Life Studies has been one of the most acclaimed and influential single books in American poetry. It exists alongside Leaves of Grass, Prufrock and Other Observations, Harmonium, Spring and All, Howl and Other Poems, 77 Dream Songs and Ariel as a work through which a distinctive American poetic tradition has been defined. In spite of subsequent acclaim, however, Life Studies was a book which its author regarded on its publication in 1959 with a remarkable degree of uncertainty concerning its worth and status. Lowell lacked the self-assured belief, characteristic of a Whitman or a Williams or a Ginsberg, in the revolutionary originality of his work and indeed he wondered whether the poems were any good at all. Life Studies, he thought, could either be a dead end, an aberration in his poetic career, or it could open up a fresh way of writing. He did not know which. 'When I finished Life Studies', Lowell said in 1960, 'I was left hanging on a question mark. I am still hanging there. I don't know whether it is a death-rope or a lifeline' (Price, 1974, p. 80).
The reasons for Lowell's self-doubt are not hard to find, and indeed self-doubt itself is a telling trope in Life Studies, from the envy of the lofty confidence of the Victorians expressed in its first poem 'Beyond the Alps', to the potential annihilation of the self in the final one, 'Skunk Hour'. Appropriately, Life Studies does not exhibit any Whitmanesque exuberant self-belief, in either thematic or technical terms. That it was not Lowell's first book points to a significant contrast with Whitman, Eliot, Stevens and Ginsberg, for whom there was a strong element of self-conscious innovation in their first publications. For over a decade before 1959, since the publication of his first volumes, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946), Lowell had held a formidable reputation in American poetry. He developed a particular style of poetry which was well suited to the climate in which New Criticism was institutionalized. Technically his work was dazzling in its formal effects. Stylistically it was dense, allusive, impersonal and 'difficult' in the ways that New Criticism encouraged. Thematically it was deeply religious, even Puritanical, in its judgement of the modern world, informed as it was by the stabilizing world view offered by the Roman Catholi cism to which Lowell had converted in 1940. The poems in Life Studies are so different that they virtually represent Lowell's poetic self-reinvention since the book that preceded it eight years earlier, The Mills of the Kavanaughs. Life Studies is prosy, the poems loose, decentred, lacking precision, concision, density. They seem anecdotal, seem to be drafts towards more finished, achieved poems (the 'studies' of the title reinforcing this impression). Most significantly in terms of the book's immediate influence, these poems came across as naked representations of personal experiences. In the second half of Life Studies the self was either the subject or the inescapable mediating presence, undisguised by the masking convention of the poetic persona. What he wanted, Lowell said later, was readers to feel they were getting 'the real Robert Lowell' (Seidel, 1961, p. 247).
More than anything else, it was this feature of Life Studies which accounted for the immediate influence that it had on other writers. But perhaps the longer-term influence of the book will prove to be stylistic rather than thematic, as we come to accept decentred non-symbolic writing as the foundation of postmodern poetry. However, at the end of the 1950s it was the use of the self, 'the real Robert Lowell', which stimulated the acclaim for Life Studies and contributed to the sense that there really was a poetic revolution underway as the authority of the Modernist generation and of that most influenced by New Criticism began to decline. In stating this, though, it needs immediately to be emphasized that Life Studies by itself did not initiate the revolution in taste which led to the so-called 'confessional' movement and to postmodern poetics. It was the middle of the 1950s that had marked the beginning of that change and certainly the work of Ginsberg (Howl and Other Poems, 1956), Charles Olson ('The Kingfishers', 1950) and W. D. Snodgrass (Heart's Needle, 1959) did much to change the prevailing poetic climate. Along with those writers, there were other crucial factors. These include the growing acceptance of the work of William Carlos Williams during the 1950s, the re-emergence of Whitman's poetry after New Critical-led neglect (the centenary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass was celebrated in 1955), and even the 1955 publication of Thomas Johnson's edition of Emily Dickinson which made her work available in a completely new way. From this larger perspective Life Studies was not unique in representing an individual self interacting with a public world. It drew upon fresh work in the 1950s but also on an older tradition of American writing in which individual experience is validated, and in which the poem is valued for being authentically grounded in the personal. Life Studies demanded attention as something fresh, though, because Lowell was an established poet whose work was fundamentally and demonstrably revised with this book. He was not virtually unknown like Snodgrass or Olson or Ginsberg. When Lowell's work changed, it was time to acknowledge a shift in American poetry.
