Robert Lowell Collected Poems
Fallen Nests: An Exploration of Personal and Political Realities in Fall 1961
Robert Lowell’s Fall 1961 crystallizes in words the sense of nuclear paranoia that lurked in both private and public spheres of the United States during the Cold War. From a dark, personal perspective the poem takes an unsettling look into the unease of the individual during this time. Despite its egocentric perspective, however, Lowell allows the poem to make vague allusions to the greater political situation surrounding the nuclear threat. Through these allusions he frames the individual experience of the poem’s speaker in a greater political context. Like the hazy background of a watercolor painting, this backdrop is indistinct compared to the crisp individual presented in the foreground of his work, but nonetheless its presence contributes to the lurking weight of nuclear paranoia that gives the poem its ambience of ominousness and uncertainty.
The movement of the poem is fairly arrhythmic, with sporadic and unpredictable rhyming. The effect is a deliberate awkwardness in its sound and the creation of a feeling of anticipation as the reader waits for the each possible rhyme to deliver. In this way the form of the poem captures the unease of the individual and society as a whole during its time setting and plays on the anxiety of the people of the United States as they wait for the inevitable first missile strike. Rhyme is additionally used to inject moments of personality into the poem. The couplet half rhyme of “minnow” and “window” on lines 9 and 10 creates an almost whimsical affect, a darkly humorous snicker that undercuts the menacing three lines that precede it. On occasion, rhymes in the poem string together loosely connected details of the scene being described. This loose linkage occurs in the half rhyming of “shield” and “wild” that ties imagery of crying spiders to the helplessness of a protective father in protecting his child against a nuclear threat. Another example occurs in the half rhyme of “mirror” and “summer”, which connects the mirror-like clock face to the metaphorical mirror of introspection that nature provides within the world of the poem.
In addition to his use of rhyming connections, Lowell joins his thematically linked images and ideas together through the recurrence of certain motifs throughout the poem. These motifs find their commonalities in shielding qualities and circular as well as spherical imagery. The “bland, ambassadorial/face of the moon” shares its shape with the fish tank face of the studio window that seals off the speaker from the outside world. The circular and spherical imagery extends to include the diver’s “glass bell”, which is connected through its shape and its function as a protective barrier to the studio window, the father’s shield and the “oriole’s swinging nest” at the end of the poem. The result of this thematic linkage is an egocentric view of the poem’s world; the reader gets the sense that they are seeing through the eyes of the speaker as he freely associates any and all elements of his surroundings with the all-pervading paranoia that he feels. In this way, the poem feels personal and very sharp and complete in its foreground depiction of the individual’s apprehension at the possibility of nuclear war.
The main way in which this personal anxiety is projected through the assorted image catalogue of the poem is through jarring quakes of poetic disruption that ripple through the speaker’s thoughts. The face of an alien orange moon reflecting off the clock disturbs one of the speaker’s expected sources of familiarity and comfort as he looks towards it. Metaphorically, this comfort disruption is extended to the political level by connotations evoked from the additional descriptions of the moon’s reflection as “bland” and “ambassadorial”. These descriptions suggest metaphorically that the higher political problem that the moon represents has been hidden behind a bland, unfeeling face in the form of political discussion. The monotony of such discussion is encapsulated in the droning “tock, tock, tock” of the grandfather clock. Thus the government’s address of the possibility of a nuclear strike is indirectly criticized as insufficient back-and-forth quibble and the former comfort offered by higher politics is thus removed as a source of comfort to the individual. The disturbing removal of comfort in light of the unsettling new nuclear threat again peaks at the political level in the third stanza:
Our end drifts nearer,
the moon lifts,
radiant with terror.
is a diver under a glass bell.
In this stanza the comfort and protection offered by the state against a nuclear attack is shown to be as inadequate as a transparent glass bell shutting out the “terror” of moonlight. Lowell recasts this same sentiment elsewhere in the poem in line 8, “we have talked our extinction to death”, a line that reminds the reader that, no matter how much political banter goes on, the immense destructive potential of a nuclear threat is too perilous and unpredictable to be talked down.
