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

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 …

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