Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell; drawing by David Levine

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.

Such attitudes deeply influence the form of Lowell’s work. He loves to give a theatrical setting to his meditations on the human condition. The reason is not so much the ordinary contrast between appearance and reality as Lowell’s peculiar sense of playing an assigned part. Reading over a book like Imitations, or History, one is struck by the poet’s habit of casting himself and his intimates as historical figures: King David suffering from the poet’s own night sweat; Solomon asking, “Can I go on keeping a hundred wives at fifty?” The effect is often hilariously reductive: “for Judith, knowing / Holofernes was like knocking out a lightweight—/ smack! her sword divorces his codshead from the codpiece.”

Yet the deeper, ironical comedy lies in the contrast between a “great” man’s feeling of power or freedom, and history’s judgment that he only conformed to a prepared script. Lowell does allow a few exceptions like Thomas More and Colonel Robert Shaw—men who consciously chose their fate. But that choice was self-sacrifice; and the poet seems to intimate that one realizes freedom best when one dies for a noble ideal.

For Lowell, even nations fit the deterministic scheme. So in “Near the Ocean,” ancient Greek myths are reenacted on our side of the Atlantic, and a Greenwich Village Orestes succumbs to his own mother’s depravity. Or in Benito Cereno the founding fathers of the United States seem to enjoy the vices of the tyrants they had denounced, while their young republic willingly inherits the criminal character of the Spanish and French monarchies.

In the making of his verse, Lowell shows his humor by incongruities that run parallel to his sympathies. Like many innovators, he has the admirable custom of adapting the material of other authors to his own purposes. When the old source shows unsuspected affinities with the new subject, we hear reverberations that are not only comic but instructive. For example, Lowell gives Caligula the voice of Baudelaire: taking the sonnet “Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux” (with a hand up from Anthony Hartley’s translation), he adapts it to the spleen of the Roman tyrant; and we realize that the same gloomy boredom that sends a dictator to his sadistic pleasures can also propel the creative imagination of a genius. The final joke of course is that Lowell, elsewhere, not only describes himself as subject to fits of spleen but also uses “Caligula” for his nickname, and that he has been compared with Baudelaire.

A subtler aspect of comic technique is Lowell’s use of the rough sonnet form. He has written hundreds of these poems, playing with their structures and arranging them in ways that show the variety of his wit. So History closes with a poem called “End of a Year,” and the book contains almost exactly one rough sonnet for each of the 365 days.

By fixing on a much-used form, Lowell puts himself in the same position as the persons who inhabit his works; for the innovator and iconoclast must now accept the technical assignment bequeathed him by his predecessors. He must work with their rules, submit to their discipline, act the predestined part of a sonneteer, along with Petrarch, Ronsard, and Shakespeare. It would be fair to say that when Lowell wrote these poems, he was creating all the roles in a comic theater of the sonnet.

So in the poem on Cleopatra, reduced from his translation of Horace’s ode, Lowell wittily preserved the Latin opening but magically transformed it from the original Alcaic meter into the pentameter normal to a sonnet, even fitting the line into a rhyme (bought at some sacrifice of grammar). He turned the poem neatly in the traditional way, between the first eight lines and the last six. But as if to draw a mustache on the familiar face, he also insisted on reversing Horace’s admiring picture of Cleopatra, and made her finally not “unhumbled” as in the Latin, but “much humbled,” with an epithet that draws more sympathy from the modern reader.

Even wittier is the way Lowell miniaturized his old translation of Villon’s “Dames du temps jadis.” He got the three and a half octaves down to fourteen very short, irregular lines; but he rhymed all except the last, with only three rhyme sounds, thus producing the ghost of a sonnet for the ghosts of dead ladies.

These games with form and technique become poignant as well as comic when the poems touch on Lowell’s career as a father or poet. “No Hearing (Discovering)” deals with a runaway child. There is something pre-ordained about the episode; one feels caught up in a recurrent myth of “the runaway.” This father takes his turn and conducts the usual helter-skelter search through the side streets and corners of the town, a seaport; but as the myth requires, he discovers the girl in her own back yard.

The form of the poem combines the appearance of freedom with the reality of inherited shape. Under the spontaneous syntax, Lowell makes ingenious use of the traditional strain between lines one to eight and nine to fourteen: in the two divisions he balances opposing actions, sights, and sounds. So the octave shows the poet as restless hunter, scouring the town with his car’s head-lights and coming moodily to rest in view of the ominious waterfront and its hint of drowning. It is, as Marjorie Perloff says, crowded with busy participles and verbs.

The motionless sestet shows the child ineffectually questioned and, in the predestined style of runaways, giving no explanation. The contrast bathes the parent in sympathetic humor, by setting the act he must perform (in his daughter’s theater) as a confident guardian against the glimpse we get of his inner uncertainty.

The octave also concentrates on the silence of the search, and the miscellaneity of objects the father sees—white, bright, and green against the darkness—ending with the steamer in port suggesting dangerous travel. The sestet shifts to the sound of the girl speaking, as she throws the father’s query back at him (his “Why did you do it?”—I suppose; and her “I would prefer not to say”). Here the master of expression finds his voice absurdly ineffectual. The sestet also fixes on the single figure in black edged with red (suggesting terror) and then screened with virginal white. It ends in the affectionate picture of the quivering, stubborn deer, the child who, like an iceberg, is nine-tenths hidden from her parents:

Discovering, discovering trees light up green at night,
braking headlights-down, ransack ing the roadsides
for someone strolling, fleeing to her wide goal;
passing blanks, the white Unitarian Church,
my barn on its bulwark, two allday padlocked shacks,
the town pool drained, the old lighthouse unplugged—
I watch the muddy breakers bleach to beerfroth,
our steamer, THE STATE OF MAINE, an iceberg at drydock.
Your question, my questioner? It is for you—
crouched in the gelid drip of the pine in our garden,
invisible almost when found, till I toss a white raincoat
over your sky-black, blood-trim quilted stormcoat—
you saying I would prefer not, like Bartleby:
small deer trembly and steel in your wet nest!

