The career of Amy Lowell is in many ways representative of the position of women poets during this period. Born in 1874 to an upper-class New England family, Lowell did not begin writing poetry until 1902 and did not publish her first volume until 1912. Lowell's first book, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass, was relatively conventional, recalling the style and attitudes of the Romantics and suggesting nothing in the way of an experimental or radically innovative style. Lowell's poetic development was rapid, however, and by the publication of her 1914 volume Sword Blades and Poppy Seed she had begun to deploy more modern techniques. The major cause ofLowell's transformation was the discovery ofImagism. In a poem like "Aubade," we see the influence of the new Imagist style:
As I would free the white almond from the green husk
So would I strip your trappings off,
And fingering the smooth and polished kernel I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond counting.
While the poem lacks the concision Pound called for in his Imagist manifestoes or the austerity H. D. had already achieved in her most perfected lyrics, it makes effective use of the single image of the unsheathed almond to suggest the naked body of a lover. Such forthright eroticism had rarely been seen in American poetry since Whitman, and it announced Lowell as a poet willing to take aesthetic and moral risks.
In the summer of 1913 Lowell went to visit Pound, the leader of the Imagist movement, in England. At first, their association was productive: Pound introduced her to the important writers in London, initiated her into the Imagist group, and invited her to become editor of The Egoist. Soon, however, Pound decided to move on, abandoning Imagism for Vorticism. Lowell, lacking Pound's desire to remain on the cutting edge of literary vanguardism at all costs, decided to remain in the Imagist camp and soon became its chief proponent, organizer, and fund-raiser. After throwing a party to celebrate Pound's Des Imagistes anthology, Lowell proceeded in 1914 to publish her own anthology, Some Imagist Poets, including several of the same poets Pound had published. Pound accused Lowell of stealing the movement from him and of watering down the term "Imagist" by including poets whose work failed to adhere to the movement's principles.
From that point on, Pound and Lowell were to remain literary enemies. While Pound scornfully derided Lowell's brand of poetry as "Amygism," Lowell refused to support either the journals with which Pound was involved or the writers with whom he was associated, including such important modernists as James Joyce and Eliot. Although Lowell remained a significant force in American poetry until her death in 1925, she effectively isolated herself from many of the most important developments in the literature of her time. Nevertheless, Lowell achieved more literary fame than that of any other woman poet of the early 1920s. The publicity generated by her reading tours, lectures, and reviews - as well as her prolific production of poems and other writings (including a two-volume biography of Keats) -had made her one of the most celebrated poets in America.
In her poem "The Sisters" (1925), Lowell summarized the sense of marginality shared by all women poets of her generation:
Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot We women who write poetry. And when you think How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.
Lowell posits three "older sisters" - Sappho, Dickinson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning - as important predecessors, but she ultimately decides that none ofthem provides a workable model for a female poet in the modern era. Lowell recognized the double bind in which women writers are placed, between "masculine" ambitions and "feminine" selves:
I wonder what makes us do it, Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise, The fragments of ourselves. Why are we Already mother-creatures, double-bearing, With matrices in body and in brain?
As Cheryl Walker suggests, "The Sisters" was a "major breakthrough," the first "grand attempt by a woman poet in America to situate herself within a feminine literary tradition."3 Lowell's most famous poem, however, is "Patterns," a work that first appeared in Poetry in August 1915. Here Lowell moves beyond the imagistic register of a poem like "Aubade" to a longer narrative form and a fictionalized persona. Like Eliot's "Prufrock," the poem adapts the form of the dramatic monologue, but its setting is historical rather than contemporary. Spoken by an aristocratic woman during the Queen Anne period, "Patterns" uses the female perspective to critique the masculine world of war. The poem's speaker has just been informed that the man she was to marry has been killed in battle, and Lowell's poem reflects the state of shock into which she is thrown:
I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills,
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden path.
My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain On the gravel, and the thrift Of the borders.
"Patterns" is an outstanding example of Lowell's skill in the manipulation of free-verse rhythms, and it displays her effective use of image and color to convey emotion. The variable meters and line lengths, combined with the frequent enjambment and irregular rhymes, communicate the despair felt by the woman, who feels that she is herselflittle more than a "pattern," a "plate of current fashion." By the end of the poem we realize that this walk through her garden, always in her "stiff, brocaded gown," is all she can expect from life. The emotional intensity of the woman's feelings is kept in check until the final lines, where Lowell allows a single exclamation to represent the powerful emotions trapped below the woman's finely decorated surface:
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?
The poem expresses very effectively the tragic fate facing women in wartime; the woman is incapable of breaking the "pattern" of her life, and she realizes that the war, and the structure of society that makes war possible, are also patterns that cannot be broken.
Lowell's imagery and symbolism are central to the poem: the stiffbrocaded gown, the garden paths, the changing seasons, and the war itself are all part of the larger social pattern of life that makes women the victims of men's folly. In her gender-marked use of imagery, Lowell conveys the idea of patterns as particularly tied to the circumstances of women's domestic lives; patterns may be beautiful to look at, but they can also function as repressive structures that hold women "rigid." The technique of "Patterns" can be seen as halfway between symbolism and Imagism. Lowell makes use of concrete, vivid images that give the poem a visual precision unlike that found in most symbolist poems; however, like both Frost and Eliot, she moves away from the limits of Imagist doctrine towards a symbolic register that allows for more flexibility in her approach to her subject.
Aside from "Patterns," Lowell's most enduring work as a poet can be found in her love lyrics addressed to Ada Dwyer Russell, a divorced actress who became Lowell's partner in 1912 and who served as the primary inspiration for her poetry until her death. Russell appears as a figure in many of Lowell's poems, which include some of the most original love poems of the period: "Two Speak Together," "Wheat-in-the-Ear," "The Weather-Cock Points South," "Madonna of the Evening Flowers," "Opal," and "Venus Transiens."
In "Venus Transiens" (1919), Lowell imagines her lover as Venus, the Greek goddess of love, and compares herself as artist-figure to the Italian Renaissance painter Botticelli, whose famous painting Birth of Venus depicts the goddess rising from the ocean astride a large scalloped seashell. For a woman poet in the early twentieth century to compare her lesbian love poem to one of the great masterpieces of Western art was in itself an audacious move. Here, Lowell refers to the tradition of male artists representing women subjects, declaring her own ability as a woman to describe her female lover, and then proceeding to do so in concise yet highly evocative terms:
Was Botticelli's vision Fairer than mine; And were the painted rosebuds He tossed his lady, Of better worth
Than the words I blow about you To cover your too great loveliness As with a gauze Of misted silver? For me,
You stand poised
In the blue and buoyant air,
Cinctured by bright winds,
Treading the sunlight.
And the waves which precede you
Ripple and stir
Here we find an economy and precision oflanguage that recalls the original tenets of Imagism. In a final twist, Lowell enacts a play of perspective in the final lines by which the poet is suddenly made to appear in the scene with her lover. The waves rippling and stirring the sands at the poet's feet suggests a sexual encounter between the two lovers, a level of intimacy Botticelli never achieves in his painting.
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