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” [21].)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.

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