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Robert Lowell: Death of an Elfking

by Paul Elmen

Dr. Elmen is professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (Episcopal), Evanston, Illinois, This article appeared in the Christian Century November 16, 1977, p. 1057. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.  Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The fires men build live after them,
this night, this night, I elfking, I stonehands, sit
feeding the wildfire . . .

Robert Lowell.

When Robert Lowell died on September 12, he was riding in a taxicab from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan. There is little question that the most distinguished poetic voice of our time had been stilled. He was on his way home from a visit to Ireland, where prose has never been granted absolute priority, where leprechauns are taken seriously, and where a poet has a chance of being understood if he says that the plucking of a certain flower brings death to a princess in a castle beyond the sea. The cabbie who was the last person to hear Lowell speak could not have known that the passenger hulking in his rear seat was really Druid royalty, and that future generations would warm their hands at bonfires he had built. As Randall Jarrell said, “A few of these poems, I believe, will be read as long as men remember English.”

I

Waking famous like Lord Byron, Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1947 after the publication of Lord Weary’s Castle, and he won it again in 1974 for The Dolphin. But these heady accomplishments seemed only what might be expected from the inheritor of an aristocratic American bloodline. In Boston the Lowells were in the small group that could speak casually to the Cabots, though perhaps not so easily to God. One of Robert Lowell’s ancestors, Mary Chilton, is said to have been the first woman to step off the Mayflower in 1620. James Russell Lowell was a great-great-uncle. Settled heavily on another branch of the family tree was Amy Lowell, and on still another branch perched A. Laurence Lowell, sometime president of Harvard. Robert’s mother was a Winslow, descendant of one of the early governors of Massachusetts. She also had a bit of Jewish ancestry. It is tempting to speculate that this tiny intruder in a Mandarin DNA molecule gave her son his offbeat fascination with a family which at the same time he wanted to repudiate, as well as his sense of the infinite possibilities of existence which he also knew could never be fulfilled.

In any case, Robert Lowell was a New England aristocrat with a difference. He started out conventionally enough as a fifth-form schoolboy at St. Mark’s, the Episcopal school at Southborough, Massachusetts. His classmates called him “Caligula” or “Cal” for short, because of his size and because his shyness was concealed by an overbearing manner. What was said to him at the dinner table he later recorded in a poem:

 “Why is he always grubbing in his nose?”
“Because his nose is always snotty.”

 

Cal was kidded with the kind of fierceness and cruelty only adolescents are capable of, and while he could not help admiring the ingenuity of astonishing epithets for him (“Dimbulb,” “Fogbund,” “Droopydrawers”), he was deeply hurt and carried the scars for life:

I was fifteen;
they made me cry in public.

Luckily for him one of his tutors was the poet Richard Eberhart, who taught Robert the secret known to poets and to nightingales: that pain can be managed when it finds a perfect expression.

The next step in the grooming of a Boston blueblood is, of course, Harvard -- the inevitable way station on the road to a house with purple windows in Louisburg Square. But Harvard and Lowell did not do well together. He thought it a good idea to run off to Europe with a lady friend, and when his  father reacted angrily, Lowell knocked him down and later remembered him sitting on the floor. Harvard’s resident poet, Robert Frost, told Lowell that he had too little compression. Knowing now what he wanted most to do in life, Lowell set out for Gambier, Ohio, to learn how many words were needed for a song. That one should go to Ohio to learn this astonished Beacon Hill, but it made sense.

Kenyon College at Gambier was the center of the New Criticism and the home of the journal which for two decades dominated literary circles -- the Kenyon Review. When the young Lowell arrived, his eyes in fine frenzy rolling, the Kenyon cognoscenti recognized him for what he was -- a true poet, despite his ancestral baggage. In later life Lowell said that he was the kind of poet he was because of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Randall Jarrell.

During his last year at Kenyon, Lowell married the first of three wives and became a Convert to Roman Catholicism. The couple moved restlessly to Louisiana, back to Kenyon, and then to New York’s Greenwich Village. When World War II broke out, he thought that his country was attacked, and so tried twice to enlist -- unsuccessfully. But he became very angry about U.S. military tactics, especially the bombing of cities, and when he was drafted he refused to serve. He wrote a letter to President Roosevelt explaining “how painful such a decision is for an American whose family traditions like your own have always found fulfillment in maintaining our country’s freedom and honor.” Sentenced to a year and a day in prison, he spent five months in Manhattan’s West Street Jail. Always a victim of inner turmoil, he was several times treated for short periods in a psychiatric hospital.