An additional disrupted image comes with the lines, “We are like a lot of wild/spiders crying together, but without tears”. The most jarring component of this eerie fallout shelter imagery is the bizarre idea of crying without tears. Through this idea the lines metaphorically hush the public’s anxiety in a kind of disruptive stasis that bends fear into a silent role. The public’s silence thus changes the very purpose of fear by placing anxiety into individuals but not allowing them to share its burden with one another, again resulting in the removal of a possible comfort source in the poem. A third such removal comes through the disruption of the father’s shielding ability over his child, which is reduced to inadequacy against the massive destruction of a nuclear attack. Yet another disruption of comfort arises from the line “One swallow makes a summer.” This reversal of proverbial wisdom disrupts the reader’s expectations, thus allowing the poet to declare that, under the looming threat of nuclear war, the truths that we take comfort in may reverse to their opposites – in this case, the detonation of a single swallow warhead could certainly lead to an entire nuclear summer.
The completeness with which the poem’s world is disrupted shows the extent to which nuclear paranoia extends past the level of the poem’s individual speaker. The disturbance of reality in the poem affects the whole of society through its alteration of even the most fundamental and universal truths comfort sources. Even the passing of time becomes seen through displaced and paradoxical perception as the agonizing “tock, tock, tock” of the seconds continues indefinitely from stuck clockhands. Additionally, the linking of the clock to the passage of months through the moon’s reflection and the setting of the poem in autumn suggest that this stopping of time extends upwards into an entire era of paralyzed paranoia.
The framing of the individual experience against a society and time period through metaphorical political criticism and universal connections is important in creating a full picture of the nuclear threat in Fall 1961. The poem requires the entire situation to be at least vaguely framed in order to create a true feeling of the weight and magnitude behind the anxiety of the Cold War. Ultimately, however, despite its upward sweeping exploration of nuclear anxiety at the level of the individual and up to the realms of society and politics, the poem finds its escape from nuclear anxiety in a place that is neither personal nor political, but rather natural. The speaker’s “one point of rest”, his one sanctum where time is not oppressive and paranoia is not overwhelming, “is the orange and black/oriole’s swinging nest”. It is important that this one source of comfort shares characteristics of the other images in the poem. It is orange like the moon, and fits under the spherical and circular motif category. It is a protective barrier of sorts. Most importantly, its swinging motion has put it into a state of disruption. Yet even in its disrupted state the nest manages not to fall. It thus continues its role as a protective shield – not only to what eggs may lie inside it, but also to the speaker’s state of mind. Perhaps this is the poet’s way of acknowledging nature’s resilience. In a sense it is a declaration that nature is more permanent than both the individual and society, and a hopeful prediction that some part of nature will probably survive even the most destructive human catastrophes, no matter how uncertain the future of humanity itself may be.
Lost in the Rockslide of History: Toward an Understanding of Robert Lowell’s “History”
“History” is a title fraught with dilemma. There is, to begin with, the ambiguity inherent the word: there are nine entries listed in the OED, three of which are of primary concern here. “A relation of events” is the first; “A written narrative constituting a continuous methodical record, in order of time, of important or public events” is the second; “the aggregate of past events in general and the course of events or human affairs” is the third. “History” is a record, the content of that record, and a grand, abstract totality. Mirroring this dilemma is the ambiguity of all such poetic titles: is “history” a label, a self-identification, or rather the statement of a subject for meditation? I hope to show that for Robert Lowell’s “History” it is both; and that his “History” partakes of all three of the OED’s senses, flouting them all. Lowell’s 366 sonnets are arranged chronologically by subject, and range from the creation of the world to the year of their own publication; while not inherently “methodical”, they nevertheless attempt to offer a “continual record” of the intellectual inheritance and political history of Europe. They do not, however, confine themselves to the past, and as Lowell’s chronology reaches his own time the poems turn not merely inward, autobiographical, and confessional, but also attempt to become themselves “a relation of [public] events”. In other words, they strive to become primary sources, documents of a history in which their author was deeply implicated. Finally, a meditation on “history” in the third sense, “the aggregrate of past events”, is formally embedded in the sequence, in the style of individual poems and in their structure as a whole. I hope to treat seriously Lowell’s attempt to “write history” in all of