Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 518 words.)