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That Robert Lowell was always interested in formal experiment we may argue from the evidence of the poems. What I would like to suggest here is that this interest is not only a reflection of formal inventiveness, but of the integrity of the moral experience explored. Thus the knotted and syntactically confusing forms of the early poems tell us a great deal about the quality of the religious vision involved; the free verse looseness of Life Studies reflects the poet's attempt to free himself from rigid moral categories; and the fragmentary, casual structure of Notebook enacts, as it were, the moral, political and cultural fragmentation that is the book's theme. Lowell's achievement has been to articulate a sense of moral and political confusion, and to render that confusion as a richness and complexity of immediately-felt experience, creating poetry out of chaos without imposing an artificial notion of order. Of course, the earlier poems do attempt to impose a Catholic view of civilisation upon disorder, and the poems from Notebook onwards do seem to have come dangerously close to disintegration in their attempt to render the absence of such holistic structures. But I would want to claim that these particular failures merely serve to emphasize the nature of Lowell's real accomplishment, which we may see most acutely in the poet's response to form in certain poems from Life Studies, from For The Union Dead and Near The Ocean.
That certain of the poems in Part Three of Life Studies were "originally written in prose" and then "put into verse" would hardly surprise many readers. In "My Last Afternoon With Uncle Devereux Winslow," for instance, whole passages have a leisurely, discursive quality that lacks even the normal tension of well-written prose…. It is a flat, prosaic language, lacking the syntactical complexity and energy of the earlier poems, just as it lacks their damaging ambiguity. The poetic effect—if it can be said to generate one—stems from the occasional use of internal rhyme and from the random accumulation of assorted information: almost a collage of the poet's memories of childhood. Unfortunately, this collage does not create any continuous tension, so that even when … figurative language suggests an organising metaphor for the whole experience described in the poem, so slackly has the poem worked towards its conclusion that we cannot feel that any true knowledge, any living sense of experience, has been transmitted. Not only does there appear to be no poetic logic behind the choice of line lengths, or behind the random selection of detail presumably intended to be representative of whatever effect the poems are working towards; not only does the technique fail utterly to generate any sense of moral urgency of significance; but the very flatness of the language leaves one with a strong suspicion that Lowell has merely sought to make verses out of his prose material simply in order to have sufficient poems to fill a volume.
The interesting point about Life Studies, however, is not that Lowell seems to have made public his own worksheets, but that out of these experiments, perhaps because of them, he has been able to write a handful of what I judge to be his finest poems. There seems to me to be no doubt that with "Waking In The Blue," "Memories of West Street And Lepke," "Man And Wife" and "To Speak Of The Woe That Is In Marriage" Lowell established himself as the major American poet writing in English since the war, and that this achievement has come—at least in part—out of the conflict between formalism and free verse: a technical conflict reflecting the moral consciousness.
In a poem such as "Waking In The Blue," one has the direct evocation of time and place that is characteristic of the best of Lowell. Like all great lyric poets, he is at his best when isolating the particularity of some momentary experience, whatever the wider significances of that experience may be. (pp. 3-5)
[By] organising the details of one life, Lowell is able to give a sense of life as it is lived now in major urban conurbations throughout the world. What he is doing, in fact, is to give significance to human experience by giving it to the experience of one particular human. In these poems of Lowell's, so powerful are the particular details, so emotionally and morally pregnant the epiphanies evoked, that the very intensity of the poetic rendering becomes a moral judgment. In Leavis's sense, writing as serious as this is moral by definition. It is moral in the way that technique, such as rhyme, is used for emphasis…. [And] above all it is moral in the way that the language does not indulge in the rhetorical generalisations that characterised Lowell's earlier poems of denunciation. Language as controlled as that in the best poems of Life Studies is, of itself, a moral value: as an articulation of both irony and forgiving despair, the very fact of the language, of the poem, becomes an act of ordered response to extremes of experience. (pp. 6-7)
For The Union Dead establishes a community of response in its recollections of a particular experience, and even where that experience is perhaps sentimental—as in "New York 1962: "Fragment"—so powerful is the overall impression of an "unforgivable landscape" … impinging upon one consciousness that we are prepared to accept sentimentality as part of what [Richard Kuhns calls] … the "structure of experience."
