It is the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun

William Empson, “Ignorance of Death”

In the 1960s, Randall Jarrell claimed that Robert Lowell “had an astonishing ambition, a willingness to learn what past poetry was and to compete with it on its own terms” (333). Despite being primarily associated with the innovative poetics of his seminal work, Life Studies, Lowell was a poet who learned much from the poetic traditions that came before him. Lowell’s interest in the elegiac tradition began early in his career and was to continue throughout his life. As a schoolboy at St Mark’s he wrote poems entitled “Elegy” and “Epitaph” and his last remaining fragment of writing from 1977 is a prayer for his own peaceful passing:

May I die at night
With a semblance of my faculties,
Like the full moon that fails. (Collected Poems 988)

That Lowell, the most successful poet of the so-called Middle Generation, should have been drawn to the elegiac mode is unsurprising when one considers the origins, conventions and concerns of the elegy and Lowell’s own personal and poetic background. Lowell’s schooling in Classics and his dense, allusive approach to poetry meant that, as a highly intertextual and conventional form of writing, the elegy was a mode which was suited to his style. Lowell’s strong sense of literary history and lineage meant that the elegiac mode, which required poetic reference to past masters, would have been attractive to him as a vehicle through which he could assert his place in the line of distinguished elegists that came before him. His survival of most of his poetic contemporaries also goes some way to explaining Lowell’s tendency towards a commemorative mode and elegiac writing. Other factors that contributed to Lowell’s preoccupation with the elegiac mode include his New England, Puritan background, his fixation on Milton’s celebrated elegy, “Lycidas,” and his keen sense of competition within the poetic circles in which he found himself.

Writing in 1967 (even after the publication of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel), Marjorie Perloff asserted that: “no other modern American poet has been as obsessed with death and last things as has Lowell: from Land of Unlikeness (1944) to For the Union Dead (1964), his most characteristic and celebrated poems have been elegies” (116). Interestingly, Perloff implies that Lowell’s exceptional elegiac writing persisted throughout Life Studies (1959), a collection which is frequently considered to stand apart from all of Lowell’s previous poetry due to its concentration on the new poetic which was engaging Lowell at the end of the 1950s. Certainly, Life Studies marked a significant change in Lowell’s poetic style, which appeared suddenly to have moved, as he suggested himself, from the “cooked” to “the raw.” However, a consideration of the elegiac writing contained within Life Studies suggests a continuity between the early poetry of Lord Weary’s Castle and the later poetry of Lowell’s major collection that has hitherto been denied or, at least, underemphasised. Within both collections, Lowell uses the elegiac mode as a favoured means by which to address both personal and public concerns. Writing on Whitman’s renowned elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Max Cavitch has suggested that:

[t]o dwell on the relative formal coherence of “Lilacs” does to some extent risk minimising Whitman’s strangeness as a poet and as a dispersive force struggling against the normativistic formal arrangements of nineteenth-century American poetry. Yet it is ironic that the prizing of “Lilacs” in the absence of a full interpretive tradition also has the effect of further removing Whitman from his American contexts – facilitating his poem’s assimilation to the more conventional canon of Anglo-European elegy and obscuring the poetics and politics of elegy in the nineteenth-century United States, with which Whitman was distinctively engaged. (14)

Dwelling on the formality of “Lilacs” is to rationalise Whitman’s “strange” poetics and serves to place him among his European, rather than U.S., counterparts. Similarly, to focus on Lowell’s engagement with elegy (a poetic form which is normally considered a highly formal, traditional European mode) within Life Studies is, perhaps, to challenge the innovative status which the collection enjoys within the canon of twentieth-century North American poetry. Lowell’s persistent engagement with elegy and his continuous development of his poetic style meant that, quite apart from abandoning his earlier interest in pastoral elegy and poetic formalism, with Life Studies, Lowell merely moved away from overt reference to the traditional, pastoral elegy towards what Morton W. Bloomfield has called the “elegiac mode”:

[t]he elegiac mode is not a new type of traditional elegy, but rather a new type of poem bearing only a slight resemblance to its ancestor. It is more romantic, more personal, and more despairing. It is self-directed for the most part, rather than socially directed. It brings little or no comfort and is often mired in despair. (155) [1]

Despite this movement, however, Lowell’s allusions to traditional, formal elegies, although less recognisable and increasingly oblique, remain throughout the Life Studies sequence, implying an important consistency between his earlier collections and Life Studies.

