Who reads Lowell these days? I pondered this question as I thought about my next wordpress essay, wondering if there was actually any point in writing about him. Googling him is quite a dispiriting process (no heavyweight fanclubs leap out at me from the search results); facebook yields no groups dedicated to his writing, not even any American ones. Byron has his ‘ardent admirers’ on facebook, Elizabeth Bishop has a tiny group of fans on there, but Robert Traill Spence Lowell? Nothing, as yet. This slightly melancholy fact could be down to Lowell’s rather tarnished reputation in recent years. You only need to glance at his biography to see that his treatment of the various women in his life seems to have been less than ideal (read about it, if you must, in the obits of his most long-suffering wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who died recently). Reason enough, in the view of many readers, to let him slip off into literary oblivion (Lowell, along with that other poet with a lurid reputation for mistreating women, Ted Hughes, graces the front cover of Ian Hamilton’s excellent book Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth Century Poets, as if Hamilton were suggesting that oblivion is exactly where such poets are heading without some kind of critical resuscitation).
But Hamilton’s shade might be relieved to hear I don’t want to let Lowell languish in that kind of hideous poetic limbo of the unread. Lowell’s biography is complex, his behaviour, or at least what one reads of his behaviour, frequently repellent. But his poems! Obscure, clotted, difficult as they often are, Lowell’s verse is a Leviathan, an alliterative, sonorous beast also capable of dextrous tenderness. Milton twists through his ‘brilliant bad enjambment,’ Hopkins too, and Donne the preacher. But there is also the counterpoint of Bishop there, plus Herbert, urging gentleness and restraint.
‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’ is a great example of the two voices at work. The opening lines explode like a shell:
‘A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket, —
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light’
I’ve deliberately broken off here because I wanted to show the onward momentum of the enjambment, the unstoppable force gushing through the poem. This is damnation. This is hell, and the light we see is diabolical; the light of suffering and death. But always, when I remember this poem, I hear, too, the quieter reaches of it: ‘Our Lady, too small for her canopy, sits near the altar…/Non est species, neque decor/expressionless, expresses God.’ As a war poem, there’s little finer, even if the syntax is a doubling, looping twisting thing. The music here is enough, more than enough.
And yet it is not enough for many to surrender to poetry like Lowell’s, without what Keats would call ‘an irritable reaching after fact and reason.’To feel a poem’s rhythm without chasing out the meaning is hardly a fashionable pursuit these days. But if you haven’t tried it, I recommend it. It’s where reading becomes a state of being, stimulant not sedative. You don’t think your way into the poem, the poem’s music instead releases thoughts. Or rather, it liberates a deeper thinking: something synthesized, something luminous, something resembling a secular prayer.