these senses, and to consider his project in relation to the work of Michel de Certeau, Hayden White, and other theorists of narrative and history, but I also hope to honor the poems as poems, to account for the effect of genre and of the aesthetic on the historiographical operation.Taking seriously Lowell’s historiography does not mean construing it as conventional, normative, or sanctioned. He writes from outside de Certeau’s “aggrgation which categorizes the writer’s I within the ‘we’ of a collective body of work” (64). He moves freely among texts of widely varying truth values: myth, literary texts, conventional history, confession. He considers fictional and aesthetic texts to be as authoritative as their non-fictional counterparts, if not more so (“The true Charles, done by Titian, never lived” [“Charles V by Titian” 460]). Even more significantly, though history – as both Hayden White and the OED tell us – is a narrative form, Lowell chooses as the medium for historiography the most lyrical of genres, the sonnet sequence. As we shall see, however, Lowell’s sonnets often strain against, even violate, the lyric mode. “The purpose of lyric, as a genre,” writes Helen Vendler, “is to represent an inner life in such a manner that it is assumable by others…[S]ocial transactions as such cannot take place in lyric as they do in narrative or drama” (xi). Surely something like this is meant by Bakhtin in his famous, and famously disputed, discussion of “poetry”: “Poetic style is by convention suspended from any mutual interaction with alien discourse, any allusion to alien discourse” (285). And yet the sonnets of “History” are filled with alien discourse, with translation, multiple voices and radical shifts in diction, and they take as their subject not merely “an inner life” but rather a life from which categories of “inner” and “outer” have fallen away; there is, for Lowell, no private sphere insulated from the public, and interiority in these poems is striated with awareness of, and vulnerability to, the goings-on of history. They are, pace Vendler, full of social transactions. (It is perhaps for this reason that Vendler is so resistant to “History”, finding the sequence “repellent” .)Lowell’s mercurial diction can be seen in the pair of sonnets on Hannibal, the first of which, “Roman Disaster at the Trebia,” is among the most conventional – and also most beautiful – sonnets in the collection:The dawn of an ill day whitens the heights.The camp wakes. Below, the river grumbles and rolls, and light Numidian horsemen water their horses;everywhere, sharp clear blasts of the trumpeters.Though warned by Scipio, and the lying augurs,the Trebia in flood, the blowing rain,the Consul Sempronius, proud of his new glory,has raised the axe for battle, he marches his lictors.A gloomy flamboyance reddens the dull sky,Gallic villages smoulder on the horizon.Far off, the hysterical squeal of an elephant….Down there, below a bridge, his back on the arch,Hannibal listens, thoughtful, glorying,to the dead tramp of the advancing Roman legions. (439)This is a successful, if conventional, work of historical fiction. It makes no attempt – as Lowell almost never does (he only once claims “I want to write this without style or feeling” [“Abstraction” 566]) – to achieve objectivity; from the first line, even from the title, ours is a Roman, European, perspective. In true lyric fashion, the poem takes a moment of action – the Roman legions advancing over the bridge – and imbues it with the drama of an already-decided battle: thus the day is “ill”, the sky “dull” with “a gloomy flamboyance”, Hannibal “glorying”, the tramp of the Romans “dead”. The scene is drenched with dread over its outcome, the defeat of Sempronius in Hannibal’s ambush. The poem’s primary procedure is to supply details lost to conventional historiography – “Gallic villages smoulder on the horizon. / Far off, the hysterical squeal of an elephant”; and it seems to me a lyric in the conventional sense of the term, moving not through narrative but through description, investing detail with the force of ellided and condensed discursivity. It does not attempt, in Vendler’s terms, “the narrative continuity proper to epic,” but rather “the glimpse proper to lyric” (3). The poem’s diction is high and somber; it strikes a pitch of dread and elegy appropriate to its subject.The narrative to which the poem alludes is not a triumphant one, but it is, in a sense, heroic: the doomed soldiers march blindly to their deaths, the saving Scipio waits in the wings. It is a poem that claims an un-ironic identification with the history it dramatizes, and displays the proper public sentiments. Far different is its companion, “Hannibal 2. The Life”:Throw Hannibal on the scales, how many poundsdoes the First Captain come to? This is hewho found the plains of Africa too small,and Ethiopia’s elephants a unique species.He scaled the Pyrenees, the snow, the Alps -nature blocked his road, he derricked mountains…Now Italy is his. “Think nothing is done,till Rome cracks and my standards fly in the Forum.”What a face for a painter; look, he’s a one-eye.The glory? He’s defeated like the rest,serves some small tyrant farting off drunken meals,and dies by taking poison….Go, Madman, crossthe Alps, the Tiber – be a purple patchfor schoolboys, and their theme for declamation. (439)As a performance, this shares very little with the first Hannibal