which he has here given himself to the contemplation and vivid evocation of realities beyond the twistings of his old self surely speaks optimistically of Lowell's own health and satisfaction with the fact and manner of his survival. If anything, his poetry has become a more comprehensive and essential document of civilized consciousness in the twentieth century, and its registration of fluctuations in conviction and hope is surely testimony to the relentless honesty of Lowell's work. (p. 44)
Robert Boyers, "On Robert Lowell," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Summer, 1970, pp. 36-44.
Lowell may never strike us as possessing Miltonic magnitude; the status of poetry in our time leaves open the question whether any mid-twentieth-century poet can, while Milton's contemporaries still believed in the importance of epic. But in the political sonnets, in The Readie and Easie Way, in more than one passage of Paradise Lost, Milton's motive is his own political distress; poetry and rhetoric, though fine, are secondary. And Lowell is of this sort. (pp. 118-19)
There may be some danger here of confusing art and life. On the one hand, there are relatively few explicitly "political" poems in Lowell's output to date…. On the other hand, Lowell's public image is largely political, compounded of his imprisonment during World War II as a conscientious objector, of his association with such semi-political movements as PAX, of his much-publicized refusal to participate in President Johnson's White House Festival of the Arts on the grounds of his dismay at Mr. Johnson's Vietnam policy…. [The] temptation to second-guess the poems, to detect the politics of dissent where there may be nothing but personal relations and personal feelings, must be considerable.
I do not propose to resist that temptation; it seems to me that, with Lowell as with Milton, the practical distinction between the personal and the public, the private and the political, does not hold. To put it another way, perhaps a simpler way than circumstances warrant, both political events and personal events take on the same patterns, become aspects of the same historically and morally conditioned forces. (pp. 119-20)
The effect of adding "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts' 54th" to [a later edition of] Life Studies can be described, it seems to me, in either of two ways. It may say that, however much of the Lowell malaise can be accounted for in terms of family history and personal trauma, such terms cannot account for the unsettling past or the still more unsettling destruction of that past by an overblown technology—that the source of the malaise is in the world and its past, not simply in the individual and his. Alternatively, it may say in effect the all experience is in some sense public, political, conditioned by and answerable to history—haunted by history, in fact, whose burden can be escaped only by saints and monsters. I think that the latter formulation is the more rewarding of the two.
The past haunts the present. This has been apparent in Lowell's work from the start, as "Children of Light," "At the Indian Killer's Grave," or "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," all from Lord Weary's Castle, sufficiently testify; and in Lord Weary's Castle the results are characteristically splendid, disturbing, and unclear, with a particular sort of unclarity. "At the Indian Killer's Grave" ends with a prayer for release from the burden of history, for the transformation of the speaker's nightmare vision of the dead King Philip mocking dead colonials and their descendants into Mary's ecstatic reception of God…. We recognize that angst is transformed into ecstasy, that in some fashion the terror of Indian attack merges into the divine visitation; the final line carries overtones of both. Rhetorically, the effect is magnificent, and it may seem merely querulous to ask questions; yet it is not really clear how the Mary vision relates to the rest of the poem except rhetorically. It is as though Lowell's concern with the historical and moral problems raised in the poem has not so much resolved itself into a position, a moral attitude, as it has been given up. And yet the poem's logic seems to be concerned with the establishment of some sort of moral attitude, with the problem of how the descendant of John and Mary Winslow is to bear his inheritance, of what he must do. In fact, one could describe the dominant tone of Lord Weary's Castle as a baffled will for action, for finding a meaningful stance, with the bafflement characteristically translated or transformed into rhetoric.
To a degree, the magnificence has faded in Life Studies and For the Union Dead. The voice of these later poems is a smaller voice than that of Lord Weary's Castle, less prophetic in its resonance, and less resonant; but compensating for that diminution by a kind of moral clarity, as though Lowell, or Lowell's speaker, knows better who he is and what his stance must be, or at least what stances are possible for the uneasy individual in a world of history. Colonel Shaw, of course, exemplifies one such stance…. It may as well be called the heroic, and though it appears rarely in Lowell's work to date, it appears impressively—in Colonel Shaw, whose poem is used as the final statement in two volumes, and more starkly in the "Epigram" in For the Union Dead…. The point, I suspect, is that for Shaw and Leonidas the heroic gesture was final, enabling them to escape history's tendency to chop things down to size. The purity of their gestures is more or less accidental—though to be sure such commentary is niggling and does nothing to reduce the nobility that Lowell is concerned with, perhaps especially so in a historical context involving Medgar Evers and James Reeb.
