"The third person possessed me": Robert Lowell's monologues.
I think Browning had all the right ideas about what the poetry of his time should take in--people and time. But (this is presumptuous) how he muffed it all! The ingenious, terrific metrics, shaking the heart out of what he was saying; the invented language; the short-cuts, the hurry; and (one must say it) the horrible self-indulgence--the attitudes, the cheapness! (Letters 81-82)
As he wrote, Lowell was at work on the dramatic monologues that would form his third book, Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). His comments on Browning are noticeable for the similarity of his complaints to the charges critics would level against Kavanaughs--that Lowell's idiosyncrasies were getting the better of him, that his promising career was stalled by his baroque sense of form and allusion. More significantly, the letter suggests his belief that "people and time" or, put differently, psychological depth and historical scope, were the proper goals of poetry and the particular province of the dramatic monologue.
Renewed attention to the dramatic monologues in Kavanaughs and Lowell's next book, Life Studies (1959), reveals how writing in this form helped Lowell develop the personal voice that made the latter volume a poetic landmark. Though relatively obscure among Lowell's books, Kavanaughs is important for its experiments with the dramatic first person, leading to the more autobiographical first person poems of Life Studies. The personae Lowell creates for Kavanaughs are, like Lowell himself, deeply implicated in the history of their surroundings, and they provide a bridge from the epic sweep of the early books to the more intimate view of Life Studies. In addition to the little-discussed dramatic monologue in the voice of Hart Crane, Life Studies contains poems like "Man and Wife" and "To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage" that combine dramatic voice with Lowell's new, more personal approach. Kavanaughs, then, fills in a critical step in Lowell's development of a character and setting that allowed him to treat public history from the perspective of private experience.
This reading of Kavanaughs and its place in Lowell's development relies on a definition of the dramatic monologue and an account of its conventions, which Lowell liberally alters. Critics have paid much attention to how the forms of confession--both in the religious and the psychoanalytical sense--shape Lowell's poems. (1) Elisa New, for example, argues that Lowell's typical gestures, "the solicitation of a hearing ear, the discovery of a conveyancing image or voice," involve the solitary speaker looking to an interlocutor for "absolution" (16). (2) The speaker's calling out to an auditor is key to the dramatic monologue as well, and the monologue form presents possibilities for Lowell's exploration of how the self interacts with the public world. In its most exemplary form, the dramatic monologue indicates both a speaker and an auditor. It responds to a dramatic occasion, encompasses some action, and reveals the qualities of the speaker as a character. Often the speaker is differentiated from the writer by name or by other details in the poem. Glynnis Byron's history of the dramatic monologue shows that when the form was developing in the Victorian era, critics saw its emergence as closely tied to new psychological methods for understanding the mind (4). For modernist poets, this tendency toward exploration of a singular mind made the dramatic monologue a form in which to examine fragmented consciousness. In doing so, modernists de-emphasized the relation between speaker and auditor to focus more on the individual's faceted personality. (3)
Lowell extends fragmentation in his monologues, further breaking down the distinctions between author, speaker, and auditor. The speakers in Lowell's dramatic poems, though differentiated from the author by their names and biographical details, often bear marks of Lowell's experience. Furthermore, in Kavanaughs the auditors are frequently dead, and the speakers address their monologues to the formative past those dead listeners represent. The dislocations in these poems come not from the fragmented modern self so much as from an elaborate layering of personal, political, and mythic history under the events the speaker narrates. By the time Lowell published Life Studies, his poems had mostly dropped the convention of the auditor, but their personal feeling relies on Lowell's finding his way from the epic ambitions of Lord Weary's Castle to a closer relation with the past, imagined almost as a character in the present drama.
A few critics of the last twenty years have treated Kavanaughs in larger discussions of Lowell's work. Helen Vendler's The Given and the Made provides an account of Lowell's changing attitudes toward history and positions Kavanaughs as the last of his books that looks primarily outward to public rather than inward to personal history. In The Wounded Surgeon, Adam Kirsch offers a balanced assessment of the individual poems but essentially sees Kavanaughs as a misstep on the way to Life Studies. William Doreski devotes a short but helpful chapter to Kavanaughs in Robert Lowell's Shifting Colors. The primary work of his discussion is to situate the title poem in the context of Lowell's life with his first wife, Jean Stafford, and to track changes Lowell made to the poem after its first publication in the Kenyon Review. More often, however, critics ignore the book altogether. Although several poems from Kavanaughs appeared in Lowell's Selected Poems, the volume had been out of print for decades by the time the Collected Poems appeared in 2003. (4) In a review for Slate of this new volume, edited by Bidart and Gewanter, A. O. Scott called the "strange, often obscure" Mills of the Kavanaughs "Lowell's most neglected" book.
