Robert Lowell is a genius of scale, disproportion, and incongruity; from the earliest poetry, the most intensely Catholic, he developed Hopkins’ technique of atomizing attentiveness into a technique of fluid magnification, so that inscape is a movement of expansion and contraction of objects and details, with that movement registering the vantage point of the poet, and also the exertion of his imagination. The fluidity of scale is both a sign of his strength over materials, and also a sign of his powerlessness, the world threatening the formal coherence of the poetry. Take “The Exile’s Return,” from Lord Weary’s Castle:
There mounts in snow a sort of rusty mire
Not ice, not snow, to leaguer the Hotel
de Ville, where braced pig-iron dragons grip
The blizzard to their rigor mortis. A bell
Grumbles when the reverberations strip
The thatching from its spire
A photograph would show details on the town hall; but the verbs, “mounts,” “leaguer,” “brace” and “grip” suggest grandeur and expand the scale. The syntax, “There mounts,” sets us immediately at an uncertain but definited vantage point; we know we stand at a defined relation to the hall, but we do not know where we are. “Mire” and “dragons” and “leaguer” pull towards the world of allegory, and Romance, but the syntactically clotting precision of “not ice, not snow” subordinates imagination to fact, and the “pig” of “pig-iron” is soiled by earthliness. Rhyme is one of the chief means for registering and establishing proportion and congruity, and here the rhymes tussle, tangle, and tug: “mire” must wait the return of “spire,” and “spire” has been anticipated by “strip,” and “a bell” clangs against the stress distribution of “Hotel” all the more if that word is afforded a French pronunciation that denies stress at all. The crucial phrase is “rigor mortis,” bringing the sentence to its close with the stiffness of death, the iron of the figures gripping, in their frozen cold, the flakes of the blizzard. But what is dead cannot grip, and neither death nor life is suitable to the figures; that is not to quibble with metaphor in poetry, but to suggest that the metaphorical interlacing in these lines contains the poem’s central tension: not between life-in-death and death-in-life, but between animation-in-the inanimate and inanimation-of-the animate; it is about the paralysis of the will, brought on by the erosive weight of the world.
Action, its arc, end, and frequent failure to find completion, or to find place within a larger scope and shape of activity, is one of Lowell’s essential subjects; and the disproportion, incongruity, and scale of the world is felt to reflect how the world hinders and constrains action, and to explain how action issues in unintended re-orderings of the world. Lowell’s fascination with action is rooted in his early Catholicism, but flourishes in the psychoanalytic recollections of the 1950s and then in the historical obsessions of the 1960s.
But what does it mean to say that Lowell is interested in action? What poet is not? For one, it means that he is interested in action as a problem: the nexus of intention, action, and end frequently undone. For another, it means that he is not as interested in conduct as in the possibility of what it means to set an end and strive towards it (I wonder whether this is one way of getting at what I find so disappointing in the late collections, The Dolphin onwards where conduct seems like the true subject, and one that Lowell does not rise to). For another, it means that he is equally, and perhaps more obviously, interested in futility. It means that he is interested in action not as something, among many things, that happens in a life, but as co-extensive with life, so that even contemplation and memory, are actions, and so that action is what binds and defines the arc of a life. And finally, since actions in Lowell’s poetry are often reduced either to habitual attempts or else abandoned, or else frustrated, they take on the properties of inanimate objects, mechanized, discarded, or broken, and likewise are brought into the poetry in the form of clutter, furniture, whatever lay at-hand at a particular time: those objects were the (usually) inadequate means, the (usually) incomplete productions, or the (usually) overwhelming obstacles to action being fulfilled. They are not, in other words, correlatives of an inner life, elements of reverie, or equally, simultaneously object and metaphor; hence some of Lowell’s difficulties in translating Baudelaire, who works by means of all three. That has bearing too on the form of Lowell’s poetry: poetry as action, but also poetry as object, the action unfulfilled, the object incomplete, not a ruin but a piece of bricolage. But that does not mean pleasure, genuine and deep pleasure, is impossible; but it is only happens occasionally, as the poems themselves feel, increasingly over Lowell’s career, occasional.
When I was in grad school, a friend, knowing I admired Lowell, and reading him seriously for the first time, asked, struggling to enjoy the poetry, why I liked him so much. I couldn’t give even a half-decent answer. It’s both the simplest and most vexing and difficult critical question: why do you think this is good? I’m inclined now to think that the answer lies in Lowell’s own persuasive insight into how frustrated the effort at doing something good might be; perhaps he was captivated by history’s monsters, Caligula for instance, because they could act, but also because their actions, being so unmoored by any sense of goodness, were themselves incomplete. Lowell’s own admiration is reserved for perseverance in all of its forms, even simple aging (which he shows to be less than simple), or devotion, or faith, or waiting for the nightmare of the mind to settle. This is the cause of his profound compassion, even for those who, like Jonathan Edwards, could not but despair; he knows at least the savor of that despair, being at the mercy of the world that is too often too much.