Here is another attempt at the Lowell muddle, since the last was either abstruse or wrong. Lowell’s poetry can profitably be read against his modernist masters, especially Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (who also reaches Lowell by way of the Agrarians).
Behind these modernists are the Victorians and Romantics–and picking and choosing from the influences of the nineteenth-century, Eliot and Pound and their followers propose that a poem can be a convergence of voices, no single one authentically the poet’s own, with no central organizing self. Eliot and Pound promote early in their careers the impersonal concrete particular image and later in their careers the impersonal generalization derived from an accumulation of particulars, either in experience or in a poem itself. Stevens, who is much less of an influence on Lowell than Eliot and Pound, can be understood similarly, though in his case it would make more sense to speak of an explicit concern with metaphors derived from particularity or generality. All of these poets are wary of a mysterious, lurking bogey-man, “rhetoric”—as is even Yeats, the most rhetorically inclined of modernist poets.
But they yearn also for an ideal of rhetoric, struggling to define it and experimenting with reinvesting it with authority and power; Eliot and Pound admire poets of the seventeenth-century and before, whose training is heavily rhetorical. Eliot bemoans the absence of Classicism in English literature, wherein Classicism is an impersonal rhetoric, in part because it is a public rhetoric.
What Eliot and Pound, and even Yeats, distrust is not rhetoric; it is instead rhetoric enlisted on behalf of persuading that a self feels and exists in a certain way; this is what Romantic rhetoric, in their eyes, too often does. Poetry, Yeats will say, is a quarrel with oneself; but most often for Eliot and Pound, and even Yeats, the quarrel ends before the poem has begun, with the notion of a single self, or unmasked self, being turned out of doors. When Eliot and Pound object to rhetoric, they are objecting instead to rhetoric enlisted in a particular cause: authenticity, the feelings and sway of a self. For them, the Romantics only stifle and smother and do injustice to what is already nebulous and chaotic when they appeal to rhetorical devices on its behalf.
They were not such poor readers to know that rhetoric has another use and another home. Rhetoric is at home in judicial proceedings. And as Geoffrey Hill has observed, “self-accusation is the lifeblood of Romanticism.” Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley are most powerful when the drama of their poems—the clash and conflict in the drama of reason (which is not itself opposed to rhetoric)—turns on rhetorically charged unease with the case for the self that rhetoric is making. On these occasions, they speak out against themselves, as if in a forum.
But even this would leave Eliot and his contemporaries uneasy. They wanted to get at another way of organizing experience, knowledge, understanding: one that does not depend on organizing and exploring the self. Even if the rhetoric as self-accusatory, conventions of rhetoric had, by the end of the nineteenth century, become too profoundly perverted by self. English had not produced a strong enough classical tradition to provide an alternative to what the Romantics had done; so, in the first breaking of a self-unified vantage, Eliot instead goes to the irony of LaForgue and the French for his Prufrock, and Pound translations and imitations.
Lowell, probably influenced by his experience in therapy, and by the experience also of a loss of self-identity in the throes of his mental illness, returns to the self: it is an enormous departure. British poets like Larkin had Hardy behind them, a local’s route around the Modernist highway, but Lowell had travelled up the Highway proudly. The challenge for Lowell was in returning the self into the poetry without losing out on what Eliot and Pound had taught; he clearly believed still in something impersonal.
The consequence was a poetry of the self that found itself ill at ease with the Romantic devices of rhetorical exploration, persuasion, and even accusation; this is not to say that the poetry is not rhetorical ever, but that the exemplary rhetorical moment comes, as I wrote in my last post, when Lowell deploys ellipses (…) as a fading off, a backing away, a retreat from the subject matter but also from a means of expression.
He seeks, at times, to rediscover a public rhetoric wherein the self can be examined as a public object; but here is where the absence of a living tradition of classical rhetoric in English fails him, and where French was a boon to Baudelaire. Lowell comes closest to this after his translations of Baudelaire: with trepidation in For the Union Dead, but then, more boldly, in Near the Ocean. There he settles on the iambic tetrameter: perhaps he had Marvell in mind. But I suspect he also thought of Swift, at odds with the world and himself, a public voice viewing himself as a public figure. Lowell was not only being a stuffy New England aristocrat when he insisted on airing his blue-blood heritage: he needed always to provide the reasons that he was a public figure, in order to try to examine himself with that impersonal vantage point of classical rhetoric. He needed to be the subject of a painting by Rubens, as well as one by Rembrandt.
The Lowell of the late 1960s is most interesting to me, for what does not happen: first in Notebooks but then in History, I see Lowell attempting something else: the self expressed through a reading-diary; not the disguised reading diary of The Cantos, but a diary where the point was that Lowell had read it all, and where Lowell shows us what it looks like, and sounds like, for him to imaginatively enter into works and lives other than his own. These are Lowell’s attempt at recording his experience in “the imaginary museum” to which all twentieth-century artists had access.
But these works also fail more often than not: there never seems to be a balance: the poems are either about Lowell in disguise, or else Lowell trying to read, or else resemble fascinating and moving responses to other works of art or other artists or historical figures, wherein we are supposed to guess at Lowell’s relation, or else, perhaps more accurately, the relation to Lowell and to the rest of the poems, is entirely invisible, though we sense that we ought to work it out.
What Lowell was trying to do has been addressed with greater success, I think, by Geoffrey Hill in the late poetry: Hill does not shy from an intense rhetorical pitch of language, but he moves in and out of it, just as he moves himself in and out of the verses. From modernism, Hill accepts that there need not be one central organizing perspective of poetry; from Lowell, Hill perhaps learned that the self can be an impersonal object of scrutiny; as distant as any other object in the imaginary museum; but Hill also shows that, among the voices and vantages and perspectives of a poem, there can be a voice of self-scrutiny, self-accusation, and even violent yearning, which need not be the center, but can be a center among many. Hill has realized the strength in coupling the Romantic (and Victorian) fascination of the self, at times morbid, as in Tennyson, with the impersonal vantage point that Lowell finds in his flatness, his ellipses; Hill on these occasions, however, does not shy away from rhetoric, but turns it upon the perspective of the poet discerning himself from afar, coldly, often failing in his discernment.
Hill’s encounters with his self in the poem resemble more often than Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s encounters with the solitaries in “The Discharged Soldier” or “Independence and Resolution.” In those poems, rhetoric quarrels with the world as well as with the self; but the world is intractable and the self is displaced as the fascination of what it cannot apprehend overwhelms it in sublime dissatisfaction. Lowell’s confessions did not allow often enough for the voices of others or presences of others to displace his own; his wariness of pleading in rhetorical strains on behalf of his self did not have to mean that rhetoric could not be admitted, in the distances and intimacies of encounter, had the poems invited or risked them more often.