sonnet. The long, elegant syntax of the earlier poem breaks down into short, sardonic sentences drenched with irony. High diction is lowered to a tragic carnivalesque: “some small tyrant farting off drunken meals.” The poem is far less lyrical, with none of the detail of the first sonnet; instead of lyrically conveying the richness of a single moment, Lowell here takes a telescopic view of Hannibal’s life, conveying his achievements in discursive, almost prose-like lines. Most significant, though, is the vision of history shown in the final five lines. Hannibal’s “glorying” is here revealed in all its vanity, but that vanity seems not particular to his history, but rather constitutive of history’s grand monotony: “He’s defeated like the rest.” Indeed, the idea of “glory” or “fame” is deflated; the great heroes of history are nothing but schoolboy enthusiasms; the whole endeavor of historical knowledge is somehow childish, pathetic: “Go, Madman, cross / the Alps, the Tiber – be a purple patch / for schoolboys, and their theme for declamation.” Hannibal’s true defeat is less his biographical enslavement than his easy academic digestion; the passion and heroism of history are made ridiculous, “a purple patch / for schoolboys.”Much of the appeal of Lowell’s “History” lies in the disjunction between these paired sonnets: a real enthusiasm for history, heroism, honor, fame is questioned and critiqued by an equally sincere cynicism about the futility of human achievement; there is something bitter in the former Catholic convert’s mature atheism. And Lowell’s meditations on history hover around a grand melancholy, an awareness of memory’s imperfections: viewing the ruins of Rome, Lowell writes, “say more was lost to chance and time / than Hannibal or Caesar could consume” (“Rome in the Sixteenth Century” 448). The oblivion of forgetfulness is more voracious, for Lowell, than even the grandest and most destructive human ambition.This awareness of the ease with which achievement, even great achievement, passes into oblivion gives Lowell’s own attempts at record and witness a special urgency. A disproportionate amount of space is given to the present day: Lowell reaches the twentieth century halfway through the volume. Many of these sonnets are explicitly autobiographical, but even at his most confessional Lowell is deeply concerned with the public motions of history. Lowell was more “public” than any modern poet, and he lived a life of political involvement: as a conscientious objector in World War II, and again as a protestor against the Vietnam War, he was front-page news. This is, as Helen Vendler has recognized, a donne of his life: born into a prominent, if financially declining, Boston brahmin family, a place in public history was part of Lowell’s patrimony. Throughout the confessional poems Lowell demonstrates an awareness of his place in this public history, and of his visibility and influence as a public figure. One of the most haunting poems in “History” meditates on the uncanny process by which he himself became “historical”. Here is “Picture in The Literary Life, a Scrapbook”:A mag photo, before I was I, or my books -a listener…A cheekbone gumballs out my cheek;too much live hair. My wife caught in that eye blazes,an egg would boil in the tension of that hand,my untied shoestrings write my name in the dust…I lean against the tree, and sharpen bromidesto serve our great taskmaster, the New Critic,who loved the writing better than we ourselves…In those days, if I pressed an ear to the earth,I heard the bass growl of Hiroshima.In the Scrapbook, it’s only the old die classics:one foot in the grave, two fingers in their Life.Who would rather be his indexed correspondentsthan the boy Keats spitting out blood for time to breathe. (524)To understand the force of autobiography in “History”, it may be helpful to consider Hayden White’s striking meditation on the non-narrativity of the Annals of Saint Gall:Now, the capacity to envision a set of events as belonging to the same order of meaning requires some metaphysical principle by which to translate difference into similarity. In other words, it requires a ‘subject’ common to all of the referents of the various sentences that register events as having occurred. If such a subject exists, it is the ‘Lord’ whose ‘years’ are treated as manifestations of His power to cause the events that occur in them. The subject of the account, then, does not exist in time and could not therefore function as the subject of a narrative. Does it follow that in order for there to be a narrative, there must be some equivalent of the Lord, some sacral being endowed with the authority and power of the Lord, existing in time? If so, what could such an equivalent be? (16)A partial answer to White’s final question is interestingly suggested in autobiography: a “metaphysical principle” that “exist[s] in time” is the notion of a unified subjectivity – developing and growing, to be sure, but possessed of a basic identity that transcends any temporal change. For the most conventional of Lowell’s confessional sonnets, the assumption of a unified self seems largely an untroubled one, and his narratives of love, family, and illness parade beneath its banner. But Lowell was also acutely aware of the fragility of the self: prone to a debilitating manic-depression, he was forced to realize how fractured a thing “identity” is, and how quickly