Nor of course does literary history exist somehow apart from larger public history. Life Studies is a book for the end of the 1950s in the United States. Norman Mailer called the 1950s 'one of the worst decades in the history of man' (Montgomery, 1965, p. 5), and certainly the decade was seen as anti-intellectual, a time when American life seemed to demand more conformity than ever before, perhaps as a reaction against the loosening of social roles during the Second World War. This was the decade characterized by the build-up of nuclear weaponry, the Cold War, McCarthyism, the reinforcement of gender roles in which women were situated (during the postwar 'baby boom') as wives and mothers in the (suburban) domestic sphere, while men 'in the grey flannel suit' were uniformed as corporate entities. The 'tranquillized Fifties' Lowell calls the decade in 'Memories of West Street and Lepke' and the sharply double-edged phrase indicates the demand for uniformity on the surface of American life and suggests the cost of that conformity, cost leading to public and private stresses that demanded treatment in the form of the tranquillizer, 'tamed by Miltown .
The fifties were 'tranquillized' but far from tranquil, and one of the paradoxes of the decade is that under a supposedly calm surface, repressed energies were developing a power that would utterly transform American life. It was during the 1950s that the roots of the public transformative movements of the 1960s in areas such as the civil rights movement and women's liberation were laid down. The task of identifying this duality of a public 'tranquillized' surface and a buried dissatisfaction holding crucial forces is an important element of Life Studies, and one in danger of being overlooked if we privilege only the book's private and autobiographical aspects. Life Studies inscribes both paralysis and undirected, potentially destructive forces; there is no readily available compromise between these. Recurring images of stasis, paralysis and death become metonyms for a public state that is frozen and unbending. Such images coalesce now and then in individual poems; they do so very powerfully in 'Inauguration Day: January 1953', with its terrible clinching image of 'the mausoleum in her heart' as Eisenhower is sworn in as president. Immobility is appalling but also somehow desirable — being 'buried' by snow perhaps a paradoxically comforting, warming image. By contrast Life Studies includes images of violent energies. These may be hot, colourful and vibrant, welcoming in contrast to cold and paralysis, but they represent destabilization, unharnessed and misdirected forces. Thus in 'Sailing Home From Rapallo' there are jumbles of images representing energy, but these are 'clashing colours'; brilliant and animated but, paradoxically, unwelcome because they are not amenable to stabilization.
The originality of Life Studies and the terms of the influence it has exerted are both thematic and technical. Of course, theme and technique cannot exist separately and one of the book's principal characteristics is the way that they are made to be especially appropriate to each other. 'It was a book without symbols' Lowell once said and in many ways this provides a helpful key to Life Studies (Lowell, 1969, p. 304). For one thing the statement precisely directs us towards the basic difference between Life Studies and his earlier poetry and, since Lowell did not make such a transition alone, it also indicates something of the direction that American poetry took after Modernism.
As a technique, symbolism involves centring the poem on a symbol, making a series of connections radiating from that centre. Technically it involves a spatializa-tion of the poem, a gesture perfectly appropriate to New Critical emphasis on the poem as an object. In broader terms, and ones which were especially appropriate to
Lowell's poetry before Life Studies, the capacity to symbolize represents creative mastery over material. It is rooted in the imagination's transformation of reality that romanticism celebrated. For a religious poet, symbolism implicitly involves the recognition of some numinous aspect to surface reality. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, a crucial influence on Lowell's early work, often expresses in his poems the discovery of a pre-existent symbolic order which brings him closer to witnessing God's otherwise abstract presence in concrete reality.
In contrast to Lowell's earlier style, the poems in Life Studies generally appear to lack formal design that involves a symbolic centre. Again, this is thematically appropriate since Life Studies is very much concerned with the lack of order and meaning in reality and about the inability of the individual either to locate or formulate a coherent stable satisfying pattern. Tellingly, Lowell said that he wanted each poem in Life Studies to be 'as open and single surfaced as a photograph' (Lowell, 1971, p. 272). Images of looking into flat surfaces recur, particularly in 'My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow', suggesting a separation of surface from substance, a loss of weight and meaning. Often the surface of an individual poem is disrupted, its images disconnected from each other, and the poems often lack exactly the kind of stabilizing, symbolic centre that would give them the internal coherence that we usually expect to find in poetry.