This essay therefore considers Lowell’s early collection, Lord Weary’s Castle, seeking to demonstrate that, although adhering closely to many pastoral elegiac conventions, Lowell’s adaptation of the traditional, pastoral elegy in order to portray his specifically North American experience of grief is visible in some of his early elegies. It then suggests that Lowell’s experimentation with the elegiac form is consistent with his overall poetic development and, apart from being alienated from the highly personal, open poetry of Life Studies, Lowell’s early elegies provide a precedent for the new style of writing which he was to embrace in the 1950s. Finally, through a consideration of “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” I will demonstrate that although with Life Studies Lowell’s elegiac writing moves away from traditional, pastoral forms towards the more oblique, elegiac mode, Lowell persists in his allusions to traditional elegy (Tennyson’s In Memoriam, in particular) and in the adoption of some of their characteristics within the collection. This re-emphasises that Life Studies, for all its anecdotal material and its freer form, is as highly crafted and densely allusive a collection as Lowell’s earlier works.

It was with Lord Weary’s Castle that Lowell first came to prominence as a talented elegist, the collection containing, what is still probably Lowell’s most famous elegy, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” Other important elegies in the collection include “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” and “Mary Winslow.” The poetry of Lord Weary’s Castle, with its Latin quotations, its overt biblical references and its formal structures, is frequently contrasted with the conversational, less formally structured poems of Life Studies. However, an examination of the ways in which “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” departs, in places, from the highly formal structure of the pastoral elegy suggests the beginning of Lowell’s move towards the looser form and structure of Life Studies. Lowell’s elegies belong to the specific subgenre of the American elegy[2].2 According to Peter Sacks, the American elegy differs from its European counterpart in several respects including its departure from the traditional, mythic contexts of the pastoral elegy, the use of recognisably American (not necessarily pastoral) settings, the American elegy’s “more overt and uneasy focus on the isolated self of the griever” and “its more nakedly expressive style” (313-14). Sacks also suggests that “American elegies often have a frighteningly raw and immediate feeling, as if their speakers were fighting not just for an aesthetically acceptable form of consolation but for their own literal survival” (314). Considering the example of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” some problems with the adoption of the traditional, pastoral elegiac form to describe the experiences of the American elegist become apparent.

Criticism of Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is most often framed within a discussion of the elegy’s associations with Milton’s “Lycidas” and, indeed, “Lycidas” must be considered as an extremely important poem to Lowell’s poetic development; its influence persisting throughout the later collections History and The Dolphin. As Sacks points out “often, elegies are presented as being repetitions in themselves” and Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” through allusion to Milton, establishes itself as a repetition of “Lycidas” (23). Perloff lists, at length, the similarities critics have found between the two elegies:

[t]he death of a young man to whom the poet has a more than casual yet less than intimate relationship, death by drowning, the unrecovered body, the movement beyond the lament to a larger consideration of contemporary and universal issues […]. Both […] draw upon classical and Biblical sources for their patterns of imagery, both pay indirect homage to great figures in their native tradition […]. Both use place names to evoke the genius loci: for the Hebrides, Namancos and Bayona, Lowell substitutes Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Walsingham. Even the verse form of “The Quaker Graveyard” resembles that of “Lycidas.” (125)

