Going through Robert Lowell’s Selected Poems, one realizes again how funny and witty his work can be—“With seamanlike celerity, / Father left the Navy, / and deeded Mother his property.” Lowell’s comic power was manifest in Life Studies. But as the poet moved into middle age, humor became a subtler element of his work, displacing the vindictive sarcasm of his early books.
The effect of Lowell’s comedy is reductive: Clytemnestra becomes a figure not unlike the poet’s mother but with a simpler sexuality—“our Queen at sixty worked in bed like Balzac.” Lowell takes persons or situations that threaten one with anxiety. But rather than immerse himself in the primitive response, he stands outside like an independent observer, and sees the danger as (after all) finite: it shrinks into the commonplace, fades into the trivial, or vanishes into the unreal. Napoleon enters in the small bathtub he used on campaign (“1930’s: My legs”); death turns into a family trait: “our family cancer—Grandmother’s amnesia, Grandfather’s cancered face…with us no husband can survive his wife” (“Gods of the Family”).
In general, the threat of the dangers is to confine the poet, to deprive him of dignity, power, life—above all, of freedom. But the comic element releases him and gives him a feeling of magical transcendence. Often the danger springs from his own unmanageable emotions, the frightening impulses drilled into him during childhood, impulses that now seem predetermined and external, beyond control. But the source may also be perfectly natural, like the coming of death.
So, as the poet starts many poems, he sounds hemmed in by psychic traumas, the deteriorations of age, or the resistance of language to art. He should be too old for love, too tired to write. Yet the turn of the poem is repeatedly comic: he remains productive, and he is loved. The fate that seemed ineluctable is softened or avoided, because life defies theory.
One way of framing and therefore controlling the peculiarly human dangers is to set them off against the condition of animals. Guilt-free, untroubled by our conflicting emotions, the beasts and birds of Lowell’s poems attract the smiling sympathy we extend to very young children. At the end of “Skunk Hour,” the mother skunk feeding her young is absurd as well as admirable when she “jabs her wedge-head in a cup / of sour cream.” So is the seal swimming “like a poodle” in “The Flaw.”
But Lowell builds his most elaborate comedies around the personality of the poet, especially as the inner man confronts the outer. “Near the Ocean” is a remarkably involved, essentially comic meditation on the ego’s fight to deliver itself from lust and guilt. Here the poet seems to smile at the antitheses connecting his public and private character.
In the poem he pictures himself first as a theatrical Perseus, heroically freeing mankind from the tyranny of the Medusa. But then he quickly revises the scene and appears as an indecisive Orestes, about to kill his own mother. The two deeds become absurdly equivalent: liberation of oppressed victims and betrayal of a parent; or else, love for Andromeda and hatred of Clytemnestra.
It was Aeschylus who linked tyrannicide with both Perseus and Orestes (in the choruses of his Libation Bearers—which Lowell once translated). But in “Near the Ocean”—especially in stanza three, which he has now deleted—the poet finds the link ironical. He draws a witty contrast between the Mediterranean world and our own Atlantic seaboard. The one possessed myths and institutions to absorb the more wasteful passions of humanity: there were Greek furies to punish matricide, Christian crusades to wear down battering rams. In that world, sin and saintliness produced known consequences.
But in our own, troubled nation, the causal ties between character and action, past and present, are fading. Psychological determinism obscures the guilt or shame we might feel for our moral excesses; God has lost the right to blame us for the sins our parents inculcated. In “Near the Ocean,” therefore, the poet treats the Atlantic as an emblem of moral chaos, and seesaws his way to its edge in contrasting episodes of restraint and abandon, innocence and exhaustion, night and day. Scene follows scene: Maine, Greenwich Village, Central Park, Fire Island; there is no stopping place before the water’s edge.
Pondering the fact that every involvement with a lover means a betrayal of an earlier love, the poet can only forgive himself for his trespasses after shriving and the penance of self-ridicule. Then in the privacy of his bed, flanking his wife, he stops fussing with judgment and analysis. Oceanic passions have worn away his attachment to ritual and tradition. Ambiguous love remains. So he turns mentally to his wife and wonders whether he must transform her too into a gorgon, so as to find an excuse for betraying her. “Monster loved for what you are,” he says tenderly, not sure how serious or comic the epithet will be.
Behind the ambivalent attitudes one detects a friendly ribbing of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which supplied the epigraph for an old poem of Lowell’s. “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” said Arnold in the face of a world meaningless and chaotic. Lowell suspects that the recipe is too simple, that love cannot be true either, and that perhaps the chaos within us requires betrayals even as the chaos without deceives our hopes and dreams.