As well as developing a non-symbolist technique, Lowell in Life Studies also worked away from the sense of the autonomous lyric poem as a unit of meaning. In part this has to do with his sense of the possibilities offered by prose narrative sequence. As its first reviewers often noted (and not usually with approval), the book had a casual quality which was in sharp contrast to the heightened language, even Yeatsian grandiloquence, of Lowell's earlier style. This is evident not only in the fact that a large and crucial part of it, '91 Revere Street', is autobiographical prose (unfortunately omitted from the book's first edition, published in England), but also in the prosaic, almost casual, improvisational quality of some of the poems. It should be emphasized though that the prose of '91 Revere Street' is highly crafted and charged, and that the improvisational nature of individual poems is only apparent; often they retain conventional formal structures and effects even though these are subdued.
It is important also to emphasize that Life Studies is a sequence. Although not overly schematized it can almost be read as if there were a narrative progression of a set of themes. Thus, 'Beyond the Alps' is about renunciation of a former world view. It is a post-Christian poem involving an imaginative rebirth of the self into a human secular, natural landscape and initiating an endeavour to see humans as figures belonging to that landscape. The poems that follow explore the implications of an embracing of materiality and of no longer possessing an abstracting view of the world. After a series of confrontations with artistic, familial, historical and private crises, the speaker of Life Studies comes in 'Skunk Hour' to face the self alone, desperately requiring a point of reconnection to others. It is important to emphasize not only the themes in the sequence of Life Studies but the poetic form that this sequence takes. In breaking down the boundary of the individual poem, Lowell requires the reader to see a series of often complex echoes of images from poem to poem, section to section. There is an abundance of connected images in Life Studies, so that the later poems embrace a powerful accumulation of meaning. This point can be missed if we study the individual poem in an anthology selection of Lowell's work, and this is partly why the original omission of '91 Revere Street' was so unfortunate. The poems of Life Studies need to be experienced in the context that Lowell made for them.
Some good examples of connecting images are in the poem 'Ford Madox Ford' from Part Three of the book, which comprises four poems on twentieth-century writers. There is a fairly broad thematic unity to this section, as Lowell explores artistic displacement and the forms of integrity that the alienated modern artist possesses. Certainly, a reading of 'Ford Madox Ford' in isolation would reveal this theme in a general way. Ford is represented as a maker of fictions (imaginative novelistic fictions as well as tall tales and lies) and on one level is commemorated for this art. But this elegiac recognition is destabilized by the accompanying recognition that Ford's fictions were the means of his disengagement from others. The terrible images of displacement gradually proliferate in the poem. As the clutter of contradictory images depicting Ford increases, the speaker seems to give up and close the poem with a simple statement pointing out Ford's generosity and his decline: 'Ford, you were a kind man and you died in want'. The poem is partly about writing an elegiac poem, of seeking some image or central symbol as summation of the life of the deceased, yet about not being able to muster such a clinching image. The images in this poem become so discrete as to be contradictory (both misanthropic Timon and convivial Falstaff), and not readily available to a single controlling discourse.
Although a reasonable enough reading of 'Ford Madox Ford', this does not take into account the complex connections between images from this poem and other parts of Life Studies. For instance, the opening of the poem recounts Ford's tall tale about playing golf with Lloyd George and audaciously chipping a shot on the green to make a birdie. The significance of the anecdote does not come only from this poem. The reader needs to perceive a contrast between Ford and the representation of Lowell's own father. In the ironically formal elegy 'Commander Lowell', Lowell's father will be described as a dogged but poor golfer, taking 'four shots with his putter to sink his putt'. The prosaic literalist timidity of Lowell's father contrasts sharply with the imaginative style and bravado of Ford's self-representation, as someone who 'used his niblick on the green'. The father's unassertive self-effacement that so upset the young Robert Lowell is being subtly erased by a hero-worship of Ford's style and self-assurance. The connection makes implicit something crucial to the poem but not made explicit within it: the fact that Ford is an idealized father figure for Lowell. The imagistic connection with Lowell's maternal grandfather, another alternative father, is also apparent, in the association with the car.