But Shaw and Leonidas are Samsons; Lowell's speaker knows that he is at best Adam, for whom the heroic stance is the unlikely possibility at one end of a scale. The other end appears in "Caligula," also from For the Union Dead…. Caligula is the authentic human monstrosity, possessed by
the lawlessness of something simple that has lost its law,
and devotes its efforts to trying to live without law, to destroying what it cannot have. I want to linger over this point, because it seems to me that Lowell's feeling for the past—and consequently for much else—does in fact have, as its lowest depth of possibility, the blindly paranoid violence of a Caligula. One can see, or suspect, something of this sort in the treatment of his parents, particularly his father, in Life Studies. (pp. 122-25)
And, of course, what he does to his father, or to himself through his father, he has also done to the American past. In "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" (in The Old Glory), Lowell discredits revolutionary enthusiasm quite as uncompromisingly as he does his father's manliness and character in "91 Revere Street"; Lord Weary's Castle includes "Children of Light" and "At the Indian Killer's Grave," in both of which the fathers' sins rather than their excellences survive, to haunt the present like an inherited curse…. And in such poems as "Rebellion" and "The Blind Leading the Blind," cryptic though they are, ancestral accumulation of goods and acres, even without murdered Indians or lynched Tories, erupts in strange violence involving fathers…. (pp. 125-26)
On the one hand, the will to discredit and destroy the past; on the other, prophetic denunciation of or sorrow over that destruction. Our past destroys us, but we must not lose the past. Here, it seems to me, is the tragic center of Lowell's work, the moral stance that dominates his later writing, brings the political and the personal into a single perspective, and perhaps accounts for the elegiac tone that, in For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean particularly, has largely displaced the erupting violence of Lord Weary's Castle. In "At the Indian Killer's Grave," the vision of Mary simply obliterates the historic past in a manner not wholly unlike Caligula's wish to obliterate Rome: "You wish the Romans had a single neck!" In Lord Weary's Castle, to be free of the past is to experience ecstasy…. In Life Studies, it is to drift like the convicted and imprisoned Lepke, of Murder Incorporated…. And in For the Union Dead, it is at best a quiet sense of some final loss, as in "Those Before Us"…. (pp. 126-27)
It seems to me that … Lowell expected more of his religion, or of himself as religious, than in fact happens…. [For] the man who is neither hero nor monster, who for whatever reason cannot disavow the "ordinary" world, and for whom history is real and often terrible, [his] expressions of belief, attempting some final and affirmative resolution, leave out too much of the factuality of existence that, for all but the utterly single-minded, constitutes most of life's meaning. If For the Union Dead finds its polar types in Caligula and Colonel Shaw, it has its human center in "Hawthorne" and more especially "Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts." Hawthorne experiences no final transforming ecstasy…. For Edwards, bafflement and frustration and failure—and for Edwards even the transforming experience of the Great Awakening had failed—are the realities he has to live with. (pp. 127-28)
What both men have done, it seems to me, is to survive, at much cost to themselves to be sure, and without the heroic self-abnegation of Leonidas or Colonel Shaw, but equally without either the maniacal violence of a Caligula or the flabby drift of a Lepke…. They do what they can; they cultivate their own baffled honesty; they survive. That honest survival does not eliminate Endecott's dilemma, but it does provide an alternative—even, perhaps, a categorical imperative, in its undramatic, low-keyed non serviam.
"Low-keyed" and "undramatic" are the words for it. After the violence of Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs and the sometimes shocking confessionalism of Life Studies, For the Union Dead is predominantly elegiac, as is Near the Ocean. Something has been resolved, if only in the sense that the poems of these late volumes admit of no resolution, whether in religion, in psychotherapy, or in a moral understanding of history. These things remain important, in their way; but their way is not, as in "At the Indian Killer's Grave," to transform circumstances or to provide answers. The past is irrevocable, as it was for Milton in his later years; as with Milton, human history is a record of disasters, and the problem is to survive, remaining sensitive to both personal and public terror but resisting those forms of destruction that can be resisted. Such resistance characteristically appears as ironic acknowledgment and rejection of various modes of self-deception—nostalgia for the past, for childhood, or for moments of personal love, the various Eden images visible in For the Union Dead; over-simplified versions of history emphatically denied in the plays of The Old Glory; belief in one's own innocence or, conversely, in one's special and particular evil, as in "Middle Age," "Eye and Tooth," "The Neo-Classical Urn," or again "Caligula."
Lowell's real subject in these later poems is, finally, the difficulty of remaining individually human and morally responsible in a world that offers increasingly compelling occasions for surrendering either or both. The ideologue wants to be innocent in a guilty world, and can prove his innocence out of dialectical materialism or Calvinist theology or genetic determinism; the sentimental immoralist wants to be guilty in a world whose innocence he has destroyed, like Byron's Manfred, the paranoid variety of white liberal, or perhaps the speaker of "Skunk Hour." Lowell has been persistently aware of the temptations and consolations offered by both positions, and it may be true that he has not always successfully resisted those temptations—the first in Lord Weary's Castle, the second in Life Studies. But this late work—low-keyed, often flat, sometimes even approaching the banal—gives us, regularly and under firm control, at least two parts of T. S. Eliot's notable triad of the boredom, the horror, and the glory that lie beneath beauty and ugliness, innocence and guilt.
And perhaps the third part as well, though "glory" may seem a dubious term for Lowell's later work. Whatever glory he provides lies not in the world he looks at nor in the vision through which he sees that world, but in the man who looks. Few poets would risk the flatly pitying last stanza of "Waking Early Sunday Morning," from Near the Ocean:
Pity the planet, all joy gone from this sweet volcanic cone; peace to our children when they fall in small war on the heels of small war—until the end of time to police the earth, a ghost orbiting forever lost in our monotonous sublime. (pp. 129-31)
Like [Wilfred] Owen, Lowell warns; like Owen's, Lowell's effort is to be truthful; and like Owen's, Lowell's primary concern is less poetry than pity. But Owen's subject was explicitly limited to "War, and the pity of War." Lowell's, like Milton's, is larger. His achievement is involved with a transforming of private experience into a reading of the American present. That reading may be grim, or lopsided, or eccentric, or simply wrong. But the painful honesty with which Lowell has arrived at it, has worked his way through its sources in historical, family, and personal experiences, serves to make of it something more than poetry. (p. 132)
George W. Nitchie, "The Importance of Robert Lowell," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1972, by George W. Nitchie), Volume VIII, No. I, Winter, 1972, pp. 118-32.
When The Old Glory, Robert Lowell's trilogy of plays, was first produced in 1964, it appeared to offer a new direction in American theater. Concerned with the materials of American history and literature, brooding, intellectual, yet punctuated by eruptions of violence, The Old Glory promised to satisfy the requirements of both intellectuals and theatergoers. Moreover, as Robert Brustein put it at the time, Lowell's plays also seemed to fulfill the requirements of literary modernism. They had "the thickness and authority of myth." In them, "ritual and metaphors abound; traditional literature and historical events begin to function like Greek mythology, as the source and reflection of contemporary behavior." Lowell, Brustein predicted, "may very well come to revolutionize the American theater."