First published in 1951, Kavanaughs met with dramatically mixed reviews, but it appealed to readers who were awaiting a follow-up to Lord Weary's Castle. Lowell seemed to many an important poet on the rise, and if this new volume was a faltering step, it was no less an interesting one. In the Partisan Review, Lowell's friend Randall Jarrell wrote that the book was ambitious but that Lowell's mannerisms result in poems that are strained. (5) William Arrowsmith, writing for the Hudson Review, found that Lowell disregards the wealth of associations already present in his allusions and "proceeds, characteristically, to pack his symbols so that his simplicities assume a complexity which wrecks them" (627). The technical problems of the book were also crucial for Dudley Fitts. With a mixture of admiration and annoyance, he wrote that Kavanaughs was exasperating because "Robert Lowell could recast Thirty Days Hath September in terms that would tingle our scalps" and because so much of his "virtuosity has been expended largely in chasing its own tail" (76). Few reviewers could disregard Lowell as a force in contemporary poetry, but few seemed satisfied, either, by this attempt to expand his lyric poems to a narrative length.
Through the '60s and '70s, Kavanaughs was understood as a transition from Lowell's early poetry to the new, more personal style of Life Studies. Richard Fein saw it as a turn in Lowell's faith, a sign that he was "moving from the religious bone and gristle of Land of Unlikeness to the painful flesh of Life Studies" (50). Patrick Cosgrave argued that the final poem, "Thanksgiving's Over," with its inaccessible religious symbolism and baroque meter, was a central stylistic failure that changed the course of Lowell's poetry (51). While anticipating that the book would continue to receive critical attention, Jerome Mazzaro describes the title poem as a collapse, a work "unable to withstand the filigree and unclear about its worldly or unworldly direction" (24). Each of these critics views Kavanaughs more as a pivot point than a further step in his development. Ultimately, they agree that the book is a failure on its own terms, which Lowell sets with his web of allusions to Ovid, Wagner, and William Randolph Hearst, among others.
In the intervening decades, the apparent departure in Life Studies from Lowell's earlier work has made it the most prominent book in studies of Lowell while Kavanaughs has become relatively obscure. When Life Studies was published in 1959, critics received it as a sharp turn in Lowell's career. (6) That story of a breakthrough, carrying with it the implication of fresh psychological insight in Life Studies, persists in much recent criticism. For example, in The Art of Modern American Poetry, Charles Altieri calls Life Studies a "radical turn" in which Lowell "completely rejected the meditative impersonality" of his earlier work (160). In One Kind of Everything, Dan Chiasson argues that after his first few books "Lowell himself came to see those early poems as a displacement onto history of his own hysteria and turned, in the fifties, to writing the muted and personal poems" of Life Studies (24). As Chiasson suggests, even at their most impersonal, Lowell's poems are indelibly marked by his individual view, and the new voice of Life Studies was a conscious attempt to uncover that perspective. However, far from seeing Life Studies as the beginning of a new style, Lowell himself longed after its publication for a return to impersonality, or to yet another way of merging the personal with a larger history. (7) The idea that Life Studies represents a fully realized style for Lowell clouds our understanding of how his work developed; it is an idea that Lowell was the first to reject. A return to the dramatic monologues Kavanaughs as experiments in first-person perspective will reveal how Lowell used the monologue to devise a more intimate sound out of the expansive voice of his first books.
In the long title poem of Mills of the Kavanaughs, Lowell portrays the sole survivor of a family built up through violence and rent by internal traumas. His central character, Anne Kavanaugh, speaks about family history with both wistful nostalgia and dark sarcasm. "Mills of the Kavanaughs" begins with a prose paragraph that approximates stage direction but also includes explanatory notes about references to the Abnaki and Penobscot Indians that will appear later in the poem. Lowell establishes the time ("an afternoon in the fall of 1943"), the setting ("a village a little north of Bath, Maine") and the background of the dramatic speaker, who was "adopted by the Kavanaughs many years before she married." Most relevant to this discussion, Lowell indicates that the auditor of this monologue is Harry, the speaker's dead husband, whose grave lies at the end of the garden where the poem takes place. His stand-in, and Anne's imagined partner at solitaire, is a family Bible she addresses as "Sol."
