149. (Robert Lowell)

“Self-accusation,” writes Geoffrey Hill, “is the life-blood of Romanticism.” For a long time, I thought Lowell a late-Romantic, working back, through the reaction of modernism, to the lessons of the early nineteenth-century.  That is not right. Lowell does accuse himself, but whereas, in Hill’s view, self-accusation guards Romanticism against its own excesses, Lowell accuses himself for another end.  Forgiveness is his great subject and it bears directly on what I have always found so moving in the poetry: the voice, the warbling tone on the page that is instantly recognizable in the recordings of the poet reading his own poetry. The poetry is not a plea for forgiveness; it does not importune or demand or take Lowell’s plight as first in a long line; but it does ask for forgiveness, makes the case that forgiveness is what is required, and offers to the world and the reader, strangely, forgiveness in return, even when the world seems most resistant to it. The connection it makes with the reader (with this reader at least) is direct as few connections with poets are, and that because it is so empowering, rhetorically–since it’s earliest baroque style of Lord Weary’s Castle, the poetry is concerned with the self-dramatization and self-conscious modes of address that can be characterized as “rhetorical”: Lowell’s rhetoric does not ask us to think more of him or his subject matter, but to attend to it in a particular and particularly forgiving frame of mind. That in itself empowers, because it assumes, and persuades, that one person can forgive another; the earliest poetry may not hold this to be the case. Once Lowell had shaken free of his Catholic mania, he saw it to be so.

In that early poetry, the need for forgiveness is muddied with a simultaneous desperation for salvation: the poet, the world, all needed to be saved. Its impersonality, the relative absence of the first-person vantage, self-conscious reflection, the so-called “confessional” mode–the right name (thanks to the critic M.L. Rosenthal for coining the term, whatever subsequent damage it may have done) in the context of Lowell’s poetry where confession is not a routine act, where forgiveness is not expected as a course of affairs or even focused on the poet’s self. The world, too, requires forgiveness—the relative diminishment, at any rate, of all that in the early poetry reflects a different relation to the self. Where matters of salvation are concerned, the self is either absent or distant, under siege, and possibly lost forever; think of Cowper, Smart, and Hopkins. In their poetry, salvation is presented as a recovery of the self.  So, more or less, with Lowell’s early poetry. It is reminiscent more of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. In them, there is little sense that human forgiveness will suffice. For O’Connor, as for the Ancients and the Medievals (or so, at least, holds Classicist David Konstan, in his study of the evolving significance of “forgiveness”), forgiveness is perforce a divine act.

Maybe Lowell held the same to be true. The loss of the scrupulous and excessive Catholicism, coinciding with the breakdowns and the first attempts at recovery, returned Lowell to himself, to the needs of the self, and the hope, or at least possibility, that the world could be invited into his failings and suffering. The poetry of Life Studies and For the Union Dead is powerful not least because it opens itself to the world, not for saving, not for redemption, but for an act of recognition, mercy, leniency….forgiveness.  At its best, it opens not only the poet’s experience and self, but much that surrounds him, a landscape in which he appears a diminished figure, both victim of attrition and (especially in Life Studies, where the world is more caressed by enumeration and description) dwarfed by its rich decay, to the same.

Once you look for the word or even paraphrased idea of “forgiveness” in the poetry, none of what I’m saying is remotely surprising:


Father, forgive me

my injuries

as I forgive

those I

have injured!  


(“Middle Age”–with a pun on the Middle Ages, with their act of ecclesiastical absolution)

But the need for forgiveness manifests, and extends to the reader, more powerfully elsewhere; in “Middle Age,” the request to the father is formulaic, stilted even. It contrast with the voice that Lowell is establishing elsewhere in For the Union Dead and Life Studies.

Here, from For the Union Dead,  is “Myopia: A Night”:


Bed, glasses off, and all’s

ramshackle, streaky, weird

for the near-sighted, just

a foot away.

                       The light’s

still on an instant. Here

are the blurred titles, here

the books are blue hills, browns,

greens, fields, or color.


is the departure strop,

the dream-road. Whoever built it

left numbers, words and arrows.

He had to leave in a hurry.


I see

a dull and alien room,

my cell of learning,

white, brightened by white pipes,

ramrods of steam…I hear

the lonely metal breathe

and gurgle like the sick.

And yet my eyes avoid

that room. No need to see.

No need to know I hoped

its blank foregoing whiteness

would burn away the blur,

as my five senses clenched

their teeth, thought stitched to thought,

as through a needle’s eye…


I see the morning star…


Think of him in the Garden,

that seed of wisdom, Eve’s

seducer, stuffed with man’s

corruption, stuffed with triumph:

Satan triumphant in

the Garden! In a moment,

all that blinding brightness

changed into a serpent,

lay grovelling on its gut.