However, from the beginning of Lowell’s poem, he announces his intention not to repeat the pastoral conventions of Milton and to “ask for no Orphean lute / To pluck life back” (Collected Poems 14). For Lowell, merely to repeat is but a “hoarse salute” (Collected Poems 14). Unlike Milton’s reiterative cries for the deceased King, “Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, / Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer: / Who would not sing for Lycidas?” (Milton 43), Lowell resists mythologising the person of Warren Winslow by not naming him repeatedly, addressing Winslow as “cousin” only twice and, in section two, separating Winslow the person from the mythic, “sailor,” a representative of all those lost at sea (Collected Poems 14-15). The (perhaps feigned) personal intimacy of “Lycidas” is rejected by Lowell and, in a marked departure from elegiac convention, Lowell does not name his elegy after the deceased. For Lowell, location takes precedence over lamentation and he names his elegy, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” with reference to Warren Winslow parenthesised and subtitled. Through his choice of title, Lowell immediately addresses a specifically American problem with the repetition of the pastoral elegy. According to Sacks:

American elegists could not easily situate their poems in the familiar pastoral setting or even within the familiar ritual procedures of the genre. American elegists have not only to reinvent the forms (if not the functions) of elegiac mythology but also to establish their own literal and figurative settings. (312-13)

Lowell’s elegy is distinctively American, set in a particular North American location. This landscape is also, however, a distinctively violent one. Lowell’s inability to conform to the pastoral elegiac mode while writing of Nantucket suggests that the pastoral mode is simply unfitting to describe the American experience. Similarly, Lowell’s careful placement of the pastoral “Our Lady of Walsingham,” between two highly violent sections of the poem, can also be considered as a kind of American lament for the pastoral elegy itself.

Considering “The Quaker Graveyard,” Perloff suggests that “the placing of Part VI [“Our Lady of Walsingham”] is, in fact, the central weakness of the elegy” (128). However, she goes on to ask a pertinent question about this section: “What does the English shrine in its pastoral setting have to do with the precarious existence of the Quakers in Nantucket?” (128) Both of these comments are concerned with the deviation of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” from the pastoral elegiac conventions associated with an elegy like “Lycidas.” Even when Lowell moves to a pastoral setting, as he does in “Our Lady of Walsingham,” Perloff claims that he has not done so correctly; surely this pastoral scene of penitence should have completed the elegy? Following “Our Lady of Walsingham,” section VII seems to Perloff “a rather lame conclusion” (129) in contrast with the end of “Lycidas” in which “the final climactic affirmation […] has been prepared for all along” (126). Perloff suggests that Lowell’s departure from Milton’s affirmative conclusion to “Lycidas” confirms “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” as a weak elegy. However, it is interesting to consider Lowell’s rejection of consolation in the closing sections of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” as arising from the difficulty he has in trying to find any consolation in the aftermath of the violence which has characterised both his poem and his generation. Jahan Ramazani suggests that, for Lowell’s generation:

consolation may no longer be an important “criterion by which to judge” the elegy, since many of the weakest are merely consolatory and many of the strongest […] are poems less of solace than of melancholia, less of resolution than of protracted strife. (226)

This sense of “protracted strife” is evident in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” through Lowell’s relentless depictions of violence and the physical hardship of life at sea. The persistent violence of Lowell’s imagery is broken briefly by “Our Lady of Walsingham” only to be revisited again in section VII. Lowell’s inability to resolve the violence within his poem and to end the poem on a note of pastoral peace, that is, to end the poem with “Our Lady of Walsingham,” can be read as a lament for a simpler (pastoral) poetic age “when time was open-eyed, / Wooden and childish” and when such a resolution was feasible (Collected Poems, 15). His return to Nantucket in the final stanza of the elegy suggests that, for Lowell, such a peaceful, pastoral resolution to the poem’s violence is improbable, both politically and poetically.