Viewed at its recent revival …, The Old Glory proves to have been prophetic enough, and not only of developments in the American theater, but of cultural life in general. In fact, it anticipates the bitter anti-Americanism that seized hold of American writing for the remainder of the 1960's. Felt in these plays is the first shock of liberal guilt in response to the black protest movement and the beginning of the Vietnam war. Though inevitably, for a modernist like Lowell, the favored vehicles of expression remain those of ritual and myth (along with the verse techniques of T. S. Eliot's poetic dramas), The Old Glory gives evidence of an abandonment of the modernist values of difficulty and complexity in favor of espousing a cause.
In The Old Glory Lowell adapted three short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a short novel by Herman Melville. Interestingly, all of the tales represent attempts by two writers of the mid-19th century to comprehend "contemporary behavior" by exploring American history and myth. Like Lowell, Hawthorne and Melville adapted their sources, but, on the whole, they also adhered to them with remarkable fidelity. Just as the changes they imposed have long served scholars as measures of their intentions and accomplishment, so the changes made by Lowell in his materials serve to measure his intentions and accomplishment. (pp. 64-5)
In each of his plays Lowell introduces … an extra character to provide an interlocutor for his protagonist. Instead of using figures to draw out the moral complexities of the American character, however, he conveniently makes each of them an exacerbated reflection of the protagonists' ugly Americanness…. In [the] first play, as in the last, a violent ending serves to display a prototypical American as the murderer of a subject race.
The contrasts [in Endecott and the Red Cross] between the humorless Puritans and the playful Merry Mounters, between the wintry prayers of the former and the summery dancing of the latter, all come from Hawthorne. But where Hawthorne looks at his oppositions with a questioning eye, Lowell points a finger of accusation….
Hawthorne shows the Merry Mount flower children to have been as fanatical as the Puritans…. In Lowell's version, which is filled with innocent dancing, there is no hint of Hawthorne's reminder that "it was high treason to be sad at Merry Mount." The fate of America, for Hawthorne, lay in the manner in which its combination of cruel and admirable qualities would work themselves out…. In Lowell the contrast is black-and-white, with the Puritans representing American greed and racism. His dramaturgy returns us to the manichean spirit of the Puritan imagination he had set out to reject. (p. 65)
[In My Kinsman, Major Molineux, Hawthorne depicts] a kind of personal coming of age that is at the same time historically predictive. Its cruelty is the cruelty both of revolution and of the break from one's parents….
[In this story] Hawthorne … presents a ritual of succession: the transfer of power in the family and the state from one generation to the next as a process with built-in elements of revolution. This is a profound and troubled way to conceive of revolution. It attempts to probe the dark, unconscious side of the American Revolution, just as the Endecott stories examined both sides of Puritanism.
This second play of Lowell's trilogy, by contrast, expresses the flirtation with violence that was indulged in by politically frustrated intellectuals in the 1960's; in omitting the ambiguous significance of the young man's experience [in Hawthorne's story], it turns Hawthorne's study into a celebration of youth, of going into the streets and humiliating the establishment. The literary result is a play uncritical of violence and prophetic of the literary mode of the rest of the 60's.
The last play in The Old Glory is about race, with Lowell again making explicit what is implied in his source: Melville's Benito Cereno. Here too there is a mystery, with an innocent American unable to plumb it until at the end it violently stares him in the face…. An American captain, Amasa Delano, brings a gift of provisions on board a Spanish ship in distress off South America. The Spaniard is a trader and a slaver. Drifting practically out of control, its human cargo strangely lolling about the decks, and its captain, Benito Cereno, apparently ill, the ship presents a mystery. The truth is that it has been taken over by the African slaves, whose leader, Babo, is pretending to be Benito Cereno's body servant in order to keep next to him and control what he says. (p. 66)
Lowell occasionally departs to good effect from the unemphatic language of the earlier plays, conveying the languid, threatening atmosphere with versifications of Melville's own magnificent rhetoric.
But it is Captain Delano who speaks the poetic lines, and herein lies the problem with the play. The audience is not permitted to respond to Delano's language or sympathize with his perplexity because Lowell has transformed him into an object of ridicule. Melville's Delano is a forthright, unsophisticated American whose faith in the rightness of things prevents him from recognizing the danger he is in. Lowell's Delano is deceived because he is a smug bigot…. The audience is held at bay from this Delano, for the purpose of the play is not to enable us to share his experience, as in Melville, but to condemn him as a representative of American racism.
Like Hawthorne, Melville offers a number of paradoxes regarding the American character…. There is a dark side of American life that must be brought to consciousness, Melville seems to be saying, yet there is also much to be said for its optimism and generous naiveté.
No such duality is suggested by Lowell's captain. His open-handed provision of goods is ridiculed as a gesture of American superiority. When at one point he nearly divines the mystery of the ship, it is not by beginning to contemplate the dark side of things, but as a result of his own greed. (pp. 66-7)
Typically for the 1960's, evil is here conceived not in moral but aesthetic terms. To climax his trilogy, Lowell presents in Captain Delano a figure to be despised chiefly for his vulgarity and his involvement in business. From these crimes it is but a short step to the racist murder with which the play ends….
The Hawthorne and Melville tales selected by Lowell have for some time been recognized loci of modern literary criticism. By 1964, when he adapted them, they were well-known as "Kafkaesque," 19th century predecessors of the literature of the absurd. It is remarkable, therefore, that Lowell, rather than building on the proto-modernist subtleties of his sources, chose to flatten them out. It would seem that at its very moment of triumph, the modernist ideal of complexity was being abandoned by a leading modern poet. And others quickly followed Lowell in announcing their own conversions in the 1960's: from fiction to nonfiction, from abstraction to representational pop art, and from criticism to a position "against interpretation."…
[One] cannot help thinking in retrospect that The Old Glory marked the beginning of a willful return to art as agit-prop—and the beginning of a period that Richard Hofstadter was to call an age of rubbish. (p. 67)
Peter Shaw, "'The Old Glory' Reconsidered" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, June, 1976, pp. 64-7.