But this connection is also qualified, as the similarities rather than differences between Ford and Lowell's father are also implied. For instance, Ford's 'gagging for air' and 'huffing' recall both how the father 'gasped and wheezed', and the description of him as a 'fish out of water'. In '91 Revere Street' the father is described as 'a mumbler'; Ford is a 'master, mammoth mumbler'. The actual 'dress sword and gold braid' of Lowell's father for which his son longs in 'Commander Lowell' is matched by the 'worn uniform, gilt dragons on the revers of the tunic' in Ford's anecdote. The imaginative self-representations (or self-delusions) of both men seem to merge and become ludicrous, filled with pathos and unintentionally self-isolating gestures. Ford is appealing because he appears to have metamorphosed the failures of Lowell's father into success. But the inconsistencies and tall tales only bring him closer to the actual father in terms of failure and displacement. The final lines about Lowell's father's death in 'Terminal Days at Beverly Farms' are on one level reductively bathetic: 'his last words to Mother were: / "I feel awful" '. They are also pointedly in contrast to the heroic dying words of 'Count' Bowditch as reported in '91 Revere Street' ('I'm all right. Get on the job, Bilge'). But they are actually very similar to the last lines of 'Ford Madox Ford' in substituting a simple declared truth in straightforward language for elaborate fictions and distortions of the self. These connections suggest that although in this section of Life Studies Lowell seeks a liberating alternative to his family, the terms of that family failure are constantly rehearsed elsewhere.
There are many other connections between 'Ford Madox Ford' and other parts of Life Studies. The 'pernod-yellow' sun is linked to the 'spumante-bubbling' sea of 'Sailing Home from Rapallo' and both phrases suggest inappropriate opulence. There are images connecting Ford and Billy 'Battleship Bilge' Harkness as representatives of exaggerated manhood. Ford's elephantine aspect is echoed at the end of 'To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage' as a coarse image of sexuality (where the husband's climacteric also recalls the antics of Billy Harkness on father's 'rhinoceros hide' armchair). The phrase 'sport of kings' describing war in 'Ford Madox Ford' means commanding a destroyer in '91 Revere Street'. Ford's 'pockets turned inside out' anticipate Hart Crane's profit, 'a pocket with a hole'. Ford's story of being 'mustard gassed' is immediately echoed in 'To Delmore Schwartz' with the refrigerator that gurgles mustard gas. Even the name 'Ford' recurs: 'the clashing colours of my Ford' from 'Sailing Home from Rapallo', 'my Tudor Ford' from 'Skunk Hour'.
Such connections between 'Ford Madox Ford' and other parts of Life Studies provide only one example of the myriad associations that Lowell creates in Life Studies. Symbols are fragmented and unavailable as structuring devices in the individual poem, but images accumulate and proliferate throughout the book, as do names and characters. This aspect is oddly neglected in existing criticism on Life Studies, even though it was one which other poets who were immediately influenced by Lowell also utilized. Sylvia Plath's Ariel, for example, also makes use of cumulative imagery by which the significance of the individual lyric is superseded by the overall book. The technique of Life Studies does place particular demands on the reader and does require a certain kind of creative and imaginative response. Instead of reading and comprehending the individual poem as a discrete unit of knowledge, the reader is required to recognize the blurring of the boundaries between poems. Furthermore, the reader is required to participate to a degree in the thought processes evident in the poems, to realize that their characteristic shifts and ellipses indicate not only an uncertain consciousness behind the poems but are gestures towards readerly participation. Although John Ashbery is no admirer of Lowell, his poetic technique of including the dynamic processes of thought rather than only the object of thought is very similar to that of Life Studies.