The body of the poem continues with description of Anne Kavanaugh rather than immediately taking up her voice. The changing perspective of "Kavanaughs," which switches between Anne's speech and a narrative voice, may be part of what some readers and critics have found bewildering in the poem. (8) In these first lines, however, the narrator offers a closer view of Anne's actions and also looks forward to some of the poem's themes, particularly the intertwining of sex and death that marks Anne's marriage, figured here in the garden statue of Persephone:
The Douay Bible on the garden chair Facing the lady playing solitaire In blue-jeans and a sealskin toque from Bath Is Sol, her dummy. There's a sort of path Or rut of weeds that serpents down a hill And graveyard to a ruined burlap mill; There, a maternal nineteenth century Italian statue of Persephone Still beckons to a mob of Bacchanals To plunge like dogs or athletes through the falls And fetch her the stone garland she will hurl. The lady drops her cards. She kneels to furl Her husband's flag, and thinks his mound and stone Are like a buried bed. (1-14)
This first physical description paints Anne in contrasting shades. Her casual jeans contrast starkly with her rich but outmoded hat. (9) She kneels by her husband's grave, imagining the headstone is like a headboard. The comparison of grave and bed here looks forward to the climactic argument over infidelity that will reveal Anne and Harry's marriage as a wreck. Lowell also figures the grave as a throne that the older Kavanaughs "must have willed" to their children (16). Anne muses, "Harry, not a thing/Was missing: we were children of a king" (16-17). Through the totem figure of Persephone, who presides over the poem's mythology of marriage and death, Lowell links Anne with the queen of the dead.
When Lowell does turn to Anne Kavanaugh, her quoted words are introduced not with the word "says" but with "thinks." Throughout the poem, Lowell obscures whether Anne is actually speaking aloud or whether this is entirely internal monologue, directed in her mind to the absent Harry Kavanaugh. At moments, the poem goes even more internal, turning from addressing Harry to meditating on him in the third person. For example, at line 50, Anne "dreams and thinks, 'My husband was a fool.'" Since Harry is dead, the question of whether she speaks aloud or not is of little consequence in the plot of the poem, but in the terms of the dramatic monologue, Lowell's constant insistence on Anne's thought rather than on her speech represents a deliberate variation. It also complicates her status in relation to the Kavanaugh family, which she can only address in absentia.
Lowell establishes at the beginning of the poem that the Kavanaughs are "a Catholic family that came to Maine in the 17th century." But while the Kavanaughs are a historical family, Lowell's characterization of them owes much to the details of his own history. The Kavanaugh business is a paper mill, symbolically tying them to the production of literature. Like the Lowells and the Winslows, they are a politically connected family; Anne Kavanaugh refers to the time (before she was born) when "Cousin Franklin Pierce was President" (19). However, this powerful family is in decline. Harry Kavanaugh is a failed Naval officer who can't even resign his position effectively. As his wife puts it, he "was a fool/To run out from the navy when disgrace/Still wanted zeal to look him in the face" (50-52). The ostensibly-powerful patriarch is doubly humiliated by his failure as a military man and his inability to fully face the abandonment of his Navy career. Yet the poem can't escape him, as he is the necessary auditor of the survivor's musings.
The Kavanaughs make their living partly through violence to the Native American population, a concern that runs through Lowell's poems beginning with "At the Indian Killer's Grave" in Lord Weary's Castle. The family establishes its business in Maine by producing:
cleft Forests and skulls of the Abnakis left Like saurian footprints by the lumber lord, Who broke their virgin greenness cord by cord To build his clearing. Once his axe was law And culture, but this house in its decline Forgets how tender green shoots used to spring From the decaying stump. (215-222)
Lowell's syntax in this passage blurs the act of chopping down trees with the violent slaughter of Native Americans. He describes the forest in the sexualized language of "virgin greenness," which gives the "lumber lord" who conquers it a gendered power as well as a new legal and cultural authority.
It is crucial to Lowell's poem that the daughter who remembers this family is an adopted Kavanaugh and that her husband Harry was once her adopted brother. Lowell deliberately chooses the perspective of an interloper, someone who has both inside knowledge and an outside view on the family's social and political power. In stark contrast to the adoptive family, Anne's birth family is poor and unknown. Her irresponsible father spends freely, partly to support a second household with another woman, and leaves the family desperate: "The air we breathed he owed/The poor box" (186-187). After she joins the Kavanaughs, Anne continues to feel deeply the gap between her upbringing and her new life. Even after many years, and a two-fold relation to the family's heir--she is both his sister and his wife--she wonders if it is "trespassing" for her to call the Kavanaugh land "ours" (74). Her outsider's stance allows Lowell to comment incisively on a family he constructs as representative New England clan.