In discussing Life Studies, I noted that part of the technique seemed to be the accumulation of detail, detail presumably intended to have significance for the total meaning of particular poems. For The Union Dead similarly accumulates detail, its significance being the sense of a total culture…. It is the sense of place that is quite overwhelming in Lowell's poetry; but more than that, in the careful choice of detail to create that sense, it is a moral response far more subtle and deeply pondered than the denunciations of, say, Boston in Lord Weary's Castle. (pp. 8-10)
A major achievement of For The Union Dead lies simply in its successful "recollection" of significant detail, the moral judgment of that detail being implicit in its very selection. In the title-poem, the most important poem in the collection, the poet's intelligence is operating much more explicitly. "For The Union Dead" works through a process of historical and emotional juxtaposition. The poet's memory of his own childhood … is measured against the adult consciousness … and contemporary reality…. Similarly, the tragic waste of the Civil War … is heightened by the political problems of the present…. (pp. 10-11)
The recurring imagery of the Aquarium and the "dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" certainly works towards an atmosphere of corruption and almost Surreal nightmare. But it is a nightmare that is perfectly and brilliantly under control, and this must, I think, be a major factor in the poem's moral achievement. The spare, elegant movement of the stanzas, the clear, accurate descriptiveness of the language, the variation of line lengths between stanzas—all these enable the poet to use images and juxtapositions, such as the "Hiroshima" and "Mosler Safe" contrast, that might otherwise have the rhetorical violence of Lowell's earlier poems…. It is a form whose very gracefulness is almost representative of New England liberalism, and by virtue of its quiet arrangement of horror, articulates a vision of contemporary American society that has the breadth of a much larger-scale work. (pp. 12-13)
If For The Union Dead establishes a context by "uniting the individual in his privacy with communal reality," Near The Ocean shows the poet sufficiently distanced from his own private realities to turn the process of Recollection into an objective, prophetic judgment. Love and knowledge have been earned at enormous cost, as we see from the volumes prior to Near The Ocean, but given the fact of this knowledge, the poet's sense of his own responsibility now encourages him to seek some more generally public statement And it is the nature of Lowell's form that enables him to achieve the necessary objectivity to make this statement.
The poems … from Near The Ocean "sing of peace / and preach despair" ("Waking Early Sunday Morning"), and this is the key to Lowell's achievement. It is in the content of the poems that he preached despair, the despair being the recognition of realities. It is in the form that he "sings."
Lowell's use of form in these poems is, of itself, a positive value. Given all the despair of the political and psychological vision, the very fact that a major poet chose to write in such a traditionally poetic form—especially after all the developments of Life Studies and For The Union Dead—asserts a belief in at least one kind of order. It is an order as fragile as the form of the poems themselves; but equally, just as the liberal and pastoral values mourned in "Waking Early Sunday Morning" and "Fourth of July in Maine" are a permanent measure of what man can achieve, so the grace and dignity of Lowell's verse reminds us that such order is possible. The poems are resonant with the constant music of rhyme and assonance … [and] with the dead-fall of beautifully modulated line endings…. We can see, I believe, in the very quality of Lowell's poetic texture his belief that "You've got to remain complicatedly civilised and organised to keep your humanity under the pressures of our various governments." It is that "complicatedly civilised and organised … humanity" that I find in Lowell's poems, a humanity tentatively and beautifully rendered in the technical organisation. (pp. 16-17)
William Bedford, "The Morality of Form in the Poetry of Robert Lowell," in Ariel (copyright © 1978 The Board of Governors The University of Calgary), Vol. 9, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 3-17.
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I had hoped that Robert Lowell, after the disastrous collections of recent years, would emerge into old age with energy and genius as Yeats had done. But when Lowell died last September, he had just published Day by Day, a volume as slack and meretricious as Notebook and History which preceded it. The great poet died thirteen years earlier, with the publication of For the Union Dead.
One would not know it, from the book reviews or from the academy. The Literature Industry manufactures truisms like slogans. For years … we have known that Robert Lowell was our greatest living poet. No matter how self-indulgent his latest self-imitation, the New York Times Book Review would agree to its genius. I suspect that this inflation—made windier now by his death—helped precipitate the appalling decline in Lowell's achievement. (p. 7)
After I read Day by Day, depressed by its trashiness, I looked back at Lord Weary's Castle again; it is great poetry, and with The Mills of the Kavanaghs, Life Studies, and For the Union Dead adds a strong poet to American literature. But our literature … is characterized by writers who do not grow old in their art, but who fly high and explode and crash. We do not deny the height if we deplore the crash. Lowell's downfall began earlier, but was confirmed by Notebook 1967–1968 in 1969, and by the frantic revisions and new poems—seven volumes in nine years—that followed. The original Notebook assembled hundreds of blank verse fourteen-liners—diffuse and self-serving gossip, slovenly clichés assembled with a zeal like Roget's. And the New York Times, in a front page review, declared it a masterpiece. (p. 8)
If one had spent the years since Life Studies in Antarctica, let us say, and visited one's local book store on one's 1977 return to check up on Lowell—one would have discovered … cliché. Not ironic cliché, not arguable cliché—just good old Edwin Newman cliché, the sort of cinderblock that publicity releases are built with: "I blushed to acknowledge …" / "… His heart is swallowed in his throat…." For hyperbole one would have found: "a limb that weighed a ton." For a clever way to describe restoring a house, one would have found, "putting the place on its feet."…
Day by Day has more dead metaphors than it has live ones. These dead metaphors—"lost in the clouds" / "brink of adolescence"—carry no lively sense of idiom, as one might hope …, but reveal a poet no longer custodian of the language of the tribe….
