Waking in the Blue

by Robert Lowell

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Themes and Meanings

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Lowell obliquely announces the two central themes of “Waking in the Blue” in the seventh line of the poem when he creates a pun on the word “petrified” (“Crows maunder on the petrified fairway”). Through one sense of the word (“terrified”), Lowell introduces the poem’s confessional theme: the poet’s wrestling with insanity and potential suicide. The other meaning of “petrified” (“made rigid like stone”) announces Lowell’s critique of the inert, ossified aristocracy of New England.

Lowell’s confession of his anxiety over his weaknesses and failure, though held at bay somewhat by his subtle use of form and humor, pervades “Waking in the Blue.” Even when Lowell and the reader chuckle at an insane inmate’s cavorting in the nude or soaking in a “urinous” Victorian bath with golf-cap intact, they sense the poet’s discomfort at his own ineptness and absurdity. At the poem’s end, reader and poet reel first from the knowledge that “metal shaving mirrors” are necessary to prevent the poet from committing suicide and then from the even more dismaying realization that he is too paralyzed to attempt even this most desperate of measures.

In the context of the poem, neither nature nor the past offers the poet any refuge from his unhappy self-knowledge. Objects in nature that might have provided John Keats and his negative capability with escape from the sad truths of the self only become objective correlatives as Lowell projects his quiet despair and resignation onto the “petrified fairway,” “agonized blue window,” and “maundering” crows. The past (which for a poet such as William Wordsworth might sustain one through a crisis of self-recognition) only leaves Lowell with reminders of a vacuous heritage, in which a “Harvard all-American fullback” is an oxymoron and the “Mayflower” heritage of his Winslow and Lowell families produces a “screwball” disposition.

In contemplating his fate as one of the ossified “figures of bravado,” Lowell seems quite comfortable in seeing himself as a representative figure for the Brahmin class he attempts to parody in the poem. He attempts to stretch beyond his personal battle with failure to examine his entire class’s struggle by publishing “Waking in the Blue” in the historical context of Life Studies (a monograph in which he includes such history-minded poems as “Beyond the Alps” and “Inauguration Day: January 1953”).

For much of the poem, Lowell attempts through parody to distance himself from the “thoroughbred mental cases” he describes. By the end of the poem, however, he is forced to resign himself to being one of them. Even in his moment of victorious bravado, in which his strutting as “Cock of the walk” echoes the swashbuckling dance of the Mayflower “Bobbie,” Lowell must recognize that the “pinched, indigenous faces/ of these thoroughbred mental cases” are his “shaky future.” When he finally resorts to the inclusive pronoun “We” at the poem’s end, his pun on “oldtimers” suggests that he, like the other blue-blood crazies, is an ancient malfunctioning timepiece, an ossified relic that marks the passage of time by its own inability to change, even through the ultimate change of death.

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