Anne also stands outside of the mental illness that wrecks her husband; yet as his condition worsens, the narration grows more distorted and disorienting as if in sympathy with his deteriorating state. Harry returns from the Navy shell-shocked in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and Anne struggles to cope with the drastic change in his character. He turns fearful and childish, but also angry. Eventually, Harry attempts suicide, and Anne commits him to a mental institution, where his condition declines further. The moment at which she learns of his death recalls the chaos of a military attack in the guise of patriotic celebration:
Someone is shouting. Tufts of grass explode. Somewhere a child is dancing in his grease And war paint. "Mees," he shouts, "town ring! Mees, Mees Town ring. Lieutenant Kavanaugh eeth dead." She sees the body sitting up in bed Before the window. "You must bury me As if you gloried in my liberty. I died," it seems to tell her, "while July, The month of freedom, tiger-striped the sky With bombs and rockets." (484-493)
The child in this excerpt, with his Indian war paint, makes play out of violence while also taking on the role of the subjugated, exoticized Abnakis, which gives him an aura of savagery. He appears to be acting out, on Independence Day, the conflicts that Lowell has already established as central to the Kavanaugh family's success and the larger success of New England settlers.
Though Anne and Harry hope their marriage will help redeem the family's violent past, the picture of marriage Lowell paints is tense and unhappy. At the climax of the poem, Anne dreams about an adulterous affair, a dream that functions as an escape from the strain of living with Harry but becomes itself a cause for anxiety. Harry overhears Anne say to her imagined lover:
You are not you; not black Like Harry; you're a boy. Look out, his car's White eyes are at the window. Boy, your chin Is bristling. You have gored me black and blue. (356-359)
Although she dreams about a lover more boyish than the adult Harry, the affair that has "gored" her "black and blue" sounds dangerous and painful. This sense of the threat that inheres in romantic love is typical for Lowell, who writes Anne's pleasurable but fearful dream as an escape from a marriage that has become equally oppressive. As a speech, this section is characteristic of the move toward a more individualized speaker, talking more intimately with a figure in her past. In this passage, which Anne recalls in her reflections on Harry's death, Lowell places menacing diction next to playful language, as when Anne describes feeling "all prickle-tickle like the stars;/ ... a sleepy-foot" (360-361). These shifts in register are made possible in part by Lowell's use of the monologue conventions of speaker and auditor; Anne is more idiosyncratic and strange as a speaker than a general narrative voice would be.
Yet speaking to the dead also keeps Anne stuck in a relationship that turns back on itself. Her speech to Harry is like the game of solitare she plays, offering only the appearance of exchange. "Mills of the Kavanaughs" suggests that the introduction of Anne into the blighted Kavanaugh family should have rejuvenated the bloodline. Instead, what verges on incest with her adopted brother results in further decay. Such inward-turning relationships become a theme throughout The Mills of the Kavanaughs. I turn now from the title poem and its use of the speaker to examine more generally how Lowell approaches the dramatic monologue in the book as a whole and how these experiments with dramatic voice anticipate the arrival of Life Studies.
In "Her Dead Brother," Lowell makes a more explicit claim about what incestuous relationships mean for the social landscape he describes. The speaker says to the title character, "a New England town is death/and incest" (57-58). The poem, in two sections of three stanzas each, shows the speaker reflecting on the relationship with her brother and the transgression that she associates with his death:
We will forget that August twenty-third, When mother motored with the maids to Stowe, And the pale summer shades were drawn--so low No one could see us; no, nor catch your hissing word, As false as Cressid! Let our deaths atone: The fingers on your sword-knot are alive, And Hope, that fouls my brightness with its grace, Will anchor in the narrows of your face. My husband's Packard crunches up the drive. (22-30)
As in the title poem, this speaker addresses herself to a departed auditor. Like Anne, she finds a voice by speaking to the past but ultimately can only recreate her isolation. Rather than occurring on a single occasion, "Her Dead Brother" is divided into two temporally distinct sections, a structure that allows Lowell to show development in the speaker's consciousness. The first section includes the raw memory triggered by a portrait of the brother, while the second, beginning with the cue "three months later," reflects on the memory and its effects: "I've saved you in the ice-house of my mind" (38). The speaker's guilt seems to distort the time of the poem: the departing car carries the mother away, leaving the two children alone, and the car that returns brings the adult narrator's husband. Each of the speakers in Kavanaughs reckons with memory in one way or another, but the progression to self-conscious reflection is formalized in "Her Dead Brother" as two movements within a single poem. In this way, "Her Dead Brother" looks forward to how Lowell would develop his own character in Life Studies, accumulating his memories of and meditations on personal experience in a number of compressed, interrelated lyric poems rather than a complex, rambling monologue like "Mills of the Kavanaughs." Hugh Staples describes the narrowing in Lowell's poems from Kavanaughs to Life Studies as geographical--their locations get more precise (16). More importantly, they become more precisely situated in time.
