Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1856
Robert Lowell 1917–1977
American poet, dramatist, critic, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Lowell's career through 1997. See also Robert Lowell Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11.
A foremost contributor to the development of "confessional" poetry, Robert Lowell is widely regarded as one of the most gifted and influential American poets of the postwar period. While his early verse in the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Lord Weary's Castle (1946) is distinguished for its complex formalism and technical virtuosity, during the 1960s Lowell emerged as a leading innovator of the confessional mode. This highly charged, self-revelatory style of writing, heralded by his important collection Life Studies (1959), featured a new emphasis on intense, uninhibited discussion of personal, family, and psychological struggles. Though much of Lowell's poetry centers upon the autobiographic details of his New England upbringing, mental illness, and personal relationships, his erudition, mastery of conventional forms, and synthesis of private and public concerns separates him from other poets working in the confessional vein. Lowell's assiduous effort to discover new poetic forms through assimilation of traditional and modernist techniques is reflected in the impressive range and diversity of his work.
Born Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., to parents of prominent Boston families, Lowell descended from a long line of distinguished New Englanders, including literary relatives James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. Lowell's turbulent childhood, dominated by incessant tensions between his father, a naval officer, and mother, left deep and lasting emotional scars. He attended preparatory school at St. Mark's School in Southborough, Massachusetts, where he was a student of poet Richard Eberhart, Lowell's first literary mentor. At St. Mark's, Lowell also earned the nickname "Cal," a dual reference to Shakespeare's Caliban and the infamous Roman emperor Caligula. Lowell began studies at Harvard University in 1935, though left abruptly in 1937 to travel with English novelist Ford Madox Ford to the Tennessee home of poet Allen Tate and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon. After spending a summer with the Tate's, Lowell followed Tate to Kenyon College in Ohio, where he enrolled and studied under John Crowe Ransom. While at Kenyon, Lowell met lifelong friends poet Randall Jarrell and short story writer Peter Taylor. Lowell graduated summa cum laude with a degree in classics in 1940 and, during the same year, converted to Roman Catholicism and married novelist Jean Stafford. The next year, Lowell attended graduate courses at Louisiana State University, where he studied under Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. After brief employment with the Catholic publishing house Sheed and Ward in New York, Lowell took up residence with the Tate's in the Tennessee mountains, where he continued to write. A conscientious objector to military service during the Second World War, Lowell was imprisoned for six months during 1943 and 1944. He then published his first collection of poetry, The Land of Unlikeness (1944), followed two years later by Lord Weary's Castle, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He also received a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1947. In the period before the publication of his next volume, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), Lowell divorced Stafford, abandoned the Catholic Church, and suffered a severe bout of manic depression, a psychological disorder that afflicted him for the rest of his life. Lowell married writer Elizabeth Hardwick in 1949. During the 1950s, he taught at several universities, maintained a friendship with William Carlos Williams, and traveled to California, where he encountered Allen Ginsberg and other Beat generation writers. Lowell settled in New York in 1960 and, from 1963 to 1970, commuted to Boston to teach at Harvard. He won a National Book Award in 1960 for Life Studies and a Bollingen Prize for Imitations (1961), a collection of verse translations, in 1962. Lowell also published Phaedra, a verse translation of Jean Baptiste Racine's tragedy, in Phaedra and Figaro (1961). During the mid-1960s, Lowell produced For the Union Dead (1964) and The Old Glory (1965), a trilogy of plays including Endecott and the Red Cross and My Kinsman, Major Molineux, both adapted from short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Benito Cereno, adapted from a novella by Herman Melville. Lowell also emerged as an outspoken critic of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam; he publicly declined an invitation by President Lyndon Johnson to attend the White House Festival of the Arts in 1965 and participated in the historic Pentagon march in 1967. His reaction to social and political upheaval during this time is the subject of Near the Ocean (1967) and Notebook, 1967–68 (1969). Lowell moved to England in 1970 and taught at the University of Essex and Kent University. After divorcing Hardwick and marrying his third wife, British author Caroline Blackwood, in 1972, Lowell produced three additional volumes of poetry in 1973—For Lizzie and Harriet, History, and The Dolphin, for which Lowell received a second Pulitzer Prize in 1974. His final collection, Day by Day (1977), winner of the National Book Critics Award in 1978, was published days before Lowell suffered a fatal heart attack in a New York taxi.
Lowell's early poetry is characterized by its Christian motifs and symbolism, historical reference, and intricate formalism, a trait cultivated by Lowell's early masters, the Southern New Critics Tate and Ransom. In Land of Unlikeness, introduced by Tate, Lowell responds to the chaos and brutality of the Second World War, his Catholic conversion, and renunciation of his Puritan heritage, often juxtaposing religious beatitude with the turmoil and vapidity of the modern secular world. The title of the collection, suggestive of Lowell's disillusionment, refers to Saint Bernard's idea that the human soul is unlike God and unknown to itself. Lowell incorporated many of these poems in his next volume, Lord Weary's Castle. Continuing the theme of rebellion, Lowell expresses his conflicted aversion to war, American imperialism, capitalism, and the legacy of New England Protestantism. In "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," the most famous poem from this volume, Lowell rails against the corruption and lost innocence of America in an elegy for his cousin, Warren Winslow, who drowned while serving in the Navy during the Second World War. His next collection, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, marked a spiritual and stylistic crisis for Lowell. Under the influence of Robert Frost and Robert Browning, this volume contains several dramatic monologues and verse translations that, while indicative of Lowell's search for new poetic forms, are weighted with obscure symbolism and affected rhetoric. Lowell's major artist breakthrough came with Life Studies, in which he abandoned the rigid formalism of his previous poetry and shifted his focus to personal aspects of his life and family history. The malleable free verse and colloquial tone of this volume reveals the influence of William Carlos Williams. In "Skunk Hour," one of the best known poems from this volume, Lowell discloses his inner turmoil along with descriptions of a coastal Maine town and foraging skunks. The prose memoir "91 Revere Street," which represents the core of Life Studies, recounts Lowell's troubled childhood, including unflattering portraits of his parents and home life. The new openness of Lowell's poetry is also reflected in Imitations, a collection of loosely translated works by Homer, Sappho, Rainer Maria Rilke, Francois Villon, and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, among others. Lowell continued in the confessional mode in For the Union Dead, whose title poem, originally delivered at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, is regarded as one of his best. Beginning as a private meditation on his childhood memory of the Boston Aquarium, "For the Union Dead" commemorates the sacrifice of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Union officer killed while leading a regiment of black troops during the Civil War. Shifting between the historic past and present, Lowell laments the erosion of heroic idealism in contemporary America and technological encroachment. In Near the Ocean, written at the height of antiwar protest, Lowell returned to the formal metrical patterns of his earlier work. The polemical poetry of this volume, including verse translations of works by Horace, Juvenal, and Dante, derides American militarism and political leadership, as in the popular poem "Waking Early Sunday Morning." Notebook 1967–68, which began as diary, is an epic cycle of unrhymed sonnets loosely structured around the four seasons of the year. An amalgam of journal entries, historical observations, correspondence, and private meditations, these poems reflect Lowell's effort to harmonize his personal and public concerns; Lowell significantly revised and rearranged many of these poems in Notebook (1970). Lowell continued to work with unrhymed sonnets in his next three volumes—For Lizzie and Harriet, History, and The Dolphin. For Lizzie and Harriet, which consists of revised poems from Notebook, deals with Lowell's relationship with Elizabeth Hardwick and their daughter. History, also containing reworked poems from Notebook as well as many new compositions, evokes the broad sweep of Western civilization in fragmentary episodes and verse portraits of diverse historical and literary figures such as Juvenal, Maximilien-François Robespierre, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Berryman. The new poems of The Dolphin center upon Lowell's relocation to England, his marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood, and the birth of their son. In his final volume, Day by Day, Lowell abandoned the sonnet form for free verse and returned to the scrupulous honesty and autobiographic subjects reminiscent of Life Studies. The posthumously published Collected Prose contains Lowell's essays on various major poets and literary works, unfinished autobiographic sketches, and several interviews.
Lowell is widely regarded as one of the most important American poets of the postwar era. Though famous for his role in the development of confessional poetry, his early verse in Lord Weary's Castle is highly regarded for its command of traditional forms and cerebral aesthetics. Lowell's preoccupation with religious themes in this volume and Land of Unlikeness also prompted some reviewers to classify him as a "Catholic poet." His transitional collection, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, is generally considered among his weakest, leading some reviewers to question the limitations of the New Criticism principles which Lowell inherited from his early teachers Tate, Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren. Life Studies, hailed as a major turning point in Lowell's career, is also considered a seminal work of contemporary American poetry. Through his example in this work, Lowell initiated the confessional genre and exerted a profound influence on subsequent American poets, including other first generation confessionalists such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Lowell is also praised for his effective blend of autobiography and public history in the acclaimed poems "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and "For the Union Dead." During the late 1960s, Lowell received negative criticism for Near the Ocean, dismissed by many reviewers for its overt political rhetoric and what some perceived to be calculated accessibility. His artistic integrity was also called into question with the publication of The Dolphin, in which he incorporated verbatim transcripts of private correspondence with Elizabeth Hardwick and others, considered an egregious violation of personal trust by many of Lowell's critics and friends. Despite the wide influence of his poetry, Lowell's inseparable connection to the rise of confessional poetry has also elicited disapproval among critics who dismiss such writing as narrowly self-absorbed. Though critical interest in Lowell's work has diminished somewhat over recent decades, he is still highly regarded as one of the most brilliant and diversely talented American poets of the twentieth century.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 90
Land of Unlikeness (poetry) 1944
Lord Weary's Castle (poetry) 1946
Poems, 1938–1949 (poetry) 1950
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (poetry) 1951
Life Studies (poetry) 1959
Imitations [editor and translator] (poetry) 1961
Phaedra and Figaro [translator; with Jacques Barzun] (drama) 1961
For the Union Dead (poetry) 1964
The Old Glory (drama) 1965
Near the Ocean (poetry) 1967
Prometheus Bound [adaptor] (drama) 1967
The Voyage and Other Versions of Poems by Baudelaire [translator] (poetry) 1968
Notebook 1967–1968 [revised and republished as Notebook, 1970] (poetry) 1969
History (poetry) 1973
For Lizzie and Harriet (poetry) 1973
The Dolphin (poetry) 1973
Selected Poems (poetry) 1976
Day by Day (poetry) 1977
Collected Prose (prose) 1987
Collected Poems (poetry) 1997
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2990
SOURCE: "Aspects of Robert Lowell," in Commonweal, December 9, 1977, pp. 783-8.
[In the following essay, Druska provides an overview of Lowell's literary career, artistic development, and major themes in his poetry.]
I. His Career
The speaker of Robert Lowell's "In the American Grain" (History) announces at the close of the poem
(') I am not William Carlos Williams. He
knew the germ on every flower, and saw
the snake is a petty, rather pathetic creature.'
Whether or not the speaker is Lowell—the poem is a direct quote, perhaps a letter to him—the sentiment is rarely his. Snakes, dragons, other biblical and/or allusive figures haunt Lowell's pages. In the early poems of Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary's Castle he writes this most emblematic. "No ideas but in things," Williams proclaimed. Lowell's first works, for which he has lionized by much of the critical establishment, might well be saying, "Nothing but within my ideas of things":
… I fear
That only Armageddon will suffice
To turn the hero skating on thin ice
When Whore and Beast and Dragon rise for air
From allegoric waters.
("To Peter Taylor on the Feast of the Epiphany," Lord Weary)
The self-assurance of Lowell's poems in Lord Weary impressed. The difficulties they posed to be puzzled through impressed. Only a few objections have been recorded. Hayden Carruth dismissed the motifs in Lord Weary as lifeless tokens and many of the poems as "set pieces in a high style," a young poet's homage to his older masters; though among the purely "sententious" specimens Carruth discovered poems that include, under their "high gloss of artifice," urgent and moving autobiographical elements ("A Meaning of Robert Lowell," Robert Lowell: A Portrait of the Artist in His Time, 1970). And the artifice of Lowell's third volume, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, caused Williams to temper a favorable review:
In his new book Robert Lowell gives us six first-rate poems of which we may well be proud. As usual he has taken the rhyme-track for his effects. We shall now have rhyme again for a while, rhymes completely missing the incentive. The rhymes are necessary to Mr. Lowell. He must, to his mind, appear to surmount them. ("In a Mood of tragedy….": ibid.)
Did Williams's objection to rhyme echo a bit his lament that T. S. Eliot had set back irreparably the course of poetry in an American idiom?
Just as critics have stressed Eliot's religion, which never was more than a convenience to his poetry, many have made much of Lowell's temporarily-adopted (and adapted?) Catholicism and its influence on his early poetry. In retrospect, though, Lowell's true faith appears to have been in the Western tradition, T. S. Eliot pastor, rather than in the Catholic Church, which became, for a time, the exoskeleton of his emotions, ideas and images. And the farther we follow Lowell through his career the more we see his own mind, insofar as it assimilates the history and cultures of Western civilization as well as the data of his own experience, becoming his real church. Under its vault he worships not only the occasional order its rituals conjure, but the cracks in its walls, the dissolution implicit in accepting one's self in the world as the manifest sign of poetry. Thus his titles evolve from the symbolic prominence of Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary's Castle to the pop-tune lyric, Day by Day.
Wondering over the course of his poetry, Lowell says in one of his last poems ("Unwanted," Day by Day)
I was surer, wasn't I, once …
and had flashes when I first found
a humor for myself in images,
that made evasions a revelation?
If those first poems were evasive, they were evading an audience already tantalized. If Lowell's marriage to his emblems was far-fetched, not many seemed to have noticed. Or his revelation sufficed.
But Lowell himself, long before his nostalgia in Day by Day, had reacted against the lineal descendants of his highly-praised Lord Weary works, in commenting upon poems he had been writing in the 1950's: "Their style seemed distant, symbol-ridden and willfully difficult … my own poems seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into the bog and death by their ponderous armor." ("On Skunk Hour," The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic, 1964.) Later, after Lowell closed out the 50's with Life Studies, which made him as popular as any legitimate poet is likely to become today, and especially after his poems of the 1960's had accumulated in Notebook 1967–68, some critics saw a devolution in his poetry and enshrined Lord Weary as Lowell's masterwork. Others (including those for whom he became a confessional darling), and Lowell apparently came to regard Lord Weary's mode as some archaic-baroque shell of the poet's past.
Between the publications of Life Studies and Notebook 1967–68, Donald Hall, writing the introduction to the Penguin Contemporary American Poetry (1962), concluded: "When he wrote Life Studies, Robert Lowell sent his muse to the atelier of William Carlos Williams (from that of Allen Tate)." To Williams's atelier, though, just for diction lessons. Even after the shift from "rhetorical stanzas" to "common speech" (as Hall puts it), Lowell keeps us in a world skewed by his mind's impositions, an introverted mythos, rather than in the sort of garden of realized common-place that Williams gives us. As after his exit from Catholicism, figures of that faith (or the faith of his puritanical forebears) keep slithering through his lines, pets of the tradition he extends).
Following Lowell's break from rhetorical stanzas, his movement into freer verse forms, and his settling for a long while on blank verse sonnet-sections, he suffered less drastically from distaste for his own work. Change became a matter of shuffling lines, replacing words: rewriting became a prime writing method. Through the 60's, into the 1970's, Lowell rewrote incessantly, his poetry suggests, and the nature of this revision implies some amount of disintegration, offcenteredness in his evocations of the past, present and himself in relationship to himself—a difficulty in getting the equations right, a lack of perception. Yet it implies too Lowell's immense care for getting the poem right, his attention to focusing better, pulling his work, and so perhaps himself, together. Sometimes the changes perplex. Lines and sets of lines move from one poem to another in consecutive volumes; changing contexts as well, from historical to private or vice-versa. Lowell insists on our staying in his flux while he manipulates for us the data of history and memory in order to fix (but just momentarily?) his vision of his (our?) world. This is not Williams's Paterson regenerating itself beyond its designed end, but Lowell's notebook- history-life—Lowell's life become poem life, as Stephen Yenser claims—rehearsing as if unready to be apprised of its end.
In "Randall Jarrell" (History) Lowell has his fellow poet tell him, "You didn't write, you rewrote'." Lowell himself admitted to spending hours, days, choosing the proper word for a line. Farther and farther away from the devotional structures of his early poetry could Lowell hope to invest his work with any of the certainty whose lack his later poetry, as we've seen, seems on occasion to lament, in spite of his dismissing the "prehistoric monsters"?
Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
From effects of stained glass to the snapshots with which Lowell ends "Epilogue," last poem of Day by Day, his last book.
II. His Life, His Death: His Poetry
As much as history, legend and myth overshadow Lowell's work, he remains at the center of his poems, in the context of his life, from childhood to death and caught inextricably between.
Lowell's "childhood, closer to me than what I love" ("Returning," History) draws him, throughout his poetry, in its direction, at times back to encounters with his parents, at other times toward a life-force in his work, as well as in others': "the supreme artist, Flaubert, was a boy before the mania for phrases dried his heart" ("Les Mots," Notebook).
His fascination for childhood in places recalls Jarrell's. Even some of the same yearning for a child-like love occurs, as in Jarrell's brother-sister poems, or the folk tales he used to render:
Here nature seldom feels the hand of man,
our alders skirmish. I flame for the one friend—
is it always the same child or animal
impregnable in shell or coat of thorns
("Long Summer," Notebook)
And all Lowell's visions of childhood root in his own memories of Boston during the 1920's. In "91 Revere Street," a rare piece of Lowell prose which serves as Part Two of Life Studies in the American edition, Lowell precisely details his family life as a child. The sketch ends with a joke, as obliquely as it began, neatly sliced. A joke, however, that aptly completes the poet's portrayal of himself. Lowell's father, in the piece, has been forced by his superior to spend nights away from home at the naval compound, and he is ribbed about this by an old Navy buddy: "I know why Young Bob is an only child."
But drawn in one direction by his childhood, Lowell is drawn even within the memories of his childhood in the other direction by death. "(A)lways inside me is the child who died," he says in "Night Sweat" (For the Union Dead), "always inside me is his will to die—" And, Lowell avers in "Death and the Maiden" ("Circles, 19," Notebook), "A good ear hears its own death talking."
Death is the simple fact ("You were alive. You are dead.": "Alfred Corning Clark," For the Union Dead) that opens to the common mystery, the ultimate poet's question: "'But tell me, / Cal, why did we live? Why do we die?'" ("Randall Jarrell," History). It becomes in fact part of Lowell's grim bond with his fellow poets and the source of a wry recapitulation of his career:
Ah the swift vanishing of my older
generation—the deaths, suicide, madness
of Roethke, Berryman, Jarrell and Lowell,
'the last the most discouraging of all
surviving to dissipate Lord Weary's Castle
and nine subsequent useful poems
in the seedy grandiloquence of Notebook.'
("Last Night," History)
Consistently through Lowell's corpus death supplies a haunting keynote:
Fifty-one years, how many millions gone—
… hear it, hear the clopping
of the hundreds of horses unstopping … each
hauls a coffin.
("Half a Century Gone, 5," Notebook)
And at an extreme death grows to an embodiment of the poet's work. In "Reading Myself" (Notebook 1967–68) Lowell shifts the metaphor of his work as honey-comb—"circle to circle, cell to cell, / the wax and honey of a mausoleum"—through that last image to the analogy, "this open book … my open coffin."
Even though his poetry virtually embalms him before our eyes, Lowell is not averse to gallows humor. Or is this the undertone of an unearthly wish?
sleep is lovely, death is better still,
not to have been born is of course the miracle.
("Heine Dying in Paris, I: Death and Morphine," Imitations)
Impossible miracle for the child already born into life's continuum, prey to its inevitable changes: "They say fear of death is a child's remembrance / of the first desertion." ("During a Transatlantic Call," The Dolphin).
Yet even while chronicling his own aging in his poems, (while indulging in the delight and detritus of his marriages), Lowell retains an adolescent élan, at least wistfulness:
… it's the same for me
at fifty as at thirteen, my childish thirst
for the grown-ups in their open cars and girls….
("Through the Night, 1," Notebook 1967–68)
Growing old he does not, perhaps, grow adult. Writing for his adolescent daughter, Lowell sees her growing "too fast apace, / too fast adult; no, not adult, mature." ("Growth," Notebook 1967–68) He too, perhaps, matures without calcifying.
Born and bred of good Boston stock, Lowell set out, like Yeats, to do just one thing, to write poetry well, according to Hugh B. Staples, the first critic to deal with Lowell's poetry at book-length. Equipped with the wherewithal to live, and so the leisure to write, appropriately bull-headed (skeptical indeed of Yeats's achievement; what did Yeats really accomplish, he once told Staples, aside from leaving us "about four-hundred lyrics"), Lowell became a poet, discovering in the process that "Poets die adolescents" ("Fishnet," The Dolphin).
Are we, in fact, to regard him as a chronic adolescent? His precocious success with Lord Weary, his circling through his works the last decade, writing and rewriting, self-absorbed (insecure?), so seriously cocooning himself in the orbit of his psychic concerns—America's grand adolescent laureate?
III. His Reputation
Robert Lowell's persistent rewriting might have made us wonder at one time whether he would ever surpass the "four-hundred lyrics" he credited to Yeats. Yet today the critical writing on Lowell's position in American letters grows redundant. He has become for some a kind of American Yeats, not only bridging poetic tradition and the ragbone present, but turning out as well dramas that recast for us Classical and American myths, plays like those of the Old Glory trilogy that test our ancestral beliefs against our ancestors' and our own actions. In our present mood of eulogy, as in the wake of his lionization three decades ago, to evaluate Robert Lowell's work in a mode other than speculative is to attempt the common and the impossible.
What will come of the intellectual tradition that many have taken Lowell to represent? What of Robert Bly, called by some Lowell's most intransigent critic? Are his attacks on the Kenyon Review clique, Lowell included, and the anti-surrealist academics, along with his advocacy of "leaping poetry" (see Leaping Poetry, 1975), part of communist plot, or has Bly revealed the arc that will carry American poetry into its future? What of some voices who have been plainly showing us truths all along: Denise Levertov, David Ignatow, William Stafford, all poets in our world? And what do the Irish think of Yeats today anyway?
In its obituary of Robert Lowell last September 14, the Bangor (Me.) Daily News remarked, "James Russell Lowell, foremost American man of letters in his times, was Robert Lowell's great-grandfather…." Born in 1819, James Russell Lowell died in 1891. In our time we remember too that Walt Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892.
So we might do well, at least for now, to think of Robert Lowell as a person and a poet in his own age, instead of as an idol for the ages.
While he attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, after a requisite year at Harvard, Robert Lowell roomed with Peter Taylor, today one of our finest storytellers. During their time under the tutelage of John Crowe Ransom (Jarrell appearing as Instructor for a year as well), Taylor, Lowell and a handful of hardy fellow-artists also survived the rigors of watching the frat-jock parades down Kenyon's famed Middle Path, where every Tuesday night's songfest included a lyrical toast to "The first of Kenyon's goodly race / … that great man Philander Chase." A friend who has just graduated from Kenyon assures me that not only was Philander Chase a real personage, but the parading and singing still go on along the Middle Path. As in Taylor's story of double romantic disillusionment, "1939," Lowell and his friends, reprobates all, continue to haunt Kenyon.
Lowell has written: "In truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of living; in remembering, in recording, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain." ("Afterthought," Notebook)
Thanks to "1939" we see Lowell, even before he knows the harsh reality of love lost in Manhattan, in the self-consumed, self-consuming, sober attitude of the artist as youth that pervades his work, that causes us perhaps to call him a latter-day and peculiar Romantic, in this case the adolescent the father of the man:
We walked the country road for miles in every direction, talking every step of the way about ourselves or about our writing, or if we exhausted those two dearer subjects, we talked about whatever we were reading at the time. We read W. H. Auden and Yvor Winters and Wyndham Lewis and Joyce and Christopher Dawson. We read The Wings of the Dove (aloud!) and The Cosmological Eye and The Last Puritan and In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. (Of course, I am speaking only of books that didn't come within the range of the formal courses we were taking in the college.) On our walks through the country—never more than two or three of us together—we talked and talked, but I think none of us ever listened to anyone's talk but his own. Our talk seemed always to come to nothing. But our walking took us past the sheep farms and orchards and past some of the stone farmhouses that are scattered throughout that township. It brought us to the old quarry from which most of the stone for the college buildings and for the farmhouses had been taken, and brought us to Quarry Chapel, a long since deserted and 'deconsecrated' chapel, standing on a hill two miles from the college and symbolizing there the failure of Episcopalianism to take root among the Ohio country people. Sometimes we walked along the railroad track through the valley at the foot of the college hill, and I remember more than once coming upon two or three tramps warming themselves by a little fire they had built or even cooking a meal over it. We would see them may be a hundred yards ahead, and we would get close enough to hear them laughing and talking together. But as soon as they noticed us we would turn back and walk in the other direction, for we pitied them and felt that our presence was an intrusion. And yet, looking back on it, I remember how happy those tramps always seemed. And how sad and serious we were.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835
SOURCE: "Robert Lowell: The Problems and Power of Allusion," in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 60, No. 4, Winter, 1980–81, pp. 697-702.
[In the following essay, Lane discusses Lowell's use of allusion and metaphorical reference in "Man and Wife," "Sailing Home from Rapollo," and "For the Union Dead."]
Allusions, like symbols, can be divided broadly into explicit and implicit: separated, as Harry Levin says, by an equatorial line past which we can sail on problematically into the conjectural and, finally, the inadmissible. At the same time allusion to some entity otherwise wholly outside the text must be distinguished from reference to a similar entity which is actually presumed present within the world of the text. King Ahab is not present in Moby Dick; Captain Ahab is. Neither is present in Robert Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket," but both are alluded to: one explicitly, one implicitly. The allusions in Lowell's earlier, highly allusive poems such as "The Quaker Graveyard" have been glossed to the point where the reader's problem is not to reap but to winnow.
However, the referential content in Lowell's book, Life Studies, and in many subsequent poems, is so circumstantial and the style so direct that possible allusions are more likely to require discovery, juridical as well as analytic—witness Wilbur's, Nims's, and Berryman's well-known critiques of "Skunk Hour" and Lowell's response to their "discoveries." The very presence of such allusions may often be problematic. The following three examples serve to illustrate both the problem of distinguishing between references and allusion in poems by Lowell and the further problem of crossing from the explicit to the implicit and on to the conjectural and the inadmissible. They may also show the poetic power gained by affirming and explicating these problematic allusions.
I. Rahvs and Redskins
No one has ever doubted that in line 17 of "Man and Wife" Lowell alludes explicitly and semi-referentially to Philip Rahv and his wife who, if they do not literally inhabit the present world of the poem, inhabit the literal past of that present. For many critics, such as Marjorie Perloff, this allusion/reference contributes metonymically, as do many others in the poem, to establishing "the nature of the poem's milieu": "The 'rising sun' of line 2 becomes, in the diseased imagination of the poet who fears passion and vitality, an Indian savage in 'war paint' who 'dyes us red,' the pun on 'dyes' intensifying the death-in-life existence of the couple." At least one critic of Lowell, Steven Axelrod—and no doubt many others—has observed the general appropriateness to Lowell's personal and literary situation of Rahv's well-known categories of paleface and redskin. But has it been noted that in "Man and Wife" the combination of line 17, "outdrank the Rahvs in the heat," with line 2, "the rising sun in war paint dyes us red," constitutes a witty specific allusion to Rahv's essay, an essay which Rahv had gathered into Image and Idea at about the time of the scene being recalled by the monologist of the poem? Such an allusion would make Rahv's distinction not just generally pertinent to Lowell, as Axelrod has shown, but specially pertinent to this poem's issues. Man and wife, paleface and redskin—we may even wish to consider the thematic or biographical parallel of the poem's title and subject with Rahv's pair of categories, thus adding one more dimension to those that Perloff has explicated so thoroughly. This possible parallel may be further supported by Elizabeth Hardwick's recent "novel," Sleepless Nights, and even by the authorial stance of her A View of My Own, dedicated, incidentally, to Philip Rahv.
II. Frost at Midwinter
In the second half of "Sailing Home from Rapallo," Lowell contrasts in his mind the actual Italian scene with a mental scene of his family cemetery in Dunbarton, H.H., where Lowell is now buried, in midwinter:
where the burning cold illuminated
the hewn inscriptions of Mother's relatives:
twenty or thirty Winslows and Starks.
Frost had given their names a diamond edge …
For Perloff these lines illustrate one significant strand of Lowell's "nexus of images": "Not only do winter and summer images regularly alternate in Lowell's poetry, but when the poet wishes to emphasize the isolation and death of the self, he merges the two clusters." Alan Williamson conjectures an implicit allusion: "It is Dante's Hell of ice, reserved for betrayal in intimate relationships; and the implicitly violent imagery of the passage suggests that Lowell holds his mother's Winslow coldness psychologically responsible for hastening his father's death." The conjectured allusion is certainly helpful, possible, and appropriate to all we know of Lowell's well-stocked poetic imagination. And Jerome Mazzaro has shown the importance of Dante to Lowell's earlier poetry.
