“Waking in the Blue” consists of forty lines divided into six uneven verse paragraphs. Though essentially free verse, the poem contains remnants of the rhymed couplets Robert Lowell used for the poem’s original composition (as he did for many poems in Life Studies).
The title points, first, to Lowell’s autobiographical experience of awakening at daybreak in a mental institution—a memory Lowell presents through a surrealistic metaphysical conceit in which he and his fellow patients are sea creatures swimming in the “agonized blue” of the institution. The title also hints at the poem’s class conflict in which the mental ward’s Roman Catholic attendants function in a “sea” of “Mayflower screwballs” wearing the “blue” of French sailors’ jerseys.
The poem begins with one of those night attendants rousing himself “from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head.” As the poet (who seems to be the speaker in the poem) “catwalks” through the institution, he awakens with tensing heart to the bleakness and “Absence!” of his surroundings.
In the second and third verse paragraphs, Lowell presents satiric vignettes of the institution’s “thoroughbred mental cases”: Stanley, the former Harvard all-American with “kingly granite profile in a crimson golf-cap”; and “Bobbie,” the “roly-poly,” swashbuckling member of Harvard’s Porcellian club. Lowell portrays himself in the poem’s final verse paragraph as a strutting “Cock of the walk” only to discover in “the metal shaving mirrors” a reflection, not of himself, but of his own “shaky future” in the “pinched, indigenous faces” of his older companions.
Wedged between the vignettes of other mental patients and Lowell’s self-portrait is the next-to-last verse paragraph in which the poet presents the contrasting Roman Catholic attendants (who attend Boston University instead of Harvard). For this segment, at least, the poet assumes their perspective (“hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts”). Even when Lowell seems to judge these nonaristocratic interlopers and their “slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle,” the reader may find their seriousness and intellectualism (with the “B. U. sophomore” dozing over literary theorist I. A. Richards’s 1923 The Meaning of Meaning) superior to the backward-looking antics of the “Mayflower screwballs.”
The poem concludes with Lowell’s resigned assessment of his social class, and himself in particular, as “ossified” artifacts unable to change even through self-destruction: “We are all old-timers,/ each of us holds a locked razor.”