The last poem in Kavanaughs, "Thanksgiving's Over," also centers on a couple torn apart by mental illness. This and the title poem bookend the collection by showing both a wife and a husband left alone by suicidal madness and coping with guilt. In "Thanksgiving's Over," the husband, Michael, is tormented by his wife's memory and by his decision to commit her to an "asylum" (47). Once again, Lowell's speaker confronts a dead auditor--the wife's illness led her to jump out of the window of her apartment after she reveals her religious delusions. When she comes to her husband in a dream, she describes passing a church and feeling certain "the Third/Person possessed [her]" (11-12). In her fevered state, she imagines that the Holy Ghost is not only present, but actually animates her. Given Lowell's play with perspective in this book, the Third Person also suggests literary perspective. Each of these monologues involves Lowell "possessing" and speaking as another person, even as his speakers seem possessed by their personal ghosts. His monologues are not a transformation into another character, but a kind of spirit possession in which the writer's consciousness takes over a different voice and a different position in the world.
Though the speakers of "Kavanaughs" and "Thanksgiving's Over" are very different, Lowell draws from a common well of details and even language to unify the collection, a technique he uses in Life Studies to simplify his monologues. For example, "Thanksgiving's Over" echoes the call in "Kavanaughs" for "Miserere" or mercy. Furthermore, in representing this woman's breakdown, Lowell loosens his form. In the middle of the poem, especially, the varied line lengths and fragmented sentences move away from the strict meters and rhyme in which he learned, as a beginning poet, to write.
In each of these poems, the desire for relief from secrecy is palpable. When Harry Kavanaugh reacts to Anne's dream by trying to kill her, she is happy to have a reason to "shout it from the housetops of the Mills;/ ... you are mad" (377-378). In exchange for freedom from the pretense of a stable marriage, Anne is ready to expose her husband's condition to the town. This scene especially seems to look forward to Life Studies. A public announcement of mental illness is precisely what so many critics would find unnerving about Lowell's next book. (10) Issues of privacy and publicity in regard to madness are already a running theme in Mills of the Kavanaughs, however, and they are directly tied to the ability to speak and to find someone to listen.
In spite of the breakthrough narrative that has so often guided our thinking about Life Studies, there is a surprising continuity between Kavanaughs and its successor. Readers can see it in Lowell's diction, his opening of formal structures into free verse, and his frequent themes: potential violence in men's relationships with women, the oppression on which stand both New England families and the United States as a whole, and mental illness in its private manifestations and public treatment. An examination of how the specific form of dramatic monologue functions in these two books shows how important a developing approach to character is to the changes in Lowell's career. In general, Lowell moves from invented characters in Kavanaughs to inventing himself as a character, "Robert Lowell," in Life Studies.
Even in the latter, received as a radically personal book, there are a few monologues in which Lowell speaks as separate character, identified by name as different from the writer. He takes on the voice of Marie de Medici in "The Banker's Daughter," echoing in the process some of Kavanaughs's preoccupation with inheritance. He also situates a monologue in the voice of Hart Crane alongside poetic tributes to Ford Madox Ford, George Santayana, and Delmore Schwartz, creating a kind of literary portrait-gallery. The personal poems in Life Studies have too often been read as separate from the poems spoken clearly by characters. Beyond recalling the idea that all poems are voiced by personae, to view these types of poems together reveals how Lowell developed a speaker who could talk to his historical and literary past, much as Anne Kavanaugh speaks to the familial past represented by her dead husband. The poems of Life Studies continue Lowell's work in finding individual voices that can speak to past experience, but they streamline the structures and the frame of reference that make the Kavanaughs poems feel so contorted.
"Man and Wife" and "To Speak of Woe that Is in Marriage" are two poems poised ambiguously between the clearly autobiographical and the more historical poems in Life Studies. They are included among the personal poems of the last section of the book, but they are not marked by names from the Lowell and Winslow family albums as many others in the volume are. These two poems treat a similar subject to "Mills of the Kavanaughs," imagining marriage as a potentially threatening situation. They even echo some of the earlier poem's language, depicting the husband looming "like an elephant" above his "gored" wife ("Man and Wife," lines 13-14). They offer a different approach than the poem "Mills of the Kavanaughs," however, because they simplify the way speaking characters are presented. While Lowell embedded Anne Kavanaugh's monologue into an elaborate construct of narrative and stage direction, these poems are all speech. They show how, by cumulatively building setting and scenario, Life Studies achieves a dramatic backdrop that appears to be less elaborately constructed than the set pieces in Kavanaughs.