But there is another allusion, another literary patron saint, much closer to home; an allusion that works more by metonymy than analogy or allegory. The capitalized frost of "Frost had given their names a diamond edge" directs us explicitly, if conjecturally, to another Frost of New Hampshire, "New Hampshire," and New Hampshire, that other Robert who inscribed himself Lowell's "friend in the art." That also "fatherless" Robert had written of New Hampshire, of the "burning cold" of fire and ice, and in "The Generations of Men" of two young "Starks" whose midsummer future Frost offered to us in terms ironically antithetical to those in which Lowell presents "Mother's relatives." Yet even Frost's young, hopeful couple can ask, "What will we come to / With all this pride of ancestry, we Yankees?", reply only partly facetiously, "I think we're all mad," but finally affirm, "What counts is the ideals, / And those will bear some keeping still about." This witty allusion, much like "Frost is in the stubble" in Wallace Stevens' "The Dwarf," clearly adds a significant allusive dimension to the metonymic and allegorical ones provided by previous commentators.
III. The Colonel's Bubble
Thus, allusions and references can be metaphorical or not; the same detail can be both a reference and an allusion, and it can be both literal and metaphorical. In lines 61-64 of "For the Union Dead," the bubble on which Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, or his spirit, rides as "he waits / for the blessed break" has all these sometimes confusing dimensions, and more. With this poem and its commentators we are driven back to the world of Lowell's earlier poetry, where our problem is not to establish allusion but somehow to sort out, if we can, differing interpretations of reference and allusion, of metonymy and metaphor.
To judge from the commentators, our first problem is whether Lowell wishes us to "think"—for to "see" too vividly would, I feel, be aesthetically disastrous—Shaw as outside or inside "his bubble." Certain critics have glossed the bubble either as a "political bubble which drifts from the mouth of Leviathan," by the bursting of which Shaw, and Lowell, are to be freed from the state, or as one the breaking of which "might unveil truth" or bring about "an annihilation of the veil of Maya" and "a bursting of the amnion." However, we had better, to avoid compounding confusion, take the preposition "on" straightforwardly if still somewhat grotesquely, and leave the Colonel upon his enigmatic, polysemous bubble. For to have him both inside and outside the bubble would surely smash Empsonian ambiguity to chaotic rubble.
The bubble has its literal, contextual origin, of course, in the referential "bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, complaint fish" of the South Boston Aquarium of Lowell's youth, which "my hand tingled / to burst." Remaining critical opinion has construed the bubble on which the Colonel rides variously as the world, hope, "the absolute zero of outer space," fame, illusion, idealism, the "boiling bubbles" of Hiroshima, and "the precarious ascendancy of a complacent civilization." Some of these are obviously explicit or implicit visual analogies to the bubble's roundness; others are conventional conceptual equivalents for its metaphorical fragility. Although these glosses may not be actually contradictory, some of us find their multiplicity formally and thematically distracting. Others may delight in their potentially deconstructive profusion.
Three possible separate but simultaneous allusions, however, do provide the esemplastic power to fuse these disparate significances into a single, complex, powerful poetic image, whose components need neither distract nor deconstruct. The first allusion, so obvious as to be almost explicit, puts Colonel Shaw in Shakespeare's fourth age of man, "Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon's mouth" (As You Like It, II. vii. 152-153). The second allusion, to Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, may be implicit, even conjectural here, but was explicit in the epigraph of "'To Speak of Woe That Is In Marriage,'" in Life Studies. Both allusions to Schopenhauer, interestingly, combine an obvious literary source with a less obvious philosophical one. The passage from Schopenhauer most apposite to Colonel Shaw's bubble and to the Colonel's entire presence in the poem is as follows:
Ultimately death must triumph, for by birth it has already become our lot; and it plays with its prey only for a while before swallowing it up. However, we continue our life with great interest and much solicitude as long as possible, just as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although with the perfect certainty that it will burst.
The third and most conjectural allusion is to "Sintram in Fouqué's tale" and, to the best of my knowledge, was first implied by Steven Axelrod. It is a visual as well as literary allusion and translates the metaphorical bubble back to the iconographically stylized steed on which Shaw literally, in one sense, rides. For Saint-Gaudens' sculptor's vision of Colonel Shaw, which in turn inspired Lowell's poem, resembles the main figure of Albrecht Dürer's engraving, "The Knight, Death, and Satan." This engraving, in its turn, had inspired Baron Frederic de la Motte Fouqué's Sintram and His Companions, especially its final confrontation between the hero and these two other powers, from which the hero emerges chastened but whole. In some 19th-century translations of Fouqué. Dürer's engraving was modified to illustrate Sintram's final encounter with Death and with the Devil.
The simultaneity and fusion of these three allusions help us to cope with the image's troubling multiplicity of metaphorical reference and its possible grotesqueness. The conjectural allusion to Fouqué and, by extension, Dürer gives the awkward visual image of the bubble narrative, if fantastic, embodiment and heightens Shaw's existentially authentic fate by its ironic contrast with Sintram's German-Romantic love-honour turmoil. The almost explicit allusion to Jaques' speech fits Colonel Shaw's literal military heroism into the ethical pattern of Shakespeare's more traditional poetic images. It also links Shaw's heroism more unambiguously to Lowell's startlingly metaphorical bubble and ironically parallels Shaw's bubble with the cannon ball's real solidity. The allusion to Schopenhauer combines the differing thematic readings of the bubble's impermanence within a coherent philosophical framework significant in many ways to Lowell's poem and Shaw's fate. The result of this alliance of metaphor and allusion is, as I have already said, a single, complex, powerful poetic image.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4647
SOURCE: "Robert Lowell and Free Association," in Mosaic, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 121-32.
[In the following essay, Wallingford examines free associational thinking as an important element of Lowell's creative process. Wallingford notes that free association, a technique derived from psychoanalysis, permits Lowell to both engage and reflect upon his own unconscious thoughts.]
In a letter he wrote in 1949 to George Santayana in Rome, Robert Lowell describes a process of thought which sounds remarkably like the psychoanalytic technique of free association:
Dear Mr. Santayana:
I was just nodding and I saw an image of a fat, yellowish dog receding down the center of a country road—the center was grass and the ruts clam-shells; so much for flux.
I had hoped to send you a book of my poems as a sort of Christmas present; but no. One thing written brings up another—somewhat as the dog-image. Should one shut these things out? It seems safer to let them come, take one's time, to be helpless….
Vocation is love, I think: for beauty, or the Muse, or what you wish…. Now at 31 it's just there—I can't send it away for long or find alternatives. There's the power side, the making side, the craft one learns. But now I am struck by the other, the powerless—powerless, when it does not come; most of all powerless, when it does, like the dog taking you God knows where!
When Lowell pays attention to images which pop into his mind unbidden like the yellow dog, when he determines not to "shut these things out" but to "let them come," when he asserts his willingness to follow along as the dog takes him "God knows where," he might well be describing what Jacques Lacan has called "the forced labour of this discourse without escape, on which the psychologist (not without humor) and the therapist (not without cunning) have bestowed the name of 'free association'." Free association is a "forced labour" indeed, because in order to sneak through the bars of repression and gain access to the unconscious, a subject must be willing, in Freud's words, "entirely [to] renounce any critical selection … and say whatever comes into his head," to follow his associations wherever they lead, no matter how unpleasant such a process may be.
Lowell seems always to have been willing to submit himself to the uncontrolled flow of associational thinking. In his biography of the poet, Ian Hamilton quotes a prose piece which Lowell wrote while a student at Harvard:
Sometimes, when we are in disorder, every pinprick and scraping blade of grass magnifies. A pebble rolls into the Rock of Gibraltar. I got a sunstroke regarding the gardener mow the lawn. He dumped matted green grass into a canvas bag and emptied the bag into a rut pond behind a clump of shrubbery…. I watched him dump grass on the surface where there ought to have been frogs. I smelled the odor of dried verdure in my sleep; tons of it, wet and lifeless, floating and stifling. At morning the grass tide rose up gruesome.
The sea lay grass green and ever so serene. Sharks' fins ripped the ripe slick. The fish rhythmically approximated each others' courses and crossed at intervals. The water was toothed with their tusks. Oil dripped from the tusks. Short cropped grass drooped over their round eyes.
The prose piece continues for several paragraphs, its power issuing "from feverishly intent scrutiny," as Hamilton puts it, and from Lowell's apparent submission to the associational flow.
From time to time throughout his career Lowell would make poetry out of this free associational process, not necessarily with any conscious therapeutic intention, but rather because, as the prose piece and the letter to Santayana demonstrate, it was natural for him to think in this way. Of course the poet's use of associational material may differ from that of the psychoanalytic patient, who uses free association, in Stanley Leavy's words, to "disclose unconscious mental content, which has the power so long as it remains undisclosed of binding the patient-to-be in constraints." Robert Waelder explains that the "analysand is urged to abandon the ordinary habit of goal-directed thought, and instead to permit everything freely to enter his mind and to verbalize it as soon as it appears"; as a result of this process, "the unconscious begins to express itself." And although such raw data from the unconscious rarely qualified as poetry (although André Breton and the surrealists, as well as the Beat poets of the United States, made careers out of asserting just such an equation), Frederick Crews points out how closely the process approximates that of the artist, who "provisionally relaxes the censorship regnant in waking life, forgoes some of his society's characteristic defenses, and allows the repressed a measure of representation, though … only in disguised and compromised form."
Lowell himself described some of his poetry as surrealistic in the "Afterthought" to Notebook 1967–68: "I lean heavily to the rational, but am devoted to surrealism. A surrealist might not say, 'The man entered a house', but 'The man entered a police-whistle', or … make some bent generalization: 'Weak wills command the gods'. Or more subtly, words that seem right, though loosely in touch with reason: 'Saved by my anger from cruelty'. Surrealism can degenerate into meaningless clinical hallucination, or worse into rhetorical machinery, yet it is a natural way to write our fictions." The reader of Notebook, particularly one who tries to read the volume as a whole rather than to browse haphazardly among the individual sonnets, may well become impatient; some of the less successful poems indeed seem to "degenerate into meaningless clinical hallucinations, or worse into rhetorical machinery." For the most part, however, Lowell was able to transmute the associational material into successful poetry without losing the quality of spontaneity. In the "Afterthought" to the revised Notebook, he changed the word "surrealism" to "unrealism" and counterbalanced his warning about its dangers with the affirmation that "the true unreal is about something, and eats from the abundance of reality." Alan Williamson describes how the successful surrealistic poems work in Notebook: "Lowell's surrealistic poems turn … to the unruliness of the moment, showing us how many separate strands of sensation it contains, how weirdly the mind shuttles between them and its own equally abrupt and mysterious patterns of fantasy-thought. Lowell struggles … to deliver the feeling, if not the literal contents, of a basic mind-flux." The poems show us, in other words, how free association feels.
Consider "Long Summer 3," the third in a sequence of fifteen sonnets in Notebook. Lowell begins by evoking in the reader the feeling of the state he describes:
Months of it, and the inarticulate mist so thick
we turned invisible to one another
across the room….
Months of what? The preceding poem, ending with the image of a discarded boiled lobster and its "two burnt-out, pinhead, black and popping eyes," gives us no help. We are bewildered, in a fog, anxious. We are cut off from the poet, "invisible to one another / across the room" of the poem. And we are inarticulate: the words "inarticulate mist so thick" are hard to say because we falter and trip over the "s" and "t" sounds which are jammed together.
… the floor, aslant, shot hulling
through thunderheads, gun-cotton dipped in pitch
And what now? The syntax has dissolved and the enjambment hurls us forward, but where are we?
Explosions from guns? Hell?
Salmon-glow as the early lighted moon
Not hell, but instead a respite from anxiety: a calm, lovely moment. But it cannot last.
Salmon-glow as the early lighted moon,
snuffed by the malodorous and frosted murk—
Please not now. Not a return of the anxiety, the uncertainty, the fear.
… Earth's solid and the sky is light,
yet even on the steadiest day, dead noon,
the sun stockstill like Joshua's in midfield,
I have to brace my hand against a wall
to keep myself from swaying—
A moment of reflection, as the subject steps back from the pure flow of association, and rationally and coolly assesses his situation. The conclusion is not encouraging: although the physical world is stable and filled with light, the interior world threatens, and the subject totters. He is afraid. But free association is a "forced labour," and writer and reader have determined to submit themselves to it, to follow wherever the images lead.
… swaying wall,
straitjacket, hypodermic, helmeted
doctors, one crowd, white-smocked, in panic, hit
stop, bury the runner on the cleated field.
Panic indeed, as the images come so fast they blur into one another, threatening, pressing in, faster and faster, hospital, helmets, a wall of white, the quarterback about to be overwhelmed, the patient about to be subdued by force, terror, "in panic, hit, / stop." The moment and the momentum stop, the patient is knocked out, the runner is buried forever on the cleated field.
A poem like "Long Summer 3" works because Lowell is able, in Williamson's words, "to deliver the feeling, if not the literal contents, of a basic mind-flux." And poems like "Long Summer 3" abound not only in Notebook but throughout the body of his poetry. Williamson points out that "[i]n terms of the surrealists' ideal of a direct rendition of the flow of thought, conscious and unconscious, Lord Weary's Castle often succeeds brilliantly, where the later, 'confessional' writing often chooses to view psychological processes more remotely, in rational afterthought." Robert Hass, writing about "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," elaborates on this paradox:
I still find myself blinking incredulously when I read … that those early poems "clearly reflect the dictates of the new criticism," while the later ones are "less consciously wrought and extremely intimate." This is the view in which it is "more intimate" and "less conscious" to say "my mind's not right" than to image the moment when
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out …
which is to get things appallingly wrong.
A poem like "The Quaker Graveyard" is more "intimate" than many of the Life Studies poems in part because the speaker seems to have immersed himself in a flow of association rather than to have arranged images according to an esthetic or rational order—and this despite the fact that the early poems are more formal, bound by traditional meter and rhyme.
Williamson argues that "[i]ambic meters and rhyme, in Lowell, tend to produce, not neat rational statements, but a kind of trance," and he mentions the "intensity" with which symbols "arrive" in such poetry. The images in the early poems are charged with an energy that is often lacking in the poems of Life Studies. Compare, for example, images from "Mother and Son," in Lord Weary's Castle, with images from "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow." "Mother and Son" begins with a matter-of-fact statement describing the plight of an adult male still in thrall to his in thrall to his mother: "Meeting his mother makes him lose ten years, / Or is it twenty?" He is a boy again.
… It is honest to hold fast
Merely to what one sees with one's own eyes
When the red velvet curves and haunches rise
To blot him from the pretty driftwood fire's
Facade of welcome….
The red velvet curves and haunches are simultaneously seductive and repellent, and the image intervenes between the boy and the fire which promises but cannot deliver light and warmth. "Nothing shames / Him more than this uncoiling, counterfeit / Body presented as an idol"—and then, another terrible image:
Is something in a circus, big as life,
The painted dragon, a mother and a wife
With flat glass eyes pushed at him on a stick;
The human mover crawls to make them click.
A familiar child's push-toy appears to him as something gigantic and grotesque, and the implacable stresses in the penultimate line reinforce the threatening effect of the "flat glass eyes," pushing toward him.
With these images, effective and frightening, compare two from "My Last Afternoon," in which the poet recalls impressions of himself as a small boy, "five and a half," spending an afternoon at the family farm with his uncle, who "was dying of the incurable Hodgkin's disease."
No one had died there in my lifetime …
Only Cinder, our Scottie puppy
paralysed from gobbling toads.
I sat mixing black earth and lime. (Lowell's ellipsis)
Here the adult speaker is not involved, not, to borrow Hass's phrase, "in the picture"; the paralyzed dog seems almost comic, evoking no emotion either in the reader or in the small boy who sits mixing earth and lime. At the very end of the poem, Lowell returns to the image of the boy:
My hands were warm, then cool, on the piles
of earth and lime,
a black pile and a white pile….
Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.
We apprehend no intensity here, no element of submission to the flux of free association.
Yet the detached quality with which the adult speaker in "My Last Afternoon" looks back on his younger self is not sustained throughout the poem, much less throughout the volume Life Studies; indeed, throughout his career Lowell alternates, often within the course of a single poem, between a detached tone and the more intense, involved tone that seems to derive from a process like that of free association. And although we must be careful not to equate Lowell's use of free association with that of a patient in analysis, nevertheless we can borrow from psychoanalysis a concept which may help us to understand in Lowell's poetry the alternation in tone between detachment and involvement.
Psychoanalysis, or self-examination of any sort, implies a splitting of the "self" into that part which is to do the examining, and that part which is to be examined; in Otto Fenichel's words, the ego is split into "an observing and an experiencing part so that the former can judge the irrational character of the latter." Fenichel's "experiencing part," in an analysis, is "irrational" because it has been set free from the control of the rational, and allowed—indeed, encouraged—to roam freely. In The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process, Meredith Skura describes the process of psychoanalysis as one in which "one part of the mind is freely associating" while the other part, the "observer," often "draws on the resources of logic and secondary process thinking discarded by free association, but its role is not to provide authoritative interpretations…. Instead it provides new perspectives, finds new relationships, reorganizes figure and ground, and changes emphasis." She associates this characteristic of the psychoanalytic process with literature: the "resemblance between psychoanalysis and literature lies in their dynamic interaction: the interaction between the free-ranging play of mind and the organizing response to it, and the continuing play which they contradict or confirm." Skura is primarily concerned with critical activity, the reading of literature, but we may extend her remarks to writing as well. May Sarton says that "a writer not only feels but watches himself feeling," and Ernst Kris applies this same concept to artists: "The process [of artistic creation] involves a continued interplay between creation and criticism, manifested in the painter's alternation of working on the canvas and stepping back to observe the effect. We may speak here of a shift in psychic level, consisting in the fluctuation of functional regression and control."
Although Kris is speaking of artistic creation in a spatial medium—painting—many critics have found in Lowell's poetry signs of a similar duality, which Jay Martin describes as "the analytic faculty of the poet's imagination overhearing the secrets of his personality." Steven Gould Axelrod, describing "Lowell's inner-outer view of his past self" in Life Studies, refers to "his use of a narratorial double-consciousness; the authorial awareness includes both the consciousness of the remembered child and that of the remembering adult poet." And Ian Hamilton records a similar view of the prose reminiscences upon which "91 Revere Street" and some of the poems in Life Studies are based: "Throughout there is a kind of double vision: the child's eye view judged and interpreted by the ironical narrator, with a good deal of adult invention around the edges."
This split in the ego of the poet, then, as we encounter it in Lowell's poetry, has itself a dual function: it permits the rational "observing ego" to observe the experiencing self, and to shape the materials of the experience into art. Each function enters into and affects the other. Skura has described how the observing ego "provides new perspectives, finds new relationships, reorganizes figure and ground, and changes emphasis"; in Lowell's poem "Beyond the Alps," we can ourselves observe the observing ego as it performs these tasks.
"Beyond the Alps" begins Life Studies, and the name of the volume is instructive. The study of a life is a process; as the poem makes clear, it is the life of Robert Lowell—the experiencing self—that is being studied, and the observer self of Robert Lowell does the studying. The poem begins, as Irwin Ehrenpreis tells us, "with what look like random associations suggesting the real flow of a unique consciousness." The poet is both on a train, reading a newspaper while making a journey, and outside the train, watching:
Reading how even the Swiss had thrown the sponge
in once again and Everest was still unscaled,
I watched our Paris pullman lunge mooning
across the fallow Alpine snow.
Wyatt Prunty tells us that the train's "motion is analogous to Lowell's consciousness making constant revisions between a known past and an expected and unfolding future." The poet is making a journey through time and space from the Rome of his early Roman Catholicism to Paris, "our black classic," where he will have need of the new perspectives and new relationships which the observing ego can discern. "Life changed to landscape," he tells us. "Much against my will / I left the City of God where it belongs." Behind him he has left, among other things, the Pope, who has just "defined the dogma of Mary's bodily assumption" into heaven. The "old," believing Lowell might have accepted this dogma, but the "new," ironic Lowell has a different perspective:
The lights of science couldn't hold a candle
to Mary risen—at one miraculous stroke,
angel-wing'd, gorgeous as a jungle bird!
But who believed this? Who could understand?
Reorganizing figure and ground in a literal way, the observing Lowell tells us that "our mountain-climbing train had come to earth"; changing emphasis, no longer aspiring to unreachable heights, he says in a wry voice: "There were no tickets to that altitude / once held by Hellas." The poet who, in the early lines of the poem, had watched the train lunge forward, now turns around and watches, from a different perspective, "each backward, wasted Alp." And meanwhile, what of the experiencing self? "Tired of the querulous hush-hush of the wheels, / the blear-eyed ego kicking in my berth / lay still." A psychoanalyst might protest here that Lowell misuses the term "ego," but readers of the poem can recognize what is happening: the detached, rational part of the self is observing the experiencing self, and out of this process poetry is being written.
Lowell made poetry out of the process of free association throughout his career—from the tortured images of Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary's Castle to the more serene poems of Day by Day, poems which, according to Axelrod, develop "through a process close to free association, [and] bring content from his unconscious into the light of consciousness." And from time to time Lowell wrote rather explicitly about the process itself. He begins "Myopia: A Night" (For the Union Dead) in a state of consciousness that is particularly conducive to free association, the state just before falling asleep.
Bed, glasses off, and all's
ramshackle, streaky, weird
for the near-sighted, just
a foot away.
still on an instant. Here
are the blurred titles, here
the books are blue hills, browns,
greens, fields, or color.
is the departure strip,
the dream-road. Whoever built it
left numbers, words and arrows.
He had to leave in a hurry.
For this myopic poet, the blur of books dissolves into a country scene of hills and fields, "the departure strip, / the dream-road" which he must travel, complete with "numbers, words and arrows" to point the way. Where does the road lead? As Stephen Yenser suggests, it leads directly to the study in which Lowell wrote his poems as a young man.
a dull and alien room,
my cell of learning,
white, brightened by white pipes,
ramrods of steam … (Lowell's ellipsis)
He sees the room clearly: the pipes, the steam; and the sight evokes the memory of a sound:
the lonely metal breathe
and gurgle like the sick.
This sound is unpleasant; this memory is going to be too painful, and for once Lowell turns back and refuses to follow the path of associations.
And yet my eyes avoid
that room. No need to see.
No need to know I hoped
its blank, foregoing whiteness
would burn away the blur,
as my five senses clenched
their teeth, thought stitched to thought,
as through a needle's eye … (Lowell's ellipsis)
Here past and present merge as the poet tries to shut out the memory of that "blank, foregoing whiteness" which he hoped might "burn away the blur" of approaching mania, that terrible condition in which the mind is bombarded by more sensation than it can accommodate, when associations succeed one another so quickly and so intensely that the mind feels stretched to the breaking point, painfully elongated.
I see the morning star.
Here, in a bedroom, looking through a window, he sees a star, the morning star: Lucifer, before the Fall.
Think of him in the Garden,
that seed of wisdom, Eve's
seducer, stuffed with man's
corruption, stuffed with triumph:
Satan triumphant in
the Garden! In a moment,
all that blinding brightness
changed into a serpent,
lay grovelling on its gut.
Satan is larger than life, like a young poet whose works have been roundly applauded, or like a manic patient proud of his sexual prowess, "stuffed" with man's corruption and with triumph, imbued with "blinding brightness" which never lasts, which always turns, "in a moment," into dust. And here? Now?
What has disturbed this household?
Only a foot away,
the familiar faces blur.
At fifty we're so fragile,
a feather … (Lowell's ellipsis)
Past and present, people and things, sickness and health, life and death, all combine and co-exist. As Lowell's many ellipses demonstrate, thoughts fade in and out, come and go. "We're so fragile." But, at least for now, we survive:
The things of the eye are done.
On the illuminated black dial,
green ciphers of a new moon—
one, two, three, four, five, six!
I breathe and cannot sleep.
Then morning comes,
saying, "This was a night."
In "Myopia: A Night," Lowell's journey into the unconscious begins with the blurred sight of books, blue hills and browns, "the departure strip, / the dream road." The poem, like "Eye and Tooth" (For the Union Dead), is based on an extended pun on "I" and "eye," and Lowell makes clear the fact that what the eye sees may well lead one to investigate what the I feels. Something of the same relation obtains in psychoanalysis, as Theodor Reik tells us after relating an instance of his own free association: "These are my thoughts as I should tell them to a person in the room to whom I have to report them the moment they occur. It is clear that most of them are determined by the objects I see; the connections between them seem to be made only by the sight of the objects and by thoughts of the persons they remind me of."
Whether set into motion by the sight of an actual tangible object or by an image like that of the yellow dog that Lowell describes in his letter to Santayana, the associational process was crucial to Lowell in the writing of his poetry. "An image of a white house with a blotch on it—this is perhaps the start of a Williams poem," he says in an essay on William Carlos Williams—and might have said about his own poem "Eye and Tooth." Writing about his composition of "Skunk Hour," he said that he "was haunted by the image of a blue china doorknob. I never used the doorknob or knew what it meant, yet somehow it started the current of images in my opening stanzas." According to Louis Simpson this passage describes "a process of evoking the unconscious"; the blue china doorknob "is like the image a therapist chooses from his patient's speech as he associates freely, in order to pursue it and see where it leads. It is a thread into the unconscious; tugged at, it brings other images in its train."
Although Lowell's interest in the associational process may well have derived in part from his experiences with psychotherapy and his general knowledge of psychoanalysis, his public remarks on the process invariably dealt not with psychoanalysis but with poetry:
Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something that you can use as your own…. Some little image, some detail you've noticed—you're writing about a little country shop, just describing it, and your poem ends up with an existentialist account of your experience. But it's the shop that started it off. You didn't know why it meant a lot to you. Often images and often the sense of the beginning and end of a poem are all you have—some journey to be gone through between those things: you know that, but you don't know the details.
In a poem which he wrote for Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell created an image to stand for the poet on his journey through the poem:
Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf,
cling to the very end, revolve in air,
feeling for something to reach to something? Do
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board, with
or empties for the unimaginable phrase—[?] (History)
Even though he may have to grope his way along the path of associations, the poet nevertheless has faith that the blue doorknob will "open into something" that he can use. He has only to follow:
Aroused, then sleeping, caught adrift … the voice
singing to me in French, "O mon avril."
Those nasals … they woo us. Spring. Not theirs. Not mine.
A large pileated bird flies up,
dropping excretions like a frightened snake,
its Easter feathers; its earwax-yellow spoonbill
angrily hitting from side to side to blaze
a broad passage through the Great Northern Jungle—
the lizard tyrants were killed to a man by this bird,
The large pileated bird which flies up out of the poet's unconscious blazes "a broad passage" through which he can follow:
I pick up stones, and hope
to snatch its crest, its crown, at last, and cross
the perilous passage, sound in mind and body …
Only by following the bird, with its earwax-yellow spoon-bill-like the "fat, yellowish dog receding down the center of a country road"—can he cross "the perilous passage" and emerge, "sound in mind and body," able to write a passage of his own about the journey to be gone through between the beginning and the end of the poem and the life.
often reaching the passage, seeing my thoughts
stream on the water, as if I were cleaning fish.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2089
SOURCE: "Perfection of the Work," in The Nation, April 11, 1987, pp. 475-6, 478.
[In the following review, Bogen offers positive evaluation of Lowell's Collected Prose.]
Robert Lowell was probably the last American poet who might be described as formidable. His stylistic transformations—from dense formal elegies to free verse confessions, blank sonnets and diary-like musings—were news in a way that no poet's are today. Immersed in aesthetic debates and the controversies of public life, he held a commanding place in American culture even after his move to Britain in the late 1960s. That prominence has declined in the decade since his death. Lowell's choice of subject may be partly to blame here. A poet who writes a lot about his life is at the mercy of his biographer after his death, and Lowell was not served well by his. Ian Hamilton's Robert Lowell: A Biography is an exhausting compendium of letters, anecdotes and narration which presents, finally, a stock image of the poet as inspired madman: frenzied, often cruel, living life at superhuman intensity and, in the current version of the myth, a victim of his own aberrant brain chemistry. Lowell's Collected Prose should help correct that image. It reminds us that what matters is not how often the poet was in mental hospitals or how many affairs he had but what he wrote and thought.
Lowell seems to have struggled with his writing more than most, revising, as he put it, "endlessly." In his elegy for Lowell, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney compared him to a retiarius, the gladiator who fought with a net. Knotting, weaving, casting and recasting his mesh of words, Lowell produced a body of poetry that makes most poets' careers look facile and self-imitative. Though he wrote relatively little prose, the range of Lowell's net in this mode was wide. His Collected Prose contains autobiographical studies; essays on American, European and classical literature; reviews of contemporary poets and critics from I. A. Richards to Sylvia Plath; and two interviews. Not all the material is equally well crafted or illuminating—sometimes the net has big holes in it. But what Lowell manages to capture in these pieces is well worth the occasional passage through empty air.