Thematically, Life Studies broadly addresses the topic of disintegration and the individual's attitude towards it. While it is best to be wary of approaching Life Studies as if it were deliberately or carefully schematized, Steven Yenser's (1975) book Circle to Circle usefully makes the point that the volume touches on disintegration in different ways. The four parts of the book, he submits, correspond to disintegration and decline in four areas; at certain historical moments, in the family, in the role of the writer in society, and in the individual. Certainly these do not exist separately. For example, '91 Revere Street' could be said to focus mainly on a family dynamic that is failing. But equally it touches importantly on all of the other areas of failure. Indeed, it is important to remember that the name 'Lowell' had a public resonance in New England, so that when Lowell wrote about his private life and his family there was inevitably a public and historical dimension. This certainly qualifies any assumptions about the private and personal nature of Life Studies; as Elizabeth Bishop shrewdly noted in a 1957 letter to Lowell, 'I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say — but what would be the significance? . . . Whereas all you have to do is put down the names!' (Bishop, 1994, p. 351).
'91 Revere Street' opens with reference to a Lowell ancestor, Mordecai Myers, whose semitic first name ('he has no Christian name') establishes him as being out of place among the names Lowell, Winslow and Stark, so redolent of New England Protestantism and English heritage. This suggests a historical displacement, and one which connects back to the 'Mad Negro Soldier' of the poem that immediately precedes '91 Revere Street' (Myers is described as 'a dark man, a German Jew'), and forward to Delmore Schwartz. Myers suggests displacement, but, like Schwartz and the black soldier, also implies the possession of an energy which is both menacingly destructive and liberating. Although imagined as passionate, Myers is disappointingly 'tame and honourable'. The black soldier's energy must also be tamed through confinement. Both he and Schwartz are potentially characteristic of Lowell's own self-representation; tamed, tranquillized and holding a 'locked razor'.
In multiple ways, the theme of family breakdown in '91 Revere Street' is refracted so that it does not exist apart from the larger set of themes that the book considers. Again, it is important not to represent Life Studies as if it were a conclusive work. Part of its great power derives from Lowell's own wavering in his attitudes towards his themes. For example, it is tempting to depict 'Beyond the Alps' as if it were reasonably straightforward in theme and attitude. Lowell is in transition from 'the city of God', from a religious apprehension of experience, towards a secular one. Leaving Rome also suggests leaving the project of literary Modernism; particularly, focusing on the figure of Mussolini, rejecting its association with fascism. The poem can be acceptably paraphrased in this way, and its importance for the rest of Life Studies can readily be established. But the attitude towards what is being left behind is far from simple. There is a deeply inscribed regret, a sense of loss and diminution — even anger concerning the declared doctrine of the Assumption which alienated so many Catholics in the 1950s. Lowell envies the consumption and confidence of the Victorians; it is 'Much against my will' that he leaves Rome. 'Beyond the Alps' is on one level about potential being released, about liberation from the grand narratives that the individual may occupy, and in which the individual might be paralysed. But it is also about loss, failure (it opens with an image of failure) and reduction. This deep ambivalence drives Life Studies. Disintegration and decline are the facts behind the book. They may release new energies that will regenerate society and the individual. But they also threaten the individual, and the sense of being fallen, or of being imprisoned, of life itself having been reduced, diminished, is very strong: to be 'cured' is to be 'frizzled, stale and small' Lowell writes in 'Home After Three Months Away'. It is in this respect that the book can be seen as itself poised between what Modernism was and what postmodernism would become. Lowell's sense of the past leads to a moral judgement of fragmentation; he cannot embrace contradiction and displacement in the ways that the later postmodern writer will.