one can be alienated from oneself.Something like this alienation is at work in the “Picture” sonnet: “before I was I, or my books.” In fact, the picture was taken after Lowell’s first great accomplishment: he had just received the Pulitzer Prize for “Lord Weary’s Castle” (on the facing page of the journal is a photograph of his first wife, novelist Jean Stafford). The octave is oddly disjointed, its three ellipses suggesting an unresolvable fragmentation. Its attention shifts unpredictably, and at least one coinage, “sharpening bromides”, eludes comprehension. The image of the poet is similarly strange: “A cheekbone gumballs out my cheek; / too much live hair.” This is oddly grotesque: even Lowell’s face is ill-arranged. The photograph presents a self-estranged and (especially for the older poet looking on) self-estranging image. His name, too, has been in some sense lost, reduced to the illegible marks of shoelaces in the dust. However, the most profound alienation, the poem suggests, arises through the very practice that one might think constitutes identity, writing: “before I was I, or my books.” “My books” constitute a self separate from “I”, but no less “true”; and they certainly constitute the identity that has a hope of survival, of becoming “a classic”. “The old” that are the subject of the poem’s penultimate sentence represent aesthetic accomplishment, success: they are becoming texts, “one foot in the grave, two fingers in their Life.” This last word is, of course, a pun on the magazine at which the speaker looks; but it is significantly not italicized, and stands for those texts their lives have already become. Another kind of accomplishment – and perhaps, for Lowell, a preferable accomplishment, one already denied him – is represented by the “boy Keats”, who coughs out his life for his art. Saved from the oblivion of unremembered history, Keats stands for genius that shines the brighter for its brevity; his is the name borne by the book whose index is crammed with dimmer, longer-lived “correspondents”.I’ve yet to account for the first two lines of the sonnet’s sestet, which are the poem’s greatest oddity. They are the only lines save the first to occupy the past tense, and they shift the poem from its concern with autobiography and aesthetic development to a world-historical event: “in those days, if I pressed an ear to the earth, / I heard the bass growl of Hiroshima.” I read these lines as full of regret, recognizing a political commitment and passion that have been lost (Lowell increasingly distanced himself from active politics in the wake of the seeming irrelevance of the Vietnam protests). However, they bear far more significance as representations of a movement at the heart of Lowell’s sonnet sequence, and are constitutive of his theory of history. Everywhere in these poems, however private and quotidian their subjects, acts – often atrocities – of world-historical consequence impose themselves upon the speaker’s awareness. As only the most striking example of a technique that is pervasive, in “Streamers: 1970”, Christmas streamers in London become the “streaming bridal veils” of prostitutes married for a day by Nazi officers: “After the weddings they packed the wives in planes; / altitude gained, the girls were pushed outdoors” (528).Though the sonnets of History are organized chronologically, they almost uniformly resist chronology; if historical awareness is one constitutive feature of the mind on display in History, anachronism is the other. Sometimes this anachronism is silent, as when Lowell quotes a letter of his mother’s in “Clytemnestra I” (431); more often, it is outrageously overt, as in “Attila / Hitler”:Hitler had fingertips of apprehension,”Who knows how long I’ll live? Let us have war.We are the barbarians, the world is near the end.”Attila mounted on raw meat and greensgalloped to massacre in his single fieldmouse suit… (448)The juxtaposition is not justified or explained, and we are wrong to read it typologically. Hitler is not a fulfillment of Attila; rather, they both occupy a “festering fume of refuse, / old tins, dead vermin, ashes, eggshells, youth”: the poem’s closing image of history. It is a vision of history that precludes any historicism of which “progress” is uncritically a part. History is a totality for Lowell, but a synchronic, not an “evolving” one (the phrase is White’s); his meditations slip between centuries without the direction of a progress narrative, as in the octave of “Thanksgiving 1660 or 1990”:When life grows shorter and daylightsaving dies—God’s couples marched in arms to harvest-homeand Plymouth’s communal distilleries…three days they lay at peace with God and beast….I revel from Thanksgiving midday into night:the young are mobile, friends of the tossed waste leaf,bellbottom, barefoot, Christendom’s wild hair -words are what get in the way of what they said. (557)It is this fluidity that makes Lowell’s genre-choice necessary. His conception and intellectual experience of history defeats narrative, requiring the looser experience of time allowed the lyric.In their indispensable notes to the collected Lowell, Frank Bidart and David Gewanter suggest a precedent for Lowell’s understanding of history in that originary American literary theorist, Emerson: “Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history…All public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized. Then at