One result of dead metaphor is mixed metaphor. When Lowell has children ["dart like minnows"], he turns them into swift objects ejected from blow-guns by pygmies (or into feathered toys hurled in English pubs); then he turns the children instantly into tiny fish; because of the deadness of both metaphors, we take neither image seriously, so the dart's feathers do not metamorphose into fins—at the precise expense of image, of intensity, of concentration. (p. 9)
Day by Day is as loose in grammatical connections as it is loose in metaphorical coherence; lines wander down the page, unconnected with each other…. [The many] endstopped parallel lines—rhythm gone slack—leave us no sinew or syntax to hold the one perception to the other.
If the language of Day by Day is trite, and its connections unfixed, its overall tone proclaims the lassitude and despondency of self-imitation. Again and again, Lowell heaps adjectives before a noun, collapsing clauses into modifiers, a mannerism which once carried energy and invention. Again and again, Lowell fakes cloture with a little leap to one side, away from his poem's apparent thrust—a routine that was new in Life Studies. Self-imitation—the famous "voice" for which critics praise Lowell—appears adjunct to self-regard. A weary narcissism pervades these poems, whining its complaints. (pp. 9-10)
I don't know whether Lowell sought criticism in his last decade. If he found good criticism, he paid it no heed. His own sad generation of poets died off. Replacing it—or what it might have been—was the uncritical and automatic paean of the Literature Industry, which allowed no thought that Homer, flattered and celebrated and growing old, might nod into imbecility.
In twenty years, no one will praise Day by Day. There will be reaction against Lowell, and it will be severe, unfair, and sheep-like. Sheep-critics will throw Lord Weary's Castle and Life Studies out with Notebook and For Lizzie and Harriet. In the longer run, of course, the poetry will endure: as long as there are libraries, as long as there is an American language, "After the Surprising Conversions," "Mother Marie Therèse," and "Skunk Hour" will sing out their lines to the ears of people who love poems. Day by Day will remain a sad footnote to the corruption of a great poet, and to the corruption of the Literature Industry in the latter third of our century. (pp. 11-12)
Donald Hall, "Robert Lowell and the Literature Industry," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 7-12.
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What, one wonders, would attract a poet to rewrite what is already a rewriting of a translation from the original Greek. For that is what Robert Lowell did with his Oresteia, based as it is on Richard Lattimore's poem script, which Lattimore in turn based on the translation appearing in H. W. Smyth's Loeb Classical Library text. (p. 200)
[A new "translation"] can be coming out of one or more of three motives: to explicate the drama in such a way that what was law and revelation to the pre-Hellenic Greeks is clarified for us; to "adapt" the drama for the twentieth-century American mind, imposing twentieth-century American equivalencies on its framework …; or simply to make new poetry out of old. Judging from Lowell's text, which certainly attempts neither of the first two, it was the third which motivated him.
Unfortunately, as poetry the work is slightly flawed, and as drama it achieves nothing not already achieved by Lattimore…. On the one hand, Lowell hewed absolutely to the plot-line of the original, neither attempting anything new of his own nor taking off from any of the several possibilities Robert Graves provides in The Greek Myths. On the other, he seems to have essayed somewhat new characterizations for most of the principals—in particular Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Orestes—but in an apparent effort to round them out more fully as human beings, he managed only to pale the dazzling primary colors they had when they were less dimensional creatures in [the versions by] Lattimore and [Edith] Hamilton…. Lowell's [Clytemnestra] is made to seem nearly insipid, an ordinary compared to the Magna Mater of her predecessors, while Agamemnon comes across as an anima-possessed businessman home from a hard day at the office. Orestes, alas, embodying as he does what is peculiarly Greek about the play (man caught in the nets of a double-binding tradition) is no better understood by Lowell than by Lattimore, and offers even the best of actors the unenviable role of bloody milksop.
But I said the poetry is flawed, and it is, sometimes shockingly so for the work of a man considered one of our major voices. After the massive strength of lines such as "I've nothing to say to him. A black ox stands on my tongue," or "Legs break, knees grind in the dust," the toe is stubbed on the careless ugliness of "royal oil" in "May the drugging incense of the royal oil give us peace."… The same lapse of diction later finds Orestes knocking at the door of the House of Atreus shouting "Is anyone home?"… On the stage such lapses pass very quickly, sometimes even go unnoticed, but in print they take on an awful permanence.