Pathos and comedy reach their mingled intensity of effect in Lowell’s poems about the literary career. In these the self-ridicule depends on a double image: the man in his ambitious youth, planning to throne himself on Parnassus, and the older, established but dubious personage, only too conscious of the gulf between public recognition and true accomplishment. In one of his apostrophes to the girl in Mexico the poet saw himself as “humbled with the years’ gold garbage, / dead laurel grizzling my back.”

This was pointed enough. But in “The Nihilist as Hero” he goes further. Here Lowell faces the mutually incompatible desires of the modernist poet: to give us the experience of immediate, unrefined life, and to create something indestructible in its perfection: “to live in the world as is, / and yet gaze the everlasting hills to rubble.” The poet says he wants “words meat-hooked from the living steer,” and so opposes his own writing to the conventional idea of polished versification.

Yet the poem was obviously labored over to a degree remarkable even for Lowell, who has a compulsion to rewrite his verses both before and after publication. The outcome is vigorously but deliberately erratic in its rhythms, while hovering about the five-beat meter that the sonnet traditionally requires. The poet thus grimaces at the vision of formal perfection, a vision evoked by a quotation from Valéry which opens the poem.

On the same page is “Reading Myself,” in which Lowell’s patent mastery of form quarrels with the fear that he has not fulfilled his promise. The charming, witty imagery is related to that of the matching poem, and some of the lines are almost mellifluous. But the design elegantly reverses the old shape of a sonnet (i.e., description followed by reflection), for it has six lines of reflection followed by eight of a single, elaborate metaphor. In a triumph of expressiveness the sweetest lines deal with a honeycomb:

No honeycomb is built without a bee
adding circle to circle, cell to cell,
the wax and honey of a mausoleum—
this round dome proves its maker is alive;
the corpse of the insect lives em- balmed in honey.

It seems plain that “The Nihilist as Hero” through its eloquent coarseness conveys one-half of the poet’s ambition, while “Reading Myself” conveys the other, and that Lowell illustrates by his technique a yearning to reconcile art as process with art as product.

Finally, there is “Fishnet,” the opening poem of The Dolphin, in which Lowell brings together the terms of love and art. The lines carry a tribute to his present wife as not only the muse who inspires him but also the dolphin that preserves him from drowning in psychotic disturbances. By relying on metaphors from fishing, it touches a current of autobiography, because that solitary pastime (as solitary as writing) provided one of the constant pleasures of Lowell’s boyhood and some of the striking images of his poetry early and late. The reductive humor of writing conceived as a sport deflates the poet while sparing his beloved and his art. The self-ridicule of “genius hums the auditorium dead” has the same effect.

So the poem opens with three unusually well-turned lines representing the wife as a muse in a dolphin’s shape. The poet then breaks in on himself, suggesting abruptly that he cannot capture the idea in words eloquent or concise enough. The middle section of the poem then voices dissatisfaction with his work in general, and contemplates the approach of death as the end of a self-centered but hardly complacent career.

To cut off the section, Lowell ingeniously employs a short line with an implicit pun on that very word: “The line must terminate” (line of verse, of fishnet, of life). Finally, in an expressive contrast to this brevity, he has four long lines (the last being the longest in the poem) on poetry as salvation; it is the gift that rescues him from despair and (through the permanence of art) from death—even as the dolphin does.

For all the free variations from traditional sonnet form, the poem clings to an underlying pentameter beat, and has a coherence of imagery that keeps it focused. Lowell added a line to the version published in The Dolphin, bringing the total up to the norm of fourteen. In design and in theme, therefore, the poem brings out his fundamental poise between liberty and determinism:

Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise,
your wandering silences and bright trouvailles,
dolphin let loose to catch the flashing fish….
saying too little, then too much.
Poets die adolescents, their beat embalms them,
the archetypal voices sing offkey;
the old actor cannot read his friends,
and nevertheless he reads himself aloud,
genius hums the auditorium dead.
The line must terminate.
Yet my heart rises, I know I’ve gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope;
the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,
nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future.

I ought to stop here, but cannot suppress an anticlimactic note on the choice of poems for this Bicentennial selection. Like Donald Davie, I think Lowell has been unfair to the splendid work in his volume Near the Ocean. I wonder how wise the poet was to destroy the symmetry of “Central Park.” Its original sequence of young lovers, caged lion, exposed kitten, and old Pharaohs—its rhythm of poor and rich, of morning, afternoon, and night—satisfied my taste for complicated elegance. I wonder too whether he would not have done well to retain the passages now deleted from the compelling octaves of “Waking Early Sunday Morning” and “Fourth of July in Maine” (renamed “Night in Maine”). And I wonder whether the vivid third stanza (now missing) of the poem “Near the Ocean” did not give that thorny composition a breadth and depth of reference enjoyed by others besides myself.

This Issue

October 28, 1976