Lowell's prose was edited by his friend and publisher Robert Giroux, who provides a good introduction and careful, unobtrusive notes. A bit more than a quarter of the book consists of previously unpublished material, most of which is unfinished and still rough. The ideas are often fascinating here, especially Lowell's scattered comments on American writers in "New England and Further," but we can see why the poet didn't find this work ready for print. A few of the unpublished pieces should probably not have been printed at all. The inclusion of Lowell's prep-school essay on the Iliad, for example, serves no purpose. Lowell was no Rimbaud; his term-paper, style sounds as windy and adolescent as any school boy's. Publishing the letter of protest Lowell wrote to President Roosevelt when he refused induction during World War II is perhaps more understandable, as there may be some biographical interest in seeing the actual "manic statement" mentioned in Lowell's Life Studies. But though his poems brilliantly capture the public climates of our time—particularly the cold war and Vietnam eras—this letter shows a muddled anticommunism that does him little credit. Like Yeats, Lowell used the ambiguities and tensions of verse to thread through the labyrinth of political life. Without them, he seems as lost as any of us.
But Lowell is not lost in the critical essays and reviews he wrote for publication. The Collected Prose brings those together well, juxtaposing his early and later pieces on central modernist figures such as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and poet-critics such as Randall Jarrell and John Crowe Ransom. In most of these pairings the first piece is an analytical review from the late 1940s, the second an overview and elegy some twenty years later. What's perhaps most striking in Lowell's criticism is his generosity of spirit. In dealing with poets' lives he has kind things to say about everyone. Even Robert Frost, a man possessing what Lowell termed "a heart of stonemason darkness," is treated with sympathetic understanding. Likewise his judgments of writers' work are appealingly eclectic, reminding us that the kinds of oppositions that shape a literary history—Williams versus Eliot, Stevens versus Frost—should not keep us from enjoying different kinds of poetry. Although he considered his essays "much sloppier and more intuitive" than standard criticism, Lowell rarely indulges in the bland poets' shoptalk that crops up all too frequently in literary magazines today. Rather he combines scholarly breadth and rigor with an insider's attention to the significant aspects of poetic practice. In his essay on Williams, for example, Lowell pinpoints the essence of the poet's free verse technique—"quick changes of tone, atmosphere, and speed"—which has escaped William's ubiquitous imitators. And his review of Elizabeth Bishop's first book, North & South, in 1947 defines the precise values that remained central throughout her career: variety and the ability to let description and reflection feed each other, to build poems that simultaneously show and think.
If Lowell as critic is perceptive in his praise, he is equally insightful in his put-downs. Here he is on a new translation of Ovid in 1955:
A. E. Watts's translation of the Metamorphoses into five-foot couplets is admirable, steady, civilized—and impossible. Watts, you have to conclude, has chosen the wrong poem in the Metamorphoses because this work, as he says in his preface, is "the most complete exploration in verse of the resources of rhetoric." Unfortunately, the resources of rhetoric cannot be explored by academic piety and a photostat exhibition of devices and tropes. Once started on the job, however, Watts chose the wrong meter. No English poet has ever translated hexameters into adequate pentameter couplets. No poet since Chaucer has done a translation even of couplets into couplets that has turned out to be comparable to the original. No one not a poet has ever written readable couplets. No one in our century has written an interesting long poem in couplets. To make sure of mortally crippling himself, Watts has chosen to mix a gushing run-on line with the divided, antithetical, and end-stopped line of Pope and Dryden. The Watts couplet is freakishly stiff and floppy, a Minotaur, uneasy in both its natures; it brays without emphasis.
You can tell Lowell is having a good time here: a breezy wit animates the piece from the opening reversal through all those no's below. But this is no cheap shot. Turning from what he calls "Watts-baiting" a paragraph later, Lowell spends the bulk of his review defining what makes Ovid so elusive in English. His discussion of what's wrong in just the first lines of English versions by Watts, Dryden and the Elizabethan translator Arthur Golding is an engaging tour de force, and his sense of Ovid's subtleties illuminates the entire essay. It's common enough to see a work of verse as untranslatable, but Lowell's review is finally encouraging to those who would attempt an English Ovid. By describing the original in all its protean energy, its shifts, as he puts it, "from Vergilian wonder to the flippant, forceful, jabbing worldliness of a letter writer," Lowell whets our appetite for a good translation. His concern with the intricacies of Ovid and Vergil is not merely antiquarian. For Lowell, modern America was a version of Augustan Rome: a republic gone to seed, peevish, imperialist, in constant search of reminders of its own greatness. In this regard the classics are as fresh as ever.
If the net of Lowell's verse caught much of our imperial petulance, it also dragged in great swaths of his own troubled life. It is interesting to see him examining parts of that life in two previously unpublished autobiographical essays from the late 1950s, "Antebellum Boston" and "Near the Unbalanced Aquarium." Though they complement the brilliant prose piece "91 Revere Street," which Lowell included in Life Studies, they are not as well written. Their structures seem a little clunky, their ironies not as sharp as they could be. Instead of revising them extensively for publication, Lowell appears to have mined these essays for poems. In one section of "Near the Unbalanced Aquarium," for instance, all the details of what will later become the poem "Father's Bedroom" arise in one dense paragraph. To read this is to appreciate Lowell's sheer craft in converting a mass of description and speculation into an incisive and purposeful work of verse. Elsewhere in these essays are some vivid depictions of illness: a childhood bout with croup, pervaded by the smell of benzoin and the hallucinations of three days without sleep; and Lowell's stay at the Payne-Whitney Clinic in 1954, which alternates between manic pranks and the medicated lethargy of "a diver in the full billowings of his equipment on the bottom of the sea."
But the best autobiographical piece in the Collected Prose—and one of the finest essays of its sort in the last forty years—is "91 Revere Street." Weaving memories of boyhood incidents with family history and sketches of his parents and their friends, Lowell captures not just one life but a whole context of experience. The central event is Lowell's father's decision in 1927 to acquiesce to his wife's demands and resign his commission in the Navy. In tracing the man's pathetic attempts at explaining his action to his Navy buddies, Lowell builds a devastating vision of balding "boys" still checking out one another's "figger and waterline," frozen in adolescence by nostalgia and the petty rules and rewards of service life. Though the boy Lowell's sympathies are clearly with his mother (there is no shortage of Oedipal overtones here), the essay exposes her much-valued Old Boston taste as "middle-of-the-road," her social pretensions as laughable and her marital tactics as unscrupulous. Any pity we might feel for the only child of this union between New England snobbery and Annapolis juvenility is held in check by Lowell's depiction of himself as alternately aggressive and thick-skulled, enjoying his mother's attention and his role as a pawn in his parents' fights. As a study of the intricacies of domestic discord, "91 Revere Street" is cold, accurate and ferocious.
Lowell was a great poet of description, and one thing that makes the tensions so vivid in "91 Revere Street" is his startling treatment of inanimate objects, especially clothes and furniture. His picture of the Victorian furnishings the Lowells inherited from relatives is typical:
Here, table, highboy, chairs, and screen—mahogany, cherry, teak—looked nervous and disproportioned. They seemed to wince, touch elbows, shift from foot to foot. High above the highboy, our gold National Eagle stooped forward, plastery and doddering. The Sheffield silver-plate urns, more precious than solid sterling, peeled; the bodies of the heraldic mermaids on the Mason-Myers crest blushed a metallic copper tan. In the harsh New England light, the bronze sphinxes supporting our sideboard looked as though manufactured in Grand Rapids.
Precise, evocative and ironic, Lowell gets things to say more about family life than most writers do with whole pages of dialogue. But domestic angst is, of course, not the only subject here. "91 Revere Street" is a study in mismatches: between furniture and its setting, between taste and wealth, between a husband and wife, and between the past and the present. The story of a naval engineer who decides to work for Lever Brothers has its interest, but the fact that the man's surname is Lowell gives his decline obvious ramifications. In taking apart his family history, exposing the shoddiness and awkward displacement behind the lofty facade, Lowell dissects the complex tissue of our New England "aristocracies." Puritan moral rectitude and family-tree exclusiveness go out the window. In a perfect touch near the end of the essay, Lowell imagines his great-great-grandfather Major Mordecai Myers (who, we are told, "had never frowned down in judgment on a Salem witch") announcing to his descendants, "My children, my blood, accept graciously the loot of your inheritance. We are all dealers in used furniture."
Latter-day Romans, inheritors of claptrap and loot—Robert Lowell was able to define better than most writers what we as Americans are. His reviews and essays have an almost old-fashioned element of intellectual responsibility to them. They reflect a time when critics actively interpreted poems and poets actually read what critics wrote. Lowell's attention to tradition, social issues and the subtleties of craft gives his Collected Prose energy and lasting value.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1425
SOURCE: "Art, Evil, and the Poet," in New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1987, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review, Davie offers favorable assessment of Lowell's Collected Prose.]
This may be Robert Lowell's most winning book. But Collected Prose should not be read straight through, nor taken in big gulps. Robert Giroux, faced with more than 40 pieces, nearly all short and scrappy, some incomplete, has sorted them by subject matter into three sections and an appendix. On balance this arrangement is probably the best possible. But it has disadvantages. If we want to know what Lowell thought of William Carlos Williams, we find him taking three bites at the cherry—in 1947, 1948, 1962; and whereas we are enlightened about how he changed his mind (the two bites at John Berryman, eight years apart, are very illuminating in this way), we are confused about how far his second thoughts canceled out his first. At any rate, it's only by sorting out the chronology that we can construct a narrative of Lowell's life in and out of, but mostly in, literature.
We can read several plots in a narrative thus reconstructed. One might be called the defection from the South. The outline is well known: here it's documented in the famous "Visiting the Tates," in a tribute in two parts to John Crowe Ransom (written 26 years apart) and in a piece on Ford Madox Ford, whose connections with the Old Confederacy drew the young Lowell southward in the first place. Without in the least minimizing the solidity of his educational grounding in New England (we have here an amazingly precocious essay on the "Iliad" by the 18-year-old Lowell at St. Mark's School). Lowell himself insisted that it was from Southerners, from Allen Tate and Ransom, that he imbibed the notion of the poetic calling as a strenuous and above all erudite discipline. Here the plot turns painful; for Tate, who never lost touch with his protégé and seems never to have complained of being betrayed, might well have done so. The drastic turnaround in taste that Lowell and Randall Jarrell (the latter himself a Southerner) effected in the 1950's left Tate for his last 25 years a poet bombinating into a void.
Did Lowell feel guilt at this defection? Between the lines there is some evidence he did. But he didn't dwell on it. Jarrell and he were right: however rigorously correct in the abstract Tate's and Ransom's poetics may have been, neither of them fathered a single poet writing to any purpose in their chosen and mastered styles. The revealing document is Lowell's 1953 essay on Robert Penn Warren's "Brother to Dragons," in which the author of The Mills of the Kavanaughs, an adept of New England gingerbread Gothic, sees through Warren's Southern Gothic—under a suave surface of respect and admiration. It is not just that Lowell and Jarrell read the signs of the times; they detected an obfuscating dishonesty in what was accepted as the appropriate rhetoric for poetry, particularly in the South. The Fugitives and the New Critics (often the same persons) had buttressed and vindicated that rhetoric by a poetic theory so sophisticated that Lowell and Jarrell, once indoctrinated in it, could never disprove it or disown it. But they themselves went by rule of thumb, by practice, and ignored or flouted the principles they could not deny.
Probably the strangest piece here is "Art and Evil." It was put together from a manuscript supplied by Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell's second wife, with a continuation that turned up at Harvard. It is unfinished, but, since the last paragraph begins, "Finally," Mr. Giroux suggests only a couple of concluding sentences are missing. However, he must have felt, when he noted. "The manuscript breaks off at this point," that it could hardly have done anything else. For the discourse had become so wayward and rambling that any sort of drawing together was impossible. Some of it seems to date from the 50's, other parts from as much as 20 years later, but much of it surely was composed during the onset of one of Lowell's manic phases. And yet it has more than clinical interest. For the relation between Lowell's art and his apprehension of evil is for us the most vexing question about him (he shows himself aware of this). And that may have been his most strenuous attempt to explain himself to himself on this matter.
He begins with a brilliant and rapid survey of how the writers of his generation changed in their apprehension of evil from where they had started. They began with the posturing diabolism of the French and English 1890's, and of Jacobean playwrights seen through 90's spectacles, and only later perceived the black and sinister undersides of supposedly robust and wholesome writers like Shakespeare, Tennyson and Dickens. Then he turns to T. S. Eliot's 1933 essay "After Strange Gods," with its contempt—the easy and eager contempt of the lately converted—for all those to whom "the doctrine of Original Sin is not a very real and tremendous thing." Lowell thinks Eliot's "tremendous" gives the Devil too much dignity, or at least that it registers in the Devil's presence a frisson such as by the 50's no one could feel any longer; after Buchenwald and Hiroshima, Lowell suggests, we know the Devil as an old acquaintance in whose company we are more at home than with his heavenly Antagonist. There is some rewriting of history here; for in poems of strained religiosity like "Colloquy in Black Rock," Lowell himself had made much play with "tremendousness."
After an airy excursus into theology and Christian apologetics, which assures us that Cain and Lucifer and Christ are alternative names for a figure called "the criminal," Lowell announces that the rest of his paper will be concerned with eight figures, catalogued two by two: Rimbaud and Milton's Satan; George Eliot's Grandcourt from "Daniel Deronda" and Virgil's Aeneas; Dickens's Sarah Gamp and Faulkner's Popeye; Goethe's Mephistopheles and Shakespeare's Iago. He considers on a par the historical person Arthur Rimbaud and the Satan of "Paradise Lost"; and Aeneas and Dido in the fourth book of the "Aeneid" are discussed quite as if we had access to them otherwise than through the sensibility of Virgil. Lowell blithely or flippantly reinstates one of the worst habits of the belletristic criticism from which L. C. Knights and Ransom, Cleanth Brooks and Warren and others, had for a time weaned him. Did he know what he was doing? I judge that he did, and didn't care. Give him credit, he never published this piece. But he was familiar with evil, no doubt of it.
Of course the old belle-lettrists, practicing their impressionist criticism, had their own ways of succeeding and delighting. And when Lowell wrote criticism, he did it as belles-lettres. There is a sparkling performance on Ovid's "Metamorphoses," where Lowell surpasses Jarrell at his best: an astonishing nine pages of lightly carried learning. Lowell professed not to take himself seriously as a critic; but here he must be taken very seriously indeed.
There is no poet now writing in English so well educated; this makes Lowell seem a figure from a lost age, the last of his kind. Often he refers to other writers to say obliquely something about himself and his work. A striking instance is an encomium of some late poems by Heine, interjected suddenly and fiercely into a conversation with Ian Hamilton in 1971; this throws a clear and self-justifying beam of light on Lowell's last four collections. Hamilton conscientiously needled Lowell about newly fashionable manifestations he was thought to have sponsored: confessional poetry, extremism, political mass violence, a welcome to popular song and verse. Lowell responded civilly and sourly; his fame, which he knows about, is for him a burden. We believe him, and think it does him credit.
And yet there were lacunae in Lowell's knowledge. Challenged as to living British poets, he remembers neither Basil Bunting nor Thom Gunn; among Americans, he has nothing to say of Charles Reznikoff or Carl Rakosi, George Oppen or Louis Zukofsky. The plot line called "defection from the South" twists in upon itself; the deafness of the New Critics to poets like these is one plank in the Southern rhetoricians' platform Lowell unfortunately did not reject.
He names me in talking to Hamilton, remarking on my escape to America almost simultaneous with his to England. "Davie and I," he says, "are taking vacations from our Furies." I have always felt honored that he thought me, at least in some respect, his peer.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5948
SOURCE: "Robert Lowell's Breakdown," in Yale Review, Vol. 79, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 172-87.
[In the following essay, Hammer examines Lowell's artistic break from the influence of Allen Tate and the significance of Lowell's nervous breakdown as a metaphor for this schism as evident in Life Studies. "Lowell's 'breakdown' is itself a literary construction," according to Hammer.]
In 1959, the year in which he published Life Studies, Robert Lowell remembered his first, unannounced arrival at the home of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon as the beginning of his career: "My head was full of Miltonic, vaguely piratical ambitions. My only anchor was a suitcase, heavy with bad poetry. I was brought to earth by my bumper mashing the Tates' frail agrarian mailbox post. Getting out to disguise the damage, I turned my back on their peeling, pillared house. I had crashed the civilization of the South." And when we add that, before advancing any further on the Tates, Lowell stopped to mark the territory with a piss, we have recovered a ludicrous but instructive episode in the transmission of literary modernism. The young man carried with him "piratical ambitions," his juvenilia, and a car (no doubt manufactured in the North) that "mashes" the mailbox post of this Southern Agrarian household. Lowell's feeling, in retrospect, is of having conquered effortlessly and by accident. And yet the Southerners could plausibly construe this "strangest visitation" as a victory of their own. "Imagine," Gordon urged a friend, "a Lowell (yes, the poor boy's mother is a Cabot)—imagine one coming all the way from Boston to sit at Southern feet."
This was April 1937. The twenty-year-old poet had left behind him Harvard and the Cabots and the Lowells to pursue his study of literature under Tate and John Crowe Ransom. He was following the advice of Ford Madox Ford who, without informing his hosts there, had invited Lowell to visit him in Tennessee. It is very possible that Ford did not expect Lowell to take the invitation literally. Certainly Gordon and Tate did not expect him to when they told Lowell that if he wanted to stay, he would have to pitch a tent on the lawn—which, being both obedient and contrary, Lowell proceeded to do. The simple literal-mindedness of these gestures is telling, I believe, since the same kind of literalism would make Lowell both an obedient and a contrary student of Tate. For Lowell began his career by systematically appropriating the rigorous verse forms and cultural pessimism in Tate's work, writing poems that satisfied his mentor's demand for symbolic art that could stand apart from and above personal experience. But Lowell later rejected Tate's teaching by turning to events in his own life, and above all to the ordeal of his mental breakdown, in order to create a new kind of poetry, this one charged with the authority of fact. Lowell had destroyed Tate's symbols and discovered his own experience.
Or so Lowell came to understand his own career, and to narrate its progress. As I will suggest, the story that Lowell told—of generational struggle and succession, of obstruction, breakdown, and breakthrough—provided him and his readers with a way of organizing and interpreting the complex relations between modernist and postwar American poetry. According to this story, the initial, experimental authenticity of modernism had by the middle of the century been supplanted by a narrowly technical practice, sapping poetry of its creative vigor and oppositional force; and it remained for a new generation of poets to undo the restrictions on them by putting the violence of their lives into their work. This is an effective story, and it has been widely applied to poets as different from each other and from Lowell as Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. I want to challenge the historical accuracy of this account by calling attention to the ways in which it naturalizes—or reproduces as fact—the poetic fictions it is intended to explain. In particular, with Lowell's example before us. I want to question two closely related notions: that Life Studies enacts a definitive rupture with Tate, and that this breakthrough was a consequence of Lowell's nervous breakdown. My aim is to demonstrate the extent to which Lowell's "breakdown" is itself a literary construction—a fiction that misleadingly reduces the history of postwar American poetry to a particular moment of transformation in the same way that it reduces the history of Lowell's mental illness to a single moment of collapse.
Lowell's achievement, as Lowell himself saw in History, is radically uneven. But Lowell retains the status of a central or "representative" poet if only because he set out to become such a figure, and because he did so by allowing others to make him into the poet they wished him to be. Everyone knows that Lowell had a great influence on many poets; it is less often observed how many poets had a great influence on Lowell. Indeed, Lowell's writing is derivative in this incontestable and overwhelming sense: it continually uses other writers' words. Lowell formalized this principle of composition in Imitations, and then carried it to a new limit in verse transcriptions of the letters of his friends and—notoriously—the wife whom he had abandoned. It is possible to see Lowell's disregard for the conventional boundaries between one's own language and someone else's as a form of the psychosis that forced him to speak and act as if he really were someone else. But I would prefer to interpret Lowell's verbatim transcriptions as the expression of the "piratical ambitions" that led him to camp out on the Tates' lawn in 1937. Let me return to that episode now in order to describe the education Lowell got from Tate.
In "Visiting the Tates," the memoir I have been citing, Lowell recalls that Tate immediately impressed upon his student the absolute importance of technical competence in traditional versification. A good poem, Lowell learned, "had nothing to do with exalted feelings or being moved by the spirit. It was simply a piece of craftsmanship, an intelligible or cognitive object." Therefore Lowell "turned out grimly unromantic poems—organized, hard, and classical as a cabinet." These exercises were meant to imitate and confirm Tate's own rejection of the romantic tradition in modern American poetry, including the examples of Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, whose "exalted feelings" Tate saw as a neglect of craft, linking them in his mind with the amateurism and popular success of "slipshod Untermeyer anthology experimentalists." By requiring technical rigor and denigrating "experiment," Tate was seeking a successor who would, in effect, declare him the winner of this debate within modernism. This is the circular logic by which Tate prepared Lowell to be recognized as the rightful inheritor of T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound—the modern poets whom Tate had held up to him for models. In the preface to Lowell's first volume, Land of Unlikeness, Tate could point as if with surprise to an event so far removed from the merely coincidental that Tate had himself supervised it: "T. S. Eliot's recent prediction that we should see a return to formal and even intricate metres and stanzas was coming true, before he made it, in the verse of Robert Lowell."
From our present distance, it is easy to see that the poems Tate taught Lowell to write share in the formalist poetics that came to prominence in the decade after the war—even if Lowell's versification was as "warped, fissured, strained, and terrific" as the handcrafted black cabinet that Tate exhibited to Lowell that first afternoon. More than a technical model, however, Tate transmitted to Lowell the reactionary anticapitalism behind his formal practice. In Tate's view, the received forms of literary tradition provided access to the so-called traditional cultures of prerevolutionary Europe and the antebellum South, and thus became a point of reference (and a source of authority) for his opposition to both bourgeois and communist states. Eliot, Yeats, and Pound—Tate understood these authors as representatives of an elite, antivernacular imagination, a timeless community he termed "the Republic of Letters" and Eliot simply called "tradition." Their membership in this "Republic" meant exile from the modern world in which these poets actually lived. And yet it also gave them autonomy, Tate argued, since it maintained the independence of aesthetic value from both popular taste and political interests, commerce and "causes."
In Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell took up Tate's ideas in an attack on something as generalized as the state of civilization itself. In fact, once again literal-minded and fierce, Lowell pushed Tate's dedication to formal disciplines further than Tate was at this point willing to commit himself: he converted to Catholicism. With this decision, which validated the prophetic vision of the first two books and gave them a vocabulary of apocalyptic symbols, Lowell acted on behalf of and in place of his teacher (who had debated this step from early in his career, and would not take it until 1950); it is as if Eliot had also predicted that we should see a return to formal and even intricate rituals and beliefs. On the one hand, Lowell's conversion completed the rejection of his Episcopalian upbringing in Boston—a remaking of himself that Lowell had initiated when he fought with his father, left Harvard, and drove south. On the other hand, Tate's political mythology invested Lowell's home with new meanings, marking Massachusetts as the site of a lost tradition, and giving Lowell the confidence that his name alone meant he was "part of a legend." As Gordon's preoccupation with the "poor boy's" genealogy confirms, "the old deadweight of J. R. Lowell was now an asset. Here, like the battered Confederacy, he still lived and was history."
It is hard to exaggerate the extent of Tate's influence. Indeed, as David Bromwich has remarked. "Tate may almost be said to have created Lowell. He gave him not only advice, friendship, and an idea of modernity, but a complete set of mannerisms to study, down to the very inflections of the Agrarian-Eliotic accent which Lowell picked up early and never wore out." And in turn Lowell gave Tate a son and heir—a poet who was capable of reproducing the sound of his own voice. But as Tate should have expected from a foster child who had knocked his real father down and then put himself up for adoption. Tate would become the object of Lowell's rebellion as well. In the course of that reversal, Lowell thrust upon Tate demonic versions of himself, turning on his teacher with a maniacal performance of the role that Tate had created for him.
The convulsive events of Lowell's first breakdown dramatize the process I have in mind. In 1949, Lowell summoned Tate, by telegram, to join him in New York "to fight evil." When Tate refused. Lowell took a train to see him and Gordon in Chicago. Tate described Lowell's state of mind in this way: "Cal is here, and in 24 hours has flattened us out. I do not know what we can do…. He constantly embraces us, and asks us to stand by him, since he is weak." Accounts differ about what happened next. According to the most spectacular (and least reliable), Lowell decided that Tate should repent of his sins and reported Tate's infidelities to Gordon. Then, to complete Tate's punishment, Lowell suspended his diminutive mentor from a second-floor window—while reciting Tate's most famous poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Whether or not this last scene took place, we know that the police came and handcuffed Lowell as he shouted obscenities from the windows of Tate's home. Afterward, Tate could authoritatively reflect: "[Lowell] has a purification mania, which frequently takes homicidal form."
But Lowell's literary enactment of this attack on Tate is more famous, and famous precisely for effecting a "purification" of Lowell's style. There is a long-standing consensus among critics of the period that Lowell achieved "his own voice" in the middle of his career specifically by abandoning the traditional verse forms, religious symbols, and heroic rhetoric that Tate had taught him how to wield. It holds that Lowell made a significant break with his teacher; that in the autobiographical project of Life Studies, particularly, Lowell discovered a vital alternative to the formalism of the New Critics that was rapidly becoming institutionalized; and that Lowell thus established a definitively postmodern, or at least a postmodernist, practice in American poetry.
The consensus I am describing draws on the psychoanalytic thematics of a book like Life Studies itself in order to narrate the poet's passage beyond modernism as a story of oedipal violence in which new energies were released from confinement in old forms. This understanding of Lowell and his period not only revives the rhetoric of liberation once used to promote modernist poetry, it does so deliberately, with the suggestion that postwar American poetry restores the modernity of modernism. James E. B. Breslin, in a study called From Modern to Contemporary (1983), provides an especially clear example of this point of view: "At this moment of crisis, poetry once again became disruptive—critical of its culture, of its immediate past, of itself; by way of repudiating orthodox modernism. American poetry once again became modern, 'of the present.'" This passage is a generalization about American poetry in the late 1950s, but it specifically draws upon Lowell's view of the period. To be precise, Breslin is responding to an interview in which Lowell complained about the technical competence of the poets of "my generation." Their work, Lowell charged, had "become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life." Here, of course, the meaning of "craft" is pejorative; it is an obstacle that must be broken down, or a wall that must be broken through, in order to recover the poet's unmediated contact with "life." But by 1961, when he formulated the problem in this way. Lowell had already made the kind of "breakthrough" that he claimed his "generation" of poets needed to make. The effect of Lowell's analysis is therefore to make his own career—or rather, Lowell's own account of his career—representative. And using this account, Breslin interprets Life Studies as a paradigm for an entire generation's rediscovery of literature's origin in life.
"I thought civilization was going to break down," Lowell later remembered, "and instead I did." This marvelously concise remark not only suggests that Lowell had to "break down" before he could see his own life as a subject capable of replacing the apocalyptic subject Tate had assigned him ("I thought civilization was going to break down"); it suggests that the "breakthrough" Lowell made at this pivotal moment—what he discovered for poetry—was exactly his breakdown itself. The analogy linking psychological and literary history here, which allows us to understand Lowell's "breakthrough" as a function of his breakdown, is essential to the story Life Studies tells, and essential to the story that critics tell about "confessional poetry" generally. Experience authenticates poetry in this analogy, and suffering authenticates experience. Although the life Lowell recovered in Life Studies remained something to be studied, not simply lived, it was his own, and it presented itself to his readers as fact. As we will see, though, the fact of Lowell's breakdown was never accessible outside of the poetic fictions Lowell created. And in this sense the phrase "Robert Lowell's breakdown" can only refer to an event in literary history, not in Lowell's life.
Let me develop this point by looking at Breslin's discussion in more detail, since it is typical of the critical consensus I mentioned earlier, especially in its view of the structure of Life Studies as a whole. For example, this is Breslin's account of the movement between parts 1 and 2 of the book: "The four poems of Part I describe cultural and historical disintegration in predetermined forms and all of these poems were written before Lowell's breakdown; in Part II Lowell begins again with the anecdotal prose of '91 Revere Street' dramatically breaking down the established boundaries of the literary—by moving toward the literal and contingent, the data of his own life." On one level, Breslin points to a thematic movement from cultural to personal "disintegration"; on another level, to a technical movement from "predetermined forms" to "anecdotal prose." By implication, at least, Breslin sees these events as analogous both to each other and to the breakdown Lowell suffered between the composition of the texts arranged in these two sections of Life Studies. The suggestion is that Lowell's breakdown allowed him to break down "the established boundaries of the literary."
Curiously, this line of argument represents the progress from one part of Life Studies to another as a record of events going on in Lowell's life. And the book's progress from verse to prose, which implicitly anticipates the direction of American poetry from the 1950s to the 1960s, is seen as the consequence of a particular psychological collapse. This is a misleading idea, if not simply an error, because it suggests that the cycles of mania and depression Lowell experienced before the one Breslin mentions never happened. As a result, Breslin's reading converts a series of chaotic episodes into a single, narratively accessible event. Behind this appeal to a conclusive moment of psychological change is the pressure of a particular interpretive framework. For it shows Breslin's desire to see Life Studies as a conclusive break with Lowell's prior ways of writing, and to imagine this break in terms of "the data" of Lowell's life—facts that Breslin then imagines according to the "data" Life Studies itself provides.