Greater than flows of diction, tone, and musicality, however, is that of imagery. For some reason neither amplified nor supported by the text as a whole, Lowell fixed on the image of wolf—wolf for Clytemnestra, wolf for Agamemnon, wolf for Orestes—with a few equine allusions thrown in here and there, apparently for contrast. A poet, of course, has the prerogative of finding meaning in whatever imagery he wishes. But he has also the responsibility not merely to repeat the image but to make an architecture of it, to surround it with such support and weight and relatedness that it grows richer with each repetition and begins to reverberate, to constitute its own meaning. Lowell's wolf is a patchwork affair, stuck on hastily over Lattimore's/Hamilton's/Aeschyus's nets and snakes, images which in those earlier versions do become part of the architect ionic. (pp. 200-02)
The executors of Lowell's estate … might have done better by his reputation, if not by Accounts Receivable, had they chosen to withhold a piece Lowell must himself have considered unfinished. (p. 202)
Sandra Prewitt Edelman, "Flawed Rewriting of Rewritten Translation," in Southwest Review (© 1979 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 200-02.
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The sheer size of what [Robert Lowell] did in verse exceeded the life work of any of his coevals, and I do not mean in bulk alone—also in scope and grasp and largeness of mind. Randall Jarrell instructed him, John Berryman rivaled him. Each was a masterly and inspired poet, but neither had quite his range over politics in the grand sense. (p. 10)
For 30 years Lowell continued from time to time to make a stir.
The trouble was that sometimes the stir accompanied or worsened into a crisis…. [After his first grave manic attack in 1949, Lowell] had to govern his greatness with his illness in mind. Life Studies were an early and extreme result of this kind of discipline and scaling down—poems obviously related to the studies he had been constrained to make of his own experience. For young writers here and abroad they showed a new way of making poetry….
There is no short or easy way to describe the power and diversity of his work. One feels that illness enters into a part and that this is not the best part. Some things bore me or leave me cold, for example in the unrhymed 14-line poems, reminding me of his own unsparing line about himself in "Near the Ocean"—"fierce, fireless mind, running downhill…." Unsparing, but certainly only momentarily true. Inspired poetry kept coming to him in the last years, inventions constantly extended by mastery of English and daring of sensibility. Finally, the sweep and momentum of the whole Lowell creation are irresistible. (p. 11)
Robert Fitzgerald, "Robert Lowell, 1917–1977," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 177, No. 14, October 1, 1977 (and reprinted in The Harvard Advocate, Special Issue: Robert Lowell, Vol. CXIII, Nos. 1 & 2, November, 1979), pp. 10-12.
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The doctrine of incarnation has an inherent appeal to poetic thought because it promises to resolve the two basic forms of contradiction bred by a sense of the ironic distance between concepts and world. Incarnation is first of all the union of flesh and spirit, the coming of a principle of divine order in the otherwise chaotic war between the ungoverned flesh and the harsh letter of the old law. The incarnation informs the flesh with spiritual force and, by thus transforming existence, allows the law to become more flexible, more symbolic, and more intimately linked to the inner life. Second, it is the intersection of time and timelessness, a way of altering the arbitrary orders of human law and human words so that they become more suited to the divine Word or Order, which understands the complexities of the flesh and natural flux. Thus natural experiences are given meaning and purpose in the timeless scheme of creation. (p. 56)
[In Robert Lowell's] earlier work he exemplified the more radical and philosophic New Critical style of his masters Tate and Ransom. Yet it is precisely because he took the incarnation so seriously, as the basis for both his religious and his poetic lives, that he could so thoroughly alter those lives when his faith was no longer adequate to sustain their demands. It is a testament to the seriousness with which he took both religion and poetry that his shift from the dense linguistic structures and typology of his earlier mode to the confessional style constitutes the single most important phenomenon in the movement from a modernist to a post-modernist sensibility in American poetry. (p. 60)
Lowell's Life Studies provides the terms one needs to comprehend the historical genesis of confessional poetry. The volume, taken as a unified set of poems, both interprets Lowell's own break with his past and self-consciously reflects on the implications of the new mode he is creating. The volume's first poem, "Beyond the Alps," introduces the break with the past by returning with a fresh perspective to the oppositions between natural process and an incarnational structure of values…. These oppositions are summarized in the line "Life changed to landscape."…
[This] line dramatizes Lowell's sense of the only models of meaning left when an essentially vertical symbolic order grounded by the doctrine of incarnation gives way to a primarily horizontal secular one. Landscape is the perfect secular horizontal form of art, for it has no objective center of meaning and depends for its resonance entirely on details and implications created by the painter's stance in relation to his materials. Landscape reveals no hierarchy, nothing valuable in itself. Its horizontality opposes both the typologies of Christianity and the symbolism of Romanticism where specific objects and actions take on sacred or privileged existences.