"Man and Wife" and "To Speak of Woe" are connected through their language and imagery to the family romance Lowell describes throughout Life Studies. The former begins:
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed; the rising sun in war paint dyes us red; in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine, abandoned, lmost Dionysian. At last the trees are green on Marlborough street, blossoms on our magnolia ignite the morning with their murderous five days' white. (1-7)
The couple resides on what Lowell describes in Life Studies's "Memories of West Street and Lepke" as "hardly passionate Marlborough Street" (4). In "Memories," he compares the "tranquillized Fifties" (12) with the "seedtime that he spent in jail as a conscientious objector to World War II (13). Now, in "Man and Wife" we see the literally tranquillized couple, "Tamed by Miltown," trying to calm their domestic quarrels. The "gilded bed-posts" of "Mother's bed" look back even further to the same bed Lowell describes in the childhood poem "During Fever": "Gold, yellow, and green,/the nuptial bed/was as big as a bathroom" (29-31). Thus the scene carries the traces of several incidents from the speaker's past.
"Man and Wife" and "To Speak of Woe" are not only marked as continuous with earlier settings in the book; the forms of childhood experience Lowell has described are repeated in their drama. (11) In "91 Revere Street" the young Lowell is closely attuned to family fights, "drenched in [his] parents' passions" (127). He even anticipates their conflicts, and "would awake with rapture to the rhythm of my parents arguing, arguing one another to exhaustion" (128). In "Man and Wife" the speaker recalls meeting his future wife and then turns, in the last stanza, back to conflict in the present, figured again as a drenching wave:
Now twelve years later, you turn your back. Sleepless, you hold your pillow to your hollows like a child; your old-fashioned tirade-- loving, rapid, merciless-- breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head. (23-28)
As in the prose memoir, the speaker is swept up in the rhythm of the argument, like the tide breaking on the shore. The nervous energy of the wife's "tirade" recalls Mother's voice in "Commander Lowell": "electric/with a hysterical unmarried panic" (4-5). The wife's speech is "old-fashioned" not because the tirade is an out-of-date form of marital communication, but because it belongs to the period of childhood. Lowell reproduces the formative fights between parents in language and also, "Man and Wife" suggests, as plot.
The two short poems were once part of a larger monologue with the wife's speech subordinate to the male narrating voice, a structure that would have made this poem resemble more closely "The Mills of the Kavanaughs." Instead, Lowell separated them, creating what appears to be a matched pair. Even the titles reveal that the relationship between the two poems is more complicated, however. As Ian Hamilton describes, the title of the original poem that contained both was "Holy Matrimony" (265). In revision, Lowell pulled out the wife's quoted speech and made it a separate poem, but rather than designating it as the "Wife" half of the pairing "Man and Wife," he titles it "To Speak of Woe," quoting from Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale." The Chaucer title marks the wife's speech as a response to literary tradition as much as to personal experience. Both of the new titles move away from the religious connotations of "Holy Matrimony" and their ironic juxtaposition with the threatened union depicted in these poems.
The allusion of "To Speak of Woe" also provides distance not just from Lowell's speaking persona but from the contemporary marriage he is describing. The degree to which "To Speak of Woe" refers specifically to Lowell's marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick is ambiguous. In an August 1969 letter to Richard Tillinghast, who was working on a doctoral dissertation on his poems, Lowell says that "To Speak of Woe" is "from a late bitter poem of Catullus, but maybe there's nothing left of that" (Letters 522). This letter suggests that the drama of the poem should be attributed to source material; nothing may be "left" after Lowell's working and reworking of the language, but the core impulse came from reading. Yet in an interview with Hamilton, Lowell's editor, Robert Giroux, suggests that this "tirade" makes use of "private letters or conversation," though such practice has raised fewer questions in this instance than it did relative to the controversy over the publication of The Dolphin (Hamilton 434). The sources for "To Speak of Woe" are significant for what they tell us about Lowell's move from dramatic speaker, created to express something representative about his New England scene, to the dramatization of his own life experience. The combination of reading and private experience in "To Speak of Woe" suggests that it is both deeply personal and fundamentally allusive.