once History becomes fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime” (quoted in Lowell 1075). The sort of sympathetic imitatio Emerson describes (“We, as we read, must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner…or we shall learn nothing rightly”) is certainly at work in “History”, and the book presents, finally, the contents of a mind schooled by the past, which makes use of the past in its attempt to think its present: “All day I bang and bang at you in thought” (“Abraham Lincoln” 485). The book is a gesture toward realizing Lukacs’s hope of “the concrete possibilities for men to comprehend their own existence as something historically conditioned, for them to see in history something which deeply affects their daily lives and immediately concerns them” (24). It is from this awareness that the facts of history resonate with such urgency for Lowell; as Benjamin reminds us, “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” (255). Lowell’s relentless anachronism is an attempt to stave off this disappearance; his frantic interweaving of past and present an effort to make each unthinkable without the other.WORKS CITEDBakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1981.Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.deCerteau, Michel. The Writing of History. Trans. Tom Conley. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.Lowell, Robert. History. Collected Poems Ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. New York: FSG, 2003. 421-604.Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1983.Vendler, Helen. The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1987.
Coping with a Brutal World: Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Robert Lowell’s “Water”
The postmodernist writers emerged after the Second World War, and their fierce critiques of human nature showed a race that was vile and heinous at best, with Tennessee Williams’s depiction being no different. In his play A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams explores the gruesome nature of humanity’s weakness and its necessity of imagination in a world of reality filled with evil and nastiness at every corner. Blanche DuBois, a dainty Southern belle who depends on her fantasies to keep her motivated to live despite her growing age and increasing loneliness, is thrown into the unfamiliar jungle of New Orleans when her property is lost. She lives with her sister Stella and Stella’s animalistic husband Stanley while she becomes involved in the less refined and civilized life of the New Orleanians. These characters all alter their reality to some degree in order to achieve some feeling of happiness of motivation in life that keeps them alive. Robert Lowell’s poem “Water” was published in 1976 and its last three stanzas express themes supportive of those in Streetcar. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire expresses similar themes with Robert Lowell’s “Water,” such as humanity’s instinct to eliminate threat, the importance of a person’s imagination in life, and the ultimate failure of fantasy when put against brutal reality.
Humans, as animals, follow the animalistic instinct to get rid of anything that potentially threatens their happiness, well being, or life. Desire is no different, and neither are the characters of Streetcar. Most prominent is Stanley’s actions towards getting rid of Blanche: revealing her promiscuous past and nature to her sister and love interest, buying her a one-way ticket home, and raping her. These actions are all motivated by Blanche telling Stella that “[Stanley] acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There’s even something – subhuman” (Williams 72) about Stanley that repulses Blanche. In response to her crippling character critique, Stanley launches a plot to delegitimize Blanche and ultimately send her to a mental institution. This is indicative of the animalistic nature of protecting a person’s self when threatened, such as Stanley felt when Blanche was trying to take Stella away from him. Stanley’s happiness, self-esteem, and security hinge on his possession of Stella, and when that’s threatened, he bites back. In this way, Stanley completely proves Blanche’s point of him being an animal, following blindly his emotions without regard to the moral and reasonable consequences. However, Blanche is just as much guilty of this human trait. Her vanity and loss of self-esteem with the withering of her youth and beauty urges her to seduce a “young, young, young man! … and kiss [him], just once, softly and sweetly on [his] mouth!” (Williams 84). Blanche tries to seduce a young and attractive newspaper boy to convince herself that she has not lost the beauty, tenderness, and shine that she needs to live with herself. This metaphor may further be applied to how “the sea drenched the rock at our feet all day,and kept tearing away flake after flake.” (Lowell 1-4).where the rock represents a threat to the sea, which is retaliating by destroying it. Water and sea are direct opposites and are in a state of constant equilibrium. The action of the sea scraping the rock away is reminiscent of humanity striking back at what threatens its existence, or what it thinks does so. In essence, this is the relationship between Blanche and Stanley, as well as between Blanche and herself. Destruction of threat is an inbred human reaction, particularly evident in these works.