Robert Lowell, that literal and spiritual scion of New England, has a thoroughly historical mind, which is to say that he has chosen a venerable mode—the mode of Gibbon, Carlyle and Marx—over a capitulation to scientific modernism…. [There] have been "surprising conversions" of poetic form and ideology that no one could have foreseen at every step of this remarkable career. Nevertheless, both the Catholic pacifist of the '40s who resurrected the heroic couplet, and the '60s antiwar liberal who invented the "unrhymed sonnet," are classicists, striving to reconcile a passion for the past with a lively modern voice.
It is fitting, then, that Lowell's long anticipated Selected Poems … should appear during the Bicentennial, when reevaluation of history is the national sport. For here past and present live together in a familiar yet uncomfortable marriage, from Pulitzer Prize-winning Lord Weary's Castle (1946) to the recent History (1973)…. As in his later books, many poems go to make up one long one, so Selected Poems may be read as a single composition about Lowell himself.
Lord Weary's Castle has lost none of its startling power in 30 years. Although many personae speak the poems, the overriding tone is drunk with outrage and inspiration. Lowell's great originality allows him to be apocalyptic without reminding us of Blake. (p. 15)
A greater quietude is achieved in The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). The spire of Lowell's conversion to Roman Catholicism still points on the skyline: In Calvinist Concord, "Virgil must keep the Sabbath; but Apocalypse is giving way to Stoicism." An old nun reminisces about the late "Mother Marie Therese":
Our world is passing; even she, whose trust Was in its princes, fed the gluttonous gulls That whiten our Atlantic, when like skulls They drift for sewage with the emerald tide.
These worldly nuns, a wonderful metaphor for Lowell's early poetry, have cloistered themselves from the "Canuck" of New Brunswick to indulge their love of Cato and French classicism. The aging sister now muses, "The Good old times, ah yes! But good that all's forgotten …" She is the only one strong enough to remember the past's foolishness and terror along with its beauty. This is Lowell's swan song to neoclassical narrative poetry, and to Christian themes as well. (pp. 15-16)
The famous "confessional poems" of Life Studies (1959), very often and badly imitated by others, examine raw and conflicting feelings about Lowell's own early life and family….
Life Studies has its champions, and Lowell has included a greater percentage of it than of any of his other books, but I do not think it shows him at his strongest. Certain poems are undeniably effective. "Sailing Home from Rapallo" for example, is skillfully built on associative contrasts, as the poet, traveling with his dead mother's coffin … leaves the flowering Italian spring for the family graveyard in Dunbarton…. Yet even in this relatively powerful poem there is a lack of directive, and the whole seems smaller than the sum of its parts.
Lowell's mature attitudes are nowhere better expressed than in "The Neo-Classical Urn" (from For the Union Dead, 1964). An ironic look at his passion for classicism, it parodies the vocative—"Oh neo-clasical white urn, Oh nymph, Oh lute!"—and mocks Orphic pretentions…. The shell is the body of the lute, traditional symbol of lyric poetry; it also represents the carapaces of turtles the poet, as a boy, left to die in a garden urn. The poet elegizes them in wrestling with the moral predicament of guilt. Finally, Lowell can identify his sufferings as an instinctive animal with the creatures whose "crippled last survivors pass,/ and hobble humpbacked through the grizzled grass." It is an unflinching recognition that the artist's impetus can come from hurting or destroying others….
[In History past] blends fluidly into present….
History is actually a kind of novel, and much more like the post-Finnegans Wake product than most current fiction. The flexible sonnet form has the immediacy of modern speech, although Lowell has worked to attain this effect as carefully as Lawrence Sterne labored on the rambling monologues of Tristram Shandy….
Robert Lowell is not really apologizing for doing what he sees as the artist's job…. The language is today's, but the voice has become old and weary. Alas, despite Lowell's craft, the muse of history's oracles are as obscure and unsatisfying as oracular utterances usually are. Perhaps it is time for our great American poet to remember with Aristotle that "Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history." (p. 16)
Phoebe Pettingell, "Robert Lowell and the Muse of History," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), October 25, 1976, pp. 15-16.
Going through Robert Lowell's Selected Poems, one realizes again how funny and witty his work can be—"With seamanlike celerity,/ Father left the Navy,/ and deeded Mother his property." Lowell's comic power was manifest in Life Studies. But as the poet moved into middle age, humor became a subtler element of his work, displacing the vindictive sarcasm of his early books.
The effect of Lowell's comedy is reductive: Clytemnestra becomes a figure not unlike the poet's mother but with a simpler sexuality—"our Queen at sixty worked in bed like Balzac." Lowell takes persons or situations that threaten one with anxiety. But rather than immerse himself in the primitive response, he stands outside like an independent observer, and sees the danger as (after all) finite: it shrinks into the commonplace, fades into the trivial, or vanishes into the unreal….
In general, the threat of the dangers is to confine the poet, to deprive him of dignity, power, life—above all, of freedom. But the comic element releases him and gives him a feeling of magical transcendence. Often the danger springs from his own unmanageable emotions, the frightening impulses drilled into him during childhood, impulses that now seem predetermined and external, beyond control. But the source may also be perfectly natural, like the coming of death.
So, as the poet starts many poems, he sounds hemmed in by psychic traumas, the deteriorations of age, or the resistance of language to art. He should be too old for love, too tired to write. Yet the turn of the poem is repeatedly comic: he remains productive, and he is loved. The fate that seemed ineluctable is softened or avoided, because life defies theory.
One way of framing and therefore controlling the peculiarly human dangers is to set them off against the condition of animals. Guilt-free, untroubled by our conflicting emotions, the beasts and birds of Lowell's poems attract the smiling sympathy we extend to very young children. At the end of "Skunk Hour," the mother skunk feeding her young is absurd as well as admirable when she "jabs her wedge-head in a cup / of sour cream." So is the seal swimming "like a poodle" in "The Flaw."
But Lowell builds his most elaborate comedies around the personality of the poet, especially as the inner man confronts the outer. "Near the Ocean" is a remarkably involved, essentially comic meditation on the ego's fight to deliver itself from lust and guilt. Here the poet seems to smile at the antitheses connecting his public and private character.