I dwell on Breslin's discussion because its deceptive use of Lowell's biography indicates one way in which Life Studies allows one to interpret the relation between Lowell's work and mania. But this is not the only way. It is true, for example, that a large portion of Life Studies was written after Lowell was hospitalized at the Payne Whitney Clinic in 1954, and that such famous poems as "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" were initially begun as part of the prose memoirs from which "91 Revere Street" derives. But it is also true that Lowell was hospitalized before he finished his previous book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, and that Lowell was again hospitalized after he had written the poems about his family in Life Studies. Breslin interprets the family poems as signs that Lowell had survived a breakdown; Tate, as we will see, saw the same set of poems as the sign of an approaching breakdown. In a sense, Lowell's mania justified both of these claims. But my point is that Life Studies defines the meaning of Lowell's mental illness for his readers, and not the other way around.
To this extent, the changing ways in which Lowell and his family and friends interpreted his manic-depressive cycles are intimately tied to Lowell's changing definition of himself as a poet. In another autobiographical fragment, Lowell called the cause of his hospitalization in 1954 "an attack of pathological enthusiasm." This category is potentially broad and suggestive enough to describe not only the delusions and violence that led to Lowell's confinement and alienated Tate, but also Lowell's conversion and his refusal to serve during World War II—actions that were clearly connected to the Catholicism and pacifism of Lord Weary's Castle. Of course, I am not saying that Lowell was always—or merely—sick, but that the religious, political, and literary passions of Lowell's world entered his "enthusiasm" and gave it shape, making his madness a nightmarish recapitulation and distortion of the roles in which he ordinarily lived his life and wrote poetry. For this reason, Lowell's "enthusiasm" forced those who saw themselves as his literary allies, teachers, or peers to confront the features of the poet whom they knew and admired in the most fragmentary and caricatured of forms. At stake was the authority with which they had invested him, and the implications of Lowell's poetic claims to represent them and their experience.
Consider the episode that culminated shortly after he left Gordon and Tate in Chicago. It began during the winter of 1949 at Yaddo, the artists' colony, where Lowell had come to work on the manuscript that became The Mills of the Kavanaughs. The New York Times in February printed a report that a longtime guest of Yaddo, Agnes Smedley, was under official suspicion as having been part of "a Soviet spy ring in the Far East." A week later, the Army issued a retraction. At about the same time, however, FBI agents visited Yaddo and questioned the director, Elizabeth Ames, and two guests, Elizabeth Hardwick and Edward Maisel. The FBI's questions had concerned the politics of Smedley and other former Yaddo residents. Hardwick and Maisel discussed the interviews with Flannery O'Connor and Lowell, the only other guests at that time, and the group together resolved that "Mrs. Ames is somehow deeply and mysteriously involved in Mrs. Smedley's political activities." This sentence is Lowell's, and it comes from the massive transcript of the courtroom proceedings that he and the others caused the Yaddo Corporation to hold. Lowell stipulated and directed the form of these bizarre proceedings, during which he presented charges on behalf of the other guests, and then interviewed them himself. "I think two days will be necessary for a full hearing of this," Lowell said at the start, "and perhaps a meeting again in New York, on a Saturday or Sunday." And yet Lowell could produce little more "evidence" of Ames's political betrayal of Yaddo's artistic ideals than Hardwick's intuition—"that at times there is a discrepancy between Mrs. Ames' surface behavior and her true feelings"—and Ames's own unmysterious admission: "I sometimes do not dare to say what I think."
A much fuller report of these events is available in Ian Hamilton's biography of Lowell. Reading it, one is aware that the political hysteria Lowell participated in at Yaddo was sanctioned by the United States government and the national press. But it remains striking that the extraordinary zeal with which Lowell took on the role of anticommunist crusader would only later be recognized as pathological behavior. Instead, in his effort to protect Yaddo's artistic ideals from political interest, Lowell's "enthusiasm" seemed consistent with the righteous indignation of Lord Weary's Castle. As Robert Fitzgerald explained, the case against Ames was "vaporous," but Lowell and the other guests had determined "to strike hard, and there came into play an essential quality of his nature: the aggressive power that to the gentle must seem harsh and has indeed found, in his poems, violent images of strife: the harpoon that rips the sperm-whale's midriff into rags, the flintrock broken upon the father's skull." That is, Fitzgerald explained his friend's actions using images Lowell himself used in "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and "Rebellion." Fitzgerald needed the poet of Lord Weary's Castle to make sense of Lowell's mania.
Or it might be more accurate to say that Fitzgerald needed to defend the poet who wrote Lord Weary's Castle in the face of Lowell's subsequent, potentially discrediting actions. With this aim in mind, Fitzgerald argued that Lowell had simply acted out a struggle in the poems themselves "between the pure, living and creative spirit and an encrusted Mammon, the dry rot, malitia, and mammoth stupor of things." Fitzgerald recognized that the "evidences of Communist activity at Yaddo" were insubstantial, and he had no interest in pursuing them. What Fitzgerald wished to defend, rather, was Lowell's prophetic vision of "the great evil of the world": Lowell's anticommunism could in this case be seen as a misguided expression of Lowell's Christianity.
For Fitzgerald was above all concerned to defend Lowell's definition of himself as a Roman Catholic poet. Lowell had visited Fitzgerald after departing from Yaddo and announced his return to the church; by the end of the same week, Lowell had gone on a retreat with Trappist monks. Fitzgerald knew that Lowell was psychologically disturbed, but he wished to honor Lowell's claims "that God spoke through him and that his impulses were inspired." Lowell's prosecution of Ames was unsound, but it was motivated by the same impulses that inspired the poems. In fact, the incident had led Lowell to recover his Catholicism, and with it the visionary authority of Lord Weary's Castle. This authority, moreover, was sufficiently important to Fitzgerald, to lead him to write to George Santayana explaining Lowell's already notorious behavior. Copies of this letter (from which I have been quoting) were then sent to Eliot, Tate, Ransom, and twelve other poets, fiction writers, and critics. Although not all of its recipients were sympathetic to Lowell, or even to each other, the letter put Lowell's crisis at the center of a distinguished community of authors. Its at least tacit assumption was that Lowell's reputation mattered to their own.
After treatment, Lowell wrote to Fitzgerald acknowledging his efforts, but Lowell's reconversion had passed with his mania, and the Catholic poet whom Fitzgerald wished to defend had all but ceased to exist. The poet Lowell would become was not fully evident until Life Studies was published in 1959. By that time Lowell had replaced his Catholicism with existentialism, as his commentary on the spiritual drama of "Skunk Hour" makes explicit: "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember John of the Cross's poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostic. An existentialist night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide." The point to be emphasized in these well-known remarks is this: that the extremity of Lowell's position, the "final darkness" he attains in "Skunk Hour," is arrived at precisely by replacing St. John of the Cross with Sartre, and "The Dark Night of the Soul" with a dark night in Maine. It is not, in other words, that Catholicism stopped being important to Lowell's poetry, but that the poet of Life Studies generated new authority by abandoning it. In Lord Weary's Castle, Catholicism validates Lowell's formal discipline; in "Beyond the Alps," the first poem in Life Studies, the church itself represents the "mammoth stupor of things." And to throw off its doctrines meant pushing one's self to the point "where the one free act is suicide"—to the point of demystification that "Skunk Hour" defines as breakdown.
"I thought civilization was going to break down, and instead I did." It is possible to see this turn of events as a rejection of the poetic identity Tate gave to Lowell, a role in which the poet enters into public discourse as the angry representative of a defeated and discredited tradition, speaking for an order of value and a way of life all but unrecognized by the modern world. In Tate, as in the modern poets with whom he aligned himself, modernity meant a crisis of culture; and Tate defined "the right kind of modernism" as that poetry which resisted the decay of aristocratic social orders by submitting the individual talent to the timeless and impersonal disciplines of a neoclassical literary tradition. In Lowell, by contrast, the reader is confronted less with a crisis of culture—social and political in nature—than with a crisis of mind, which is acted out in the private sphere of the family, and which is correctly observed through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis. If Lord Weary's Castle marks a kind of limit to the apocalyptic rhetoric of "the right kind of modernism." Life Studies finds a way to go on by narrating the collapse not of tradition but of the individual talent.
Not surprisingly, Tate refused to sanction this development. And the ensuing conflict between Lowell and Tate not only looked like a family quarrel; it specifically concerned the family poems in Life Studies. As Tate told Lowell, "All the poems about your family … are definitely bad," and these new poems were "bad" precisely because they lacked that "formal ordering of highly intractable materials" which marked Lowell's "fine poems in the past." Tate's advice was severe and direct:
I do not think you should publish them. You didn't ask me whether you think they ought to be published, but I put the matter from this point of view to underline my anxiety about them…. The poems are composed of unassimilated details, terribly intimate, and coldly noted, which might well have been transferred from the notes from your autobiography without change.
… Quite bluntly, these details, presented in causerie and at random, are of interest only to you. They are, of course, of great interest to me because I am one of your oldest friends. But they have no public or literary interest.
To others, Tate predicted that the loosening of Lowell's poetic structures and his immersion in family history demonstrated the mounting excitement and loss of control typical of Lowell's psychotic behavior. Tate's alarm, though, was not confined to the free-verse poems about Lowell's family. On his own copy of "A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich," a dramatic monologue in rhymed quatrains in which Lowell's GI exclaims, "'Oh mama, mama, like a trolley pole / sparking at contact, her electric shock—the powerhouse!'" Tate wrote in bewilderment or disgust, "author unknown."
By thus disowning Lowell, Tate refused to acknowledge the type of author who was created through Lowell's identification with figures like "A Mad Negro Soldier," the "thoroughbred mental cases" in McLean Hospital, or "Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke" in the West Street jail. What Tate did not foresee was that Lowell's new definition of himself as an author whose suffering had bound him to these social outcasts would be of considerable "public or literary interest." In fact, as the extraordinary reception of Life Studies and then For the Union Dead indicates, Lowell had created a hero who would be celebrated by his society precisely for his suffering. This is the scapegoat figure Ian Hamilton memorializes by quoting William Empson's commentary on King Lear at the end of his biography of Lowell: "The scapegoat who has collected all this wisdom for us is viewed at the end with a sort of hushed envy, not I think really because he has become wise but because the general human desire for experience has been so glutted in him; he has been through everything." It was this poet who had "been through everything" who emerged from Life Studies. He stood for no particular system of belief—he was not, in that sense, "wise"; rather, he had "collected" in his own life "the general human desire for experience." And the psychological violence through which Lowell acquired this kind of wisdom could therefore be seen as the result and proof of the disintegration of "the right kind of modernism"—it was the breakdown that had occurred while one was waiting for civilization to break down instead. By facing "final darkness" without the consolations of Roman Catholicism, aesthetic impersonality, or traditional verse forms. Lowell had abandoned the ideas his teachers had given him, and gained direct access to his experience, however bitter it might have been.
But it is also because he values "experience" in this way that Lowell finally redefines, rather than rejects, the poetic identity that Tate gave him. Lowell helps us to see why this is the case in the transcript of a talk that he gave not long after the publication of Life Studies. Lowell is speaking of the ideas he derived from his teachers in the late 1930s:
We believed in form,… and for some reason we were very much against the Romantics. We would say that the ideal poet is Shakespeare, who is not a poet of ideology but a poet of experience, and tragedy, and the sort of villains to us were people like Shelley—that he used much too much ideology—and Whitman, the prophet, who was formless. And one felt that what poetry could do was have nothing to do with causes …; and something like Aristotle's purging by pity and terror, that of going through a catharsis, that that is what was suitable, rather than to persuade people to do anything better or to make the world better.
In its efforts to inspire "pity and terror," rather than to urge others "to make the world better," Life Studies keeps faith with Tate's dedication to "experience" and his distrust of "ideology." Indeed, when he arrives at that point "where the one free act is suicide," Lowell may be felt to have realized—albeit ironically—the autonomy Tate demanded for art. And—again ironically—Lowell's validation of "experience" defends art against radical politics more successfully than the manic anticommunism of the Yaddo fiasco. What is changed here, of course, is that Tate's ideas themselves have taken the place of "ideology" in Lowell's thinking, and the kinds of poet whom Tate saw as "villains" now represent "experience." And for these reasons, I would argue, Life Studies is not a break with modernism but rather Lowell's self-conscious attempt to appropriate for his own uses the "exalted feelings" that he found in a poet like Crane, and that Tate had labeled the wrong kind of modernism.
"Words for Hart Crane" is an important poem in the volume, in this respect, because it makes explicit Lowell's intention to get outside the modernism of his teachers by identifying himself with a poet whom they themselves had cast out. Lowell would have known that Crane lived with Tate and Gordon as their guest about a decade before Lowell himself did, and that they had found Crane exhausting and intrusive, and had demanded that he leave. Lowell plays upon this story here specifically by imagining Crane as a sexual predator, as a man who has been victimized because of his homosexuality, and who therefore takes victims of his own. At the same time, Lowell specifically associates Crane's profession of excessive and prohibited desire with the "villains" in Tate's critical essays on Crane, Shelley, and Whitman.
"When the Pulitzers showered on some dope
or screw who flushed our dry mouths out with soap,
few people would consider why I took
to stalking sailors, and scattered Uncle Sam's
phony gold-plated laurels to the birds.
Because I knew my Whitman like a book,
stranger in America, tell my country: I,
Catullus redivivus, once the rage
of the Village and Paris, used to play my role
of homosexual, wolfing the stray lambs
who hungered by the Place de la Concorde.
My profit was a pocket with a hole.
Who asks for me, the Shelley of my age,
must lay his heart out for my bed and board."
The profligate's waste of talent is mythologized here as the cost of experience, and repressed powers, as in "A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich," return with the frank intensity of a starved appetite. This Crane, who was capable, Lowell felt, of including "the chaos of his life" in his poems, comes to the author of Life Studies as the demonic double of his own mentor, enabling Lowell to establish a point of view from which the chaos of his own life can be made into poems—with the effect of mocking the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of Lord Weary's Castle. Thus the voice of a poet who is beyond or outside the boundaries of the New Critical discourse of the 1950s does indeed speak in Life Studies; and yet that poet, like Lowell's version of Crane, derived from Tate, can only speak within quotation marks. Tate believed that the author of Life Studies was unknown to him, but I have been suggesting that he helped to write that book himself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5222
SOURCE: "Robert Lowell's Tokens of the Self," in American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 4, December, 1991, pp. 712-26.
[In the following essay, Witek examines Lowell's search for personal identity and Freudian themes relating to his parents in the poetry of Life Studies and his autobiographical prose writings.]
Robert Lowell sold a large collection of manuscript materials to the Houghton Library in 1973, work which is just beginning to be made public, notably in Ian Hamilton's biography and in the 1987 volume of Collected Prose. Among the most interesting of these papers are over two hundred pages of autobiographical prose, many of which are still unpublished. This material, begun while Lowell was recovering from a mental breakdown following the death of his mother in 1954, offers dramatic evidence of his tendency to psychologize both his life and his method, and to conflate the two chronically and emblematically.
Lowell tells many bleakly humorous stories about dealing with the Payne Whitney Clinic's occupational therapy requirement while he was recuperating from the latest of what were beginning to be recognized as recurrent bouts of acute mania. Set to various artistic tasks, he found himself unable to translate thought into concrete form, a failure highly symbolic to someone whose life work is translating experience into language. In one account, the embarrassment of not being able "to think with my hands" inspires Lowell to lie that he has the doctors' permission to read Kim instead. More often he describes hopelessly botched products:
Here for weeks I saw my abandoned pine-cone basket lying on the pile for waste materials. And as it sank under sawdust and shavings, it seemed to protest the pains Mr. Kemper, our instructor, had once taken to warp, to soak, to re-weave, to rescue it. And here in an old cigar box I saw my materially expensive, massively hideous silver ring, which Mr. Kemper had mostly forged and then capped off with an intaglio of an Iroquois corn shock ripening under the arrowy rays of a crescent moon.
Such adventures in translating thought into form are paradigms for Lowell's attempts to express the self in a world without the powerful figures of his parents, a quest which informs his work in the 1950s and finds its culmination in Life Studies. His chosen occupational therapy was finally not rings or baskets or even poetry but autobiographical prose, some of which has been collected by his longtime editor, Robert Giroux. The prose offers valuable evidence of his poetic process in Life Studies: some of that volume's most famous poems are revisions of the prose sources. But his autobiographical prose also contains a series of potent morality tales about the nature of the self. These stories expose his powerful ambivalence about the sources of his own identity and about the nature of that identity as it is expressed in language.
Lowell's anxiety about his position in a world without his earliest mentors is fueled by his conviction that the self is deeply, irreparably divided. This division ensures that he is perennially pulled in at least two directions: he is attracted both by the idea that the self should be a possession firmly within one's grasp and the idea that the self is an object which should be elusive, beyond the control of its possessor. In the autobiographical prose, Lowell often images these two possibilities as the figures of his own complex and embattled parents, each of whom offers a problematic alternative role model. His depiction of these two conflicting forces, each with its claim on him, is as painful as it is informative; his choices show the powerful dilemma into which the poet is thrust each time he tries to choose between alternative images of his own identity.
The allure of an identity which acquires its power through sheer pervasive immobility is represented in the autobiographical prose by Mother. Secure in the Boston of Lowell's youth, fixed forever by being dead, Charlotte Lowell is the unchanging star around whom the male Lowells group, set into motion by her changeless vigor. The prose which became "91 Revere Street" in the finished Life Studies volume includes an account of the Lowells' attempt to find a school for the problematic Bobby which is typical of the family dynamic: "I was promised an improved future and taken on Sunday afternoon drives through the suburbs to inspect boys' schools: Rivers, Dexter, Country Day. These expeditions were stratagems designed to give me a chance to know my father; Mother noisily stayed behind and amazed me by pretending that I had forbidden her to embark on 'men's work.'" Bob Lowell, Senior, does all the driving, but it is clear that from her Boston stronghold Charlotte is the family mover and shaker. She criticizes the results of these enforced male outings and goes back to interview the headmasters herself: "she expressed astonishment that a wishy-washy desire to be everything to everybody had robbed a naval man of any reliable concern for his son's welfare."
Lowell's many descriptions of Mother invoke her stability as the family's reigning presence; this one is a fragment from the "Miscellaneous worksheets":
I might have been fifteen or I might have been thirty-five, my father might have been alive or he might have been dead, the location might have been our good (not grand) half a life-time's house in the Back Bay, or Mother's adequate Boston apartment, or Mother and Father's sprawly, slightly citified, unbalanced, battle-ship gray commuters' house in Beverly Farms, where they had migrated towards the end for a change, and of course changed as little as possible. Thus, one didn't start with a place or even a room that could be labelled such and such and no other. You had to begin with Mother's furniture, and that didn't change at all … if it did, the new or different pieces always managed to retell the same story.
The effect of this presence on the child and then man who is her son is nearly overwhelming: over and over again in the autobiographical prose, Mother's "furniture," symbols of her central presence, must be reckoned with. During Lowell's stay at Payne Whitney following his Mother's death, the poet seems to think of himself literally as an object confined within a more powerful structure. When he writes about Payne Whitney, the hospital architecture itself is perversely threatening. Looking out his window at the other buildings of the complex, he describes them as mysteriously female: "First I saw the hospital's architecture as a wedding-cake; no, not a wedding cake but the tall bride standing with her sacrificial silver knife beside the wedding cake; no, not the bride of flesh and blood, but a narrow, late Gothic bride, all arches, groins and stone lace-work; no bride, but a building…."
Lowell writes himself away from dangerous associations by an effort of will in this passage, but it is well worth identifying the bride who seems to engulf him on all sides. In another version of this episode, the bridal building is linked to the bridal photograph Bob Lowell keeps on his dresser, and in the drafts of "Sailing Home from Rapallo" the dead Mother is also a bride. The powerful Mother thus seems to hold her son at the center of her being, but for him the position is fraught with peril: he is trapped almost as if he had been ingested by the bridal buildings of the New York Hospital which remind him of the all-powerful center of his own family.
It would appear that for Lowell an idea of the self as firmly positioned and rooted at the center of experience—the position of most power as it is described in terms of the family dynamic—is psychologically untenable because it would force a fatal identification with Mother. One possible coping mechanism might be an appropriation of her strategies, a tactic that Lowell enacts symbolically in those stories reported by Ian Hamilton in which young Bobby Lowell swallows a jewelry elephant (putting the coveted object in his own midmost regions) or drops a lost crucifix into the furnace, the center of his parents' house. While these defiances make the young Bobby feel powerful at the time, the results are rather ignominious, especially in the case of the elephant, which reappears after a few days in the obvious manner. Such defiances are the stratagems of a child, and the man who reports them seems to laugh at their naivete, or, rather, he reports that Charlotte Lowell certainly did: "I have no idea how Mother managed to mention the chamberpot, my movement, and the marvelous elephant all in one pure, smirking breath." No matter how bold or how devious the young boy's maneuvering, the only person who can control the center is Mother, a moral which is acted out by an incident Hamilton omits:
This is my first remembered meeting with my grandfather, and I know that it was my birthday because I see him standing beside a present from my father, a flotilla of little camouflaged wooden warships that had been laid out along the mantelpiece. They had been purchased in the name of, and as a tribute to, my father who was off on sea-duty. Like later presents from my father, these toys had been bought with considerable pains and were a remarkable bargain, and very unfeminine. Made in Japan the boats were outrageously anti-German: the best boat was an American hostal ship magnificently marked with warning red crosses. By pressing a button on a cord, a concealed spring mouse-trapped shut and the cabins and turrets of the hospital ship collapsed on the floor—it had been hit by submarine's torpedo. […] However, the toy was meant for adults and my mother soon robbed it of all allure. She snatched it from my hands, disembowelled it of its dangerous spring, and then gave its back, weightless and harmless, an insipid husk of its former warlike outrages.
Mother's action is clearly castrating, and the Father who is "off on sea duty" is so far away from the powerful center that he is unable to prevent the disemboweling (literally "taking away the guts," a pun which would not be lost on Lowell) of his "unfeminine" present. In this version of the story, the Father's ownership of the ships in the first place is obliquely called into question. "They were purchased in the name of, and as a tribute to, my father" implies that either the Mother bought them herself in the Father's name and then sabotaged them before her son's eyes or that the masculine present had something to do with the Grandfather's arrival. The latter reading suggests other versions of the incident, in which the maternal grandfather is upheld as the representative of Bobby's, and hence of masculine, interest: "… I still enjoy in recollection the feeling of relief I experienced when he scolded and teased Mother for ruining a flotilla of toy warships…." In some versions the set is not only a bargain but "imperceptibly damaged," already flawed before Mother "ruins" it. And the flagship is described more clearly as a "hospital ship." When the spring works, "the hospital ship with all its gear, cabins, cots, stretchers and even red-cross nurses collapsed on the carpet." Mother thwarts this gory function when she gouges out the spring, taking away the ship's center—which may be a "mousetrap" but is also a weird escape mechanism for the inhabitants of the floating hospital. Her action suggests not only that Mother controls the center of power, but that she administers all escape routes as well. Of course the reference to "hospital" (in still other manuscripts the boat is a German U-boat) suggests Lowell's own various incarcerations. By removing the boat's spring for her own purposes Mother has absconded with both the powerful center and the only possibility for release from it. That the ship is a "hospital" suggests that what is at stake may be mental health. The woman who wields such authority must be actively resisted. Her presence is suggestively pervasive; in an unpublished fragment filed under the heading "Rock," she appears in the sitting room in pink nightclothes, and the son feels her inappropriate sexual pull: "Pink was to be held in Mother's bedroom. But here she was spilling out like a jack-in-the-box with too powerful a spring." Here the motif has been reworked to show that the Mother who possesses such a powerful "spring" is more dangerous than any toy: "I felt meshed and menaced."
Mother's control over Lowell's identity both as child and as adult seems complete in the powerfully symbolic stories of the ruined gift from the Father. But in the Christmas stories, the opposing presence of the Grandfather demonstrates not only Lowell's obvious admiration and affection for the family's most powerful male, but also what a firmly fixed masculine identity would look like. Arthur Winslow fearlessly chides the Mother on the child's behalf; even more important, he carries a potent talisman of the type young Bobby continually covets but only temporarily possesses:
Arthur Winslow, my mother's father, paid us a surprise visit in 1919 a day or so before Christmas. I was almost three years old and I remember him distinctly. He was certainly wearing a white starched colar and a gray white tie-pin. Not only that, but he had a mysterious gold match-box dangling like the grapes of Tantalus from his gold watch chain. And I know that I wanted to own that match-box, and wasn't to be distracted by my legitimate Christmas present, a little flotilla a camouflaged wooden warships.
While Bobby Lowell is barred from the possession of this "mysterious" masculine talisman, he both yearns for it and feels responsible for it, as in this passage in which Lowell identifies the matchbox with that other dangerous object of central power from the Christmas when his father was "off on sea duty":
Meanwhile my grandfather walked up and down in front of the fireplace and snapped his gold match-box open and shut. Somehow I imagined that the U-boat's spring was now inside the match-box, which had the added glories of being true gold, able to burst into flame, and none of the pettiness and unreality of objects solely designed as toys for children. I have a nightmare memory of the match-box disappearing. All morning I seem to have folding and unfolding a heavy sheet of brown wrapping paper. I kept holding the paper up to the fireplace and hoping to see the matchbox outlined against its brown translucentcy. I had a panicky feeling that my attitude and method of searching was wrong, that the match-box lay hidden somewhere in the paper, and that only my headlong, cllous temper prevented it from being promptly revealed. The matchbox never reappeared, and soon even its mechanics later seemed fabulous, improbable and impossible—a matchbox of gold that flew open by pressing a button and which lit like a cigarette-lighter. How often I used for the next six or seven years to introduce it unbelievable into questions addressed to my grandfather, whenever he was in a gay mood, nor would I ever be appeased by being alowed to handle his watch chain with a snake head hook, or even his watch itself.
In these incidents both Mother and her Father have acquired symbols of their power, whether by natural right of possession or, in the case of Mother, by a co-opting act. Lowell feels the lack of these objects acutely, and the suspicion is that the loss of them is somehow his fault. Whatever power they represent (and their similarity to the powerful objects which appear in order to rescue the heroes of fairy tales is no accident) the boy who must resort to devious questioning or downright stealth to obtain them does not feel he has the right to their potent magic. But in his grandfather he can see their power at work, even though he knows himself to be shut out from such power forever. Consequently, he yearns toward and longs to identify with his maternal grandfather as he must not identify with his Mother: "Grandpa! Have me, hold me, cherish me!" he cries in "Grandparents," a poem from the completed Life Studies volume. But the grandfather is already implicated with the Mother (he is her "Freudian papa," Lowell claims in "During Fever") and, like the Mother, he is far beyond the child's powers of imitation: Bobby is reduced to a version of femaleness rather than lifted to masculinity by this role model. In "Dunbarton," the child persona "cuddled like a paramour" in his grandfather's bed, more like an illegal lover than the legitimate progeny of the powerful grandfather, whose fire-building skills in "Dunbarton" remind us of the manuscripts' hidden "matchbox."
Lowell also takes his search for elusive tokens of power beyond the family circle. In "My Crime Wave" he tells of various childhood "thefts": of stealing marbles, of tricking an acquaintance into trading valuable toy soldiers for worthless papier-mâché ones, of shoplifting a toy microscope. In each case the theft goes somehow awry, as if the child subconsciously knows such objects are not to be his: he is found out, or, in the case of the toy microscope, the elaborately acquired object doesn't work (this last contingency embroils him in a complicated plot to return the flawed microscope to the store for a refund). The fun Lowell pokes at his child persona is rather merciless in these manuscripts, as merciless as Mother's mention of young Bobby's treasure-filled bowel movement. The self-mocking tone leads to some painful effects, none more so than when Lowell claims that the thefts were less for the sake of the objects than to achieve solidarity with a confederate: "'Every day, in every way, I am becoming a better and better friend to Werner Ash,' this is how I ended my prayers each night." Here it seems as if the companion himself is the desired object, but the friendships gained by such "furtive, spectacular safe, risks" are as fleeting as the thrill of acquiring the objects themselves. The unsatisfactory thefts and friendships of "My Crime Wave," like the hidden matchbox and the disgorged spring of the family stories, suggest again that while Lowell anxiously covets the talismans he associates with power, he knows they are not for him. Recovered by rightful owners or rendered inoperable in Lowell's possession, such objects, the suggestion is, must be kept from him: the center of power they represent must be hidden safely elsewhere to prevent co-option by the flawed but endlessly desiring self.