In dividing "Holy Matrimony," Lowell moves one of the resulting poems closer to traditional monologue while the other resembles more the poems in Life Studies that readers understand as personal. Terri Witek argues that the speaking voices in the two resulting poems are distinct from one another. Looking at these final poems in Life Studies as revisions of the drama that preceded them in the book, Witek argues, "Lowell makes it clear that the husband and wife speak different languages. She is outspoken, first person; he is third person, the omniscient and controlling voice despite the pleasing vigor of his wife's presence" (93). Her speech remains in quotation marks even after it has been separated and made into its own poem. More to the point here, the focus of the speaker in "Man and Wife" is the second person, the "you" who appears in the room. Yet the female figure in the poem doesn't seem to function as the auditor but simply as a figure in the scene. On the other hand, "To Speak of Woe" contains a speaker clearly differentiated from the poet and from its assumed auditor, to whom she complains about her husband's brutality. According to the conventions of the monologue, it is more properly dramatic.
Additionally, the form of "To Speak of Woe" marks it as a more formalized utterance than "Man and Wife." Lowell writes in a modified sonnet pattern, exchanging the traditional rhyme schemes for a series of seven couplets. The poem begins with two alexandrines but then moves into a basic pentameter pattern. By contrast, Lowell varies his line lengths much more freely in "Man and Wife." Though he retains a number of end rhymes, including the framing rhyme of "bed" (line 1) and "red" (2) with "head" (28), the pattern is more open, with the rhymes occurring less frequently and less predictably. Revising poems from strict form into looser patterns was one of Lowell's techniques for creating a feeling of confessional directness, a technique he started to use in Kavanaughs and continued in Life Studies. (12) Here it also marks a further distinction between the two voices.
In spite of these distinguishing features, the two poems are connected by imagery, much as they are linked to the rest of the collection through setting. The blooming magnolia tree, central to both poems, signals a common focal point for the different points of view. The particular flower seems to be an important indicator of time for Lowell; it appears in bloom in "91 Revere Street" as well, marking the season in which he "bloodied Bulldog Binney's nose against the pedestal of George Washington's statue in full view of Commonwealth Avenue" (137). In the memoir, and in these two poems, the traditionally southern magnolia appears as an emblem of the hot-blooded battles of summer amidst New England's cool composure.
The paired poems are also linked by Lowell's technique of blending highly poetic diction with cliche, which gives the voice of the poems immediacy and connects them to contemporary culture. (13) In "To Speak of Woe":
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes, and hits the street to cruise for prostitutes, free-lancing out along the razor's edge. This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge. (3-6)
Lowell's use of cliche is evident in "screwball," "razor's edge," as well as in the later phrase "What makes him tick?" (11), but the received language is enlivened by surprising juxtapositions like "freelancing" and the ominous "Each night now I tie/ten dollars and his car key to my thigh" (11-12). The use of "screwball" is a particularly puzzling diction choice. The scene in "To Speak of Woe" appears to be more dangerous than this slangy term implies. The husband's physical presence is threatening and his actions are cruel or, at best, indifferent. The language of this poem, however, is muted compared with "homicidal" (line 11), "murderous" (7), and "scorched" (22) in "Man and Wife." This violent and destructive diction is incongruous with the static scene of the couple in bed while the more ironic language of "To Speak of Woe" belies that poem's threat of violence. When these poems are considered side by side, each seems to create a dramatic situation analogous to the tenor of the other.
The mood of the poems is also connected to "Waking in the Blue," an earlier poem in Life Studies and another investigation of the potential threat posed by "Mayflower/screwballs" (38-39). The two-hundred-pound sturdiness of Lowell's body, which makes him feel like "Cock of the walk" (42) at McLean's mental hospital, bears some relation to the elephantine form that looms over the wife in "To Speak of Woe." "Waking in the Blue" carries a muted menace, as each of the men in Lowell's hall stands with a "locked razor" (50). The precaution taken with the patients in McLean's shows their capacity for violence. The unlocked "razor's edge" in "To Speak of Woe," though figurative, makes that implicit threat more immediate. These complex interrelations among poems replace the complicated staging of the drama in Kavanaughs, allowing Lowell to write more direct poems that still consider similar themes and motifs.