“Near the Ocean” is a difficult poem. One of the simplest poems Lowell ever wrote suggests the ideal that floats, like Eden or Atlantis, above the humor. This poem is “Will Not Come Back.” Here the poet recalls and apostrophizes a girl he met in Mexico, during a literary institute (I suppose) held at a deconsecrated monastery in Cuernavaca! Unforeseeable, narrowly limited in time and space, the experience took on a unique intensity. It was like a free, spontaneous circumvention of the doom of middle age; and because it seemed unique, the poet could yield to it again in memory.
He celebrates his love in his common way of transferring emotion from the principals to their surroundings: the swallows, the honeysuckle, the season. And in the manner of Ronsard’s similar sonnet, “Quand vous serez bien vieille,” he also moves the sense of loss from the lover to the beloved. Yet even in such earnest, conventional circumstances, the poet cannot resist a dash of ridicule. Knowing birds rather better than most poets, he observes that the insectivorous swallows who looked in on the couple were not simply toing and froing: they were feeding in flight (as usual), and snapping up the romantic nightflies, even as reality must devour the illusions of the middle-aged seducer:
Dark swallows will doubtless come back killing
the injudicious nightflies with a clack of the beak;
but these that stopped full flight to see your beauty
and my good fortune…as if they knew our names—
they’ll not come back. The thick lemony honeysuckle,
climbing from the earthroot to your window,
will open more beautiful blossoms to the evening;
but these…like dewdrops, trem- bling, shining, falling,
the tears of day—they’ll not come back….
Some other love will sound his fireword for you
and wake your heart, perhaps, from its cool sleep;
but silent, absorbed, and on his knees,
as men adore God at the altar, as I love you—
don’t blind yourself, you’ll not be loved like that.
The swallows of “Will Not Come Back” reappear in Lowell’s best play, Benito Cereno, which mingles the bitter ridicule that marks his early poems with the reflective humor of his later. When Delano, the naïve American captain, examines the Spanish slaveship through his telescope, he sees gray birds close above it, “like swallows sabering flies before a storm.” Delano’s own vessel is a sealing ship, token of the human army mobilized to destroy humbler creatures. The same aggressive impulses that move Yankees to enslave Africans also direct them to butcher seals.
In the play, therefore, an ironical relation exists between the bleak natural setting and the grim human drama. Ordinarily good omens, the swallows here join the prophets of evil. The storm ahead is the rebellion of colonial peoples against their oppressors, a rebellion sure to produce savage repression. As the hideously unpleasant action of the play begins, the sun comes out, misleading Delano to expect happy events.
The play (based on Melville’s story “Benito Cereno”) deals with the failure of the young American republic to break the lockstep of imperialism that undermined the Spanish and French empires. Lowell sardonically contrasts the laughable illusions of the American captain with the suicidal gloom of the Spaniard, who has learned, through atrocious suffering, how flimsy his own claims were to heroic or even honorable character; for the rebellious slaves made him connive at the humiliation, torture, and murder of his best friend, and then forced him to work hand in hand with the murderers.
Like a comic butt, the American fails to understand that the threat to his own safety comes not from this agent of a decayed monarchy but from the vengeful blacks. When he at last identifies the real enemy, Delano has the slaves mown down with gunfire; and in a final gesture of bizarre vindictiveness, he shoots bullet after bullet into the corpse of their leader.
Lowell distinguishes carefully between the cosmopolitan, liberal captain and his narrow, puritanical bosun Perkins. With all the intolerance of provincial New England, the bosun does grasp the universality of evil. He can therefore be merciful as the captain cannot. It is he who tries to rescue the last and chief rebel: “Let him surrender. / We want to save someone.” But Christian salvation means little to the captain. In a denial of caritas he says to the surrendering leader, “This is your future,” and murders him.
The whole line of action is conceived in harshly ironical terms; ambiguities and puns reveal the complex absurdities that line the conscience of Captain Delano; and if the visible form is a melodrama, the inner design is a bitter farce. The playwright’s own sympathies seem divided between the melancholy Spaniard and the rebellious black: disillusioned age and New Left youth. For the question is whether one is determined by the other.
Among the matters that most deeply underlie Lowell’s poetry is this dilemma of free will and determinism. Must adolescent revolt lead to senile reaction? Must America follow the route of violence and expansion laid out by older empires? Determinism (whether Christian, Marxist, Freudian, or metaphysical) fascinates Lowell as joining men to the rest of nature and offering us relief from guilt. Free will fascinates him because he knows life loses its point when men take no responsibility for their actions.
So in his excellent poem “The Flaw” he treats human existence as a picnic in a graveyard, and sees our peculiar nature as the flaw in a universe where every other creature feels at home—as much at home as a seal in the sea. Here he compares free will to a fault in one’s vision, a lopsided way of seeing reality: “if there’s free will, it’s something like this hair, / inside my eye, outside my eye, yet free.” By imposing moral choice, it spoils our simple response to instinctive desires.