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The Return of Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell: Collected Poems

edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1,186 pp., $45.00

1.

In 1944, Robert Lowell published his first collection of poems, Land of Unlikeness. Later he refused to have it reprinted, and it is relegated to an appendix in the new Collected Poems, along with the introduction Allen Tate wrote for it. This is the kind of bibliographical rarity that circulates in the academic world in the form of old Xeroxes. An original edition, with a personal inscription to F.W. Dupee, is currently on sale at little short of $9,000. A book worth having, then, but also a book well worth reading, not because it contains any of the works on which Lowell’s reputation is likely to rest, but because it shows us the sense of elevated purpose and the intense literary ambition which was with the young poet from the outset.

He wanted to occupy the high spiritual ground—like many English-language poets on either side of the Atlantic, he felt that the important response to the war was a spiritual one. He wanted also, in literary terms, to move matters forward after the triumph of modernism by returning to traditional poetics. Tate, in his introduction, saw this clearly:

There is no poetry today quite like this. T.S. Eliot’s recent prediction that we should soon see a return to formal and even intricate metres and stanzas was coming true, before he made it, in the verse of Robert Lowell.

What we were being offered, in this view, was what in the context of other arts was called a rappel à l’ordre, a call to order.

Lowell’s mind was buzzing with poetry. Eliot featured importantly, but the kind of line in Eliot that Lowell was drawn to was clotted and consonantal: “The garboard strake leaks and the seams need caulking”—a line of Eliot’s—sounds like a line of Lowell’s. “How dry Time screaks in its fat axle-grease”—a line of Lowell’s—puts us in mind of Eliot’s

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.

Hopkins was another important part of the mix—in those days Hopkins, though a Victorian, was treated as a modernist (much as Emily Dickinson was). Lowell addressed the Virgin Mary:

Oh, if soldiers mind you well
They shall find you are their belle
And belly too;
Christ’s bread and beauty came by you,
Celestial Hoyden, when our Lord
Gave up the weary Ghost and died,
You shook a sword
From his torn side.

The title of Lowell’s “Cisterciansin Germany” could easily have been a Hopkins title. The poem is about Hitler’s Germany, in which the essential point, to the young Catholic convert Lowell, is the role or fate of the Christian pastors:

Rank upon rank the cast-out Christians file
Under den Linden to the Wilhelmsplatz,
Where Caesar paws the gladiator’s breast;
His martial bumblings and hypnotic yawp
Drum out the pastors of these aimless pastures;
And what a muster of scarred hirelings and scared sheep
To cheapen and popularize the price of blood!
But who will pipe of pastors, herds and hirelings
Where a strait-laced mechanic calls the tune?

All this imagery of sheep and shepherds and piping comes from a tradition, otherwise presumed dead, of pastoral poetry. Lowell has probably been drawn to one of the difficult passages in “Lycidas” (lines 103–131), in which Milton attacks the religious abuses of his day, using the traditional poetic language of shepherding. But the tradition stretches back to Spenser and to the New Testament. What is surprising is to find this zealous young Catholic poet assuming the mantle of a Protestant Milton in order to speak out against Nazi Germany.

Lowell did not find this ambitious early work successful, and suppressed it. The poem ends with an image of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux:

We lift our bloody hands to wizened Bernard,
To Bernard gathering his canticle of flowers,
His soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers,
And all his body one extatic [sic
] womb,
And through the trellis peers the sudden Bridegroom.

This takes baroque poetics rather too far, imagining the male saint as a womb for the bridegroom Christ to impregnate. But Lowell liked it better than the rest of the poem. As he told Frederick Seidel later: “The ‘Cistercians’ wasn’t very close to me, but the last lines seemed felt; I dropped the Cistercians and put a Boston graveyard in.”1 And so the passage finds itself at the end of “At the Indian Killer’s Grave,” with the sex of the saint changed:

John, Matthew, Luke and Mark,
Gospel me to the Garden, let me come
Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers—
Her soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers
And her whole body an ecstatic womb,
As through the trellis peers the sudden Bridegroom.