What has disturbed this household?

Only a foot away,

the familiar faces blur.

At fifty we’re so fragile,

a feather…


The things of the eye are done.

On the illuminated black dial,

green ciphers of a new moon–

one, two, three, four, five, six!

I breathe and cannot sleep.

Then morning comes,

saying, “This was a night!”


The poem is representative of mid-career Lowell, especially of For the Union Dead, in at least one respect: it is most vulnerable, most accessible to our judgment, when most poised and postured within the conventions of rhetorical address. In the self-dramatized “I see the morning star…,” for instance, the cumulative force of the Miltonic vision (including the “all” in “all that blinding brightness”–the word that Empson in Complex Words thought characteristic of Milton’s thought), both impresses itself upon us, and seems too heavy for Lowell–even as he experiences it, it would overcome him, draw attention to his fragility.

The poem comes close to asking for saving: “At fifty we’re so fragile, | a feather…” owes something to an image of a feather in Montale, whom Lowell had recently translated; its trailing off into the Lowell-ellipsis, which I’ve written on elsewhere, might be heard as a cry for help.

But the poem is not about desperation per se. “The things of the eye are done” and cannot be undone, however they might be marred. The ellipsis trails off at that moment because the poet reckons the extent and nature of his fragility himself; we are not asked to consider that. We are asked, instead, to consider his limitations and failings. On the occasion of the earlier ellipsis, the failing is a truism, a proverb of the New Testament.

A poem that asks forgiveness for myopia? Not exactly, but for the inability to see, for the restless sense of inadequacy.

A final heightening of rhetoric comes in the final line, the night’s voice set in quotation marks. Again, the effect is curious: it is understatement, even humorously hearty; but that is in itself an act of self-excusing (rather than self-accusing), as we leave the poem behind, as the poet gets on with the day.

Even in the voice of another, Lowell finds the tones familiar to himself. Here is the ending of “Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts,” the quoted words from Edwards’ own letter to the board of trustees at the college that we know as Princeton:


“I am contemptible,

stiff and dull.


Why should I leave behind

my delight and entertainment,

those studies

that have swallowed up my mind?”


The question is genuine in that it solicits an answer–and so it floods with self-doubt: not the need to be saved, but the need to be understood for the predicament in which he finds himself. Lowell quotes from the letter, so the tone is not entirely his, but the line-breaks are, and they draw attention to (they summon forth) the near-rhymes, between “contemptible” and “dull” and “behind” and “mind.” They suggest not a self abandoned, but the uncertain balance of the speaker; Edwards, the terrifying mind, wobbles, with pathos.

It is not exactly forgiveness he asks, but Edwards, recognizing that he has been “consumed” by his studies–lost to his own delight in spiritual thought– becomes something that Lowell himself would become: professedly, or confessedly, forgivable, for mankind (himself, his readers) as well as God.


The curious effect of rhetorical address and self-dramatization in the poems may owe something to Baudelaire, for whom rhetoric was a means to both involve the reader in the poet’s search for salvation (of a sort; Eliot was densely macho when he wrote that Baudelaire was “man enough for damnation” but a concern with sin and evil are in the poetry) and then to exclude that same reader, reminding them that it is neither their business nor within their reach to provide it. Lowell had translated Baudelaire for his Imitations, the collection of poetic recreations coming after Life Studies. For Baudelaire, forgiveness is no more than salvation, the reader’s concern; the presumption that it ought to be given, or could be given, is itself a target of his poetry. Perhaps owing to his difference from Baudelaire in his attitude on the matter, Lowell’s translations are strange attempts on the originals. And perhaps it is why he comes closest in a poem that feels more eager to hold forth the possibility of forgiveness:


My old nurse and servant, whose great heart
made you jealous, is dead and sleeps apart
from us. Shouldn’t we bring her a few flowers?
The dead, the poor dead, they have their bad hours,
and when October stripper of old trees,
poisons the turf and makes their marble freeze,
surely they find us worse than wolves or curs
for sleeping under mountainous warm furs…
These, eaten by the earth’s black dream, lie dead,
without a wife or friend to warm their bed,
old skeletons sunk like shrubs in burlap bags —
and feel the ages trickle through their rags.
They have no heirs or relatives to chase
with children round their crosses and replace
the potted refuse, where they lie beneath
their final flower, the interment wreath.


The oak log sings and sputters in my chamber
and in the cold blue half-light of December,
I see her tiptoe through my room, and halt
humbly, as if she’d hurried from her vault
with blankets for the child her sleepless eye
had coaxed and mothered to maturity.
What can I say to her to calm her fears?
My nurse’s hollow sockets fill with tears.





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