The many talismans of Lowell's autobiographical prose suggest a potent moral about the nature of authority. The powerful center he must not possess is imaged in Freudian terms as Mother, and to be free of her is to experience the partial loss of his own identity. To develop an identity which could stand on equal terms with Mother and yet remain wholly other is to be powerfully masculine: to be, in short, a Father. Lowell's maternal grandfather is the poet's candidate for the role; it is he who defends the absent father's Christmas present and is hung about with aggressively masculine symbols: tie-pin, matchbox, and, in other manuscripts, a phallic walking stick which the young Lowell "borrows." But this identification involves psychological risk for the boy who huddles, at the end of "Dunbarton," in the bed of his Mother's "Freudian papa" as if he were not the grandfather's son but the Mother herself. To withstand the fatal temptation to identify with Mother, Lowell needs a Father who is not also Mother's Father, and to this end he tries on, in Life Studies, the often unprepossessing figure of Bob Lowell as the source of his identity.
Lowell said, much later, that the Life Studies poems were grouped around his Father, an assessment which seems skewed when the book is considered as a whole. It seems even more so in a consideration of the manuscripts, in which Mother's character is so pervasive: "Unanswerable Motherhood!" Lowell exclaims at one point, as if throwing up his hands at her character's perfect power. But while Life Studies often seems to orbit around the fixed center represented by Mother, the figure of Father acts as a counterstrategy for identification of the self. Lowell tries more than once to make Father the central object of the autobiographical prose. These efforts demonstrate the psychologically different problem incurred by putting his male parent at the center of power.
In one such story, Lowell describes himself writing a poem during his stay at the Payne Whitney Clinic, a process which is interrupted by "Prince Scharnhorst," a hospital inmate. The poet hides a piece of paper on which he'd written "the first and last lines of a sonnet entitled"
TO MY FATHER
You sailed to China, Father, and knew your math …
Friendly to all, and loving none, perhaps.
The prose then switches into a detailed description of the Prince, and Father disappears from the text except for the presence in his stead of a toy boat, which the Prince offers to lend him because Lowell's father, "a naval man, had admired Count von Luckner, the Sea Devil." This miniature is another token provided in place of the absent Father, who is now dead in the present tense of the story itself. Like the other tokens, this one cannot be Lowell's own: it is to borrow, not to keep. Father himself has disappeared; the Prince takes over the text as the controlling presence of the story, and one which defies reason: "He flamed in my doorway, a sunbeam—a man so various in his moonshines and virtuosity that I half-imagined he was an apparition, an actor."
In this version of the prose which offers an embedded poem, Father has been superseded by the colorful Prince Scharnhorst, who now seems to control both the story and the talisman that recalls Father. If this appropriation acts as a sudden end to Father's power in the story, it is one prefigured by the poetry insert, itself a clandestine object. This "hidden" manuscript acts as its own cogent dismissal: the sonnet form has been reduced to a summary couplet, the first descriptive line of which is itself overpowered by the dismissive bite of the conclusion.
The unexpected force of this dismissal depends on the central paradox of Father's character. Unlike Mother, whose "furniture" never changes, the figure of Father—"Friendly to all, and loving none, perhaps"—is essentially mysterious. Appearances aren't useful, in his case, as keys to the inner man: the smile Lowell describes elsewhere as "anxious" and "repetitive" does not necessarily indicate love. If Father loves "none," then he is without tie to them; he is free from their power. But it is a terrible thing for a child, even a grownup one, to acknowledge that his parent might not love him, and the man who writes the bitterly concise couplet provides only the most minimal of escape routes from the awful possibility in the last "perhaps." Robert Lowell, Senior, despite his seeming powerlessness in those sections of the autobiographical prose in which his ineffectiveness is contrasted with the power of Mother, emerges in this couplet as a figure who wields a mysterious authority of his own. While Mother is consuming and all identification with her is psychologically dangerous, Father is no help either against Mother or as an authoritative role model because he is an enigma, as inaccessible to his son as those mysterious talismans of his youth. At the period of Lowell's life in which he writes of his parents they are already dead, but as he structures the story of his life he situates his persona at every stage as a psychological orphan, one whose identity must be sequestered from Mother's at the same time that his rightful role model has effectually removed himself from the scene.
Lowell's efforts to put Father at the heart of Life Studies are showcased in "91 Revere Street," the prose centerpiece of the finished Life Studies volume. Earlier manuscripts help get to the source of his ambivalence about his subject: "91 Revere Street" is a compilation of several manuscript sources, and Lowell combines and shapes them so they are loosely structured around the figure of Robert Lowell, Senior. Ruling all as an opening trope of the opening passages is a piece of Father's own "furniture": the ancestral portrait of a dashing progenitor, identified variously in the manuscripts but called Major Mordecai Myers in the published work. Thus "91 Revere Street" begins surprisingly auspiciously for Father, but the crucial ambivalence Lowell associates with this figure undermines the project from the start. The ambivalence surfaces in the text itself. The admired ancestor is somehow "double-faced"; while he looks quite dashing, Myers' "exotic" eye seems to have "shunned the outrageous." In one version of the story. Father tells young Bobby that Myers was actually a civilian, and the boy abandons the ancestor as a role model, much as Lowell seems to have abandoned his own father as a role model when that parent left the Navy at his wife's insistence. In the Life Studies version of "91 Revere Street" this effect has been softened considerably, and Lowell conveys pity with his dismissal of his father's ancestor: "Poor sheepdog in wolf's clothing!" But when he talks of Father's disappointing reality in contrast to pictures of the man in naval uniform, and then brings in Mother "to insist to all new visitors" that Bobby's "real LOVE" is his toy soldiers, the child's willed distancing of the "double-faced" Father is complete. Any hope that Bobby Lowell will be able to take Father as a powerful role model has thus been stifled within the opening movements of "91 Revere Street," and the symbolic replacement of Father by a cartoonish "real" sailor at the end, much like his replacement by Prince Scharnhorst in the Payne Whitney story, is hardly surprising.
The elusiveness of the Father, frustrating as it is to the beleaguered son who describes him in the autobiographical prose, ultimately suggests that Lowell does identify with his father, albeit unwillingly, and that this identification is the source of his ambiguous descriptions and his damning dismissals. The figure of the Mother with whom he must be careful not to identify is both whole and forceful: she makes Bobby feel impotent, and in this Bobby is surely the son of the man Lowell identifies as Bob in the manuscripts. The source of identity needs to be unambivalently masculine for the boy to stay psychologically secure, and in this way the identification with his elusive Father is both problematic and absolutely necessary. Lowell makes the connection between Father and male sexuality the thinly veiled subject of the following passage from the "Rock" manuscripts. For the required masculine identification with Father to succeed, the compelling Mother must be forcibly displaced: "If I looked straight ahead into Mother and saw nothing, I found I could imagine Father with a swan's feather cockade in his hat and leaning on his sheathed sword, more rash than wise among the Templars."
The sword and cockade which adorn the father are unmistakably phallic, and the description of masculinity as soldiery is by this time a recurring motif in the autobiographical prose. The connection between successful sexual identification and Father is made again, and even more overtly, in the autobiographical prose which describes Mother as having "too powerful a spring." Once again, Lowell offers a type of willed replacement of the threatening object by a series of safer alternatives: "One way to get around Mother was to think of the man's colors, blue and tan. Father's chair was leather and oak. The water in his two photographs of the Battleships New York and the Pennsy, was a gray that stood for blue. I was a tower of muscle rushing into air and water. Then I did my best to look straight ahead and into Mother without seeing her."
Whatever the son does to displace Mother is a blow in favor of his own masculinity, and therefore in favor of his own identity. Bob stands in for Bobby in this regard, and if Father is portrayed as indecisive and fundamentally enigmatic, then the son who is even less of a real soldier shares in the fundamental ambivalence of the male Lowell line. Consequently, the problems of the Father are the problems of the son, an identification made again thematically in Life Studies when the persona himself becomes, at book's end, a problematic spouse and a "dim-bulb father." For the poet who tries to create an object that will adequately represent the self in his autobiographical prose, the dilemma remains wearyingly familiar, another version of the question of where to locate the source of one's identity and how to inhabit safely the center of one's work. In the Freudian scenario posed in the autobiographical prose, the unalloyed central power of Mother is both forbidden and dangerous to the identity; but the power of the Father is enigmatic and so highly ambiguous that it is impotent. Siding necessarily with Father despite his own sympathies, Lowell presents himself as caught between nearly impossible alternatives, owner of the chronically dispossessed identity which will become the identifying voice of Life Studies.
Despite the pull toward a fixed identity Lowell describes as Mother, the poet who finds his way back into psychological and occupational health by his efforts in autobiographical prose must always identify with the less certain and infinitely more mysterious power of the Father. He can never, therefore, really possess the objects he seems to desire so intensely in the autobiographical prose. They represent the essential mystery of his own identity, a mystery he must safeguard in order not to be entrapped by an idea of the self as a permanent and changeless entity, fixed in its power and therefore dead at its very heart. As a writer performing occupational therapy, he must choose that idea of the self which corresponds to the fluidity and ambiguity of language as it represents an equally mysterious world. Despite his frustration and his chronic sense of loss, the position is not without unexpected compensations. As an adult, the poet who tells his story in the autobiographical prose does obtain a talisman reminiscent of his childhood yearning: "For the first time in the two months since my acceptance by the Clinic, I enjoyed 'sharps-priviledges.'" The nail clippers he recovers in the hospital are hardly the exotic tokens of childhood, the magical matchbox, or the toy boat with its dangerous spring. They are a homely reward for returning health: a weapon, the prohibition against them suggests, no longer in danger of being used against the self. But Lowell seems to have learned a lesson about the power such objects represent. As a child he was nearly sick with desire to own what he could not keep. As an adult writing his way into a new style of being, he knows the advantages of freeing things of the constrictions imposed by his identity: "I pulled the dingy, disfiguring adhesive tape marked 'Lowell' from my nail clipper, and saw the whole morning flash blindingly from the chromium surface." Here to strip his identity from the tokens of power is to be gifted with an almost Emersonian vision of the blinding wholeness of something outside the self, a vision which momentarily compensates for all loss.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4627
SOURCE: "War and Redemption in Land of Unlikeness," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Doreski explores Lowell's effort to reconcile his aesthetic attraction to warfare and moral objection to the Second World War in the poetry of Land of Unlikeness.]
In 1943, Robert Lowell, disturbed by the Allied bombing of German cities and facing induction, sent a "declaration of conscience" to President Roosevelt and the local draft board. Lowell declared himself unalterably opposed not to war itself but to the conduct of this war, particularly to the bombing of civilian populations and to the intransigence of the Allied requirement of unconditional surrender, which he felt would lead (as Versailles had) to an untenable post-war situation:
The war has entered on an unforeseen phase: one that can by no possible extension of the meaning of the words be called defensive. By demanding unconditional surrender we reveal our complete confidence in the outcome, and declare that we are prepared to wage a war without quarter or principles, to the permanent destruction of Germany and Japan. (Collected Prose)
Although a conscientious objector in a limited sense, Lowell was not a pacifist since he indicated his willingness to fight in a purely defensive situation. Moreover, the poems he wrote in the early years of the war demonstrate that he was not only fascinated by modern warfare but determined to use it aesthetically. The poems of Land of Unlikeness (1944), his first book, show him struggling with two opposing desires: one, to embrace the coldly objective but enthralling beauty of modern warfare; the other, to subsume the imagery of war in tropes of penance and redemption.
Lowell faced two other difficulties in this early work. One was psychological—he was not a pacifist, was intrigued by war and drawn to it, so his impulse toward penance and redemption, insofar as they require the rejection of violence, was not wholehearted. The other problem was his failure to find an adequate trope or body of figuration (in Eliot's term, an objective correlative) for his desire for personal and national penance. His solution was to wrestle conventional Catholic iconography into contorted juxtaposition with the imagery of war, but the resulting grotesquerie supports rather than opposes the strong sense of cultural disintegration the poems convey. The central strategy of T. S. Eliot's version of modernism—the refusal of unmediated tradition and simultaneous embrace of the preconditions and privileges of tradition—shapes the poems, despite the poet's attempt to embrace a more Thomistic and hierarchical Catholic iconography. Thus in a "land of unlikeness" the more powerful but less holy aesthetic of Protestant resistance reshapes sacred imagery to its needs, and the poems achieve a partial and unwitting synthesis.
This essay will consider "On the Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 1942," "The Bomber," "Christmas Eve in the Time of War," and "Cistercians in Germany" to illustrate the tension between the poet's competing desires to acknowledge his fascination with war and to censure both war and his own unruly will. Lowell wanted to normalize modern warfare by imposing the language of classical and Napoleonic wars; his objections to the bombing of cities derive not only from conventional moral outrage but from his sense that the aesthetic continuity of war—which is an ethical as well as artistic construct—has been violated. Underlying this paradoxical dilemma is Lowell's recognition that war, like poetry, is a form of discourse, one that in this instance has been usurped by the ultra-rationality of post-Enlightenment thought, to which he instinctively opposes an almost medieval sense of the mystical power of religious discourse. Long before Michel Foucault would systematically delineate the failure of rational humanism (in studies such as Madness and Civilization and The Order of Things), Lowell's early poetry embodies a Nietzschean sense of the insidiously anti-human quality of the Enlightenment faith in reason.
In "On the Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 1942" the primary figure of penance and redemption is the Virgin Mary, the "Mother of God, whose burly love / Turns swords to plowshares," while Eisenhower represents a Caesar-like secular heroism that has "won / Significant laurels." As with many of Lowell's early and later poems, the modifiers betray the tension between conflicting desires. That Mary's love should be "burly" indicates its worldly dimension, its bulk and brawn and utility; while Eisenhower's "significant laurels" link the present to the glorious history of warfare. Further, the wish to "make this holiday with Mars / Your feast Day" would bring Christian and pagan, military and religious worlds together in a suitably ecumenical manner. But the speaker must resist the kind of idealism that finds religious fervor and militaristic ambition compatible, acknowledge his ancestry in violence, and empathize with the victims of the war:
Bring me tonight no axe to grind
On wheels of the Utopian mind:
Six thousand years
Cain's blood has drummed into my ears,
Shall I wring plums from Plato's bush
When Burma's and Bizerte's dead
Must puff and push
Blood into bread?
Grinding an axe on wheels of the Utopian mind is undesirable not only because it would blunt both the speaker's distaste for and admiration of war, but because it would distance him from the blood and bread of war, the texture of suffering. As a poet he would find this loss of empathy intolerable; but any attempt to reconcile his conflicting desires might generate exactly the Utopian state of mind that would ease the rough and tumble of his imagery. Because the language is so jagged and aggressive (calling Mary a "nimrod," for example), the last two stanzas uncomfortably mingle holy communion, war, and cannibalism, which is certainly not Lowell's intention but rather a product of his fevered embrace of tactile and sanguinary images:
Oh, if soldiers mind you well
They shall find you are their belle
And belly too;
Christ's bread and beauty came by you,
Celestial Hoyden, when our Lord
Gave up the weary Ghost and died,
You shook a sword
From his torn side.
Over the seas and far away
They feast the fair and bloody day
When mankind's Mother,
Jesus' Mother, like another
Nimrod danced on Satan's head.
The old Snake lopes to his shelled hole;
Man eats the Dead
From pole to pole.
The poem seems at first to abandon its militaristic leanings and embrace a sentimental reconciliation in which Mary would simply comfort soldiers, heal them, and banish "The old Snake" to a "shelled hole," replaying the familiar old drama. The last two lines, however, shock the poem back into satire: "Man eats the Dead / From pole to pole," the speaker concludes—an image which Jerome Mazzaro sees as one of hope, but which might also be seen as an ironic suggestion that even with Satan banished, humankind continues to devour itself. This difficult juxtaposition of religious and geographical metaphors indicates the poem's failure to sustain the tension between religious fervor and war fever. Lowell's attempt to reconcile the two by making Mary the "belle / And belly too" of the soldiers produces a grotesque conflation of tactile and spiritual metaphors that reveals more fascination with the physical immediacy of war than with the spiritual glory of the Mother of Christ.
"The Bomber" seems a more straightforward attempt to satirize war and violence, ridiculing the bomber for assuming the role of God the avenger. Without the complementary role of redeemer, the bomber, despite its destructive force, merely plays at its role:
The Master has had enough
Of your trial flights and your cops
And robbers and blindman's bluff,
And Heaven's purring stops
When Christ gives up the ghost.
The bomber fails to understand that with godlike powers go the responsibilities of a god. To pretend to power one does not possess is childish, tolerable only until the Master tires of such antics. But the satire turns uneasy when the poem notes how cruelly effective this child's play is:
You nosed about the clouds
And warred on the wormy sod;
And your thunderbolts fast as light
Blitzed a wake of shrouds.
O godly Bomber, and most
A god when cascading tons
Baptized the infidel Huns
For the Holy Ghost …
Though intended to satirize with the language missionaries have used for centuries to rationalize the destruction of native peoples in the name of God, this passage also betrays Lowell's fascination with the destructive power of the bombings, and it is in part his own fascination that causes his revulsion. The language—"Blitzed a wake of shrouds"—describes a cartoon-like killing, too unreal to convince the reader that people are actually dying here. Lowell's hard Anglo-Saxon consonants may be intended to approximate the harsh mechanical grind of modern warfare, but the language is so removed from gruesome actuality that it privileges the bomber, however unwillingly, as having the only real function. One need only compare this to Randall Jarrell's "Eighth Air Force" poems (though they too have been criticized for their dreamlike distance from their subjects) to see how detached from reality this poem is, how comic-book-like, and how ambivalent.
The Yeatsian italicized refrain "And [or When] Christ gave up the ghost" adds a note of seriousness that the rest of the poem doesn't quite attain, partly because the poet, despite his rage at the way the "Freedoms" have chosen to "police the world," finds the bomber with its "goggled pilots" a figure of fascination as well as of irresponsible destruction. The "unlikeness" in this poem lies not only in the way in which the bomber is unlike the god its role suggests but in the ways the speaker is both repelled by and drawn to the figure of destruction. Again, modifiers reveal Lowell's ambivalence: "Daredevil" sky, "wormy" sod (privileging the sky-god bomber over the lowly earthlings), "thunderbolts fast as light." Caught up in admiration of the bomber's power, the speaker only half-recovers his censorious stance in the second and third stanzas, and as a result the pious refrain seems mawkish and insincere.
The central motif in "Christmas Eve in the Time of War" is the further torture of Christ by capitalist greed and the threat that war will inflict even worse agonies ("Tomorrow Mars will break his bones"). By juxtaposing Christian and classical figures the poem attempts to suggest that the war represents a conflict between opposing visions or versions of the world, a conflict that finds a psychological parallel in the speaker of the poem. According to the subtitle, this speaker is "A Capitalist" who "Meditates by a Civil War Monument." This capitalist longs for his materialist heroes (Santa Claus and Hamilton) to "break the price-controller's stranglehold" and by freeing capital to restore the pre-apocalyptic world of his childhood. Somewhat paradoxically, he also longs to "spare the Child a crust of mould" but cannot, because his world, even in his childhood, has been one in which money is an ethic that for him replaced religious consolation:
Twenty years ago
I strung my stocking on the tree—if Hell's
Inactive sting stuck in the stocking's toe,
Money would draw it out.
The argument in this poem is between the trope of suffering, which belongs to Christ but which the capitalist wants to claim for himself, and the trope of war-as-power, of Mars, which represents an ironic apocalypse (ironic because the trope also embodies the Christ of apocalypse with his drawn sword) that reflects the world's refusal of the consolations of the Redeemer:
Brazenly gracious, Mars is open arms,
The sabers of his statues slash the moon;
Their pageantary understanding forms
Anonymous machinery from raw men,
It rides the whirlwind it directs the drums.
Hardly any wonder that faced with this whirlwind the capitalist bawls "for Santa Claus and Hamilton," but he cannot conceal his awe, if not admiration, for the power of Mars. The capitalist himself, presumably on a smaller scale, has wielded such power by using his money to manufacture a different kind of "Anonymous machinery from raw men." "Christmas Eve in the Time of War" speaks in the voice of a persona; in its revised version, in Lord Weary's Castle, as "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue," the poem speaks in the voice of a poet musing to himself, a voice that however inwardly directed seems even more fiercely intent on confronting war with the fruitless history of war. The speakers of both versions, however, remain enthralled by the dumb power of war, the "blundering butcher."
The "unlikeness" at the heart of "Christmas Eve in the Time of War" is internalized in the figure of Christ, who though in danger of having his bones broken by Mars has "come with water and with fire" to assert his apocalyptic role. The child-Christ, like the child-capitalist, is subsumed in the absent figure of the capitalist's child … dead upon the field of honor," so the poem rightly concludes "woe unto the rich that are with child" because gold cannot compensate for the loss of a child, or even for the loss of childhood. In fact, venality is to blame for this state of loss, both the literal loss of the dead child and the lost childhood, corrupted early by the love of money and the belief that it constituted a bulwark against sin.
The trope of war-as-power dominates the poem by excluding the trope of redemption and absorbing the trope of suffering. The despairing note of the closure, though properly Old Testament-prophetic, suggests how much more appealing are the images of punishment than those of forgiveness and redemption. The theological paradox lies in the invocation of the Christ-child rather than God the Father, necessitating an uncomfortable conflation of the gentle child Jesus with the stern warrior-Christ of the Second Coming. But this conflation is precisely the point of the poem, which centers on the capitalist's loss of his childhood to money-love and his perception of the war as retribution (a just retribution?) for what this sacrifice of childhood implies about his religious stance. Since rejection of one's own childhood implies rejection of the childhood of Jesus, and with it the refusal of Christ's role of savior, the capitalist has left himself only the dour figure of apocalypse. The later version of the poem drops this melodrama and becomes a simpler and more focused meditation on the statue of Hooker (a Civil War hero) as an aesthetic embodiment of war and its consequences. The earlier version, however, better portrays Lowell's sense of cultural disintegration, and with dramatic effectiveness portrays the complex relationship between the social corruption that begins in childhood and its consequences for the adult.
In "Cistercians in Germany" the monks of the title are figures of penance and renunciation, for the sake of which "corpse and soul" should "go bare," but who have been functionally displaced by Hitler and his supporters. The opposing and central trope of the poem is embodied in the Nazi party's vulgar ideal of social order:
Here corpse and soul go bare. The Leader's headpiece
Capers to his imagination's tumblings;
The Party barks at its unsteady fledglings
To goose-step in red-tape, and microphones
Sow the four winds with babble. Here the Dragon's
Sucklings tumble on steel-scales and puff
Billows of cannon-fodder from the beaks
Of bee-hive camps, munition-pools and scrap-heaps,
And here the serpent licks up Jesus' blood,
Valhalla vapors from the punctured tank.
Rank upon rank the cast-out Christians file
Unter den Linden to the Wilhelmsplatz,
Where Caesar paws the gladiator's breast;
His martial bumblings and hypnotic yawp
Drum out the pastors of these aimless pastures;
And what a muster of scarred hirelings and scared sheep
To cheapen and popularize the price of blood!
Because renunciation is not the opposite but the complement to order, the poem presents, surely inadvertently, the possibility that the Nazi party, not the Cistercians, represents the only redemption available. The "cast-out Christians" seem both disenfranchised and deflated. The poem describes as "sheep" both the followers of Hitler—witless pawns—and the followers of Christ who deny the ego to save their souls. The speaker of the poem, we learn at the close, is one of the monks who "lift bloody hands to wizened Bernard, / To Bernard gathering his canticle of flowers," and assert the survival of the Christian ideal. But this vision of actual redemption arrives too late to save the poem from becoming a rather morbid dwelling upon the vicissitudes of totalitarian order, which seems to imply that for the common lot of humanity this secular cruelty is the only appropriate form of salvation:
Puppets have heard the civil words of Darwin
Clang Clang, while the divines of screen and air
Twitter like Virgil's harpies eating plates,
And lions scamper up the rumps of sheep.
The Shepherd knows his sheep have gone to market;
Sheep need no pastoral piping for the kill,
Only cold mutton and a fleecing.
Lowell's infatuation with puns not only generates the "fleecing" at the end of this passage but tempts him into confounding and then fusing disparate meanings of "sheep" and so deconstructing the religious center of the poem, the implied orthodox argument that submission leads to salvation. Fascinated against his will by the harsh images of order generated by his poem, Lowell admits that Christian passivity and meekness might submit too readily to Fascism. It is possible to claim that this poem demonstrates how complementary Christianity and Fascism are, though this observation violates the conscious ethical stance of the author. The ambiguity of his language, however, suggests how attractive Lowell found tropes of social and military power, how tenuous was his faith (his aesthetic faith, at any rate) in the figure of Christ the redeemer, how fragile that faith seemed when under the pressures of war.
The effect of this poem, then, is to appropriate sacred imagery—the image of Christ the Shepherd leading his flock to God—for the poet's need to somehow synthesize tropes of power and order and tropes of redemption into an aesthetic whole. The unsatisfactory nature of the result is clear in the way Lowell rewrote the conclusion of "Cistercians in Germany" to suit the new poem "At the Indian Killer's Grave" in Lord Weary's Castle. "Cistercians" concludes by invoking the figure of Bernard "gathering his canticle of flowers" and transforming his soul into "a bridal chamber fresh with flowers, / And all his body one extatic womb…." This transcendental experience, though, awkwardly mixes sexual overtones by confusing genders, abstracting the metaphor too far from concrete actuality. It confounds a quasi-sexual moment of religious ecstasy with one of unwitting transvestism, as if the masculine world of war, power, and imposed order had crushed the last vestiges of manliness from the saint and driven him to the embrace of his anima. Though this reading may seem forced, the poem invokes it by inadequately dramatizing the transition from scabrous social vision to transcendent metaphor. Because the earlier imagery has been so dramatic, one might expect comparable dramatization of the ecstasy of Bernard as he escapes, through the gathering of flowers (itself a sexual dramatization), the violent quotidian world. Unfortunately, such dramatization requires visualization, and this sort of religious imagery is intended to touch the spirit rather than the senses. That is, one should experience it with the meditative faculty rather than the perceptual one. But Lowell has already committed his poem to the imagery and language of dramatic excess. He somewhat mitigates this excess by the capitalization of Shepherd, which warns us that we are moving toward the world of religious allegory. But the conclusion occurs too abruptly, and attempts to depart too radically from the tone and movement of the bulk of the poem. Lowell's purpose is to draw a violent contrast between the frenzied order of Nazi Germany and the somewhat abstract world of contemplation occupied by the monks; however, the imagery of the early part of the poem is so strong and engaging that the effect is to make Bernard's meditative ascension seem faintly ridiculous. Lowell has not yet learned how decisively the tone of a short poem, once firmly established, shapes the reading of the whole.
Only a year or so later, when he revised the closure of "Cistercians" for "At the Indian Killer's Grave," a much stronger poem, Lowell would demonstrate how apt was John Crowe Ransom's comment in 1945: "I don't know who has grown up in verse more than you, these last few years" (Lowell papers). "At the Indian Killer's Grave" shows how early Lowell began to move toward a more personal poetics of testimony. Here the voice of the poem seems coincident with the voice of the poet, so the reader may understand the concluding moment of religious vision as an expression of a psychologically verifiable presence rather than as an inchoate attempt to portray a saint's peculiar experience:
I ponder on the railing at this park:
Who was the man who sowed the dragon's teeth,
That fabulous or fancied patriarch
Who sowed so ill for his descent, beneath
King's Chapel in this underworld and dark?
John, Matthew, Luke and Mark,
Gospel me to the Garden, let me come
Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers—
Her soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers
And her whole body an ecstatic womb,
As through the trellis peers the sudden Bridegroom.
Because the soul and womb are now Mary's, rather than the visionary's the sexual content no longer requires our special indulgence. It remains somewhat awkward (especially in the phrase "Gospel me to the Garden"), but placed in a less insistently violent and dramatic yet more historically situated meditation it seems a fit conclusion to a poem concerned with the religious and social hypocrisy of early New England. The Catholic vision of Mary, however fraught, in this instance, with overstated sexuality, is an appropriate rebuke to the Protestantism that motivated the excesses of cruelty and the self-deluded rationalizations of the Puritans.
However, when Lowell revised his poems for Lord Weary's Castle most of the overt references to the war disappeared, along with poems like "The Bomber," not because they suddenly seemed dated but because, possibly, Lowell realized how difficult it was for him to control a seductive and compelling language of violence and power. Allen Tate in his introduction to Land of Unlikeness correctly observes that Lowell is "consciously a Catholic poet"; but unconsciously Lowell demonstrates a fascination with violence, imposed order, and unchecked power. The real source of unlikeness is not the land but the mind of the poet, and Lowell would eventually recognize that for himself and turn to the writing of more frankly autobiographical, self-exploratory poems. Once the poet began, like Wordsworth, to contemplate his own development, he had no difficulty portraying his early and ongoing fascination with war and his propensity for violence:
There was rebellion, father, when the mock
French windows slammed and you hove backward, rammed
Into your heirlooms, screens, a glass-cased clock,
The highboy quaking to its toes. You damned
My arm that cast your house upon your head
And broke the chimney flintlock on your skull.
("Rebellion," Lord Weary's Castle)
And I, bristling and manic,
skulked in the attic,
and got two hundred French generals by name,
from A to V—from Augereau to Vandamme.
I used to dope myself asleep
naming those unpronounceables like sheep.