II

Lowell’s early poetry used Christian symbolism but in a curious form: he expressed his anger because the world was not as Christian as he thought it ought to be. God was celebrated in his absence. The faiths that talked simply of his presence were the objects of Lowell’s wrath -- especially Calvinism. His jibes at the early New Englanders remind one of Thomas Macaulay’s famous sneer: “The Puritans hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” However, this was not exactly Robert Lowell’s complaint. He has Thomas Merton of unredeemed Merry Mount say, “I know you Puritans. You only care for profit; your holy thirst for mink and beaver skins drives you mad.” The charge echoes Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that there was a generic connection between the asceticism which Calvinism fostered and the rise of capitalist institutions.

Lowell’s protest against New England Calvinism was only one aspect of his rebellion against his ancestors. He might have been expected to be just as sentimental about Boston as E. A. Robinson was:

For there’s a town my memory uprears,
And always in the sunlight by the sea.

 

But for Lowell, Boston had only a “savage servility”: a parking lot was being dug under the Common, and the Public Gardens, once reserved for the upper class, were now taken over by the “mid-Sunday Irish.” He railed against authority in general: kings, bigots, parents. The Allied war effort seemed to him to be obscene, life imitating Guernica, chaos come again.

The central theme of the early poems is that although men and women were made in God’s Image, that likeness has been lost. The subject is a familiar theological lament since St. Augustine’s regio dissimilitudinis; but Lowell felt it like a sickness, or like a kick in the groin. In his first book, Land of Unlikeness (1944), bitter images describe the terror of a world from which the Christian experience has disappeared. His next book, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), develops the theme of the squandered inheritance. The title comes from an old ballad:

It’s Lambkin was a mason good
     As ever built wi’ stane:
He built Lord Wearie’s castle
     But payment gat he nane.

 

The creator of the world is Christ, who cannot be faulted for his creation. But the world has fallen into the hands of men, and they have failed to pay the builder his due.

After Lord Weary’s Castle, Lowell’s verse became suddenly more earthbound, abandoning the cosmic riddle for what Heidegger called the ecstasy of time. Lowell’s own phrase for the new mood was an oxymoron: “the monotonous sublime.” Instead of bemoaning the absence of an embracing principle. he would pick over with gentle irony the scenes of his childhood, translate or rewrite some of his own poetry or that of others. Life Studies (1959) won the National Book Award; Imitations (1961) won the Bollingen translation prize; and Notebook (1967-70) was received with enthusiastic gratitude. His poetry was patterned of intense, unashamed bliks, private views, into his own experience, but the praise that followed showed that he had also hit upon universal themes, There was always, of course, a handful of critics who thought Lowell overrated.

The change in poetic style was occasioned by or at least accompanied by his withdrawal from the arms of the Roman Catholic Church after The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). From then on he hailed as a victory what he had earlier described as a disaster: the inability of the spiritual substance to find its own historical setting. From now on he would be what Archilochus and Isaiah Berlin would call a fox rather than a hedgehog: that is, he would give up subsuming all experience under a single, central vision or a single universal principle, as Dante had tried to do. Now he would imitate the fox, eluding the chase by improvisation, using whatever tactic might prove necessary to fit changing circumstances, doubling back, hiding, moving through water, and reveling in a thousand stratagems, not unlike Shakespeare.

Every artist and every poet is in this sense foxy, working with concretion rather than with universal principle; but Lowell outdid them all in his use of audacious particularity. He was reconciled to life, even if that meant an unremembered death. In ‘For the Union Dead,’ a savage, beautiful poem inspired by the statue erected for Colonel Shaw on the Boston Common, he explains why he admired this Civil War commander of a black regiment:

He has an angry, wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness.

 

The colonel is Out of place in the Boston Lowell knew:

                                                               He rejoices in man's lovely
 peculiar power to choose life and die.

 

Lowell had now come to terms with what is, rather than what might be or what should have been. In a poem called “Obit,” which closes the sonnet sequence of Notebook, we get almost his final word:

 

Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, stopping
all becoming. I’m for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth’s fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on dusk and brick,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life.

 

There are echoes here of Mircea Eliade (“the eternal return’), Albert Schweitzer (reverence for life), and Jean-Paul Sartre (“for and with myself”), but perhaps most of all the kind of “Catholic mysticism” which Lowell admired in Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is a kind of mysticism which does not preach or scold, or point a moral, but accepts the richness of experience, reveling in the drift and color and texture of the commonplace. Some of Lowell’s notable achievements, like “Skunk Hour,” “Mother Marie Therese” and “Colloquy in Black Rock.” present moments of existence which seem to have revelatory power, secular epiphanies akin to what scholastic philosophers called acts.