Where humans begin to separate from animals is in their ability to think for themselves and imagine or fantasize, therein creating new realities for themselves, which may often be crucial for their well being in order to cope with reality. Truly, the world is a grim place full of death and misfortune, but the human tendency to alter one’s own reality with their imagination proves to be necessary to give a person some feeling of purpose, intent, or motivation in a world otherwise hopeless, brutal and futile. Blanche is a prominent character living almost entirely in her own fantasies, in her world with “only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea/ – But it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me!” (Williams 99). In order to escape the brutality of the lives of her sister, Stanley, and herself, Blanche alters her reality by believing that the world she lives in is not as savage and animalistic as it truly is and seems, and she also convinces herself she is full of youth and beauty, which may have been true in the past but is certainly waning. When a person begins to rely too heavily on their fantasies as Blanche does, then those lies become the solid and blatant truth for a person, with the onset of lunacy. Blanche also feels the need to forget her past, in which her old boyfriend killed himself and she became known as “a town character. Regarded as not just different but downright loco – nuts” (Williams 100). While Blanche is a key portrayer of this mindset, it is further reciprocated in Stella’s denial of Blanche’s story of her rape. Emotionally, Stella needs to convince herself that Stanley did not rape Blanche because it poses a threat to her happiness, so creating her own reality in which Stanley did not rape Blanche is crucial for Stella’s emotional well being. Sending Blanche to the mental institute was “the right thing, the only thing [she] could do” (Williams 141) when the possibility of Stanley’s actions surfaced.
This theme of changing a person’s own sense of reality is reciprocated in the second stanza of Lowell’s poem, in which “one night you dreamed you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf pile,/ and trying to pull/ off the barnacles with your hands” (Lowell 5-7). This is an example of how natural it is for humans to create more to reality than there truly is, in an effort to conceal the nastiness and lowness of humanity from their vision. While it is important to have a certain amount of imagination in one’s life, it is crucial to be aware of the extent of those lies, since in reality, the brutal truths of the world triumph over artificially contrived fantasies. This is most clearly evident in Stella’s reuniting with Stanley after him abusing her in A Streetcar Named Desire. Following her animalistic desires of human nature, “Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. … Then they come together with low, animal moans. … He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat” (Williams 60).This displays how, despite Blanche and the audience have faith and hope in Stella to realise the nastiness of her abusive relationship with Stanley, the brutal reality of what truly happens in life always overpowers a person’s imagined destiny of what should happen: Stella reunites with Stanley and they resume their abusive and unhealthy relationship motivated solely by sex and desire. This theme of reality defeating fantasy can further be seen in Blanche’s attempted seduction of the newspaper boy and her failure therein. Blanche tries to prove to herself that she is young and beautiful by seducing a young boy who doesn’t reciprocate her affection.
While Blanche fantasizes that she is timelessly beautiful and youthful, the brutal reality of her age and deteriorating good looks are exhibited in the scene with the newspaper boy. This idea is conveyed in the third stanza of Lowell’s poem “Water,” in which “we wished our two souls might return like gulls,to the rock. In the end,the water was too cold for us.” (Lowell 8-11).In this stanza, the cold water represents the brutal realities of life that prevent a person from living the way they want to, with fantasies and imagination to cover the sadness of existence – the shortness and the often futile feeling of hopelessness that accompanies it. After all, “a girl alone in the world has got to keep a firm hold on her emotions or she’ll be lost” (Williams 87). Without having proper restraint on one’s imagination, a person can be driven to lunacy with their lack of true understanding of the world around them. Humanity clings to the hope that there is a chance for redemption in life, but in brutally natural fashion, humans die with these dreams and aspirations crushed.