("Commander Lowell," Life Studies)
In much of the early work, Lowell writes in an impersonal voice and finds himself wrestling with unlikenesses that impose conflicting languages of varying but unequal strength, and very often poems of religious intention veer perilously close to becoming paeans to arbitrary power. But with the fashioning of Lord Weary's Castle—building on strong first-person poems from Land of Unlikeness such as "In Memory of Arthur Winslow"—it seems clear that Lowell's proper voice—his surest and most controlled—was not that of a dramatic figure or persona but what Eliot calls "the voice of the poet" either talking to himself or "addressing an audience."
This is not simply a matter of Lowell's suddenly discovering himself, either as person or poet, since he would continue to evolve in sometimes radical ways as both poet and citizen for the rest of his career. Rather it is a matter of rhetoric. Lowell's poems needed to learn to persuade themselves before they might persuade an audience, and to do this they needed the fiction of a central speaking consciousness, not the picture of a division between consciousness and unconsciousness. In time-honored lyric tradition, Lowell found that fiction most readily embodied in the first person speaker, especially when that speaker could be firmly placed in a landscape. If Lowell at the time of Land of Unlikeness was writing work that, as Stephen Yenser argues, "assumes a disjunction of the verbal symbol and the actual world" and "ignores the incorrigible referential function of words," he found this excursion into "pure poetry" unsatisfactory, and gradually moved toward a poetics more firmly rooted in experience.
Consider the difference between the openings of "Cistercians in Germany" (quoted above), with its generalized if vivid social description, and the opening of the "Five Years Later" section of "In Memory of Arthur Winslow," which establishes the speaker's consciousness at the center of the poem:
This Easter, Arthur Winslow, five years gone,
I come to bury you and not to praise
The craft that netted a million dollars, late
Mining in California's golden bays
Then lost it all in Boston real estate;
Then from the train, at dawn,
Leaving Columbus in Ohio, shell
On shell of our stark culture struck the sun
To fill my head with all our father won
When Cotton Mather wrestled with the fiends from Hell.
Lowell still entwines considerable social commentary into the latter passage, but he also establishes a particularized consciousness to testify to the psychological authenticity of these perceptions. Perhaps more than many other poets, Lowell would require this centering to control the tendency of his rhetoric to assume a life of its own and expose fascinations too politically or socially unkempt, and perhaps too inauthentic. The war poems of Land of Unlikeness reveal much more about the modern fascination with violence, power, and imposed order than Lowell probably intended, and reveal as well how thin a veneer was his Catholicism, which he gave up only a few years later. They also reveal his first tentative movement toward the conflation of self and history, a decisive rejection of the Enlightenment belief in objectivity and the conventional limitations of genre.
Most interestingly, perhaps, these early poems reveal how powerfully the rhetoric of war grips the modern (and postmodern) mind, how firmly entrenched are the tropes of violence, how readily they overwhelm tropes of religious consciousness and vision. Language, not reason, shapes the controlling ethos of poems like "The Bomber." To overcome the tendency of language to plummet to the very bottom of the unconscious, Lowell would have to face it "without face" in the naked first person, the exposed romantic ego of Life Studies and The Dolphin, who would eventually admit in "Facing Oneself" how constructed that ego is, how necessarily unrepentant and honest, and even how unreligious:
After a day indoors I sometimes see my face in the shaving mirror looks as old, frail and distinguished as my photographs—as established. But it doesn't make one feel the temptation to try to be a Christian.
Lowell's struggle to face himself, which required a temporary surrender of epic and satiric ambitions in favor of lyric or meditative intimacy, was as hard-fought as any of the other struggles of modern literature. In writing Land of Unlikeness he hadn't yet learned that this struggle, not the attempt to satirize America and the world back to sanity, would consume most of his career; but already by 1944 his language was pushing him inward, toward the only source of fragile stability he would ever find.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4908
SOURCE: "Damaged Grandeur: The Life of Robert Lowell," in Sewanee Review, Vol. CII, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 121-31.
[In the following essay, Tillinghast provides an overview of Lowell's literary career, artistic development, and critical reception.]
A meteorologist of late twentieth-century American poetry, noting changes in the literary climate, tuning his awareness to the shifting winds of reputation and ideology, will be aware of at least one major cooling trend. I am speaking of the decline in estimation of Robert Lowell's poetry. He is still taught, his importance is acknowledged, but I wonder how many younger poets actually read him anymore? During his lifetime it was quite another story. Early in Lowell's career Peter Viereck had judged him "best qualified to restore to our literature its sense of the tragic and the lofty." When Life Studies appeared in 1959, John Thompson wrote in the Kenyon Review that "the great past, Revolutionary America, the Renaissance, Rome, is all contemporary to him. He moves among its great figures at ease with his peers…. This is why, perhaps alone of living poets, he can bear for us the role of the great poet, the man who on a very large scale sees more, feels more, and speaks more bravely about it than we ourselves can do."
Largeness of scale was part of Lowell's makeup. He came into the world with a sense of grandeur: "Like Henry Adams, I was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March 1917. America was entering the First World War and was about to play her part in the downfall of five empires." Thus begins Robert Lowell's unfinished autobiographical piece, unpublished during his lifetime but appearing in a slightly different form in his posthumously published Collected Prose under the title "Antebellum Boston." The two sentences I have quoted wonderfully capture Lowell's essence. If the dramatic self-proclamation seems presumptuous—well, the phenomenon of Robert Lowell was awe-inspiring. The juxtaposition of the personal with a crucial historical moment became a trademark of his poetry—"These are the tranquillized Fifties / and I am forty"—a delusion of grandeur that was perhaps not a delusion at all.
Robert Lowell has, as a historical poet, few rivals among modern writers. History! Few poets have the erudition (not to speak of the brazenness) to link their births with a world war and the decline of the British, German, Hapsburg, Czarist Russian, and Ottoman empires. But Lowell's preoccupation with historical turning points was an expression of his psychological makeup. Lowell suffered from manic-depressive mental illness (bipolar disorder), in which the manic flights took the form of highly excited identifications with powerful figures from history, such as Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler. This tendency began in childhood:
And I, bristling and manic,
skulked in the attic,
and got two hundred French generals by name,
From A to V—from Augereau to Vandamme.
I used to dope myself asleep,
naming those unpronounceables like sheep.
An obsession with Napoleon runs through Lowell's madness, an enthusiasm he shared, or so he claims in "Antebellum Boston," with his mother when she was a girl: "She began to bolt her food, and for a time slept on an Army cot and took cold dips in the morning. In all this she could be Napoleon made over in my grandfather's Prussian image. It was always my grandfather she admired, even if she called him Napoleon." Napoleon is a pint-sized image of domination. "Mother, her strong chin unprotected and chilled in the helpless autumn, seemed to me the young Alexander, all gleam and panache…. Mother, also, was a sort of commander in chief of her virgin battlefield." Alexander was another of Lowell's favorite tyrants: Robert Silvers recalls that "at Mt. Sinai [hospital] he talked in a wandering way about Alexander the Great—how Philip of Macedon had been a canny politician but Alexander had been able to cut through Asia." His manic attacks were sometimes heralded by his wearing a medallion of Alexander the Great around his neck, or reading Mein Kampf (Jonathan Miller writes that Lowell kept a copy of it inside the dustjacket of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal), or buying a bust of Napoleon and displaying it on his dining room table in his apartment on West 67th Street in New York.
If we will better understand Robert Lowell's life and art, we need first of all to examine at least briefly some of the preconceptions engendered by what has so far been the only biography of him available, Ian Hamilton's large, handsomely turned-out, but often misleading, work. As with Lawrance Thompson's biography of Robert Frost, many readers—even if they have not read the book—have a sense of the poet which they assume to be accurate. The Hamilton biography makes it too easy to come to conclusions about Lowell's megalomania. Even when the book was being written, I had my doubts about it. Ian Hamilton phoned me in 1980 or 81 to make an appointment for an interview, which he later broke. That made me wonder whether his research might not be hasty and hit-or-miss.
Certainly he reports on the more sensational aspects of Lowell's public life, rather than on the extraordinary life of the mind that gave Lowell's poetry its depth. In addition he thanks Jason Epstein of Random House "for commissioning the book," suggesting that he was hired to undertake the project rather than initiating it on his own. This makes one question his personal stake in the project. Despite adopting a consistently snide and carping tone throughout the book, Hamilton by the end becomes overwhelmed by the air of damaged grandeur associated with Lowell's life. The book ends with a quotation from King Lear: "We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long."
Hamilton is a professional biographer who has gone on to write a book about J. D. Salinger and another called Writers in Hollywood—and to edit The Faber Book of Soccer. It's unfortunate that the "definitive" biographer of Robert Lowell, the subtleties of whose poems are extremely hard to grasp outside the American context, should not be an American. As an Englishman, Hamilton simply lacks the ear to interpret, or misses the tone of, much of the material he is confronted with. He presents Lowell's grandfather Arthur Winslow as "a Boston boy who had made his middle-sized pile as a mining engineer in Colorado … almost ridiculously proud of his descent from the New England Winslows who had supported George III," as though Winslow were some sort of jumped-up, socially insecure nouveau riche, not a typical Bostonian of good family. I've never heard the expression a Boston boy in my life. And the suggestion that Arthur Winslow had anything to worry about socially is ridiculous.
If Sylvia Plath's Ariel is as Lowell says in introducing that book, "the autobiography of a fever," Hamilton's biography of Lowell is the biography of a psychosis. But Lowell was, like Hamlet, "but mad north-north-west"; when the wind was southerly he too knew "a hawk from a handsaw." His attacks, and the subsequent recovery periods, typically lasted one to two months. Hamilton devotes roughly one-fourth of his account of Lowell's adult life to the poet's madness, thereby giving readers of the biography the impression that Lowell was off his rocker about twice as much of the time as he actually was. What astounded Lowell's friends was how quickly and substantially he was able to recover from his manic episodes: "In between, as you know," Blair Clark wrote, "Cal [Lowell's nickname from prep school on, inspired by his resemblance both to Shakespeare's Caliban and to the mad Roman emperor Caligula] functions brilliantly, and I mean this to apply not only to his writing but to his personal and family life." Writing for Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry (1986), which he also edited, Steven Gould Axelrod endeavors to explain why Hamilton's book has left readers with the sense that having read it, they know what there is to know about Robert Lowell: "First, of course, Hamilton's ability to persuade Lowell's intimates and executors to help him has seemed to give his book an official imprimatur. Second, Hamilton does indeed reveal more information about Lowell's private life, especially its scandalous side…. But I believe another factor has played a crucial role in the book's success. Hamilton's genius is in relating the most sordid personal details in a tone of effortless, agreeable superiority. Reading Robert Lowell: A Biography is like reading the National Enquirer firm in the conviction that one is actually perusing the Times Literary Supplement."
Lowell's second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who was in the best, or worst, position to speak of his attacks and recoveries, has written that:
… it seemed so miraculous that the old gifts of person and art were still there, as if they had been stored in some serene, safe box somewhere. Then it did not seem possible that the dread assault could return to hammer him into bits once more.
He "came to" sad, worried, always ashamed and fearful; and yet there he was, this unique soul for whom one felt great pity…. Out of the hospital, he returned to his days, which were regular, getting up early in the morning, going to his room or separate place for work. All day long he lay on the bed, propped up on an elbow. And this was his life, reading, studying and writing. The papers piled up on the floor, the books on the bed, the bottles of milk on the window sill, and the ashtray filled…. The discipline, the dedication, the endless adding to his store, by reading and studying—all this had, in my view, much that was heroic about it.
To reverse the terms of the old Aristotelian chestnut, Lowell had the qualities of his defects. He had not only that sense of self-confidence without which it's hard to see how anyone writes poetry at all, but also the luck to have been born with a name and family tradition that lent authority to his utterances. Elizabeth Bishop put it this way: "I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel I could write in as much detail about my uncle Artie, say—but what would be the significance? Nothing at all…. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc. gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation. In some ways you are the luckiest poet I know!" And the unluckiest. Both as poet and man, Lowell presents an awesome spectacle of great gifts, great luck, and great misfortune.
The young Lowell was notorious for his singlemindedness, ambition, lack of humor, and belief in aristocratic ideals. "I am not flattered by the remark that you do not know where I am leading or that my ways are not your ways," he wrote at age twenty-three to his tyrannical mother: "I am heading exactly where I have been heading for six years. One can hardly be ostracized for taking the intellect and aristocracy and family tradition seriously." As a teenager he had prescribed for his friends not only a reading and self-improvement program, but even, during a summer on Nantucket with two schoolmates, the daily menu: "We had dreadful health food all the time. The diet was eels—cooked by me, badly—and a dreadful cereal with raw honey. All decided by Cal."
Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell's first major collection, can be seen as a proud, forbidding citadel that the poet erected around himself. The title was already a good indication that here was a poet who would concern himself with the exercise of power, both on the personal and political levels. Robert Hass, in the essay "Lowell's Graveyard" from Twentieth Century Pleasures, writes: "'The 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." If optimism about alternative political solutions is the sine qua non of political poetry, then we conclude that Lowell was never a political poet at all. But I would have to disagree with Hass's strictures on political poetry. While remaining pessimistic about change, Lowell constantly engaged himself with the world of politics and power. His view of the radical alternatives to capitalism was just as dark as his critique of capitalism.
Received opinion has it Lowell started writing "personal" poetry only with Life Studies—a view that Robert Hass counters brilliantly in his essay:
I still find myself blinking incredulously when I read—in almost anything written about the poetry—that those early poems "clearly reflect the dictates of the new criticism," while the later ones are "less consciously wrought and extremely intimate." This is the view in which it is "more intimate" and "less conscious" to say "my mind's not right" than to imagine the moment when
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out …
which is to get things appallingly wrong.
Lowell's manner in "The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket" is to manhandle the iambic pentameter with strong spondees and enjambments learned from Milton, and to express an extreme mental derangement through violent imagery and logical absurdities. Speaking of the lines "Where the heelheaded dogfish barks its nose / On Ahab's void and forehead," Hass comments: "The lines depend on our willingness to let barking dogs marry scavenging sharks in the deep places where men void and are voided. To complain about this is not to launch an attack on 'consciously wrought' but the reverse." So much for the fiction that in Life Studies Lowell conformed to a culture-wide shift from the cooked to the raw, from paleface to redskin—though he himself publicly made the case for such a view. For poets like Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Adrienne Rich, free verse really does mean what the name implies. For Lowell what are erroneously called fixed forms meant freedom and madness, while free verse meant prose, sanity, and control.
In the deepest part of his psyche, Lowell was, I suspect, that tyrant, that pure id that always longed to "break loose," to dominate, to be the entire world. Writing "imitations" of poets from Homer to Pasternak, for example, he "Lowellized" (Hamilton's term) his originals, making their poems sound like his own. There was not a drop of Wordsworthian "wise passivity" in his veins. In a poem written later in life, he addressed a bit of light but telling raillery to his wife and daughter: "I hope, of course, you both will outlive me, / but you and Harriet are perhaps like countries / not yet ripe for self-determination."
His personality was far from monolithic. In person he could shamelessly bully the weak and even the strong, often charmingly. But the tyrant shared a bed with the rebel, as Lowell himself understood. His sense of humor—and Hamilton gives us little sense of it—was mischievously subversive. In "Grandparents," written when he inherited his grandfather's summer place, he grieves for his grandfather, who is "Never again to walk there, chalk our cues, / insist on shooting for us both," but he concludes "I hold an Illustrated London News—; / disloyal still, / I doodle handlebar / mustaches on the last Russian Czar." Being both dictator and revolutionary allowed him a unique view of politics. Given the contradictions inherent in this position, he naturally was a pessimist. His lines on Stalin could have referred to himself: "What raised him / was an unusual lust to break the icon, / joke cruelly, seriously, and be himself." Prometheus, in Lowell's Prometheus Bound, sums up the position: "It is impossible to think too much about power."
Lowell as a political poet remains, for all his brilliance and insight, something of a creature of the 1960s, together with the Kennedys, Eugene McCarthy, Che Guevara, and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom appear in his poems. Pronouncements on America from those years have a way of sounding, in retrospect, excitedly and unjustifiably apocalyptic. Hamilton's evaluation is sound: "His difficulty was that his image of America was not too sharply different from his image of himself." On the other hand it was Lowell's own violent nature, perhaps, that made him healthily skeptical of the glibness with which many of us promoted a potentially violent revolution during that giddy decade. If James Atlas's "Robert Lowell in Cambridge: Lord Weary" is accurate, Lowell's comments on former students who like me—fictionalized as Leonard Wiggins—had been swept up in left wing politics, were rather caustic but not unfair:
"What about Leonard Wiggins?" I said. He had gone out to California for the semester and "been through a lot of heavy changes," he reported in a letter I now quoted to Lowell.
"Yes, I gather he's brimming with revolutionary zeal," Lowell said, leaning forward to concentrate on my words. (What a keen pleasure that was!) He loved news of anyone he knew. "I like his early poems, but I can't follow what he's writing now. You wonder if there isn't too much California in it." (He always switched from "I" to "you," as if attributing his opinions to someone else.)
The side of Lowell's personality that needed to dominate was balanced by a side that liked to be led. Writing about his acrimonious home life with his parents, John Crowe Ransom (quoted in Steven Gould Axelrod's Robert Lowell: Life and Art, which contains some documentation Hamilton seems not to have seen) calls it "a bad hurt for a boy who would have revered all his elders if they were not unworthy." In the forties both Ransom and Allen Tate were to some degree surrogate fathers to Lowell, though Tate was extremely uncomfortable being called Father Tate.
Randall Jarrell, Lowell's elder by only three years (Lowell's pet name for him was the Old Man) always, though a lifelong close friend, remained a distant and austere critic of Lowell's poetry: "I have never known anyone who so connected what his friends wrote with their lives, or their lives with what they wrote. This could be trying; whenever we turned out something Randall felt was unworthy or a falling off, there was a coolness in all one's relations with him. You felt that even your choice in neckties wounded him." His relationship with Jarrell, who had the surest taste in poetry of anyone in his generation, is another example of Lowell's wonderful luck.
An even more important bit of luck was his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick. Hardwick's acerbic wit, in conversation and in print, is famous if not notorious, and she is not, thank God, the saint that some readers of this biography might imagine. But she married, took care of, and tolerated all manner of outrageous behavior from a man who could be insufferable. (Though this is the image of him that predominates in Hamilton's book, most of the time Lowell was a fascinating conversationalist, very funny, affectionate and touchingly loyal to his friends.) Part of what made Hardwick stick with him was love; part must have been a dedication to literature. Jarrell expressed what many people thought: "You feel before reading any new poem of his the uneasy expectation of perhaps encountering a masterpiece." It's clear that Lowell needed something like Hardwick's astringency to keep his native wildness under control: "your old-fashioned tirade—/ loving, rapid, merciless—/ breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head." He had also loved the gift his first wife, Jean Stafford, had for malicious gossip and slander. "Calumny!", he would shout delightedly. "Here comes the black tongue!" Readers with a Freudian inclination will not be surprised to learn that Lowell's mother also had a wickedly sharp tongue.
It was inevitable, though, that Lowell would bite the hand that fed him. "O to break loose!", the opening of "Waking Early Sunday Morning," could have been his motto. After he left Hardwick, he wrote her: "What shall I say? That I miss your old guiding and even chiding hand. Not having you is like learning to walk. I suppose though one thing worse than stumbling and vacillating, is to depend on someone who does these things." Yet the sense of breaking loose that accompanied Lowell's estrangement from Elizabeth Hardwick and his move to England eventually brought personal unhappiness and confusion rather than clarity. His third marriage, to Caroline Blackwood, turned into a disaster. On the fourteen-line poems (it is not accurate to refer to them as sonnets) that he began writing in 1967 for Notebook, and continuing through 1973, that constitute History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin, I am inclined to agree with Ian Hamilton: "The death of Randall Jarrell had removed the one critical voice that Lowell was in fear of—What will Randall think of this? had always been one of his first worries. It is possible that Jarrell might have found most of these new fourteen-liners slack, near-journalistic, or too much like casual diary jottings; they might have seemed to him too mumblingly unrhetorical, too self-indulgent. This is guessing; but there is a sense in which Lowell's new surge of eloquence is also a surge of truancy from the idea of some absolute critical authority, a 'breaking loose' from the requirement never to write badly."
Part of what is wrong with the fourteen-liners is a formal problem. Lowell's willfulness led him to think that if he could convince himself of the truth of something, then that was all that needed to be done. The fourteen-liners were little molds into which he could pour whatever. The mere fact that they resembled sonnets was enough to make them do what sonnets have traditionally done in English poetry. In an afterthought to Notebook 1967–68 he avers: "My meter, fourteen line unrhymed blank verse sections, is fairly strict at first and elsewhere, but often corrupts in single lines to the freedom of prose. Even with this license, I fear I have failed to avoid the themes and gigantism of the sonnet." He was guarding the wrong flank: the poems need more, not less, of the traditional virtues (which he derides as "gigantism") of the sonnet sequence. The gigantism came not from his approximation of the sonnet form, but from his own megalomania.
"Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme—/ why are they no help to me now / I want to make / something imagined, not recalled?" Lowell asks in his last book, Day by Day. Perhaps they would have been a help to him, if he had the discipline and deliberation to return to them. Hamilton identifies another problem of the "sonnets" as one of tone: "There is something glazed and foreign in their manner of address, as if they sense an audience too far-off, too blurred to be worth striving for." Lowell at his best is a very grounded, personal writer, and his prefatory remark to Notebook 1967–68, "Accident threw up subjects, and the plot swallowed them—famished for human chances," suggests an impersonality far from his genius. Notebook and its later incarnations have been seen by some critics as attempts to rival John Berryman's Dream Songs. If this was the case, Lowell might have done well to emulate the Dream Songs' formal division into stanzas. Furious debate surrounded the ethics of Lowell's having included the letters, telephone conversations, etc., of Elizabeth Hardwick in his late books, The Dolphin and For Lizzie and Harriet. His friend William Alfred was strongly against it. W. H. Auden said he would never speak to Lowell again if he published the Hardwick material. Elizabeth Bishop wrote him an impassioned letter trying to dissuade him: "That is 'infinite mischief,' I think. The first one, page 10, is so shocking—well, I don't know what to say…. One can use one's life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn't changed them … etc. But art just isn't worth that much…. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it's cruel." To Lowell, though, life and art were one. His loyalties were, finally, to his work, to the idea that, as Frank Bidart has written, "the only thing posterity will not forgive you for is a bad book."
But in his last book, Day by Day, Lowell seems to say that he has botched not only his life but his poetry as well. Perhaps he was writing his own epitaph when he addressed these words to his namesake: "yours the lawlessness / of something simple that has lost its law, / my namesake, not the last Caligula." He could perhaps have endured the pain of inflicting pain on his family. In fact in the last poem of The Dolphin he shoulders that responsibility:
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself—
to ask compassion … this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting—
my eyes have seen what my hand did.
Writing in the American Poetry Review in 1973, Adrienne Rich delivered the harshest condemnation of the three books of "sonnets." Harsh as these words are, it is hard to disagree with Rich's assessment of the lines I have just quoted, except that what she sees as vindictiveness is more truly a colossal thoughtlessness: "I have to say that I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book, that it is presumptuous to balance injury done to others with injury done to myself—and that the question remains, after all—to what purpose? The inclusion of the letter poems stands as one of the most vindictive and meanspirited acts in the history of poetry, one for which I can think of no precedent: and the same unproportioned ego that was capable of this act is damagingly at work in all three of Lowell's books."
Lowell was not completely written out when he died at sixty. The poems in Day by Day demonstrate that he had abandoned the crutch the fourteen-line form had become for him during the period of History; the anguished candor of the new poems suggests that, had he lived, he might have achieved another poetic breakthrough as important as the one he brought off in Life Studies. Sixty might, in some people, seem a ripe enough age to die. Not for Lowell, of whom one can say that he "should have died hereafter." In the meantime one looks forward to a better biography of Robert Lowell, one that will give readers a more rounded picture of the Cal his friends put up with, laughed about, became exasperated with, but always admired and deeply loved. To say that his friends laughed about him may sound cruel; but, sad as his life in some ways was, why not grant the man the credit of being one in a long line of aristocratic Boston eccentrics? Keith Botsford, who accompanied Lowell on a Congress for Cultural Freedom junket to South America, would visit Lowell in the hospital in Buenos Aires during one of his attacks: "I was brought up as a composer, and all he wanted me to do was whistle. Sometimes it was "Yankee Doodle Dandy" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Or it was Brandenberg concertos, Mozart piano concertos, anything. It was the one thing he craved, the one thing that would calm him. I'd be there two or three hours, just whistling until I was dry in the mouth. I'd whistle all the parts in the Ninth Symphony, or whatever, and he'd say, 'Yeah, but do the tympani bit.'"
I leave the last word to Peter Taylor, one of Lowell's oldest friends:
As poet, as man, he approaches the great mystery playfully and seriously at the same time. From the very beginning or from the time when I first knew him in his later teens, he seemed determined that there should be no split in his approach to understanding profound matters. He was searching for a oneness in himself and a oneness in the world. He would not allow that any single kind of experience denied him the right and access to some opposite kind…. He would boast at times that he had never lost a friend. He never even wanted to give up a marriage entirely. He wanted his wife and children around him in an old fashioned household, and yet he wanted to be free and on the town. Who doesn't wish for all that, of course? But he would have both. He wanted it all so intensely that he became very sick at times…. When one heard that he was dead and how he died in the back seat of a New York taxi cab, one could not help feeling that he had everything, even the kind of death he had always said he wanted.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4286
SOURCE: "'One Gallant Rush': The Writing of Robert Lowell's 'For the Union Dead,'" in New England Quarterly, Vol. LXVII, No. 1, March, 1994, pp. 30-45.
[In the following essay, Doreski traces the creative evolution of "For the Union Dead" and offers alternative interpretations. According to Doreski, the poem "centers not in its public language of history and heroism, as some critics would have it, but in its tropes of memory and psychological alienation."]
In 1969 Robert Lowell drafted a statement on his poem "For the Union Dead" to be included in an anthology edited by Whit Burnett and entitled This is My Best. Each poet was to select the most outstanding poem from his or her own work and then explain that choice. Though Lowell hedged on declaring "For the Union Dead" his best poem, in choosing it for the collection he confirmed what many of his readers had felt, that if not his "best," this was certainly one of his most attractive, compelling, and characteristic poems.
Lowell's statement touches on the composition and the thematic center of the poem. Those who have not read his account of its origins may find his assessment surprising. As originally drafted, Lowell's remarks read as follows:
If I knew my best poem, I think I would be too elated to reveal the secret; like some powerful chemical formula, this knowledge should be guarded and sipped by stealth. Anyway, I have no idea. Each poem was meant to be alive and new, and many were once ambitious. I chose "For the Union Dead" partly because of its length, neither overmodest nor hoggishly long for this collection. All one winter, I cut, added and tinkered. Some of my better lines came to me a few days before I read the poem at the Boston Public Garden Festival
He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die.
I have written nothing else for an occasion, and feel no desire to try again. The demands helped and even encouraged me to try to pull three incoherent sketches together. One was about an aquarium, one about a parking lot, one about a Boston club. I do not regard ambitious interpretations of his own poems as one of the poet's most useful chores. I wished to give my own structure to the free verse I had learned from my friend, William Carlos Williams. My poem may be about a child maturing into courage and terror. My lines are on the dry and angry side, but the fish and steam-shovels are Tahitian. In 1959 I had a message. Since then the blacks have perhaps found their "break," but the landscape remains.
Within this statement, I have suspected, lie subtle directions for those seeking to interpret "For the Union Dead." It is my intent, then, briefly to trace the process by which Lowell pulled his "incoherent sketches together" and combined them with the Ur-poem called "One Gallant Rush" to create "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th," now entitled "For the Union Dead." I will also consider the implications of Lowell's ingenuous suggestion that his poem "may be about a child maturing into courage and terror," which implies that the finished poem "For the Union Dead" centers not in its public language of history and heroism, as most critics would have it, but in its tropes of memory and psychological alienation. Lowell wrote (or, perhaps more accurately, completed) his poetic performance to be delivered at the Boston Arts Festival of 1960. This annual event, for many years held every June in the Public Garden, featured paintings and sculpture displayed among the plantings and a reading by a prominent poet. The year that Lowell read his poem, Boston Common, directly across Charles Street, had been partially dug up for construction of a massive underground parking garage. Because of the scale of the excavations, the State House and the Shaw Memorial, two hundred yards up the slope of Beacon Hill, required substantial bracing to stabilize them against vibrations, as Lowell notes in his completed poem. Yellow power shovels and other heavy equipment, idled for the evening, stood in full view of the reading site.
Lowell recognized the dangers of writing occasional poetry, and, consciously resisting conventional pitfalls, he cast his autobiographical-psychological study of historical self-presence (that is, a poem that places the self at the center of history) within the framework of a Horatian ode. He thereby makes room for his own revisionary approach to modernism, which abandons Eliot's doctrine of impersonality and restores a Wordsworthian faith in the signature of individual experience.