To appreciate what is at stake in this shift to landscape, one needs to examine a typical early poem based both thematically and stylistically on the incarnation as the reconciliation of secular experience with a timeless vertical order giving events significance. The typological style of "Colloquy in Black Rock" depends on the poet's ability to find patterns and symbolic schema capable of investing a moment of intense vision with intellectual and ethical significance. And thematically the poem depends literally on the incarnation as the typological moment that transforms suffering into value…. The poem's predominant motif is the horror of mud as a symbol for the all-leveling naturalistic world whose final conquest is the "mud-flat detritus of death." Emerging from the poem's intense rhetoric, however, are a series of typological relationships between suffering, martyrdom, and the act of building the church, which establishes the alternative possibility of redemption from this natural death. The poem then asserts the power of redemption by two figures who gather the preceding themes into their symbolic presence. First the protomartyr Steven integrates the different sufferings of Lowell and the laborers into an image of the creative role of suffering. But while Steven dies into the mud so that others might live, Christ comes to illustrate how dying can be the way to victory over the mud in this life. Christ comes in the traditional symbolic form of the kingfisher, a literal enactment of the descent of the vertical order into time, so that the destructive images of mud and blood can be transformed into purifying fire and life-giving blood sacrifice. The traditional quality of this closing image, then, itself contributes to the redemptive act. (pp. 61-2)
How different it is when one crosses the Alps from Rome to Paris and must imagine landscape as his artistic model…. [Where] poetry once defined itself in allegorical and symbolic terms, it now must recognize that it must take what sustenance it can from the affinities it shares with the novel, with the view of literary art developed when men turned from God to the landscape. The novel is the literary form born from the death of the epic.
In all great epics, a vertical force—fate or destiny or the gods—invests the actions with significance and creates the values defining noble conduct. In the novel, on the other hand, action and value tend to be defined horizontally—by the flux of history, by the sociological conditions of the novel world, and by the interactions of the characters. Lowell's task then is to accept the empirical reductions of the old values to mere fictions, but not to stop there. He must suffer the pains of a naturalistic world—hence the volume's pervasive animal images and Lowell's stress on the past as the field of quest; but he must, at the same time, transform the landscape by finding through his suffering a secular basis for value that will make endurance possible. (p. 63)
For value to emerge in the prose world, the poet must develop a style that can convey its glimpses of meaning within contingency without the aid of allegorical or paradigmatic structures. Poems must appear to remain faithful to the casual flux of experience even while actions and qualities recur so that some kind of generalization, however problematic, can make its appearance. What the mind seeks to bring together seems to yield a little, but nonetheless remains essentially rooted in a horizontal world, asserting its own inviolable uniqueness. Lowell solves the problem of making his poems seem contingent and moments of direct experience while providing patterns allowing interpretive structures by appropriating techniques from the prose tradition. He makes the primary source of interpretive meaning the volume as a whole. Hence what appears casual and momentary in individual poems becomes resonant and yields general significance when the reader learns to relate the instance, expression, or image to similar ones in other poems and to seek out a dramatic structure for the entire volume. (pp. 63-4)
Thematically, the dramatic movement of [Life Studies] develops the quest exemplified in "Beyond the Alps." First the volume explores the tragedy of decaying fictions—in the culture as a whole and then in Lowell's private life…. The confessional style … is inextricable from the cultural and personal breakdowns that make one's self-consciousness at once the only imaginative force and the only locus of materials one can employ to achieve some tentative balance with the prose world. (p. 64)
Complementing the dramatic movement are three patterns of recurrent images and actions that allow the intellect to interpret and grasp the emotional resonance of the contingent events. The first two patterns balance one another. Recurrent animal images … evoke the metaphysical and pyschological plight of men deprived of transcendence and condemned to an essentially biological frame of reference. Reinforcing this subhuman state are repeated images of failed authority figures—pope, president, father, and ancestors—who should mediate the child from natural existence into a meaningful social order and provide him with viable models of human conduct…. Even the domestic order of life, that simplest and perhaps most assuring form of culture, is now horribly reversed and offers only momentary terror and a sense of time as infinite repetition. No wonder also that Lowell's isolation leaves him only the mirror as means for self-definition and for reconciling inner and outer realities. Yet this mirror is no ordinary domestic mirror: to see oneself in a metal mirror is here not to be given back one's ordinary selfhood but to be reminded, in the very attempt to grasp the self, how close one is to self-destruction. Even the ordinary tools of cultural life, like the razor, now are potential elements for suicide.
The one way beyond the mirror for Lowell is to find some form of communication or communion. Indeed, the dominant quest in the first three sections of the volume is for some form of communication, some external source of consolation…. Yet in the midst of [his failure at communication], Lowell establishes a set of recurrent images of eating, which allow him to deepen the symbolic implications of his final encounter with the skunk [in the final poem, "Skunk Hour"]…. The basic context for Lowell's gradual recovery of ritual possibilities is provided by "Home After Three Months Away." For in this poem Lowell nicely returns to his earlier references to shaving in order to mark a recognition that domestic life need not repeat the farce played out by his parents. The domestic context can, in fact, provide a secular approximation of the symbolic order by making shaving a kind of ritual and creating a sense of shared humanity that redeems animal references. The reference to himself as a polar bear becomes now a playful epithet and allows him to play a role that creates a moment of tender love.