After a time of immense and unrivaled horror and misanthropy, A Streetcar Named Desire struck home with many audience members who felt disheartened with humanity after World War II. Those who had convinced themselves that the nastiness of the First World War would never repeat itself had their fantasies shattered with the fresh reminder of the millions of deaths in the 1940’s. The war itself was largely a human reaction to threat, as America saw Germany and the Nazi movement as a threat to their democracy and order of being, and vice versa. After the war, television in America started to become even more popular because of the technological advances of the times, exhibiting humanity’s need to be surrounded by fantastic lies in times of crises. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as Robert Lowell’s “Water” display these concepts of humanity’s response to threat, the importance of imagination, as well as the weakness of these fantasies. It’s able to send a clear and concise message to the audience as a cautionary tale of having the perfect balance between fantasy and reality in a life marked by human horror and nastiness.
The Sounds and the Images in ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow’
Robert Lowell’s poem ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow’ narrates retrospectively a specific time from the poet’s childhood, an afternoon in 1922 in his grandfather’s summer house. The most striking qualities of the poem are sound plays and the utilization of imagery. These features are what make this text a poem rather than a short, simple narrative story as they support the central theme of life and death in their use.
First of all, the repetition of the sounds is the most obvious poetic element in this poem. We observe the repetition of the same consonants and vowels not only in consequent lines but throughout the whole poem in various shapes. There are four consonants that stand out as the most frequently repeated in the poem: /s/, /p/, /f/, and /k/. The fricatives /s/ and /f/ give the reader a sense of continuity as their manner of articulation depends upon the releasing of continuous air. On the other hand, the plosives /p/ and /k/ are stop sounds in whose articulation the air needs to be blocked. The fact that these sounds are juxtaposed with one another in a continuous manner manifest itself in the feeling of an interchanging flow and obstruction. A simple attempt to read the poem out loud with all due stress to each sound becomes surprisingly challenging thanks to the frequent juxtaposition of these different types of sounds.
When we take this into consideration together with the central theme of the poem, namely the co-existence of life and death, these sounds become suggestive within the context. As we gather from the lines “No one had died there in my lifetime … / Only Cinder, our Scottie puppy / paralyzed from gobbling toads.”, the passing away of Uncle Devereux is the first time encounter with the concept of death for the poet-persona at the age of five and a half. Just as the whole narrative is the realization of death by the young Robert, the poem with its sounds and repetitions is a revelation to the reader that the opposites go hand in hand in poetry and in life, which is also suggested by the imagery in the poem.
Apart from the narration, the detailed descriptions of the setting and the scenes give this poem a visual quality created by the vivid images. The primary image in the poem is that of earth and lime, which is introduced in Part I with the lines “One of my hands was cool on a pile / of black earth, the other warm / on a pile of lime”. The diverging characters of earth and lime are directly contrasted in these lines, foregrounding the sense of touch. One can immediately visualize the two piles and the boy with his hands inside each, and almost feel the cold and the warmth. The last stanza is significant in that it returns to the image of the piles, “a black pile and a white pile… / Come winter, / Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color”, and this time the visual sense is emphasized even more with the colors black and white. The words ‘winter’ and ‘black’ invokes the traditional connotations of death as they are mentioned together with the dying uncle. Yet, we also have the color ‘white’ and the verb ‘blend’. Thus, just as we read, we blend the colors black and white in our minds, and reconcile the opposites, and there comes an acknowledgment of and a submission to death as well as to life. We see that the poet comes to terms with life and death in his beckoning of winter, and furthermore accepts the grayness of everything to come, including the death of his Uncle Devereux. This antithesis and the following reconciliation are made possible only through the central image of the poem.
This poem is striking in that it primarily narrates a day, yet the sound plays and the continuous images do not only strengthen the story and the themes but also constitute the central poetic aspects. We feel the form and content melt into each other as we try to handle the different types of consonants continuously repeated to convey the struggle of the poet persona. Once we are out of this struggle with the sounds, the images creep in during our second reading and give us a revelation and a reconciliation, which may perhaps be alike to the ones experienced by the poet himself.