In the poem he pictures himself first as a theatrical Perseus, heroically freeing mankind from the tyranny of the Medusa. But then he quickly revises the scene and appears as an indecisive Orestes, about to kill his own mother. The two deeds become absurdly equivalent: liberation of oppressed victims and betrayal of a parent; or else, love for Andromeda and hatred of Clytemnestra….
[The poet] draws a witty contrast between the Mediterranean world and our own Atlantic seaboard. The one possessed myths and institutions to absorb the more wasteful passions of humanity….
But in our own, troubled nation, the causal ties between character and action, past and present, are fading…. In "Near the Ocean,"… the poet treats the Atlantic as an emblem of moral chaos, and seesaws his way to its edge in contrasting episodes of restraint and abandon, innocence and exhaustion, night and day….
Pondering the fact that every involvement with a lover means a betrayal of an earlier love, the poet can only forgive himself for his trespasses after shriving and the penance of self-ridicule…. Oceanic passions have worn away his attachment to ritual and tradition. Ambiguous love remains….
Behind the ambivalent attitudes one detects a friendly ribbing of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"…. "Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!" said Arnold in the face of a world meaningless and chaotic. Lowell suspects that the recipe is too simple, that love cannot be true either, and that perhaps the chaos within us requires betrayals even as the chaos without deceives our hopes and dreams.
"Near the Ocean" is a difficult poem. One of the simplest poems Lowell ever wrote suggests the ideal that floats, like Eden or Atlantis, above the humor. This poem is "Will Not Come Back."…
[The poet] celebrates his love in his common way of transferring emotion from the principals to their surroundings: the swallows, the honeysuckle, the season. And in the manner of Ronsard's similar sonnet, "Quand vous serez bien vieille," he also moves the sense of loss from the lover to the beloved. Yet even in such earnest, conventional circumstances, the poet cannot resist a dash of ridicule. Knowing birds rather better than most poets, he observes that the insectivorous swallows who looked in on the couple were not simply to-ing and fro-ing: they were feeding in flight (as usual), and snapping up the romantic nightflies, even as reality must devour the illusions of the middle-aged seducer….
The swallows of "Will Not Come Back" reappear in Lowell's best play, Benito Cereno, which mingles the bitter ridicule that marks his early poems with the reflective humor of his later….
In the play … an ironical relation exists between the bleak natural setting and the grim human drama. Ordinarily good omens, the swallows here join the prophets of evil. (p. 3)
The whole line of action is conceived in harshly ironical terms; ambiguities and puns reveal the complex absurdities that line the conscience of Captain Delano; and if the visible form is a melodrama, the inner design is a bitter farce. The playwright's own sympathies seem divided between the melancholy Spaniard and the rebellious black: disillusioned age and New Left youth. For the question is whether one is determined by the other.
Among the matters that most deeply underlie Lowell's poetry is this dilemma of free will and determinism…. Determinism (whether Christian, Marxist, Freudian, or meta-physical) fascinates Lowell as joining men to the rest of nature and offering us relief from guilt. Free will fascinates him because he knows life loses its point when men take no responsibility for their actions.
So in his excellent poem "The Flaw" he treats human existence as a picnic in a graveyard, and sees our peculiar nature as the flaw in a universe where every other creature feels at home—as much at home as a seal in the sea. Here he compares free will to a fault in one's vision, a lopsided way of seeing reality: "if there's free will, it's something like this hair,/ inside my eye, outside my eye, yet free." By imposing moral choice, it spoils our simple response to instinctive desires.
Such attitudes deeply influence the form of Lowell's work. He loves to give a theatrical setting to his meditations on the human condition. The reason is not so much the ordinary contrast between appearance and reality as Lowell's peculiar sense of playing an assigned part. Reading over a book like Imitations, or History, one is struck by the poet's habit of casting himself and his intimates as historical figures….
[An] ironical comedy lies in the contrast between a "great" man's feeling of power or freedom, and history's judgment that he only conformed to a prepared script. Lowell does allow a few exceptions like Thomas More and Colonel Robert Shaw—men who consciously chose their fate. But that choice was self-sacrifice; and the poet seems to intimate that one realizes freedom best when one dies for a noble ideal.
For Lowell, even nations fit the deterministic scheme. So in "Near the Ocean," ancient Greek myths are reenacted on our side of the Atlantic, and a Greenwich Village Orestes succumbs to his own mother's depravity. Or in Benito Cereno the founding fathers of the United States seem to enjoy the vices of the tyrants they had denounced, while their young republic willingly inherits the criminal character of the Spanish and French monarchies.
In the making of his verse, Lowell shows his humor by incongruities that run parallel to his sympathies. Like many innovators, he has the admirable custom of adapting the material of other authors to his own purposes. When the old source shows unsuspected affinities with the new subject, we hear reverberations that are not only comic but instructive. For example, Lowell gives Caligula the voice of Baudelaire … and we realize that the same gloomy boredom that sends a dictator to his sadistic pleasures can also propel the creative imagination of a genius. The final joke of course is that Lowell, elsewhere, not only describes himself as subject to fits of spleen but also uses "Caligula" for his nickname, and that he has been compared with Baudelaire.
A subtler aspect of comic technique is Lowell's use of the rough sonnet form….
By fixing on a much-used form, Lowell puts himself in the same position as the persons who inhabit his works; for the innovator and iconoclast must now accept the technical assignment bequeathed him by his predecessors. (p. 4)
So in the poem on Cleopatra, reduced from his translation of Horace's ode, Lowell wittily preserved the Latin opening but magically transformed it from the original Alcaic meter into the pentameter normal to a sonnet, even fitting the line into a rhyme (bought at some sacrifice of grammar). He turned the poem neatly in the traditional way, between the first eight lines and the last six. But as if to draw a mustache on the familiar face, he also insisted on reversing Horace's admiring picture of Cleopatra, and made her finally not "unhumbled" as in the Latin, but "much humbled," with an epithet that draws more sympathy from the modern reader.