The possible redeeming qualities of domestic life enable the starker context of "Skunk Hour" to provide a somewhat satisfactory conclusion to the volume's spiritual journey. In the context of the entire volume, "Skunk Hour" articulates a ground of values that make it possible to endure, if not to overcome, the anxieties of contemporary life and the loss of traditional grounds for value…. Thematically the skunk resolves several problems in the volume. By returning to the prereflective natural order symbolized by the many animal images, Lowell makes the skunk embody the determination and self-concern of all living beings and beyond that, as mother, a willingness to face danger in order to accept the responsibility of her role…. Now one sees both a parody of the Eucharist and, on another level, a genuine moment of communion, for, as the skunk swills from the garbage pail, Lowell finds precisely the image of endurance and survival he had sought in vain in the rest of the volume. (pp. 64-7)
As the skunk makes her way beneath the "chalk-dry church spire" reminding the reader of the dead vertical world, she embodies whatever possibilities Lowell can find for restoring a context of value within secular and biological necessity…. The presence of the skunk … forces on the reader a solution to the poem's despair, but it is a solution that does not incorporate the human and religious terms in which the despair had been framed. The analogical link, then, between Lowell and the skunk's not-quite-human resolve to endure can only be known sympathetically. The relation is too complex and diffuse for analysis, and the identification of man and skunk too foreign to one's sensibilities for there to be a completely affirmative resolution. Finally, Lowell's identification with the skunk provides an emblem for the confessional style in the volume…. [The] skunk summarizes what it means to search for value and self-definition when all the sustaining fictions have failed. One is left only with the garbage of one's own past, which he must have the determination to explore and the courage to endure…. (pp. 67-8)
Having found a provisional basis for overcoming despair, Lowell tries to get off the tightrope and to explore more ordinary kinds of experience in a less intense, more reflective manner. But the very terms of those explorations continue to be shaped by the values defined in Life Studies. First of all, the central contrast between the naturalistic prose world and the fictions generated by consciousness to make sense of that world remains a basic theme. The tension tends to shift from psychological to ontological concerns, but poem after poem sets the self-possession and indifferent temporal processes of the natural order in mocking contrast to the weak human consciousness seeking to express its own values and to find meanings not subject either to temporal decay or to the ironic indifference of the landscape. Yet Lowell's concentration on these oppositions in effect creates a context in which self-pity can give way to cosmic pity …, self-absorption to the tentative construction of a human community based on a humble grasp of the shared human condition. Much of Notebook … seems devoted to articulating a contemporary version of tragic wisdom, and, at the thematic center of that volume, one finds Lowell summarizing its basic sense of value, "We are all here for such a short time, / we might as well be good to one another."…
Lowell's developing tragic sense, however, cannot easily overcome the intense privacy he associates with the fall into prose. In Life Studies the decay of cultural fictions and the consequent naturalism required that the person's sense of his own meaning be based on immediate tangible experience that could not be universalized. At best one could trust as valuable and meaningful only one's own vitality and those sharing one's domestic existence. This creates a radical tension between public and private realms that Hannah Arendt claims, with good reason, to characterize the development of Western culture. Lowell's finest rendering of this dilemma occurs in the two concluding summary poems of For the Union Dead. "Night Sweat" focuses on the way domestic life can generate a limited sense of values within the flux, while "For the Union Dead" embodies the terrors facing one when he turns outward to the contemporary public scene.
"Night Sweat" confronts Lowell's deepest fears about the flux—that surrender to it is really submission to the death instinct…. Set against his own materiality and involvement in the dark "troubled waters" (an image that, along with the sweat, ties this poem to the destructive waters in the rest of the volume), Lowell sees "the lightness" of his wife…. [This section recalls] the redeeming domestic context of "Home After Three Months Away," but the tone is more meditative and the situation more complex. Now the domestic context is an adult one, and it demands a complexity of tone incompatible with the anguished voice of confession…. In a complex way, the very absurdity of domestic love restores to Lowell possibilities for mythic dimensions of experience lost in "Beyond the Alps," and it does so in a manner whereby the fictive quality of myths is no longer a problem. It is precisely by utilizing their fictiveness that one creates complex tones and understands how myths can tie into prosaic emotional experience.