In The Poetry of Experience, Robert Langbaum argued that the dramatic monologue achieved a "tension between sympathy and moral judgment" (85). For Lowell, the form provided a means for creating speakers both implicated in American history and individualized in their relation to that history. In the disparately-voiced and elaborately-staged poems of Mills of the Kavanaughs, Lowell reflects on many of the issues that would continue to preoccupy him throughout his career. Adam Kirsch argues that Lowell's use of "extremely peculiar characters and situations" in Kavanaughs seems "less like an expression than concealment" (16). It is true that in these poems the reader rarely loses awareness of Lowell behind the mask, even when that mask is quite distinct. Rather than concealing his concerns, however, the aim of Kavanaughs is to find a more immediate way of expressing them. As he turned to the more overtly personal material in Life Studies, Lowell created himself as a speaking character and used a constellation of shorter poems to achieve the ambitious scope of his earlier poems in a way that felt simpler and more direct. In part because of its status as a cultural landmark, Life Studies continues to garner thorough critical readings. Following the publication of the Collected Poems, further attention to the neglected Mills of the Kavanaughs may deepen our understanding of Lowell's self-conscious relationship with his past.
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(1) See David Yezzi's "Confessional Poetry and the Artifice of Honesty" (The New Criterion 16.10 : 14-21) on Lowell's aesthetic of rawness and its effect on the emotion of the poem. Also see Samuel Maio's Creating Another Self on the construction of sincerity.
(2) Christian Sisack also describes the religious influence of Lowell's confession, and the need for the confessant to "make her/himself a completely knowable and stable subject" to the person receiving the confession (270).
(3) Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a primary example of modernist monologue in which the examination of the protagonist's mind predominates while the auditor remains hazy.
(4) The entire Mills of the Kavanaughs was last published in a combined volume with Lord Weary's Castle, which appeared in 1961 and was reprinted in 1979.
(5) Jarrell suggests that Lowell "is a poet of both Will and Imagination, but his Will is always seizing his Imagination by the shoulders and saying to it in a grating voice: 'Don't sit there fooling around; get to work!'--and his poor Imagination gets tense all over and begins to revolve determinedly and familiarly, like a squirrel in a squirrel-cage" (697).
(6) John Thompson described the book in the Kenyon Review as a "shock" both for its autobiographical content and for the directness of its technique. Though he seems to miss the formal dexterity of Lowell's earlier poems, Thompson suggests that a careful reader will find in Life Studies "wit," "verbal brilliance," and "deep feeling" (487). M. L. Rosenthal claimed that reading Life Studies was like seeing Lowell remove the mask that had distanced earlier generations of poets from the symbolic art they produced. Among the early reviewers, John Hollander stands out for describing continuity in Lowell's poetry in spite of the apparent break that the new volume represented. He traced a line in Lowell's work going back to the highly emotional poems of Lord Weary's Castle through the shorter monologues in Kavanaughs, like "Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid" and "Mother Marie Therese." These poems shared Lowell's technique of intermingling dense diction with more prosaic rhythms and are marked by images of "passionate disruption" (42).
(7) In a 1959 letter to Chard Powers Smith, Lowell writes about Life Studies, "Everything went into a concentrated, rather imagistic directness, and for a while my old stuff seemed like something from an ancient extinct age of the reptiles, cumbersome creatures, bogged down and destroyed by their protective hide. Now the need to be more impersonal has come again, with it a need for some third style, still unfound" (Letters 354).
(8) Jerome Mazzaro, for example, describes the plan of "Kavanaughs" as "convoluted and confused" (22). He finds particularly problematic what he calls a "third person Impressionistic" point of view, which leaves Anne Kavanaugh with "no comprehension of what Lowell is trying to say" (19). Though his label for the perspective of the poem does little to account for the long passages of Anne's speech, it points out the ways in which the term "dramatic monologue" is also an imperfect fit for this poem.
(9) The hat is a Victorian-era trend. An 1879 article in the New York Times called "The Newest Fashions" describes an elaborate skating costume capped by a sealskin toque.
(10) Most famously, M. L. Rosenthal, in the review "Poetry as Confession," described Life Studies as "a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honorbound not to reveal" (154).
(11) In Robert Lowell and Life Studies: Revising the Self, Terri Witek describes this repetition of this psychological story, framed in Freudian terms.
(12) Maio describes how Lowell wrote many of the poems in Life Studies in traditional meter and rhyme schemes before revising them with the intention of opening up the form (42).
(13) In "Lowell's Postmodernity: Life Studies and the Shattered Image of Home," Stephen Gould Axelrod has pointed out Lowell's mixed diction in his reading of one of Life Studies's childhood poems, "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" (Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co.: Middle-Generation Poets in Context. Ed. Suzanne Ferguson. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2003. 251-268). Lowell modifies stock phrases like "pipe dreams" with the more interesting music of "watery martini" (4).
STEFANIE WORTMAN is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the University of Missouri. She is currently at work on a project considering varieties of ekphrasis in 20th-century and contemporary American poetry.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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