by Robert Lowell
Ten thousand Fords are idle here in search
Of a tradition. Over these dry sticks—
The Minute Man, the Irish Catholics,
The ruined bridge and Walden’s fished out perch—
The belfry of the Unitarian Church
Rings out the hanging Jesus. Crucifix,
How can your whited spindling arms transfix
Mammon’s unbridled industry, the lurch
For forms to harness Heraclitus stream!
This Church is Concord—Concord where Thoreau
Named all the birds without a gun to probe
Through darkness to the painted man and bow:
The death-dance of King Philip and his scream
Whose echo girdled this imperfect globe.
There are a couple of things to take into consideration if spending a month pondering the depths of Robert Lowell. He was not a healthy man. He was a bully as a child and early teenager who enjoyed blood sport, taking great pride in besting older and stronger boys in fist fights. He was described by a headmaster in a letter to his mother as (paraphrasing); wild, slovenly and ill mannered. As a young man he had a reputation for being rude, unkept and accident prone. He was diagnosed by Carl Jung personally as a schizophrenic and treated by the psychiatrist and poet Merrill Moore for many years beginning in childhood and into adulthood for depression. Robert Lowell was bi-polar/maniac depressive. He had multiple nervous breakdowns requiring hospitalization, but to his credit would recover into fantastic periods of creativity. He was medicated by the drugs of early psychiatry and self medicated in the usual ways poets self medicate. He was volatile, anxiety prone and generally depressed. But all these things by themselves do not define him, it merely proves he was human.
Lowell was also a loyal friend, a generous colleague, a romantic and incredibly intelligent. He was driven to be a successful artist and poet. Driven to the point that most successful artists are driven; it was the only thing he wanted to achieve. By all accounts he was an interesting and challenging professor who taught students, willing to put in the work, with a fierceness of mentorship that goes beyond the connections most professors are willing to allow. The body of work that Lowell left behind at age 60, having died of a heart attack in a cab in New York City on the way to visit his ex-wife, is incredibly impressive. To understand Lowell’s poetry, we must accept his complexity, not just in the exactness of its construction but also in the chaos of its creation.
Lowell firmly established himself in literary history because he pushed the concept of confessional poetry to a new level, beyond Eliot, beyond Pound and the New Critics. His poetry, informed by his own crisis and resilience, swirled in his imagination, reflecting the times in which he lived. When he was celebrated on the cover of Time magazine in 1967, it was not just because of his poetry, it was also for his personal convictions. Lowell had spent a year in jail (1942 -1943) as a conscientious objector during World War II and his voice and opposition only was strengthened during the Vietnam War. Lowell was celebrated because he was a survivor.
The two sonnets today are from his first book of poetry, Lord Weary’s Castle, published in 1946. I do not get the impression reading Ian Hamilton’s biography that Lowell was overtly religious, but he was raised in a family with a long lineage of priests and poets, so the concept that poetry and art must be grounded in spiritual ideals beyond the human realm was integral to his thinking from the very beginning. The title comes from a folk ballad about Lord Weary’s refusal to pay his stonemason on its construction and the subsequent murder of Weary’s wife and child in revenge. In John Berryman’s review, he remarked, the “castle is a house of ingratitude, failure of obligation, crime and punishment.” Such comes the inspiration for what would be the start of Lowell’s career.
(From the Gibbet)
by Robert Lowell
My human brothers who live after me,
See how I hang. My bones eat through the skin
And flesh they carried here upon the chin
And lipping clutch of their cupidity;
Now here, now there, the starling and the sea
Gull splinter the groined eyeballs of my sin,
Brothers, more beaks of birds than needles in
The fathoms of the Bayeux Tapestry:
“God wills it, wills it, wills it: it is blood.”
My brothers, if I call you brothers, see:
The blood of Abel crying form the dead
Sticks to my blackened skull and eyes. What good
Are lebensraum and brad to Abel dead
And rotten on the cross-beams of the tree?