Behind this successful domestication of myth, however, there lies a deeper tragedy. With myth so localized, a deeper gap opens between private and public realms of experience…. "For the Union Dead" is Lowell's most profound and most frightening evocation of the contrast that will more and more permeate his work. In part, at least, "For the Union Dead" presents the conflict between fictive dream and prose realities, this time in the form of a confusion between cultural and natural orders. (pp. 68-70)
The despair can be measured by a contrast with "Skunk Hour." There the savagery of the skunk was part of an epiphany, reminding cultured man of natural principles of values. In "For the Union Dead" the reader first sees culture's destroying the natural garden and the Aquarium where culture and nature had reached a kind of balance, then in turn the ugly, mechanical aspects of that cultured order are reduced to the savage servility of the cars' becoming fish (with serpent-like qualities). "Savage servility" combines the worst aspects of uncontrolled nature and overcontrolled culture with its machines and propaganda. And without a viable culture, neither communication nor interpretation is possible. The conclusion leaves not even a metonymic trace of hope; only a bleak perversity occupies the public stage.
In For the Union Dead Lowell preserves the sense of survival he achieved in Life Studies, but the very reflective freedom this gives him only deepens his awareness of how limited is the realm of values he can trust. There can be little doubt that his critics were correct in seeing much of the volume as excessively passive and self-pitying. Still there are many ways in which his fidelity to the quest defined in "Beyond the Alps" justifies these features of his work. Indeed Notebook, his last volume during the sixties, can be seen as a deliberate justification for and exploration of the condition of passive self-pity. Here Lowell envisions the prose world and the demonic, paralyzing social order as requiring an essentially passive vision, for that passivity is necessary in order to reach the only mode of freedom that history still grants—the freedom of tragic vision…. In passive acceptance Lowell finds his muted version of meditative tragic joy: "The reader has a sense of the poet as somehow equal to everything he describes." (p. 71)
[With Notebook Lowell] has become a poet of the possible. His lucid cosmic scope makes quite clear the pathos of the human condition, and within that condition he can approve and wonder at the sympathies and mutual understanding realized by those who see their plight. At their best, the poems include the reader in Lowell's charmed circle of those who, because of their despair, have developed the power to appreciate the limited joys and moments of shared feeling or clear insight that are all one can have. Value exists within the prose world and within the domestic context of shared feelings because men can be conscious of their dilemmas, and they can articulate and share them. (pp. 71-2)
Acceptance as Lowell images it, however, makes for a tragic vision composed entirely of moments of intense awareness of man's position in history and in a natural order dominated by death and decay…. The very passivity of Lowell's style leaves no room for the counterassertive will one desires in tragedy: for Lowell there is only prose lucidity, no dream of a lucidity beyond an essentially empirical consciousness, that is content to mirror external conditions. (p. 72)
[Lowell's] quest for the epigram and its use as the conclusion of so many poems brings a curious aestheticism back into a deliberately antiformalist style. The poem is no longer dramatic event or exploration but the vehicle for intense moments, and perhaps even more for incisive statements about those moments. One can suspect that the epigrams are cultivated not so much for their existential value but in order that Lowell, too, (like the poets and friends he so often quotes) can make clever contributions to those lightened moments of family love and good fellowship. Again truth's public dimension is subjugated to the private and limited. Truth becomes the property of individual consciousness seeking moments the flesh can cherish before it dies. The confessional style has surrendered its inwardness and its extreme tensions, but it retains its ontology and its tragic egoism.
Lowell was (until his death in 1977) without much question America's greatest active poet: his verse has an authority, cadence, and intelligence that approximates Yeats. But the very intensity and intelligence he offers create problems in understanding how to take his work. One can, for example, view his work in terms of his later self-image as a spiritual historian of his age. Then one can have little quarrel with him. Both the nervous egotism of Life Studies and the passive lucidity of his more public poetry become images measuring the difficulties of imaginatively surviving what intellectual and social history have made of modern American life…. [Yet younger poets] took Lowell's desolate introspection as blind egotism, as an unwillingness to attend carefully to possible sources of value outside the self. Similarly, what Lowell projects as a passive lucidity required by history, they understood as a surrender of the imagination to external social forces and an inability to transcend history. From this perspective, the tragic vision seems a tragic loss of vision, and Lowell's desperate attempts to recover traces of humanism in terms of a sense of community dependent on that vision appear as a clear index of how bankrupt the humanist tradition has become. (pp. 73-4)
But Lowell's middle ground does seem untenable. He cannot escape his beginnings, cannot merge his humanism with his sense of the prose world, and thus seems condemned to nostalgia or to another version of the enclave theory so common to humanists from Arnold through Eliot. Oppressed by the residue of his Christian expectations, he can never face the prose world without a sense of tragic loss. And driven by his humanist sense that a viable culture depends on the active presence of collective myths and shared ideals, he can never view his contemporary society without "optimism of will, pessimism of intelligence."… If humanism is really to be rejected and if man is to learn to face the prose world without despair or self-pitying nostalgia, it may be that we must turn to younger or more alienated poets who never shared Lowell's religious and cultural dreams. Yet the integrity of Lowell's quest leaves for me serious doubts whether these poets might be masking optimism of will as optimism of intelligence. The new myths may well be building new Romes. (pp. 74-5)
Charles Altieri, "Robert Lowell and the Difficulties of Escaping Modernism," in his Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960s (© 1979 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1979, pp. 53-77.