The revision gets over the potential difficulty of imagining Christ having sex with Saint Bernard, and preserves the object of pride, the Eliotic last line. Lowell said, when asked by Seidel about this habit of recycling passages from old poems:

All your poems are in a sense one poem; and there’s always the struggle of getting something that balances and comes out right, in which all parts are good, and which has the experience that you value. And so, if you have a few lines that shine in a poem or are beginning to shine, and they fail and get covered over and drowned, maybe their real form is in another poem. Maybe you’ve mistaken the real inspiration in the original poem and they belong to something else entirely. I don’t think that violates experience.2

It is a good point, well put. But later in his career Lowell took to revising and recasting his work so much, so fast, that he began to try the patience of his by then large readership. In the process he also created problems for any future editor. The Collected Prose appeared in 1987, ten years after his death. But the Collected Poems has only just appeared, and in the meantime, by common consent, the work of the most famous poet of his day has undergone a partial eclipse.

In a way, the problem was never the absence of a properly edited collection. You can read Lowell in selections and in anthologies: either the major poems there retain their power, or they do not. You could also, without too much difficulty, have acquired any of the individual volumes except Land of Unlikeness, and given it a try. In a sense this is still the best, certainly the least daunting, way to read Lowell. Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) is the first of the key books. My advice is to skip the second, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). The kernel of the great work is to be found in Life Studies (1959), For the Union Dead (1964), and Near the Ocean (1967), and if the reader finds nothing in these then it is very unlikely that the later volumes will have any great interest. If you do admire these four collections, as I do greatly and with great reservations, then you will want to acquire the sequels.

Notebook 1967–68 was the first of them, in 1969. It was written in a fourteen-line unrhymed form which gets called a sonnet, and which suited the poet rather too well. He revised the volume in the next year and then, in 1973, to the exasperation of many, rerevised and reorganized these so-called sonnets in three volumes: History (whose material tends to focus on public affairs), For Lizzie and Harriet (which is about his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and their daughter, Harriet), and The Dolphin (which is about life with his third wife, Caroline Blackwood). Apart from a Selected Poems of 1976, there was only one more volume to come, Day by Day, published in the year of Lowell’s death, 1977.

If you count the two versions of Notebook, there are a dozen volumes of poetry here. In addition, there is a body of free translations, including Imitations (1961), and there are dramas, both translations and adaptations. Beyond the collections of poetry published in his lifetime, however, there does not appear to be very much new to discover. The Collected Poems does not present a new Lowell, in the way that for instance the forthcoming collected Marianne Moore, which I have seen in proof, presents a very different picture from the Complete Poems—bringing together a large number of uncollected poems and reorganizing the whole presentation and sequence, and inviting the reader to consider the whole story of this writer’s life afresh.

The new Lowell has no comparable range of surprises, and the overall picture of his development, though the highlights may alter, remains much the same. Lowell’s Early High Rhetorical style, on display in Lord Weary’s Castle, had an anti-style. The style at its most famous was on display in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” but a much better poem is “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” which has the merits Allen Tate associated with the return to intricate form. It imitates Donne’s “A Nocturnal on St. Lucy’s Day”:

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea….

The subject matter, fanatical New England in the person of Jonathan Edwards, is Lowell’s by birthright. The language is his version of the religious language of the day, and the form suits it perfectly.

The anti-style was on view in the same volume in the poem “In the Cage,” a vision of prison which was drawn from the poet’s own experiences as a conscientious objector during World War II. It is written in iambic tetrameters, which were good for Lowell’s muse (see the volume Near the Ocean); it is tight and vivid, and has that valuable quality of having no designs upon the reader. It was first written in 1944. Here it is:

The lifers file into the hall,
According to their houses—twos
Of laundered denim. On the wall
A colored fairy tinkles blues
And titters by the balustrade;
Canaries beat their bars and scream.
We come from tunnels where the spade
Pick-axe and hod for plaster steam
In mud and insulation. Here
The Bible-twisting Israelite
Fasts for his Harlem. It is night,
And it is vanity, and age
Blackens the heart of Adam. Fear,
The yellow chirper, beaks its cage.

Not a poem that gives itself immediately, it is one that nevertheless stays with you. The image of the canaries, as in the birds taken underground by miners to detect poisonous gases, is not hard to grasp. “The Bible-twisting Israelite,” on the other hand, needs a note: he is a black member of a sect that believes the Jews to be impostors. (Lowell later ruined this poem in History.)

  1. 1

    See The Paris Review, Vol. 25 (Winter– Spring 1961). Reprinted in Robert Lowell, Collected Prose, edited and with an introduction by Robert Gi-roux (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), p. 350.

  2. 2

    Lowell, Collected Prose, p. 247.

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