Perhaps this helps to explain one aspect of Life Studies which has attracted insufficient critical attention: the extent to which it is an elegiac book. In part this has to do with Lowell's age and life experiences during the 1950s. Parental death, effectively the passing of a generation, naturally stimulates introspection in the bereaved child, perhaps intensified in the case of an only child. For Lowell, the death of his father (1950) and his mother (1954) came during his own early middle age, and form crucial narrative points in Life Studies. The book is suffused with imagery related to death and bereavement. In 'Beyond the Alps' the grotesque imagery related to the death of Mussolini is interestingly countered by the image of the doctrinal denial of Mary's physical death, and imagery related to the appalling incompatibility of life and death recurs, notably in 'My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow'. More specifically, much of the book's sense of disengagement, displacement and potentially destructive self-analysis has its starting point in the death of the parents, with whom Lowell had a troubled relationship. That those parents themselves stand almost as metonyms for a historical past intensifies the individual's sense of historical displacement. If we look at Life Studies as a narrative, the deaths of the parents form the book's emotional climax, after which the survivor must radically assess his own life and the remaining connections to others. In this respect, Part Four's sequence of five elegiac poems for the parents, 'Commander Lowell', 'Terminal Days at Beverly Farms', 'Father's Bedroom', 'For Sale' and 'Sailing Home from Rapallo' repays special attention. Strikingly, the sequence offers the material for formal elegy yet simultaneously indicates a loss of control over that material and, at times, over language itself. These are poems in which nothing quite coheres, in which jumbles of things or images are brought together but which seem to lack overall coherence or purpose. 'Father's Bedroom', for example, reads like an inventory made by an executor, a list of remnants. There is no animating principle to the poem, even though as metonyms the things in the list are revelatory. The blue kimono and plush Chinese sandals indicate the slightly effeminate nature of the dead father, his unease with bold masculine figures, and also suggest a frustrated orientalism to his character. On one level the poem is grimly focused on absence, since each thing indicates a lost connection to the father. But the details themselves are carefully chosen and point also to human isolation and lack of love; this is, markedly, father's bedroom not, say, 'My parents' bedroom'. The inscription on the book's flyleaf, 'Robbie from Mother', notably lacks even the conventional gesture of writing 'love'. Ironically, this writing tells not through what it says but through what is left out. In this way it is connected to the 'grandiloquent lettering' on the casket of the dead mother in 'Sailing Home from Rapallo', where 'Lowell' has been misspelt 'Lovel'. The misnaming ironically suggests 'love', but as in 'Robbie from Mother' testifies, primarily to its absence.
The sequence indicates a larger aspect of Life Studies. In it Lowell searches for a coherence or at least for a cohering principle, but is left with its absence. 'Sailing Home from Rapallo' begins with a literal incoherence, the failure of Lowell to communicate with the nurse of the dead mother. The poems in this sequence are profoundly concerned with attempts to find appropriate images of connection, coherence, but loss, grief and frustration mean disconnection, incoherence and fragmentation. It is not until 'Skunk Hour' that the tormented mind can begin to find coherence and start to remake a pattern in life. This is a formal pattern too, in that 'Skunk Hour' is brilliant in its formal achievement. The buried rhymes that Lowell so admired in the poetry of Browning are here made his own, and the poem's stanzaic organization is as powerful as that of Yeats. It is a poem about making a coherent pattern as much as it is about the restorative power of selfless altruistic instinct imaged by the mother skunk. Language that was on the verge of incoherence earlier in the sequence is here reclaimed and reorganized.
By way of conclusion, it is important to emphasize that Lowell is not completely in control of the poems in Life Studies. Some of the critical assessments of the book imply that he has a Flaubert-like mastery over his material and the connections, and that the book's structure, organization and themes are systematic and deliberate. While it does provide a directed narrative sequence, Life Studies is not written in fulfilment of some prior plan. Part of its greatness is in its heuristic improvisational quality, indicative of an individual seeking coherence and significance in a disordered, troubled life. Some of Lowell's own comments on the book as an 'outpouring' demonstrate this lack of deliberation (Rosenthal, 1967, p. 67). Nor was Lowell ever quite comfortable with the book or convinced that it fitted easily into the shape of his work. Others hailed Life Studies as a success far more readily than Lowell himself did; Anne Sexton, for instance, in her poem 'To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph', figures Lowell as Icarus (both ascending and descending). Lowell's doubts about Life Studies were never really dispelled. 'Why not say what happened?' he persistently asks; the question appears in one of his last poems, 'Epilogue' — a question as relevant to Life Studies as it is to his last book, Day by Day. The defiant tone of the question is more apparent than real, as Lowell acknowledges the potentially paralysing conflict between the imagination and accuracy. But one of the real triumphs of Life Studies is exactly in its creative inscription of doubt and uncertainty. 'I cannot make it cohere'
lamented Pound in The Cantos. It is typical of Lowell's being poised between Modernism and postmodernism that he too laments the loss of such coherence, while simultaneously distrusting the grand narratives that Modernism endorsed as coherence.
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