My mind is snared by wit, and Marvell’s wit in particular. The Greatness of that poet, once proclaimed, has burned out in critical conversation; but it was a real thought, mid-century, that he was very great indeed, and when Robert Lowell decided, in the 1960s, to ride the iambic tetrameter for many poems in Near the Ocean, he had the MP from Hull in mind.
But now, possessed by Marvell, I suspect that Near the Ocean, rather than a foray into new territory, marked Lowell’s fullest, and final, embrace, of that poet; whether Marvell was fully in Lowell’s mind before that collection, the quality of his wit was in the poetry, and one reason History suffers is that the quality is lacking. And I’d say that even the poems of For the Union Dead suffer or succeed in direct proportion to the quality of wit (as Marvell had it) in them: not only their discordant conceits, not only their poise, but their effortless rising to a level of detached contemplation and delight in the compatibility of opposing perspectives and dissimilar objects.
Odd to think that Lowell would most find this quality in the poems of Life Studies, but he does, and reading that collection means savoring it from the dry-bones of family history; when asked what is to be enjoyed in these indulgent personal recollections, it is just this. In their isolation, they contain multitudes of life; the poet, looking squarely inwards, finds all of the world’s creatures in the sea of his mind.
The rhythm is not to be forgotten either. Not the full tetrameter of Near the Ocean, the clipped and irregular trot and then canter of the lines—or maybe the image of a horse jerkily dancing in dressage–with the dignified and winking self-consciousness of performance is to be found there in Lowell and Marvell alike.
Exhibit A, “Home After Three Months Away”:
Gone now the baby’s nurse,
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze-
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.
Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair-
they tell me nothing’s gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child’s play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush….
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.
Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing enervation.
I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.
The influence of Marvell is not hard to detect in the lines, especially at “Dearest I cannot loiter here | in lather like a polar bear.” But the wit runs deeper than meter. And, in quite a different vein, Exhibit B, “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms”:
At Beverly Farms, a portly, uncomfortable boulder
bulked in the garden’s center
an irregular Japanese touch.
After his Bourbon “old fashioned,” Father,
bronzed, breezy, a shade too ruddy,
swayed as if on deck duty
under his six pointed star-lantern-
last July’s birthday present.
He smiled his oval Lowell smile,
he wore his cream gaberdine dinner-jacket,
and indigo cummerbund,
His head was efficient and hairless,
his newly dieted figure was vitally trim.
Father and mother moved to Beverly Farms
to be a two-minute walk from the station,
half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.
They had no sea-view,
but sky-blue tracks of the commuters’ railroad shone
like a double-barreled shotgun
through the scarlet late August sumac,
multiplying like cancer
at their garden’s border.
Father had had two coronaries.
He still treasured underhand economies,
but his best friend was his little black Chevy,
garaged like a superficial steer
wtih gilded hooves,
yet sensationally sober,
and with less side than an old dancing pump.
The local dealer, a “buccanneer,”
had been bribed a “king’s ransom”
to quickly deliver a car without chrome.
Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
father stole off with the Chevie
to loaf in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”
Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”
Without being funny, these are as comic as they are poignant: the last lines of either has the dark humor–possibly another inheritance wit—of a line in a Beckett play. If the winkingly grim, the poignantly smirking, and the exuberantly exhausted quality of these poems is not felt, then there seems little reason to read them over again. As with Marvell, the thought is, “where to next,” within a conceit, metaphor, line, verse, or poem; as with Marvell, the poem close with a brisk goodbye; as with Marvell, the violence, to self and other, is revealed in the act of mitigation and curtailment.
The quality is not there in Lord Weary’s Castle; it seeps ever so slightly into parts of The Mills of the Kavanaughs, but it is the flavor entirely of mature Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead; it is a shame that he does not find it in himself when, in Imitations, he translates Baudelaire, whose poems also possess it in the highest degree.
So many of these lives, his parents, his own,lost to institutions, to fog, his ancestors’, their view of what the world would become, or had been—so much waste; why care about the antiques, and heirlooms, and dusty medals and that; how tragic, how comic; there is so little there, and so much out of which to make a poem.