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Though he had written the first two-thirds of his Oresteia in the 1960s, Lowell was still working on the final portion when he died. His purpose, put forth in the brief preface, was to produce an acting version "to trim, cut, and be direct enough to satisfy my own mind and at a first hearing the simple ears of a theatre audience". He did not work from the Greek …, but instead used as his model Richmond Lattimore's "elaborately exact" translation. This was a crucial error, even though Lattimore himself has praised the new version. When Lowell "imitated" Russian poetry his raw material was a literal trot. But it is Lattimore's particular genius that his precision is also poetic. Lowell left himself little room to operate.
The language of Aeschylus is dense and difficult, full of striking word-coinages which, even if literally rendered, can evoke a frisson in the modern reader…. This would seem attractive to Lowell's own style. But his version is a deliberate stripping down of the poetic diction. Whereas Lattimore has both the courage and skill to render those Aeschylean metaphors, Lowell has systematically excised them. The result is a playable drama about Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes, but an oddly prosaic one. Lowell has produced a muted Lattimore, a literary curiosity like I. A. Richards's Wrath of Achilles.
In terms of scene construction and dialogue, Aeschylus was the least dramatic of the Greek tragedians, but he was the most poetic. To remove the metaphors, as Lowell has, is to take the blossom from Prometheus' fire. Where is the voice of Lowell himself, aptly praised by Richard Howard as "igneous poetry"?…
Aeschylus' style …, like Virgil's, has an elaborate and consistent structure of imagery. Like the Roman poet, Aeschylus will sustain a metaphor over hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of lines. He has planned to conclude his trilogy with a torchlight parade, and from the earliest moment, his language prepares us for that final scene…. Lowell has ignored what Aeschylus wished to emphasize. The impact of the play is inevitably weakened. For in Aeschylus, the metaphor is the message….
Lowell presents a tender picture of the young princess being lifted towards the altar: "she looked at her familiar killers … and sang with her weak, clear voice in honour of her father". But once again, a crucial metaphor is missing. In the Greek, Iphigenia glances at her killers "with arrows of pity". While one should not demand slavish adherence to the text from a poet of Lowell's stature, one has to point out that he is undermining Aeschylus' carefully wrought imagery. For later in the play there is a deliberate echo of the innocent victim's pitiful arrows—when the playwright describes the arrival of Helen to Troy. Once again, the eyes of a woman shoot arrows, but this time they are soft (the adjective malakos even has a sensual connotation) and they strike eros into the hearts of all. Having ignored the first metaphor, Lowell also omits the second. A powerful irony is lost.
And yet now and then there are moments when Lowell is more Aeschylean than Lattimore….
The high point of Lowell's version is Orestes' revenge upon his mother. Here the translator is at his freest—and most dramatic. Even Pylades, Orestes' legendary friend, who has one of the most thankless roles in literature—for he must stand patiently through an entire play to speak but three lines—has, in Lowell's version, three better lines….
Lowell has translated the spirit of [Clytemnestra's] murder by articulating the unspoken emotional undercurrents. He has also added to the drama with imaginative stage directions, and clarified some of the mythological allusions by glossing them within the dialogue…. And by dividing the speeches of the Chorus into various solo utterances, Lowell has eliminated the single most distracting element in modern performances of Greek drama: the garbled chanting, which often sounds like the responsive reading of a desultory church congregation….
It is spectacular theatre….
[Mercifully, Lowell] does pare down the propaganda [which characterizes the third part of Aeschylus's trilogy], since it is hardly palatable to a modern audience. Orestes is absolved because, as the Greeks believed (and Athena agreed), a woman is less important than a man, and therefore killing a mother is less horrendous than killing a father…. One might have expected a man like Lowell to "improve" this part of the Oresteia.
And perhaps he would have, had he lived. We must always bear in mind that his Third Part was but a draft, and that he never saw any of the work staged. He would surely have sharpened it, and removed some of the infelicities….
Lowell nowhere tells us why he was drawn to the Oresteia. I would doubt that it was merely as a translator's challenge. The fact that he also wrote a Prometheus demonstrates how much he shares with Aeschylus a deep concern for justice—social, if not cosmic. This explains a great deal, and makes literary pronouncements somewhat peripheral. Nobility of soul is more important than metaphors.
Erich Segal, "Robert Lowell: The Oresteia of Aeschylus" (© Erich Segal), in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4009, January 25, 1980, p. 97.