T S Eliot and Amy Lowell the Poetic Essay

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T.S. Eliot and Amy Lowell

The poetic styles of T.S. Eliot and Amy Lowell are so dissimilar, that it comes as something of a shock to realize how much the two poets had in common. Each came from a prominent Boston family, and was related to a President of Harvard University -- Eliot was a distant relation to Harvard's President Eliot, and attended Harvard as an undergraduate: Amy Lowell's brother would become President of Harvard in the year that T.S. Eliot graduated. Meanwhile the poetic careers of both Eliot and Lowell were influenced by Ezra Pound: Pound famously edited Eliot's "Waste Land," which is dedicated to him. But Pound had earlier been an artistic ally of Amy Lowell, and they had together been part of a loose poetic movement around the time of the First World War called "Imagism" -- their quarrel over the direction this movement would take is, according to Christopher Beach, the primary reason why we do not associate Amy Lowell with T.S. Eliot, despite their similar backgrounds:

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. (Beach 77).

In Beach's telling, Lowell belonged to a slightly older generation than both Pound and Eliot, and "lack[ed] Pound's desire to remain on the cutting edge of literary vanguardism at all costs" (Beach 77). This explains the dissimilarity in styles, but a century after these literary quarrels, it is possible to examine Lowell and Eliot and see a certain affinity in their poems, which might possibly have attracted the collaborative attentions of a great enthusiast like Pound at different points in time. By examining the treatment of love -- both human and divine -- in each of these poets, we can see how Lowell and Eliot frequently use different poetic means to achieve similar effects. Both Lowell and Eliot were trying to live up to Ezra Pound's injunction that poets should "make it new": the ways in which they each individually handle two of the most familiar poetic subjects, love and religion, can show us that they achieved their originality in different ways.

Amy Lowell's poetry is quite obviously intended to break with formalism. Jacob Korg notes that her articles and lectures were intended "to forward the Imagist cause in America by lecturing on 'the new poetry', and defending vers libre or 'cadenced verse'." (Korg 134). It may strike a contemporary reader as surprising that a new poetic movement in America at the time of World War One would think it necessary to "defend vers libre," or free verse: to a certain extent, Lowell's movement was successful insofar as nowadays "vers libre," or unrhymed poetry with varying line lengths, is the generalized cliche for what poets are imagined to do, rather than formal rhymed poetry like sonnets. It seems particularly surprising given that the most famous American poet of the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman, wrote almost exclusively in vers libre. But to some extent, Walt Whitman may be the very reason why Amy Lowell thought that free verse required defending: Whitman may have been original, and could not have been anything other than American, but he was not precisely respectable. This is not to say that Amy Lowell's poetry is not intended, on some level, to be shocking in the way that all great art can be shocking -- but her way of approaching novelty is not the Whitmanic mode of the "barbaric yawp." As a way of examining the modern (or even shocking) element in Lowell's verse, we may examine her 1919 poem "Madonna of the Evening Flowers": it is written in vers libre, but of lines that are as terse and restrained as Whitman's are overstuffed, and it is separated out into three verse paragraphs. The first paragraph paints a scene using minimalist detail. And it is worth noting that, in light of the poem's title, we are likely to read it as a religious poem. The "Madonna" is the customary name given to the Virgin Mary in Renaissance art, and the "evening flowers" suggest a possible religious service (or religious garden-imagery, whether Eden or Gethsemane) but as Lowell's poem begins, the poem itself sits at some remove from the title:

All day long I have been working,

Now I am tired.

I call: "Where are you?"?

But there is only the oak tree rustling in the wind.

The house is very quiet,

The sun shines in on your books,

On your scissors and thimble just put down,

But you are not there.

Suddenly I am lonely:

Where are you?

I go about searching. (Lowell 1352)

What is noteworthy about this opening verse-paragraph is the way in which Lowell depicts a noticeable absence. The speaker of the poem calls out "Where are you?" But any reference to the person being called is absent: instead there is a quiet response from nature itself. (Oaks are famously sturdy, so the idea of an oak tree "rustling in the wind" is somehow surprising.) But then we get evidence of the "you" being addressed by the speaker: "the sun shines in on your books," which suggests that the books are lying open (rather than sitting on shelves), and the "scissors and thimble just put down" indicate that the speaker seems to have missed the presence of another person. In other words, the poem takes its time to register the absence: only in the eighth line do we learn "you are not there," after registering the evidence that someone had been there not long before. This prompts a miniature, domestic quest: "I go about searching." But it is nevertheless worth emphasizing that, after the hint of religion in the opening line, it is not impossible to continue reading this entire first section as though it were about both a religious search and also a domestic search. When the second paragraph begins, this tension between the religious element and the romantic element of the poem is exploited in a surprising way:

Then I see you,

Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,

With a basket of roses on your arm.

You are cool, like silver,

And you smile.

I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes. (Lowell 1352)

The surprise here is that, in a poem comprised of such simple diction and images and with such short lines, the paragraph break feels like a rupture. The dramatic tension in the first verse-paragraph as to whether this might be a religious poem is immediately resolved: "I see you," and we presumably understand this to be a real person. But the description of the "you" that follows is noteworthy in two ways. First, there is no gendered language here: only the "basket of roses on your arm" indicates that the "you" must be identified as the "Madonna of the Evening Flowers," and is therefore female. Instead, the figure is described as being almost like a religious artifact: "cool, like silver." But the "smile" of this mysterious woman has a distinctly religious effect upon the speaker's mind: "I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes." But it is only the details of the poem -- the "basket of roses," the "thimble" -- that indicate that this is a woman being described. And there is nothing in the language to indicate that the speaker of the poem is a woman, even though the writer may be. But the final verse-paragraph marks the connection between speaker and the "Madonna" addressed as "you":

You tell me that the peonies need spraying,

That the columbines have overrun all bounds,

That the pyrus japonica should be cut back and rounded.

You tell me these things.

But I look at you, heart of silver,

White heart-flame of polished silver,

Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur.

And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,

While all about us peal the loud, sweet 'Te Deums' of the Canterbury bells. (Lowell 1352)

What is most interesting here is the way that love poetry and religious poetry seem to meet. The factual horticultural detail of the types of "Evening Flowers" listed here immediately gets lost in a religious blur: the "silver" of the second verse-paragraph now returns as a "heart of silver, / White heart-flame of polished silver" which suggests religious iconography. (The "Sacred Heart" of religious imagery is frequently depicted in a way that looks like what Lowell describes.) And instantly the peaks of larkspur transform metaphorically into "blue steeples," and the final two lines of the poem break out into outright religious language, used to describe human love: "I long to kneel instantly at your feet," as in…

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