Even wittier is the way Lowell miniaturized his old translation of Villon's "Dames du temps jadis." He got the three and a half octaves down to fourteen very short, irregular lines; but he rhymed all except the last, with only three rhyme sounds, thus producing the ghost of a sonnet for the ghosts of dead ladies. (pp. 4,6)
Pathos and comedy reach their mingled intensity of effect in Lowell's poems about the literary career. In these the self-ridicule depends on a double image: the man in his ambitious youth, planning to throne himself on Parnassus, and the older, established but dubious personage, only too conscious of the gulf between public recognition and true accomplishment….
[In "The Nihilist as Hero"] Lowell faces the mutually incompatible desires of the modernist poet: to give us the experience of immediate, unrefined life, and to create something indestructible in its perfection: "to live in the world as is,/ and yet gaze the everlasting hills to rubble." The poet says he wants "words meathooked from the living steer," and so opposes his own writing to the conventional idea of polished versification….
On the same page is "Reading Myself," in which Lowell's patent mastery of form quarrels with the fear that he has not fulfilled his promise. The charming, witty imagery is related to that of the matching poem, and some of the lines are almost mellifluous. But the design elegantly reverses the old shape of a sonnet (i.e., description followed by reflection), for it has six lines of reflection followed by eight of a single, elaborate metaphor…. It seems plain that "The Nihilist as Hero" through its eloquent coarseness conveys one-half of the poet's ambition, while "Reading Myself" conveys the other, and that Lowell illustrates by his technique a yearning to reconcile art as process with art as product.
[In] "Fishnet," the opening poem of The Dolphin,… Lowell brings together the terms of love and art. The lines carry a tribute to his present wife as not only the muse who inspires him but also the dolphin that preserves him from drowning in psychotic disturbances. By relying on metaphors from fishing, it touches a current of autobiography, because that solitary pastime (as solitary as writing) provided one of the constant pleasures of Lowell's boyhood and some of the striking images of his poetry early and late. The reductive humor of writing conceived as a sport deflates the poet while sparing his beloved and his art….
For all [its] free variations from traditional sonnet form, the poem clings to an underlying pentameter beat, and has a coherence of imagery that keeps it focused…. In design and in theme, therefore, the poem brings out his fundamental poise between liberty and determinism. (p. 6)
Irvin Ehrenpreis, "Lowell's Comedy," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), October 28, 1976, pp. 3-4, 6.
Lowell ought to have been, with Elizabeth Bishop, the unquestionable strong poet between Warren and Roethke, and a younger generation of Merrill, Ashbery, Ammons, Merwin and James Wright. I am aware that a consensus of critics has so canonized Lowell, but my already intense doubts have been increased by reading his Selected Poems, and so I don't believe that time will confirm the age's verdict upon Lowell. The early work, in Lord Weary's Castle, is not often so finely wrought as the verse of Allen Tate from which it clearly derives, and its savage indignations are hollow compared to Tate's furies. Readers should test Lowell's The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket against Tate's more eloquent and authentic Ode to the Confederate Dead, and Lowell's Where the Rainbow Ends against Tate's more intellectually founded savagery in Aeneas at Washington. Lowell's middle-period, in Life Studies, does not differ greatly, in degree or kind, from the bad "confessional" (actually one should say "hysterical") school which it fostered, though there are some moving exceptions in the book. My judgments may seem harsh, but at least Lowell up to that middle-phase still provokes judgment. From History on to the present, there seem to be no poems at all, but only drafts of the same sonnets, none of which quite earns the status of being called an actual "revision." Either the age is very wrong about this poet, or I am, and so I am willing to record myself against the age, in order to await later verdicts. I prophesy though that Lowell will be another William Vaughn Moody, and not an Edwin Arlington Robinson. (p. 22)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.
Whatever else it may signify, the fact that there have now been published more books about Robert Lowell than by him testifies to his rank as our preeminent contemporary poet. And the appearance of his Selected Poems is summary evidence of his further position as our representative national poet—not in the sentimental manner Frost was so designated, but in the sense that the work of Auden's career once captured the shifting currents of his time, both in its public manifestations and its unconscious motivations. In much the same way, Lowell's successive volumes have not only displayed the character of our generation, most often revealed in the details of his own personality, but have also transcended that character to embody, in his art's voice and vision, its animating conscience. He is, in Richard Poirier's decisive phrase, "our truest historian." (p. 34)
What makes his Selected Poems so intriguing is that the book provides Lowell's own sense of his career…. Selected Poems affords us an adjusted vantage on his extraordinary art. His impulse toward existential narrative, his calculated use of surreal imagery, his deployment of historical allusion—all of these emerge with a heightened resonance. Likewise, his confessional method, first announced in Life Studies and later reaffirmed in The Dolphin, is revealed with new force.
As in his career, so too in his Selected Poems is Life Studies given a centering pride of place…. Not only has the book been regarded as a profound influence on American poetry generally and as both the origin and sanction of the confessional movement, but it has been represented as the radical, decisive reversal of Lowell's early style and subject, so that the poet discovered significance at once in and for himself…. His earliest and best critic, Randall Jarrell, quickly perceived the pattern of concern in the poet's development, and his judgment of Lord Weary's Castle [see CLC, Vol. 1] was prophetic for the career itself: "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."… That progress is at once tortuous and simple: a king's through the guts of a beggar. Its literary modes of expression—from the symbolic to the mythological to the historical—reflect his personal deconversion from faith to fiction to fact. In his Notebook, there is a line that could be used to graph the intention and effect of all his work: "I am learning to live in history."
