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.