"The Old Aquarium"
Lowell's "incoherent sketches" are drafts of two separate poems, one about the old South Boston Aquarium and the other about Colonel Shaw. The parking lot sketch and the Boston club sketch in surviving drafts have already been incorporated into "The Old Aquarium," the five draft pages of which illustrate Lowell's attempt to combine the strongest elements of one half-finished sketch with the other. "The Old Aquarium" opens, "Remember how your nose crawled like a snail on the glass, / your hand, a child's, tingled / with careless confidence." A penciled "my" over the first "your" indicates that even at this early stage Lowell was making the decision to filter experience through a first-person speaker.
The fourth stanza of the draft contains the remainder of the otherwise lost sketch about the Boston club:
The curator, once the city's foremost citizen,
the pillar and sustainer of its symphony,
stands, a judge and beggar, in the doorway. His white scar,
a trophy of the Civil War, is like a jawbone.
The subject of the portrait is Henry Lee Higginson, Civil War veteran and founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had died when Lowell was two years old. Perhaps in the original Boston club sketch Higginson had been portrayed with more historic verisimilitude, but identifying him as the "curator" of the aquarium is, of course, an act of fancy, irony, and satire. While in this draft-poem Lowell's purpose in conflating the imaginary and the real is unclear, Higginson's historical presence will serve to facilitate Lowell's imaginative leap when, some drafts hence, he brings together the aquarium and the Shaw Memorial as civic monuments of dissimilar public status but comparable personal significance.
Certainly Higginson was the archetypal old Boston club member, a partner in Lee, Higginson, and Co., investment bankers, and a wealthy benefactor of schools and cultural institutions. The "club" to which Higginson belonged is no particular institution but rather that class of powerful and well-educated men who once ran the city of Boston but who, by the time he died, were losing control to Irish and Italian politicians. Lowell seems to imagine Higginson in reduced circumstances, as "curator" of a broken-down, snow-shrouded aquarium, ironic emblem of cultural and educational institutions now bereft of their purpose and dignity. But Higginson retains his sense of self:
Blunt humor and blunt severity
altemately puff from his chewed cigar;/bitten
his exquisite, taut face,
a grayhound's, trembles with robustness.
In spite of his longing for the antebellum world, he seems to understand that its utopian qualities have flourished only in his own mind:
"No one I've ever met," he sighs,
even remembers the code duello,
man's peculiar and lovely power
to deny what is and die."
Here Higginson, the Civil War survivor, offers a romantic view of combat that Lowell would later apply to Colonel Shaw. Higginson, a friend of Shaw's, was a member of the Massachusetts Second Regiment, Shaw's second military unit and the first in which he served as an officer. Although Lowell proceeded no further with "The Old Aquarium" (subsequent drafts comprise his efforts to merge it with "One Gallant Rush"), he already had hit upon one of the essential strategies of his finished poem: to bridge the gap between the historically distant, heroic self-sacrifice of Colonel Shaw and the human degradation of an unheroic present through the medium of individual perception and memory. Higginson, who survived into the new century, embodies the Civil War experience and draws it closer to our own time. As such, he serves as a transition between the long-lost personal experience of Shaw and that of the contemporary, first-person speaker, who views Shaw only as a historical figure.
"One Gallant Rush"
In rhetorical terms, Lowell, in "One Gallant Rush," overlays a meditative lyric on the structure of a historical narrative. The earliest draft so called derives several of its phrases and scenes from Luis F. Emilio's A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (1891), and the title is almost certainly drawn from Frederick Douglass's famous words, "The iron gate of our prison stands half open, one gallant rush … will fling it wide."
The draft begins as a critique of modern war: "Fort Wagner uselessly cannonaded all day / like the French English and German trenches." As in Henry V, the pageantry of the battlefield almost conceals the futility of armed conflict:
and you on the far right of your negros,
sword out, now ankle deep, now knee deep,
as the waves slapped the sand,
the white flag of Massachusetts in front,
the national flag to the rear.
But pageantry isn't combat, and once the gunfire breaks out, Shaw's sense of predestination, as Lowell imagines it, prepares him for his fate, perhaps even causes it. The syntax propelling the Colonel to his death relies on infinitives, which suggest a continuing expectancy. The event itself concludes so abruptly that the poem, failing to catch the moment, simply notes that it is "all over."
The … cannon and muskets,
your men holding their fire,
then the moment it was all about,
the moment you'd been expecting,
three days, perhaps all winter since
you took the command,
at last the instant, powder-lit,
sword in hand, crouched like a cat—
The poem's argument, insofar as it makes one, is, of course, the rather well-worn observation that war is hell, modern war somewhat more hellish than those of earlier days. The black soldiers who stormed Fort Wagner have no role in this pageant-poem other than to hold their fire and die. On a separate page, however, probably written as an afterthought to the first draft, Lowell begins to complicate his poem. He had adhered too closely to his single source. He needed to multiply the dimensions of his poem so that it would spring to life. He would do so by extending his concerns into his own century.
The first lines of the fragment undercut the futility the first draft projects by presenting Shaw's death as a moment that somehow transcends momentariness:
Because that fine moment ended abruptly,
it never ended.
It shines on distinct like a target.
Or is it a loaded and leveled gun?
The question links the historical figure with contemporary black civil rights leaders; nonetheless, Lowell argues, Shaw is "to[o] perfect for the moment" to be of use in the present struggle, for his willingness to sacrifice, his embrace of the heroic imperative, involved not only himself but the black soldiers he led. Shaw is thus a pivotal figure, his military-heroic values rooted in the past, his democratic sympathies, though grounded in the New England aristocrat's natural sense of leadership, expanding to encompass a grander ideal of human equality.
Finding the proper symbolic framework to embody the complexities of Shaw's relationship with the contemporary world would eventually require Lowell to privilege the meditative, first-person speaker and to wind the plot of the poem through the speaker's associations. It is central to Lowell's aesthetic that the most profound links with history are revealed by means of an associative process so personal that it can only be justified by acknowledging the peculiarities of individual perception.
But before making that important leap in the composition process, Lowell again reworked his straightforward historical sketch in yet another draft of "One Gallant Rush." Focusing on Shaw's experience, it suggests that blacks and whites have been so divided since the Civil War that Shaw's personal qualities are irrelevant to the contemporary civil rights movement. Too much a product of the war and of heroic idealism, Shaw exists, in a sense, only because he chose not to. If he had lived, he would have gone "on like a Strulbug," in a state of death-in-life.
Finding a bronze immortality ill suited to his purposes, Lowell marshalls some historic anecdotes to soften the effect. The martyr is addressed: "you shaved your beard / and mustache and passed for a girl at the ball" (the incident is apparently true), and "at your mother's nagging you packed / the colonels uniform you wouldn't wear at your wedding." Drawing upon such domestic details helps humanize Shaw, and it permits Lowell to begin imagining a larger but more personal context in which the figure of Shaw is subsumed, but not lost, in a more contemporary meditation.
The rest of this draft concentrates on the heroic act itself. Calling the Civil War "the first modern war" (a historical truism, although some historians give the Crimean War precedence), Lowell resorts to desultory melodramatics of a sort he would never have allowed himself to publish:
your general, soon mortally wounded,
on his great bay charger, saying:
"I am a Massachusetts man myself,"
then turning and asking,
"if the flag-bearer fall,
who will carry the fla[g]?"
And you tense and watchful,
affable, easy in your movements,
parsimonious in speech, saying:
Clearly this melodramatic language (taken word for word from Emilio's book) wouldn't do. Lowell realized he had to find a way to link the past to the present, to follow the line of development suggested in his opening stanza. He would look no further than his last work to find his strategy.
In Life Studies, published shortly before he began working on "One Gallant Rush," Lowell had committed himself to a personal, autobiographical aesthetic. While such an aesthetic functions naturally in poems about one's family life and childhood—and even about one's stay in a mental hospital—"For the Union Dead" would significantly extend the range of the approach beyond the personal, even beyond perceivable space and time, into shared history.
In the next, fragmentary draft of "One Gallant Rush," Lowell introduced some poignant domestic lines about his daughter's guinea pigs. Although incorporated in a full-length draft of "For the Union Dead," the passage was eventually dropped, only to find its way into "Fourth of July in Maine" three or four years later. The lines were probably intended to provide a meditative setting and therefore fulfill the same function as the childhood and present-tense landscapes of aquarium and Boston Common in the finished poem:
Always this itch for the far away,
the excessive, the decadent!
Even on this dead June afternoon,
when the air has stopped still,
and my daughter has just brought home
a baby guinea pig and its mother from school
to board with us till fall,
I dream of some flash of powder or whiff of
to destroy the chaff of day.
Lowell would have quickly seen the awkwardness of allowing two guinea pigs to trigger a meditation on war, but the draft justifies the connection by means of an analogy between Shaw's childhood and Lowell's, Harriet being the intermediary. As a boy Shaw had altogether too much in common with the inhabitants of the twentieth century to excite our envy or admiration, Lowell argues, so we can be "grateful" that in his subsequent martyrdom he "managed to supersede / those fond, early out of key anecdotes."
The anecdote, cited by Lowell and recounted in detail by Peter Burchard, refers to Shaw's ballroom cross-dressing. Though probably a typical jest of the period, it is hardly the sort of story we expect to hear about a Civil War hero, since it calls into question the rigidly conventional, nineteenth-century ideal of manhood. In war, whatever its social or political justifications, men distinguish themselves by demonstrating courage and military prowess. How could a boy amused by an activity that implicitly rejects the phallic power and privilege of manhood have become, only six or seven years later, a martyr to the cause of abolition and the republic? And Shaw was, it seems, still young enough to be "nagged" by his "abolitionist mother / into packing the colonel's uniform [he] wouldn't wear to [his] wedding."
The problem with "One Gallant Rush" was that it failed, despite Lowell's tinkering, to bridge the historical gap between the narrator and his subject. For Lowell, naked historicism was unacceptable; only through its personal dimensions could the intellectual experience of history be authenticated and only through the language of the senses could it be adequately conveyed. The attempt autobiographically to place "One Gallant Rush" on a "dead June afternoon" didn't work. But combining it with the aquarium sketch would locate it within a landscape of loss and destruction, one more richly endowed with personal memory-images and public sociopolitical dimensions.
From "The Old Aquarium" to "Colonel Shaw and his Men"
Reworking passages from the aquarium sketch and combining them with passages from "One Gallant Rush," Lowell began to fashion his poem into the four-line free verse stanzas of the finished version. Almost immediately, the opening lines take shape:
The old South Boston aquarium stands
in a sahara of snow now. The broken windows are boarded,
the bronze weathervane carp has lost half its scales,
the seedy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass,
my hand, a child's, tingled
with careless confidence to burst
the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed,
Establishing the essential rhythm in these two stanzas was Lowell's most important single step toward completing the poem. "One Gallant Rush" was dogged and flat-footed in its cadence; the new stanzas provided a far more effective rhythmic template which subsequent stanzas could follow or play upon.
Another central concern was to position the speaker in relation to his material, and here Lowell still has some problems. The two subsequent stanzas, which deal with Shaw (and mention for the first time the "bell-cheeked negro infantry"), both begin with "Later," as Lowell hesitates to bring his childhood self and his contemporary persona into conjunction. "Once" places the child comfortably in the past, but only in the next draft would Lowell devise the stanza that relinquishes his childhood and valorizes the role of the Shaw Memorial in linking historical past, memory, and the present:
The Aquarium is gone. Here in the heart of
the Shaw Civil War Memorial
still immortalizes the immortal moment,
and stick[s] like a fishbone in the City's throat.
Extending this draft generated new problems but also fresh images that would survive in the finished poem, images like the "bell-cheeked negro infantry" and the memorial as a hook, later a fishhook, finally a fishbone in the throat of the city. A version of lines that would eventually conclude the poem—
giant finned cars nose on like fish,
a savage servility slides by on grease
—appears at this stage, but in subsequent drafts Lowell would bury them in the middle of the poem.
Lowell now embarks on five successive complete drafts, the first two entitled "Robert Shaw and his Men" and "Colonel Shaw and his Negro Regiment," the rest "Colonel Shaw and the 54th," the title under which the poem would appear in the first paperback edition of Life Studies. These drafts all contain the essential tensions of the finished poem, the historical conversation between past and present, the violence of modern life and the dignity of Shaw's enterprise, the ironic awareness that Shaw's battle remains unconcluded. Not until the fifth complete draft, however, would Lowell finally end his poem.
Driving the giant finned cars to the rear of the poem, Lowell refuses any hint of resolution and leaves the reader with an image of sharks schooling, as if they had grown from the modest little fish the child once observed in the South Boston Aquarium. It is because of this ending that Lowell could argue successfully that his poem is about that child's maturation; the poem is about the maturation of a point of view, a widening of observation from a child's wonderment at the contained natural world to a critically informed understanding of the relationship between history and the present. Moving to giant finned cars from cowed, compliant fish completes the trope of observation and maturation that opens the poem.
Before he settled on an adequate conclusion to what had become a slightly unwieldy poem, Lowell made several attempts to close with his historical material rather than with the present:
Unable to bend his back, he leads
his men to death, and seems to wince
at pleasure, suffocate to be alone.
They all died for the Republic.
[Complete draft #1]
A gay, droll gentleman—he) had no leisure (to distrust
(nature at ease,) the resolute disorder
of his bronze, bell-cheeked negro infantry,
their eternal lubberly slogging past the Statehouse steps.
[Complete draft #3]
Besides generating (or rediscovering) the eventual ending, Lowell's five drafts produce another essential image—that of the Mosler safe and the atomic explosion at Hiroshima. This key image of modern warfare provides the historical balance against which to weigh the individual heroism of Shaw and his troops and with which to return to the present. With the other key image, also found in these drafts, of the speaker's hand drawing back not from cowed fish but from "negro school children" seen on television (who, too, are cowed like the fish), the poem is largely complete, though many penciled notations on the final draft indicate further polishing. This last of the Houghton drafts still differs enough from the published version of the poem to warrant reproduction here, with the kind permission of the Lowell Estate and of Houghton Library. I make no attempt to correct the spelling nor to take into account the marginal notations, some of which will be incorporated into the finished poem:
COLONEL SHAW AND THE MASSACHUSETTS' 54TH
Relinquunt omnia servare rem publicam
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The black weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
My hand draws back now. I often sigh
for the dark, downward and vegetative kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new, barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dyosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to build the mammoth parking lot.
Everywhere, the purr of commercial optimism
rises to the clang of desecration. Orange,
Thanksgiving-colored pumpkin-colored girders
brace the tingling Statehouse.
A steel frame reinforced
and his bell-cheeked negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' Civil War relief …
The monument sticks like a fishbone
in the City's throat;
its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilence,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
When he leads his negro volunteers to death,
he cannot bend his back—
he is rejoicing in man's lovely,
peculiar power to deny what is and die.
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; transparant flags quilt
the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic;
it[s] ramrod-witted stone Union Soldiers
grow slimmer and younger each year—
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets,
and muse through their sideburns.
Here in this city, a girdle of girder;
the terminus of turnpikes,
there are no bronze monuments for the last war.
A felt, authentic commercial photograph
of Hiroshima rising like a cloud
above an American safe that survived the blast
says no thief
will break into our treasure.
The aquarium is gone. My hand draws back.
When I crouch to my television set,
the terrorized faces of negro schoolchildren
flash like bubbles on the screen.
Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble,
he waits for the blessed break.
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Before publishing the poem Lowell added two lines to the penultimate stanza, revised the stanza about the stone Union soldiers to give them a little more dignity, eliminated "terminus of turnpikes," changed the "mammoth parking lot" to an "underworld garage," replaced "commercial optimism" with "parking spaces" that "luxuriate like civic / sand piles," eliminated the awkward lines "says no thief / will break into our treasure," and generally rendered the poem more euphonious and rhythmically satisfying.
At the Boston Arts Festival Lowell would say (reading a prepared statement), "My poem, 'The Union Dead,' is about childhood memories, the evisceration of our modern cities, civil rights, nuclear warfare and more particularly Colonel Robert Shaw and his negro regiment, the Massachusetts 54th. I brought in early personal memories because I wanted to avoid the fixed, brazen tone of the set-piece and official ode." Later, in drafting his statement for the Burnett anthology, Lowell would recognize how deeply personal he had made his poem, how far from the "official ode" it is. In examining these drafts we can see how consistently the poem moves from wooden impersonality toward a more vivid, more openly autobiographical moment, a progress consistent with Lowell's strengths as a lyric and meditative poet. History and autobiography mingle deeply and subtly in Lowell's creative process, and perhaps we can now more fully understand that when later he wrote, "the age burns in me," he spoke not as a megalomaniac but as an artist whose very personality plumbed the vagaries of history and the contemporary American social scene.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4236
SOURCE: "Robert Lowell's Day by Day: 'Until the Wristwatch is Taken From the Wrist,'" in New England Review, Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 54-63.
[In the following essay, Tillinghast discusses Lowell's death and offers critical evaluation of Day by Day.]
To read Robert Lowell's last book, Day by Day, published shortly before his death in 1977, is to accompany the poet on a valedictory retrospective of his life and work. This is the most elegiac book of one of our great elegists. In poem after poem he says goodbye not only to old friends but to old ideas—the ruling ideas of the time in which he lived. He continues to feel ambivalent about the third of his troublesome marriages, wondering whether he had made a mistake in leaving his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick, to marry the Anglo-Irish novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood. Ambivalence was Lowell's characteristic stance—a stance that positioned him ideally to exemplify many of the conflicts of his period. When he died in a taxicab on the way to Hardwick's apartment in Manhattan after a flight from London, he was carrying, wrapped in brown paper, the famous portrait of Caroline Blackwood, Girl in Bed, which had been painted by her first husband, Lucian Freud. In an interview in the September, 1993, issue of Town and Country, Blackwood reveals that attendants at the hospital had to break Lowell's arms to remove the picture from his grasp.
Day by Day has the overall effect of an almost posthumous work: On the last page of Ian Hamilton's biography of Lowell, William Empson's words on King Lear are invoked:
The scapegoat who has collected all this wisdom for us is viewed at the end with a sort of hushed envy, not I think really because he has become wise but because the general human desire for experience has been so glutted in him; he has been through everything.
We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
The use of the verb "see" in the quotation from King Lear turns out, as I shall make clear, to be quite relevant to this unusually visual poet's experience. In the last section of the book he attempts to enunciate a visually based aesthetic, which is only partially substantiated in his practice. As to the length of his life: In terms of an ordinary human lifetime, Lowell was not really so old—he died at sixty. But he filled his consignment of years with more involvement, personal and public, than most people manage to do. Elizabeth Bishop chided Lowell for what she saw as a premature embrace of old age: "Please, please don't talk about old age so much, my dear old friend!… I wish Auden hadn't gone on about it so his last years, and I hope you won't." From the vantage-point of his relatively early death her remarks seem unprescient. Both friends had much less time than Bishop, the older of the two, could guess. She herself would die in 1979. Lowell's premonition that his own life span would be cut off early, as his parents' had been, turns out to have been uncannily accurate.
Far from the unseemly denial of ageing and death that many engage in, Lowell was almost in a hurry to get old and even to die. In For the Union Dead, written before he had reached fifty, he was ready in "The Flaw" to elegize Elizabeth Hardwick and himself:
Old wives and husbands! Look, their gravestones wait
in couples with the names and half the date—
one future and one freedom. In a flash,
I see us whiten into skeletons,
our eager, sharpened cries, a pair of stones,
cutting like shark-fins through the boundless wash.
Perhaps, to an extent, Lowell even romanticizes their deaths. Ten years later, on the contrary, the grim details of a hard-to-diagnose illness, rather than an appealing and idealized notion of death, recommend themselves to the poet's attention in the poem "Day by Day." A preternatural "seriousness," a brutal realism, have consistently been part of this poet's arsenal, so his accuracy in rendering the symptoms of what look like foreshadowings of his fatal heart disease should not come as a surprise. In "Our Afterlife II," addressed to his old friend Peter Taylor, he chills us with his clarity:
My thinking is talking to you—
last night I fainted at dinner
and came nearer to your sickness,
nearer to the angels in nausea.
The room turned upside-down,
I was my interrupted sentence,
a misdirection tumbled back alive
on a low, cooling table.
Faced with the direst of eventualities, his directness, the accuracy of his words, are at the ready. The writer's image of himself as an interrupted sentence is a humorous and lovely figure. One might well imagine how his cousin Harriet Winslow, paralyzed, an invalid for years, must have appreciated "Soft Wood," his For the Union Dead poem to her, not only for its affectionate tone but for its unsentimentalized acknowledgment of her illness:
I think of you far off in Washington,
breathing in the heat wave
and air-conditioning, knowing
each drug that numbs alerts another nerve to pain.
In "Endings"—one of the many poetic farewells to family members and friends which give Day by Day its deep elegiac tone—Lowell, older now, relates his own symptoms to hers:
You joked of your blackouts,
comic and monumental
even for Washington.
You woke wondering why
you woke in another room,
you woke close to drowning.
Effects are without cause;
your doctors found nothing.
A month later you were paralyzed
and never unknotted …
Because, as the last poem in the book puts it, "We are poor passing facts," we are "warned by that to give / each figure in the photograph / his living name." The accuracy of observation, the determination to do justice to fact—though it is highly questionable how faithful Lowell was to fact even when he thought he was—can in places give the realism of these poems a certain heroic air:
A small spark tears at my head,
a flirting of light brown specks in the sky,
an unaccountable lapse of time.
One's final response to Day by Day is likely to be complicated and therefore hard to describe. A certain awe when faced with the last work of a great artist is part of the complication. That this is the last work Lowell left, that there will never be a new Lowell poem to read, informs part of our response, prompting us to look back over the entire oeuvre.
These feelings of retrospective awe are complicated by a sense that many of the poems are off-puttingly oblique. Some of them read more like notes for poems than inspired utterances. The opening of "Phillips House Revisited," which finds Lowell hospitalized for a heart condition in the same place his grandfather died, sounds undeveloped, jotted down in haste: "Something sinister and comforting / in this return after forty years' arrears / to death and Phillips House …" Many of these writings are willful. In some of them the logic is opaque. And then there is the suspicion that often, no sequential logic is intended. I am not speaking of the "difficulty" that good poems often achieve. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book is that the poems' obliquity, their lack of interest in "making sense" is guided, at least ostensibly, by a consistent aesthetic. Interestingly, this aesthetic is announced only in the last few poems in the book. "Shifting Colors" ends with these lines:
I am too weak to strain to remember, or give
recollection the eye of a microscope. I see
horse and meadow, duck and pond,
description without significance,
transcribed verbatim by my eye.
This is not the directness that catches
everything on the run and then expires—
I would write only in response to the gods,
like Mallarmé who had the good fortune
to find a style that made writing impossible.
Renunciation of memory, "description without significance," then, consoles. The next stanza offers a ready example of the obliquity I mentioned above. How does this brand of description differ from "the direction that catches / everything on the run and then expires"? The next line seems to say that Lowell would always rather write only under the urging of inspiration.
Too many of the poems in this book read as if they were written just for the sake of writing. This circumstances does not, one must quickly add, exclude brilliant images, observations and lines. If the last two lines are not simply a joke not meant to be looked at too closely, do they mean that Lowell thinks he would be happier giving up poetry altogether? That strains credibility: this is a man whose existence without his writing would be impossible to imagine.
Another poem, "Grass Fires," asserts baldly:
In the realistic memory
the memorable must be forgone;
it never matters,
except in front of the eyes.
If Lowell really believes that memorable events "must be forgone," he would have to throw out most of what he had written. On the other hand, a poet so wholeheartedly dedicated to the new would relish the task. Still, put briefly, Lowell's various statements on observation, memory, and the imagination are just too contradictory to form a consistent position. Is a poet required to take a consistent position? No. But this is Lowell's most discursive book; it markedly takes positions on poetics and thus asks to be responded to intellectually.
Earlier Lowell had been bothered that students of his poems found it too easy to find "keys" to the work. He expressed reservations about Freudian readings of his work. "Maybe I throw in too much Freud," he wrote in a letter in 1969. "I try to use him two thirds (?) skeptically and playfully. Even then [while writing Life Studies] I found his Faith harder to take straight than the Pope's." Yet Lowell was in therapy with a Freudian analyst for several years preceding Life Studies, and had, it seems to me, absorbed more of Freud's point of view than he knew.
As early as 1965, in the original version of "Waking Early Sunday Morning," which appeared in The New York Review of Books, Lowell was questioning the very notion of significance, of "great subjects," of meaningful symbols, in his poetry:
I lie here on my bed apart,
and when I look into my heart,
I discover none of the great
subjects: death, friendship, love and hate—
only old china doorknobs, sad,
slight, useless things to calm the mad.
The china doorknob held his attention in an almost obsessive way. Almost as soon as he had put the Freudianism of Life Studies behind him, he began trying to come to terms with the notion that whatever attracted his eye would become the true subject of his poetry. The eye becomes the arbiter of what he will write about, the eye tyrannizes him in a way, as is clear from the For the Union Dead poem "Eye and Tooth": "No oil / for the eye, nothing to pour / on these waters or flames." Significantly, these lines are followed directly by his famous statement, "I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil."
Again, in "Dolphin," the final poem in the book of the same name, Lowell evokes sight as a way of acknowledging action: "my eyes have seen what my hand did." The verb tenses, interestingly, have their own story to tell. Sight, for which the present perfect tense is employed, continues from the past into the present; action occurs in the past definite, and is final. Since Lowell's "Epilogue" to the book is brief, and since it sums up his aesthetic of writing at the end of his life, I will quote it whole:
Those blessed 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 own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
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.
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.
This announced eschewal of plot and rhyme represents a renunciation of artificiality both in concept and style. Lowell wrote often of plot in The Dolphin, most notoriously in the line, "one man, two women, the common novel plot…." The same poem ends with words apparently quoted out of a letter from Elizabeth Hardwick: "Don't you dare mail us the love your life denies; I do you really know what you have done?" A good question; there is something heartless and dangerous about speaking of one's own life as though it were a novel.
The sense of the poem becomes problematic almost immediately when the author announces his allegiance not to memory but to the imagination. By arguing that the painter's vision "trembles to caress the light," Lowell gives realism an emotional coloration. Then he goes on to lament that his own realism too much resembles photography and not painting—"paralyzed by fact." It's hard to say exactly what he means by "All's misalliance." I think he means, consciously or not, that he can't make his ideas fit his practice. If, to paraphrase Yeats, we make rhetoric out of our quarrels with others, and poetry out of our quarrels with ourselves, certainly this poem arises from a quarrel with the self. "Yet why not say what happened?" he asks with a sort of exasperated shrug. It is meant, one would think, to be a rhetorical question.
But one is provoked to speak up and answer: If you just say what happened, then you lose the interest of readers who don't find your own life as urgently fascinating as you do. Lowell's reply in the last eight lines of the poem is that an inspired "accuracy" amounts to "grace." Because our mortality and the brevity of our lives is in itself so poignant, then memorialization—which takes up much of this book, as well as much of Lowell's whole oeuvre—is inherently valuable. This despite his having earlier declared in "Grass Fires" that "In the realistic memory / the memorable must be forgone." An extreme example of poetry as just jotting down whatever comes to mind is "Wellesley Free." The poem wanders aimlessly from the leaf-blower operating outside, to a fleeting memory of the poet's school days, to a description of the room where he is sleeping. Then he tells us "I cannot read," and later that "I cannot sleep solo, / I loathe age with terror" and finally trails off: "70 outside, / and almost December." This is a poem that should have been edited out of the collection.
The uncritical embrace of writing as process, which made the unrhymed "sonnets" lose focus and almost turn their backs to their readers, became a serious problem for the poet from Notebook on. Daniel Hoffman, as friendly a reader as one can imagine, characterizes the Notebook period in these terms: "The yawning monster wouldn't stop—he soon revised and enlarged the book, republishing the new version as Notebook, and that also to be revised, enlarged, in an endless flood of unrhymed sonnets. By 1973 the machine had disgorged several hundred poems …" One would hardly want to tar Robert Lowell with the brush of "poetry as therapy," but, oddly, he was not untouched by this confusion that has put serious art and basket weaving in the same category. He had even benefitted from it: he had started writing "91 Revere Street" as a prose memoir suggested by his psychiatrist, and Life Studies poems like "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" had begun as prose. At the end of "Unwanted," a critique of his tendency to see poetry as therapy, which I will look at in more detail later, Lowell asks an unanswerable and desperate question: "Is getting well ever an art, / or art a way to get well?"
The fusion of life and art that had been Lowell's genius from Life Studies on apparently blinded him to something essential that goes into a poem. Good poems have enough magnetism as objects or events to engage the reader. They stand on their own without reference to the author's biography. Lowell more and more presumed his readers' knowledge of his life. He seems to have subsumed the act of writing so thoroughly into the personal realm that he lost the artist's edge. An indication that writing had become simply an activity rather than a means to the end of making poems with a life of their own, is suggested by Lowell's question to a doctor at the asylum where he was hospitalized in England:
"These days of only poems and depression—
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?"
If his poems are "only poems," if they are only meant to help their author, one can hardly wonder why they might lose their attraction for the reader. And then if the poet posits the supremacy of pure observation, one is much closer to understanding what is missing in Lowell's late poetry.