In his Introduction to Lowell's first book Land of Unlikeness (1944), Allen Tate offered an important observation about the early poems—one that applies equally to Lord Weary's Castle (1946) which incorporates the best of Land of Unlikeness and so is the convenient focus for a discussion of Lowell's beginnings. There are, Tate noted, two types of poems in the collection, "not yet united." The first are "the explicitly religious poems" with their intellectualized and often satirical Christian symbolism, and the second are those "richer in immediate experience," "more dramatic, the references being personal and historical and the symbolism less willed and explicit." Together, they comprise what Hugh Staples calls a "poetry of rebellion."… But rebellion was less the reason for than the result of the informing vision and voice of these poems. The epigraph from St. Bernard affixed to Land of Unlikeness offers the cause in a comparison: Inde anima dissimilis deo inde dissimilis est et sibi (As the soul is unlike God, so is it unlike itself). This alienation, suspended from "the jerking noose of time," is masked behind a Catholic mysticism that holds the poet apart from both unredeemed nature and the burdens of history. (pp. 34-5)
Lowell's militant faith served him also as a defiance of and defense against the "sewage" that "sickens the rebellious seas" ("Salem")—his own past and that of his family, which emerge only emblematically in Lord Weary's Castle. (p. 35)
The Selected Poems rather self-consciously minimizes the impacted apocalyptic aspect of Lord Weary's Castle, in favor of those poems Tate referred to as "richer in immediate experience."… Stripped of its mystical contortions, it is easier now to see the book's treatment of concentric alienations as the prelude to Lowell's versions of the theme, under different guises, in subsequent collections. But what disturbs me is that the same argument that may have resulted in that decision may also have occasioned the poet's grievous cuts from his next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). Perhaps Lowell has come to agree with the majority of his critics who, unlike myself, seem to consider the book an uncertain exercise in verbal self-indulgence…. Though these mythic monologues remain dramas of remission and evasion, they indicate that Lowell no longer wished to transform or transcend his personality, but to integrate its conflicting motifs. Poems like "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid" and "Mother Marie Therese" … seem self-absorbed in a gorgeous display of the form itself, but generally in this book Lowell, like one of his characters, has "gone underground / Into myself." The voice is subdued to a new control, the scope narrowed from cultural to personal decline, from civilization to the family, from the Church to a marriage…. Each poem in The Mills of the Kavanaughs deals with a present relationship to the past, and as one critic says, the book "shares with Life Studies this intensity of memory."…
During the eight years that intervened before his next book, Life Studies (1959), Lowell's philosophy of composition underwent a radical revaluation. The influences on that process were multiple: some of them personal (the death of his mother in 1954, and his subsequent hospitalizations and private psychotherapy), some of them literary. The poet himself began to think that the style of his early poems was "distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult," and occluded their sense. His exposure to the Beats and to the peculiar responsibilities of communication demanded by reading poetry aloud, interested him in a more colloquial approach to diction and the dynamics of narrative, while his simultaneous immersion in prose studies—especially the subdued, realistic precision of Chekhov and Flaubert—confirmed him in the need for a more relaxed rhythm and line, for a syntax responsible to voice and a tone that would both prompt and project his subject…. Replacing the strictures of imposed form, Lowell's new voice worked with subtle modulations of stanza, varying rhythm, unobtrusive rhyme and sharp detail, to achieve an effect of "heightened conversation."… So the mystical commitment of the early symbolist verse becomes a moral commitment in the confessional verse; honesty replaces devotion, fact replaces faith, in the poet's shift from ideology to history, from Catholicism to psychoanalysis as a method of self-interpretation, from apocalyptic rebellion to ironic detachment….
Life Studies begins with a renunciation of the consolations of culture and religion that had previously sustained Lowell's art and life: "Much against my will / I left the City of God where it belongs." Will surrenders to experience, eternity to history, as Lowell sets out to discover where he belongs. In this modern, parallaxed Prelude, the poet arranges his significant spots of time, pausing at moments of crisis like infernal circles, into the definition of himself that presents a life in which the only innocence is insanity, the only resolution a scavenging survival. (p. 36)
The sins of the father revisited in Life Studies revealed a helpless and ironic repetition in his life that Lowell was determined to avoid in his art…. For the Union Dead (1964), with the grand public manner of its title poem, is the "more impersonal matter," the retreat from self to sensibility: "I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil"…. His guilts become figures in an "unforgivable landscape," his neuroses change the studied confessions into impulsive, lyrical meditations. The therapeutic and critical success of Life Studies's revelations seems to have occasioned a self-consciousness that demanded both release and restraint…. For the Union Dead, in other words, is the effect of Life Studies. (p. 37)
The political poems that are the positive achievement of For the Union Dead are the reason for Lowell's subsequent book, Near the Ocean (1967), which draws on his previous talents for elegy and imitation to complete—along with his staged poems The Old Glory (1965) and Prometheus Bound (1967)—his Juvenalian indictment of mid-century American political and spiritual failure. Written during the period of Lowell's own most active political involvement, the book sheds a good deal of personal malaise coincident with the national…. [Critics] were disappointed by Near the Ocean—except for its interesting reversion to a strict prosody, presumably to emphasize the severe moral tone these poems adopt. After Life Studies, Lowell seems to have experienced a difficulty—or possibly a diffidence—in combining the confessional and political modes. The large experiment he next undertook to overcome that difficulty—Notebook 1967–68 (1969)—created difficulties of its own, as evidenced by the constant recycling of its format and contents, first as Notebook (1970) and then as History (1973)…. The poet here resumes history by recording it, not by narrowing it to the slant of private vision but by opening his vision to the rush of outer accidents, tempered only by the seasonal cycle that underlies it and the involuntary memories that intrude upon it. It is his effort to accommodate a life in history and the life of history—though many of its first readers found it merely one damn poem after another….
It is an unfortunate necessity that the present book cannot reproduce History's convulsive particularity and sacrifices its scope to a fine sample from his catalogue of tyrants and saints, artists and criminals, each a variation on the type of the monster, so that his meditations are really personalizing studies of the themes of will, authority, breakdown, and recrimination in his own history….
His portrayal of a discontented civilization derives from the late Freudian model, whose sense of instinctive aggression is finally suicidal—itself an illuminating comparison with Lowell's confrontations with both himself and his society….