III

In Lowell’s latest book, Day by Day (1977), language became simpler, his prevailing tone conversational, as though he had finally come around to Robert Frost’s down-east manner. But there was little feeling that the mystery had been solved. There remained the problem of human relationships, and after Lowell’s third marriage the puzzle of women leaving:

Our cat, a new mother, put a paw
under my foot, as I held a tray,
her face went white, she streaked screaming
through an open window, an affronted woman.

 

He had Prometheus tell the chorus, “I have little faith now, but I still look for truth, some momentary crumbling foothold.”

The brilliance and at the same time the sadness of Lowell’s verse may be illustrated by one of his justly admired poems, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” The poem is an elegy, a song of mourning for the death by drowning of his cousin, Warren Winslow. It begins with an epigraph from Genesis 1:28: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea . . .”   But men have no such dominion; the sea has dominion, as the Quaker fishermen and Ahab’s whalers knew. In a manner reminiscent of T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets, Lowell invokes the strangeness and the power of the whaleroad:

                               Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones, 
Cousin, and scream for you.

 

The terrible depths of the ocean are more real than any pious phrases spoken over them, Foundering Quaker sailors died even while they were on their knees praying for rescue, victims of a greater God, IS.

The capitulation of this poem to existence may be contrasted with the optimism of Milton’s classical elegy, “Lycidas.” Milton was grieving for the death by drowning of his schoolmate, Edward King, on his way to Ireland in 1637. But if one believes in the resurrection of the body, tears should be brief:

       Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar.

 

Edward King is safely in heaven, “Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves.” Saints greeted him there, ready to “wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.” The same consolation is found in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” written to mark the drowning, of five Franciscan nuns while crossing the English Channel in 1875. Hopkins knew as well as Lowell the sinister strangeness of the sea and shuddered like Lowell at its dark power, so inaccessible to human thought. But Hopkins also had the hope which Lowell had lost -- the consolation of Israel:

 

     Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter
               and warm;
          Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art’merciful then.

 

The only defense Lowell had against “the whelming tide” was a poet’s unabashed vision, which could stare the terror in its face and finds words for it:

A nihilist has to live in the world as it is,
gazing the impossible summit to rubble.

 

Having religious longings of a sort (he swore that the later poems were as religious as the early ones, though secretly so), he wrote like a helpless saint; but having faith smaller than any mustard seed, he saw no chance of moving mountains except by courage and incantation. It was as though he had adopted the Jesuit “composition of place” but without the Jesuits’ Lord of the place. His later piety was really chagrin at the absence of piety, rather like the later Bertrand Russell’s disbelief and longing to believe. In “Goethe,” Lowell quoted the German writer approvingly:

 “The more I understand particular things,”
he said, “the more I understand God.”

 

And in “Margaret Fuller Drowned” Lowell recalled that she had said, “Myself is all I know of heaven.” The familiar ascetic practices failed to bring Lowell back to his belief, as he reported in “Thanksgiving’s Over”:

I sat. I counted ten thousand, wound
My cowhorn beads from Dublin on my thumb,
And ground them. Miserere? Not a sound.

 

What gave him comfort at the beginning and at the end was writing some of the loveliest songs in our language, conquering the nightmare as Hölderlin said it could be conquered -- by giving it its right name. As he wrote in “Fishnet”:

The line must terminate
Yet my heart rises, I know I’ve gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope.

 

Those nets will hang drying in the sun as long as readers can be found who respond to an exquisite intelligence, trying with ruthless candor to find words for a nameless pain. What Lowell wrote in “For John Berryman” after his friend had plunged from a bridge in Minneapolis was true:

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through -- these are
     words . . .
John, we used the language as if we made it.

 

They did. Since Berryman’s death, since Robert Lowell slumped in the back seat of a New York cab, the world’s language seems impoverished. Robert Lowell’s funeral service in the Church of the Advent, Boston, was like a requiem for an elfking at the edge of an enchanted forest. The bard in the coffin seemed at once very strong and very vulnerable. A distinguished company of poets and writers had gathered for the last rites, members of a coterie older and more exclusive than the Lowells of Boston. There was general agreement that there would have been time later on for news of his going, and that he should have died hereafter.


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