Waking in the Blue

by Robert Lowell

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The Poem

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“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.”

Forms and Devices

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Lowell uses a cluster of metaphors to achieve both of his purposes in “Waking in the Blue.” These purposes are his desire to “confess,” through the therapy of his poetry, his terror about insanity and his suicidal tendencies, and his critique of New England social pretense.

The central cluster of metaphors functions as a metaphysical conceit. Throughout the poem, Lowell extends the metaphor of the asylum as an ocean and its inmates as either sea animals—a seal and a sperm whale—or crew members “swashbuckling” or strutting in “turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey” aboard a ship. In this surrealistic network of images, the blue outside the institution’s window makes bleaker the agony of the oceanic asylum. Despite Lowell’s attempts to console himself with the confident swaggering sailor-figure, he identifies with the seal and whale confined within the claustrophobic blue. This anxiety is most explicit at the poem’s beginning when, according to the logic of the conceit, he becomes a whale waiting to be a harpoonist’s victim: “My heart grows tense/ as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.” This same anxiety resurfaces as a fear of impotent self-destruction at the end of the poem when the harpoon is transformed into the “locked razor” that “each...

(This entire section contains 531 words.)

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of us holds.”

The same extended metaphor of sea animals swimming in the ocean and seamen swaggering above it introduces Lowell’s critique of Bostonians circulating in a common blue-blood milieu. A related cluster of images allows the poet to make his social commentary more explicit. Lowell uses a number of images of corpulence—“a ramrod/ with the muscle of a seal”; “redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale”; “After a hearty New England breakfast,/ I weigh two hundred pounds”—to suggest aristocratic satiety. These images and an accumulation of mineral images—“the petrified fairway,” “A kingly granite profile,” “metal shaving mirrors,” “a locked razor”—anticipate Lowell’s claim that “These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.”

In “Waking in the Blue,” Lowell asks, “What use is my sense of humor?” The answer is that Lowell (much like Sylvia Plath and John Berryman) uses humor throughout the poem as a defense against the confusion and terror evoked by such painful memories. Lowell includes absurdly incongruous details to mask his terror and save himself from his own confessions, juxtaposing Stanley’s “kingly granite profile” with his “crimson golf-cap,” and “Bobbie’s” Louis XVI appearance with his swashbuckling dance in his “birthday suit.”

Lowell also uses an unexpected rhyming couplet in the first verse paragraph for comic effect: “My heart grows tense/ as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill./ (This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)” The pairing of “kill” and “mentally ill” lends the final line a comically macabre, almost camp, effect. Significantly, this comic use of rhyme occurs in the verse paragraph that contains Lowell’s most concentrated use of other formal techniques such as assonance (“Azure,” “agonized,” “Absence”) and alliteration (“blue” and “bleaker”; and “heart,” “harpoon,” and “house”). It is at this moment in the poem when Lowell directly reveals the agony that underlies the rest of the poem, that such formal defense mechanisms are necessary.


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Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970.

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