There are plenty of times when his confidence in his newly formulated philosophy of writing wavers. "Unwanted" is the poem that most closely resembles the Life Studies belief in psychological causality:
I read an article on a friend,
as if recognizing my obituary:
"Though his mother loved her son consumingly,
she lacked a really affectionate nature;
so he always loved what he missed."
This was John Berryman's mother, not mine.
The way Lowell follows up on this psychological clue is reminiscent of the insistent self-analysis of his most Freudian period: "Often with unadulterated joy, / Mother, we bent by the fire / rehashing Father's character." Here it is Lowell's own character getting rehashed. The difference now, though, is that Lowell analyzes his habit of self-absorbed analysis: "Alas, I can only tell my own story—/ talking to myself, or reading, or writing, / or fearlessly holding back nothing from a friend."
What one can't help noticing, though, is how much of what Lowell was able to bring to Life Studies is missing even in the poems in this book that resemble the earlier book. The detailed panorama of social life, for instance—as though Lowell were an anthropologist of his own culture, noticing everything and rendering the feel of it with percepts and images, gossipy anecdotes, cameo appearances, and pitch-perfect quotations from his characters. The question is not: "Yet why not say what happened?" The question is how finely, in what detail, with what humor, with how well-rendered "surround" one says what happened.
Yet this is a meaty book, informed by an acute historical sense, full of moving retrospectives, the reflections on ageing which I have already discussed, poems to old friends. Lowell's world-weary tone is earned, as suggested by the allusion to King Lear I quoted at the beginning of this essay. No one is in a better position that Robert Lowell, after a lifetime's involvement with psychiatry, to chronicle the decline in the influence of Freud's ideas: "Dreams," he comments, "they've had their vogue, / so alike in their modernist invention." In "Since 1939" Lowell even anticipates the end of Communism. The frisson of W. H. Auden's early poems forms a backdrop for the poem's insights into a curious phenomenon of our times: the obsolescence of a political doctrine that promised the end of history, seen through the eyes of the generation who came of age in the immediate postwar period:
We missed the declaration of war,
we were on our honeymoon train west;
we leafed through the revolutionary thirties'
Poems of Auden, till our heads fell down
swaying with the comfortable
ungainly gait of obsolescence …
Having elsewhere defined history as that which we cannot see, Lowell labors to make visible the transition of ideas from revolutionary to outmoded: "I see another girl reading Auden's last book. / She must be very modern, / she dissects him in the past tense." His ironic use of the word "modern" here reinforces how difficult it is for our century, whose chief cultural movements all defined themselves under the banner of Modernism, to see itself as re-entering that elusive continuum called history. Auden "is historical now as Munich, / and grew perhaps / to love the rot of capitalism." The poem brilliantly captures the confused sense of suspension experienced by those who have experienced and assented to the doctrines of Communism and Modernism: "In our unfinished revolutionary now, / everything seems to end and nothing to begin."
Though capable of the insight and economy of that formulation, this poet, who has applied himself to the task of understanding history more assiduously than anyone since Pound, is clearly at a loss where to go next. So he ruminates aimlessly:
England like America has lasted
long enough to fear its past,
the habits squashed like wax,
the gay, the prosperous,
their acid of outrage.
His style fails him here. If one is going to generalize and make pronouncements, as the Augustan poets did, rhyme and meter can at least lend shapeliness and sonority to the enterprise. Lowell accomplished this in the rhyming stanza he used in Near the Ocean:
No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life …
Perhaps I have been too vigorous in pointing out the book's flaws, though. Day by Day contains great elegiac moments, and these are its lasting achievement. "Our Afterlife I," the first of the two poems addressed to Peter Taylor, begins with an image of two Tennessee cardinals in migration—Taylor is a native Tennessean, and some of Lowell's apprentice days as a poet were spent in that Southern state.
Following through on the image of the birds, the poem ends with a moment of pure elegiac transcendence:
We are things thrown in the air
alive in flight …
our rust the color of the chameleon.
He notes the "rust" of age and other natural processes, like the rain's "simmer of rot and renewal" and the "triangular blotch / of rot on the red roof" in a earlier poem, "Eye and Tooth," in a poem about Milgate, Caroline Blackwood's ancestral manor house. Lowell characteristically celebrates decay and decline as few other poets do: "It is a natural life. Nettles / subdue the fugitive violet's bed, / a border of thistles hedges the drive." He is also capable of startlingly original images, such as New York as a cigarette lighter:
Now the lifefluid goes
from the throwaway lighter,
its crimson, cylindrical, translucent
glow grows pale—
From a Brazilian ex voto sent to him by Elizabeth Bishop, a primitive head meant to be offered in church as a thanks-offering, Lowell spins a touching little poem which expresses his relief at being himself again after one of his manic attacks: "Something has been taken off, / a wooden winter shadow—/ goodbye nothing. I give thanks …" Described, it comes alive:
its shallow, chiseled ears,
crudely healed scars lumped out
to listen to itself, perhaps, not knowing
it was made to be given up.
With the wooden head as an emblem, Lowell deftly turns the object around to himself: "This winter, I thought / I was created to be given away."
That kind of directness and clarity were too often lacking in the three books that preceded Day by Day. Of the poet's last book, a sympathetic reader would like to agree with Louis Simpson that "In his new book Day by Day … we are back with the fascinating, superbly gifted poet of Life Studies and For the Union Dead." Simpson's statement perhaps embodied a wish more than a certainty. Certainly Lowell had turned a corner and at the moment of death, when "the wrist-watch is taken from the wrist," was on the way back to finding himself as a poet. Had he lived, it is impossible to predict what poetic self he would have found. The features of this new self would surely have taken his readers by surprise, because self-transformation was Lowell's forte. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her elegy on him,
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue … And now—you've left
for good. You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
At the same time he was on the way back to his second wife, who had stood by him through it all, when he was struck down by a heart attack in the taxi from the airport in New York. As Peter Taylor has written, he got the kind of death he always said he wanted: "a natural death, no teeth on the ground, no blood about the place." But, tragically, he died before he had the chance to pull off another of those startling poetic metamorphoses that made him the most innovative poet of the age.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4090
SOURCE: "Surviving the Marketplace: Robert Lowell and the Sixties," in New England Review, Vol. LXVIII, No. 1, March, 1995, pp. 44-57.
[In the following essay, Flanzbaum discusses Lowell's literary fame, political protest, and critical reception during the 1960s. Flanzbaum contends that Lowell's public ambition "should not be understood as a venal thirst for fame but rather as a result of his yearning to find common ground with the large American audience."]
In the 1960s, Robert Lowell took his career in an unexpected direction. Having won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired the devotion of literary critics and fellow practitioners in the previous two decades, he had established himself as the leading poet of his generation. But in the sixties, more than being warmly appreciated by a small elite audience, Lowell became a sensation: an American celebrity and a figure of political influence. In a few short years, he joined a select group of American poets who had bridged the great divide between academic and popular culture. This extraordinary stage in Lowell's career deserves wider critical attention than it has yet received, for it sheds significant light not only on his personal poetics but on the workings of America's literary and cultural history.
Scion of a dynastic American family, Lowell had always garnered more public attention than other modern poets, who, as we know, spent much of their time composing essays about the disappearance of their audiences. While the publication of Life Studies in 1959 guaranteed Lowell's critical reputation and reaffirmed his position as the preeminent poet of his generation, it also foreshadowed his dramatic rise to national prominence a mere five years later.
The story of Lowell's ascent begins in 1964, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson asked him to read at the White House Arts Festival. Citing his objections to LBJ's policies on Vietnam, Lowell declined. He also sent a copy of his letter of refusal to the New York Times, whose editors, knowing that a Lowell could always make news, decided to print it on the front page. Furious, Johnson responded, accusing Lowell of publicity seeking and grandstanding. When many of the nation's most important writers and artists lined up behind Lowell, the stage was set for a media battle between literati and the executive branch that took almost three months to play out and whose echoes could be heard now and again in the ideological war that raged for the better part of a decade.
Lowell's opposition to the Vietnam War constituted the first and perhaps most essential ingredient in the hash of political and social changes in which he served himself up to the public sphere. Politically he had always been a renegade—a conscientious objector to World War II and a persistent and harsh critic of American capitalism—yet the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, and the cultural revolution spawned in the wake of protests against it, found Lowell closer to mainstream American ideology and appetites than he would ever have thought possible. Abruptly, Lowell's iconoclasm was chic.
In 1965, Lowell wrote and directed The Old Glory, an off-Broadway production that targeted the hypocrisy of American government and institutions; it ran for three years and won an Obie award for best play. In the years between 1964 and 1967, four of Lowell's dramas were staged and two books of his poetry published. His 1964 volume For the Union Dead, issued just months before the LBJ letter, had been applauded by the critics. By 1967, he drew thousands of anti-war protestors to the steps of the Pentagon and narrowly avoided being arrested with Norman Mailer. In 1968, Lowell frequently dined with Jacqueline Kennedy, and he joined presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy on the campaign trail.
Lowell found that when he walked his dog on the streets of Manhattan, paparazzi trailed him. While it has been argued that he abjured this particular aspect of celebrity, he had to be pleased, nonetheless, to see the entire texts of "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and "Memories of West Street and Lepke" reprinted in Life magazine, his portrait featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and articles touting his political views spreading to all corners of the world.
Despite Lowell's undeniable fame, curiously enough his career has never been appreciated, nor has his poetry been read, as a product of his lifelong ambition for popular, as well as critical, approbation. For it was not solely Lowell's political actions that brought him celebrity and influence; not every war resister, not even those who were poets, became stars. While certain external circumstances made Lowell popular—the turbulent political times, his maverick stance juxtaposed against his Brahmin background—Lowell's celebrity does not proceed simply from a serendipitous combination of biology and global events. Rather, Lowell is exceptional because he had skillfully mastered the formula for media attention.
A close friend of Lowell's. Blair Clark, explained the tremendous impact of the White House letter this way:
Lowell had a shrewdness in handling his public persona, and the "LBJ letter" was an example of his brilliant timing…. Cal, the public figure. He knew what he was doing. I'm sure there were people who were terribly envious of his ability to manipulate himself as a public figure. He did it without any pomposity—but he definitely believed he was a public figure.
Yet Lowell's prodigious talent for finding the spotlight should not be understood as a venal thirst for fame but rather as a result of his yearning to find common ground with the large American audience. Critics have mistakenly seen Lowell's gesturing to a popular audience as evidence of his poetic misprision instead of as a premeditated maneuver to widen his literary domain and to make contact with an audience that had become deeply alienated from most modern poetry. Lowell did manage his career shrewdly, but mere celebrity was not his aim: he wanted to be more than the poet literary critics acclaimed; he also wanted to be the poet the American people looked to for wisdom. While this conclusion has been occasionally and hurriedly noted in biographies of the poet, I believe that understanding Lowell means appreciating precisely how his conflicting ambitions directed his career decisions and affected the poetry he wrote.
For instance, many critics note that Lowell's career was a string of continual rebirths. A phoenix from the ashes, again and again Lowell reinvented his poetic persona with seeming ease: the student of obscure and inaccessible New Critical methods in Lord Weary's Castle transformed himself into the accessible, confessional poet of Life Studies, then turned himself into the political and public poet of History, then reinvented himself once more as the morose and withdrawn journalist of Day by Day. Critics have located the germs of these poetic evolutions in Lowell's tumultuous psychological profile, but they have failed to measure how his aspiration simultaneously to engage both an academic and a popular audience took its toll on him. Because the mass market and canonical poetry, especially in the post-Eliotic haze of high modernism, have always appeared implausible conspirators, literary scholars have been slow to recognize the degree to which marketplace pressures have driven American poetry. In Lowell's case, when the marketplace and the academy briefly reconciled, that oversight has resulted in a missed opportunity to examine the inner workings of literary history as well as precluded a thorough understanding of many of Lowell's greatest poems.
"For the Union Dead," published in 1964 in a volume of the same name and considered one of Lowell's most important poems, has attracted substantial critical attention. Commentators have fully explicated Lowell's resemblance to the ironclad hero of the poem, Robert Gould Shaw, who led the first black battalion of the Civil War into a conflict that sent more than half his fighting men to their deaths and ended in defeat. The romantic hero who accepts the challenge of political responsibility in a doomed cause is a recurring paradigm in Lowell's work. Throughout his career, Lowell was intrigued by individualists and idealists, even those on apparently misconceived missions. Thus, critics have long debated how "For the Union Dead" treats Shaw's particular task. Is Lowell celebrating Shaw's bravery? or is he criticizing his foolhardiness?
Stalled in progress, this debate has prevented literary criticism from opening other avenues of inquiry. I argue that "For the Union Dead," written just as Lowell is about to take centerstage in American culture, anticipates and showcases his conscious decision to abandon the neglected poet's pulpit and engage fully in American public, political, and economic life. Alan Williamson has noted that Shaw "represents a compromised, but still living, still responsible connection between ideology, or image and realities." While Williamson's articulation of Lowell's "compromise" is apt, by noticing neither that the "hero" of the poem is the statue and not the man nor that the statue is placed in a specific physical context, Williamson and other critics have failed to recognize a crucial facet of the poem: "For the Union Dead" presents more than a political crisis; it embodies an artistic one as well. And the compromise to which Williamson refers extends beyond the presentation of Shaw to encompass how Lowell will manage his own career.
In "For the Union Dead," technology and commercial opportunism threaten the artifact, "St. Gauden's shaky Civil War relief," which depicts Shaw on horseback among his black foot soldiers. Sited on the Boston Common, "the heart of Boston," and facing the "tingling State House," directly across Beacon Street, the nineteenth-century masterpiece has been rocked by excavations for a new parking garage. Thus, the poem treats the fate of the art work, left either to stand or perish when brought to the center of civic action. Shaw's metallic glance not only reflects his problematic idealism but it peers directly into all that is most hostile to American art.
"For the Union Dead" does not open with the image of Shaw, however. Neither the statue nor Shaw himself appears until stanza six. Lowell carefully sets the scene with the destruction of another romantic icon, the Boston Aquarium. More resigned to his fate than the speaker in "The Waste Land," who still prays for rain, the speaker in "For the Union Dead" expects no relief: He writes, "The Old South Boston Aquarium is waterless; the bronze weather vane has lost half its scales." The poet longs for "the dark downward vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile," an image of artistic fertility; he instead finds a "new(ly) barbed and galvanized world" where "yellow dinosaur steamshovels … crop up tons of mush and grass / to gouge their underworld garage."
These opening images suggest a vision of hell, inhabited by the unearthly monsters of technological advance. But Lowell warns that the statue faces more than one local excavation; it gazes out upon the larger contemporary horizon—the barbed wire fence and dinosaur steam shovels and the commercial photographs of television and advertising. The juxtaposition of the statue with commercial art suggests a previously unrecognized theme in the poem. The art that seems more expressive of and appropriate to sixties culture is "a commercial photograph / (that) shows Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler safe." As Lowell presents it, the statue appears out of its element, for it shows signs of physical as well as thematic antiquity. Indeed, that it is "shaky" and needs "prop(ping) by a plank split against the garage" symbolizes the poet's uncertainty about its ability to survive amidst the increasingly threatening aspects of commercial culture.
After evoking an artistic field from which the subject has disappeared and only the artifact remains in its compromised form, the poet announces Shaw's death, stating peculiarly that "he is out of bounds now." At Shaw's death, his "father wanted no monument / except the ditch / where his son's body was thrown." In these lines, Lowell both repudiates the power of art adequately to measure contemporary reality and sounds the note of alarm for which his poem is destined. If the ditch is the fitting grave for Shaw, it is because it symbolizes the necessary and paradoxical nobility of abasing oneself in order to lead the nation. Just as Shaw's burial in a ditch serves a more important function than a ceremonious entombment might have, Lowell believes that his own descent into the pit of American commercialism has now become the most important contribution he can offer to the people, for only then can he lead them out of their morass. Lowell's insistence that "The ditch is nearer" ominously precedes his account of the barbarity of modern civilization. Critics have from the start acknowledged that "the ditch" is, in the words of one, a "many-layered symbol, that brings together nuclear annihilation, the absolute zero of outer space, the blank terror in the faces of the Negro schoolchildren, and the hollowness of ideals out of touch with real circumstances." They have not noted, however, that Lowell's identification with his character, Shaw, extends to his venturing into that ditch.
Just as he has described the position of Shaw's statue, so Lowell now places himself eye to eye with the political realities of his time, indicating his readiness to participate in the world of commercial transaction. Even while identifying with Shaw's compromised idealism and the statue's compromised ability to speak to a new age, Lowell nonetheless prepares to carry himself and his artistic creations into the center of civic action. In fact, in "For the Union Dead" Lowell is proclaiming that only a compromised artistic vision can endure among the brutally realistic symbols of a highly technological and commercialized culture. Taking his lesson from the compromised statue of Shaw, which still maintains its tenacious hold on Boston Common, Lowell decides to do what he must to turn his art public.
Lowell's interaction with the marketplace of the sixties culminated with the publication of Near the Ocean. The volume, hurried to the stores by both a determined Lowell and an opportunistic publisher eager to cash in on the heyday of the poet's prestige, stands as a telling marker of Lowell's aspirations. Of the many clues in his career that he sought to influence the larger culture and earn the plaudits of a wide audience, none is more revealing than the collection of poems that appeared in January 1967. Strongly critical of American ideology and policy, the poems in Near the Ocean expose the corruption of America's leaders and preach an end to imperialist violence.
The message cannot be missed: the poems do not hide their meanings in dense metaphors or obscure references; they mask neither their political nor their commercial intentions. A conventionally popular form, rhyming couplets maximize the oral potential of the poems and thus their public quality; we can be read before crowds, they announce, or chanted and remembered. In "The Fourth of July," Lowell writes "dinner waits / in the cold oven, icy plates—/ repeating and repeating, one / Joan Baez on the gramophone." The reference to Joan Baez reveals the immediacy of Lowell's intentions and also identifies the poet with youth culture, a youth culture that might adapt his verse to song.
"Waking Early Sunday Morning," the first poem in the volume, became "the political poem of the sixties," according to critic Richard Howard. When read aloud, it included a stanza that regularly received howls of delight from Lowell's audiences and represented one of his most Ginsberg-like moments:
O to break loose. All life's grandeur
is something with a girl in summer …
elated as the President
girdled by his establishment
this Sunday morning, free to chaff
his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!
The poem ends with a generalized plea against all war, but listeners could not help but hear the relevance to their own decade's aggression and imperialism:
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.
Other poems in the volume also take swipes at the American military. In Lowell's imitation of Juvenal's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," the poet rewrites the classic to make it more topical and pertinent to his own decade:
barbarian commanders march; for these they pledge their lives
and freedom—such their thirst for fame, and such
their scorn of virtue.
For who wants a life
a virtue without praise? Whole nations die
to serve the glory of a few; all lust for honors …
Even more remarkable than the overt politics of the poems it contained was the physical appearance of the volume itself. Near the Ocean looked like, as a handful of reviewers dared mention, "a coffee table book." At 10 inches by 8 inches, it was larger than a standard-sized collection of poetry; Sidney Nolan had illustrated the poems with impressionistic pen-and-ink drawings; the lines were double spaced and the pages held at most sixteen lines—a markedly unserious and unliterary format. While the poems of Near the Ocean may or may not stand with his best work, in the context of Lowell's career, the appearance of a coffee table book is a significant piece of literary history. This volume evidences just how much Lowell labored to influence the wider culture; and more important, perhaps, the critical reception of the volume reveals the fate of the literary artist who struggles to satisfy a commercial market. Lowell's biographer cautiously suggests that Lowell may have decided to issue a new collection of poetry at this stage of his career because "he felt himself to be at something of a dead end, or that the public or occasional aspects of poems like 'Waking Early Sunday Morning' made him see the book as his timely contribution to the intensifying antiwar campaign." But in making his case so tentatively, Hamilton, like many Lowell scholars, underemphasizes the poet's commercial aspirations. Indeed, most critics have failed to recognize that Near the Ocean was Lowell's deliberate and premeditated attempt to ensconce his literary productions among the paraphernalia of the American household and to inscribe his message into American hearts and minds. Instead, the book has been viewed as an anomaly, virtually wished out of existence by supportive critics. To others, it has simply confirmed that Lowell's career was finished.
With the exception of Richard Howard, who, writing in Poetry, called the book "devastating" and "Waking Early Sunday Morning" a masterpiece, reviewers for high culture publications panned Near the Ocean. Helen Vendler, writing in the Massachusetts Review, called it sensationalistic, shrill, and full of doggerel. Charles Philbrick, in the Saturday Review, dubbed it "the disappointment of the season." David Kalstone generously noted in the Partisan Review that "the slick coffee-table design of the volume entirely misrepresents the poems, which, at their best, challenge things that are shiny and bright."
The reviewer for the New Yorker, Louise Bogan, condemned Near the Ocean for its "coldness and theatricality, its will towards pure shock and its horrifying illustrations that disqualify it as a coffee table object," although ultimately Bogan admits the book "is in that class." Explaining that a reviewer had "good reason to be annoyed with Robert Lowell's new book," Hayden Carruth, commenting in the Hudson Review, elaborated on its many commercial aspects:
It is a pretentious volume; printed on expensive paper, bound in heavy cloth and stamped in three colors, decorated with twenty-one drawings, designed lavishly and wastefully in out-size format, jacketed in varnished sixty-pound stock—in short, a very self-conscious-looking collector's item…. The price has been announced progressively at $4.95, $5.50 and $6.00.
Despite the American literary establishment's dismay, Near the Ocean was widely and enthusiastically reviewed in both the British and American mass media. The London Times complained that "niggling critics were treating the book too harshly and that it was an important complement to [Lowell's] work"; Donald Davie, in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, said several poems were "elating and invigorating." In the American media, the book accumulated more plaudits: Life titled its review "The Poet as Folk Hero"; the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune Book Week responded positively; and in the Chicago Tribune of Books, William Stafford claimed, that Lowell's new book had immediate relevance to the national mood.
Only Life magazine grasped the obvious: in Near the Ocean, Lowell's project had changed—he wanted to be a folk hero. No longer seeking to please the academician exclusively, Lowell tried his hand at poetry that advanced a political cause. Yet the critical reception of Near the Ocean proved that the large majority of reviewers for high culture publications could not tolerate Lowell's shift in intentions. Theatricality, doggerel; pretentious, sensationalistic: detractors used such descriptions to suggest that Lowell was no longer writing poetry worthy of serious attention. American critics, who had no criteria for the evaluation of, and no interest in, popular poetry, could only condemn a collection so blatantly commercial and aggressively political.
While the cultural revolution of the sixties opened a space for the critical recognition of certain popular art forms, it was not of the sort to accommodate Near the Ocean. Poetry designed exclusively for success in the political and commercial market not only suffered the slings and arrows of elite culture; it could not survive in a de-politicized mass culture. A modest fad in the sixties, Lowell's poetry soon succumbed to the fate of most timely products. By 1970, the anti-war movement had lost its steam with the election of Richard Nixon and the slow withdrawal of American troops. Lowell's politics and his poetry had outlived their usefulness. Near the Ocean was out of print by the early seventies, and in the 1990s critics dismiss the collection as containing his least important poetry.
Yet the volume is central to an understanding both of Lowell's ambitions and conflicts and of the relationship between poetry and American culture. Near the Ocean marks the apex of a personal career perched on the brink of marketplace success, and, however fleetingly, it also represents a rare phenomenon in recent literary history: an academically credentialed, canonical poet exerting wide cultural influence and political leadership. On its own terms, Near the Ocean succeeded. It demonstrated that poetry could be relevant; it brought Lowell and his politics before the public; and it provided, with "Waking Early Sunday Morning," a poetic cry to ignite and rally war resisters.
Despite these notable accomplishments, Lowell would never think of himself as a success. He had gained cultural prominence and political stature, but he had sacrificed too much. In a sonnet for Robert F. Kennedy, composed in 1968, Lowell had written, "For them like a prince, you daily left your tower / to walk through dirt in your best clothes. Untouched." In 1964, Lowell had considered himself to be like Shaw, an aristocrat bending down to carry the people towards glory. But by 1968, Lowell's clothes, supposedly unlike those of Shaw and the equally heroic aristocrat RFK, were dirty; Lowell had tumbled farther into the ditch than he had believed possible. Literary critics had turned their backs on him; RFK had been assassinated; the anti-war movement had spawned its own regrettable violence; and he had been dragged into one distasteful partisan controversy after the next in which his motives and his methods were impugned. Indeed, "his commitment to see the whole thing through" waned as the anti-war movement wound down and as he became a target for "New Left" bashers. Diana Trilling and Lowell had argued in the politically conservative pages of Commentary. Their acrimonious volley extended for several months and encompassed more than just their disagreement about the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. Trilling had attacked Lowell for his "grandstanding" and "opportunism" during the student strikes at Columbia, and Lowell was deeply troubled by her reproach, the violence that erupted at Columbia during the demonstrations, and the critical indifference to his work.
But just as the critics forsook Lowell after Near the Ocean, he forsook them, and the general reading audience as well. A poet who until this point catered to critical trends and anticipated, public appetites, Lowell used his last three volumes to chasten himself for fashioning his career to win public approval. Thus, after accomplishing what he always thought he wanted—securing a podium to preach his convictions and a popular audience to appreciate his poetry—Lowell retreated to a manor house in England. Like a wounded warrior at the end of a ravaging and futile battle, he repudiated the national crusade. And his bitterness towards the critics he believed had misunderstood him and the American public he thought had abandoned him haunt the final poems of his career.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595
Axelrod, Steven G. "Robert Lowell and the New York Intellectuals." English Language Notes XI, No. 3 (March 1974): 206-9.
Discusses Lowell's response to critical attacks in his poem "The New York Intellectuals."
Bromwich, David. "Reading Robert Lowell." Commentary 52, No. 2 (August 1971): 78-83.
Provides an overview of Lowell's literary career, major works, and critical reception.
Brumleve, Eric Marie. "Permanence and Change in the Poetry of Robert Lowell." Texas Studies in Literature and Language X, No. 1 (Spring 1968); 143-53.
Examines Lowell's preoccupation with the "flux of experience" in his poetry, especially aspects of unity and multiplicity surrounding his presentation of time, death, and history.
Doherty, Paul C. "The Poet As Historian: 'For the Union Dead' by Robert Lowell." Concerning Poetry 1, No. 2 (Fall 1968): 37-41.
Examines Lowell's subjective response to the historical past in "For the Union Dead."
Eddins, Dwight. "Poet and State in the Verse of Robert Lowell." Texas Studies in Literature and Language XV, No. 2 (Summer 1973): 371-86.
Explores Lowell's political perspective and reaction to governmental power and contemporary historical events.
Hart, Henry. "Robert Lowell and the New Critical Sublime." Southern Review 28, No. 2 (April 1992): 353-70.
Examines Lowell's expression of the sublime in paradoxical aspects of power, evil, and war, especially as influenced by the literary theories of New Criticism.
―――――――. "Robert Lowell and the Psychopathology of the Sublime." Contemporary Literature XXXII, No. 4 (Winter 1991): 496-519.
Explores Lowell's conception of the sublime and the personal and cultural significance of Oedipal conflicts in his poetry.
Hoffman, Michael. "The Accents of Adequate Praise." Times Literary Supplement (10 July 1987): 746-7.
A positive review of Lowell's Collected Prose.
Holloway, John. "Robert Lowell and the Public Dimension." Encounter XXX (April 1968): 73-9.
Offers positive assessment of Near the Ocean, drawing attention to Lowell's historical perspective and public concerns.
Lindsay, Geoffrey. "Robert Lowell's 'Common Novel Plot': Names, Naming, and Polyphony in The Dolphin." Dalhousie Review 75, No. 3 (Winter 1996): 351-68.
Examines Lowell's undisguised incorporation of real people and their private communications in The Dolphin.
Logan, William. "Lowell in the Shadows." New Criterion 13, No. 4 (December 1994): 61-7.
Provides an overview of Lowell's life and literary career through review of Paul Mariani's biography Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994).
Petersen, Donald. "The Legacy of Robert Lowell." New Criterion 1, No. 5 (January 1983): 9-29.
Provides an overview of Lowell's life and literary career through review of Ian Hamilton's Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982).
Tillinghast, Richard. "Robert Lowell on Native Ground." Virginia Quarterly Review 71, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 86-100.
Discusses Lowell's artistic preoccupations and offers personal recollection of Lowell as a poet and teacher at Harvard.
Veitch, Jonathan. "'Moondust in the Prowling Eye': The History Poems of Robert Lowell." Contemporary Literature XXXIII, No. 3 (Fall 1992): 458-79.
Examines Lowell's historical imagination and psychological themes in History.
Vendler, Helen. "The Poet and the City: Robert Lowell." In Literature and the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature, edited by Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts, pp. 51-62. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981.
Discusses the personal, historical, and aesthetic significance of urban settings and landscapes in Lowell's poetry.
Williamson, Alan. "Looking Back at Robert Lowell." American Poetry Review 24, No. 3 (May-June 1995): 35-8.
Provides an overview of Lowell's life and literary career through review of Paul Mariani's Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell and Richard Tillinghast's Robert Lowell's Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur (1995).
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