[The] more congenial if painful struggles of "becoming" are the subject of his most intimate and controversial book, The Dolphin, an account of his divorce from [Elizabeth] Hardwick, his remarriage to Caroline Blackwood and the birth of their son Sheridan…. With the melodrama diluted, we are not offered glimpses of the wrenching affair, which leaves it with an appropriate immediacy yet lends it a retrospective quality of accomplishment….
[Lowell has said of] his own acknowledged precursors—Pound, Eliot, Williams, and Hart Crane among them—… [that they wrote] in "styles closer to the difficulties of art and the mind's unreason." There is no better descriptive praise for Lowell's own work than that, and his Selected Poems are both the abstract and particulars of the successful risks he has taken to bring the mind's unreason to the orders of art, to bring the difficulties of art to the history of human experience. (p. 38)
J. D. McClatchy, "Robert Lowell: Learning to Live in History," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1977 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of J. D. McClatchy), January/February, 1977, pp. 34-8.
[The] sense of loss [at Lowell's death] will be all the greater—for some of us, anyway—with the passing of this poet, in whose poems we were obliged to relive so much of the history and so many of the terrible emotions of our time. These he often stated with a violence that seared our sensibilities and made the poet seem, at times, an ally of the very impulses he castigated, and that, too, is something we are now left pondering. Lowell was never an easy poet, even in his most accessible poems, and he was never a decorative poet, even in those poems that were encased in the "ponderous armor," as he once called it, of an elaborate and gorgeous artifice. His verse offers us no escape from the world we know, no zone of neutrality or reprieve—no Cythera or Parnassus or pastoral repose. When, in his last book, "Day by Day," he wrote—with the nervy egotism we had learned to expect of him—that "The age burns in me," he was only stating what many of his keenest readers had long been made to feel, and what some of them, certainly, recoiled from. Especially if we are old enough to have read these poems as they appeared, year by year, first in the magazines and then revised in books, then often in further revisions in still later books, as if even the poet himself could not quite keep their asperities firmly in place, we feel compelled now to see what it is we have lived through in this poetry. (pp. 3, 36)
It is difficult now to describe the effect of "Life Studies" on its first readers in 1959. Not only Lowell's own earlier achievements but an entire poetic culture seemed, at one inspired blow, to be shattered—the whole edifice of metaphysical and ornamental verse so carefully nurtured over a period of decades in the universities, in the quarterlies and in the very bosom of the literary family from which Lowell himself had sprung and whose most eminent heir he had unquestionably become. We all know that "Life Studies" created a new idiom for a whole generation of poets—and indeed, that it was obliged, like many original works of art, to suffer the ignominy of attracting an army of vulgar imitators whose energies, to this day, produce an unending stream of noxious poetic effusions about every sort of random obsession and malevolent confusion. The vogue of "confessional" verse became for a time so firmly established—so much the normal convention of contemporary poetic discourse—that we tend to forget how divisive and disruptive and raw "Life Studies" was on its initial appearance, a book of poems that halted careers, severed friendships, probably marriages too, and caused many people to feel that they had to choose up sides in some imminent Armageddon of literary struggle.
Overlooked for the moment—they are always overlooked at such moments—were all the elements of continuity that connected the themes and materials of "Life Studies" with the poems that had preceded it and already, in some cases, become established classics, as if a mordant dissection of family history and the dislocations of the psyche had not been at the very heart of "Buttercups," "In Memory of Arthur Winslow," "Between the Porch and the Altar" and even the magisterial sweep of "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." Only the differences separating the new poems from the old were felt to matter, and they mattered a lot.
The poet who, in "The Quaker Graveyard," all but choked his readers with the cadence of his terror-stricken images … and closed his elegy for a cousin lost at sea with a line that removed us from the cares of earthly existence, "The Lord survives the rainbow of His will," now addressed himself to his earthly family in a radically different accent:
"Anchors aweigh," Daddy boomed in his bathtub, "Anchors aweigh." when Lever Brothers offered to pay him double what the Navy paid. I nagged for his dress sword with gold braid, and cringed because Mother, new caps on all her teeth, was born anew at forty. With seamanlike celerity, Father left the Navy, and deeded Mother his property.
American poetry was never the same after that.
And neither was Lowell. The poet who described himself, in the very first poem of "Life Studies," in that line about "the blear-eyed ego kicking in my berth," with its two (or is it three?) insolent and unembarrassed puns, more and more made of this kicking ego and its domestic vicissitudes the central focus of his verse. The rage to record the pulse-beat of every private emotion, to encompass every turn of current history, to deal with public events as if they were personal and the personal life as if it were ineluctably public, overtook him, and the very rhythm and texture and structure of his poetry changed again as a result. "Notebook," in its various versions, was as hard for some readers to take as "Life Studies" had been. (pp. 36, 38)
The problem was well stated by Robert Boyers in the preface he wrote for the special Robert Lowell number of the magazine "Salmagundi" marking the poet's 60th birthday…. "How is one to judge a sequence moving only in parts, sometimes casual almost to the point of uncaring?" Mr. Boyers wrote. "Lowell 'trained' his audience to expect classics, which he nicely provided in book after book for more than 20 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."
Evidently the poet himself did not regard such observations as irrelevant to his ambitions, for he made the matter the very subject of the poem "Epilogue."…
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme— why are they no help to me now I want to make something imagined, not recalled? I hear the noise of my ownThe painter's vision is not a lens,it trembles to caress the light. voice? But sometimes everything I write with the threadbare art of my eye seems a snapshot, lurid, rapid, garish, grouped, heightened from life, yet paralyzed by fact. All's misalliance. Yet why not say what happened? Pray for the grace of accuracy Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination stealing like the tide across a map to his girl solid with yearning. We are poor passing facts, warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.
He remained, then, difficult—and central—to the end, the writer who gave a "living name" to more things in our lives than any other poet of his accursed generation. (p. 38)
Hilton Kramer, "The Loss of a Poet," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 16, 1977, pp. 3, 36, 38.