Robert Lowell

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What is the meaning of Robert Lowell's poem "Homecoming"?

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Robert Lowell's poem "Homecoming" describes the feeling of loss experienced by the aging speaker, who is returning to his hometown after a long absence. Through allusions to Homer's Odyssey , Lowell simultaneously elevates the speaker's situation to the level of epic drama and deflates that drama by suggesting that...

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the contemporary world is not heroic enough to support that kind of emotion.

The title of the poem suggests that the speaker is coming back to some sort of class reunion, where he will measure his own life experiences against the success of his friends, "the boys in my old gang/ [who] are senior partners" (ll.2-3). His situation parallels the homecoming of Odysseus, a heroic general from ancient Greek literature who went off to fight in the Trojan War, but due to a series of misadventures, was unable to return home again for many years. When he finally does get back to his wife and son, he finds his house in disarray: assuming that he has died, a slew of suitors have encamped around his home to try to win his wife for themselves. His former status as ruler of his community is gone, and he must reestablish himself and reclaim his family. Similarly, the speaker of the poem has to face the loss of his old love, but it is here that the contemporary situation begins to pale in comparison to the epic; his memories of their younger days revolve around casinos and martinis - not exactly the noble stuff of epic. Even his old cronies are "bald like baby birds" and ready for retirement (l.4), an image that ironically transforms extreme youth into a vehicle for old age. It seems that the speaker and the world he inhabits are both past their prime.

As the speaker continues to muse on the years that have passed, he reflects that "Fertility is not to the forward,/ or beauty to the precipitous" (ll.21-22). Unlike Odysseus, who has earned fame and glory through his noble deeds in war, the speaker seems not to have achieved success, and indeed, he questions the very idea that the blessings of life can be earned through ambition or effort. His life seems to have been characterized by "things gone wrong" (l.23) in spite of the earlier promise of his youth. Indeed, not even his homecoming will bring resolution to the longing he still feels; while Odysseus is ultimately able to defeat the rival suitors and win his wife back, there is no indication that the speaker has any hope of regaining his lost love; he is still "circling for [her] with glazed eye" (l.28).

The passage of time has not brought heroic closure to the speaker. Even when we see references to summer, which could symbolize the height of strength that Odysseus still possesses when he returns, we get instead an image of withering as "poplars sere/ in the glare" (ll.32-33). The speaker, like the leaves, is sapped of strength, and we have no indication that he will be energized by his homecoming. The last stanza provides the final contrast with Odysseus. Although the hero came home so changed by many years and trials that not even his family recognized him, his faithful old dog still knows him, suggesting that despite his temporary weariness, he remains essentially unchanged. However, the speaker of our poem mourns that "No dog knows my smell" (l.36). Whatever loss he has experienced has altered him to such an extent that he is not recognizable anymore as the young boy who lived here in his "hour of credulity" (l.8).

This is not the world of epic after all, and the poem closes with this vision of a modern world sadly fallen from the glory of the literary past, but which still holds it up as an ideal. The most the poet can hope for, perhaps, is to find a way to "clothe summer/ with gold leaf" (ll.24-25), to make of irreversible loss a fabric from which to make art. Indeed, this would fit well with the project of the Confessional poetry begun by Lowell himself: to make one's own life experiences, however sordid and messy, into subject matter for poetry, and in so doing, to give dignity even to the failed and the mundane.

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