It is, then, true to say that there is some consolation in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” but that this can only occur in the pastoral setting of England, not in “tree-swept” Nantucket (Collected Poems 16). “Our Lady of Walsingham,” the setting of the poem’s most peaceful, pastoral section, is far removed from New England’s coast suggesting that the violence of Lowell’s “home waters” cannot be contained by the conventional, pastoral elegy (Collected Poems 15). Conversely, it also suggests that there is no room for consolation in the landscape of Lowell’s America. Contrary to “Lycidas,” Lowell does not end his elegy in the pastoral mode or in Walsingham. Rather, he forcefully returns us to the Atlantic coast and to Nantucket where the landscape seems to deny peace:

Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket (Collected Poems 18)

It becomes evident that Lowell has inserted “Our Lady of Walsingham” between the two most violent sections of the elegy. While “Our Lady of Walsingham” suggests the possibility of peace for the sailor, section VII reminds us again that this peace is elusive and dependent on individual penance. Section VII returns us to the violent Atlantic coastline and this location, combined with Lowell’s final line, “[t]he Lord survives the rainbow of His will” is reminiscent of the Biblical flood and of communal destruction rather than salvation (Collected Poems 18). The ending of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” deviates sharply from “Lycidas,” whose salvation has been fairly assured throughout Milton’s elegy. Although a note of consolation has been sounded within “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Lowell makes this consolation and salvation by no means certain; it is highly dependent on the repentance of the individual. As Ramazani suggests, “the modern elegy is not a refuge for outworn nostalgias and consolations” (ix). Although repetitive, the modern elegy is characterised by its ability to rework the conventions of earlier elegies in order to achieve significance in a new era. While “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” initially establishes itself as an elegy through its echoes of “Lycidas,” Lowell’s poem soon departs from the pastoral conventions of Milton’s elegy, claiming its place amid a new era of American elegiac writing for the post-WWII generation in which consolation is by no means certain. Throughout “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Lowell repeatedly acknowledges the influence of the pastoral elegiac form on his own elegy but, due to its inability to portray both an American experience and an American landscape, persistently and self-consciously rejects certain pastoral conventions. The movement of “The Quaker Graveyard” away from the structures of pastoral elegy demonstrates the beginning of Lowell’s discontent with working within established elegiac structures. It was not until the elegies of Life Studies, however, that Lowell was to embrace a freer form which liberated him from the restrictions of the established elegiac form allowing him to illustrate more accurately his experience of grief.

Just as its lack of consolatory conclusion demonstrates the deviation of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” from the pastoral elegiac form, the familial elegies “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” and “Mary Winslow” in Lord Weary’s Castle demonstrate Lowell’s difficulties with adopting the reverent tone of the pastoral elegy. Like “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” these two elegies broadly conform to elegiac tradition, however, their cynical tone is notably uncharacteristic of the pastoral elegy. The pastoral elegiac tradition does not allow for the highly personal, negative portrayal of the deceased that Lowell uses in “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” and “Mary Winslow” and it is through his use of this cynical tone that Lowell again demonstrates his movement away from pastoral elegy within this early collection. Lowell’s irreverent portrayal of his relatives within these poems prefigures a move towards the less constrained, highly personal and autobiographical modern elegies contained within Life Studies.

A comparison between “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” and two elegiac pieces for Lowell’s grandfather that appear in Life Studies, “Dunbarton” and “Grandparents,” will demonstrate the similarities between Lowell’s early, more formal elegy and the later elegies of Life Studies. Like “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” is a combination of adherence to pastoral elegiac convention and of marked deviation from it. Although cynical, it is, structurally, a highly conventional elegy. As Perloff points out, it sequentially moves from “sickness, to burial scene, to ‘lament’ for the dead man, to a prayer for his salvation” (130). The poem’s traditional influences are most evident in its Easter setting and in the prayer for Lowell’s grandfather which makes up the fourth section. Beginning in April, a month traditionally and religiously associated in elegies with death and resurrection, Lowell’s poem, through its adherence to pastoral elegiac structure, prefigures Arthur Winslow’s salvation. The final section serves as a prayer for the forgiveness of Lowell’s grandfather’s wealth and the means by which that wealth was accumulated, ending with a call for Lowell’s grandfather to be raised up from the dead like “Lazarus who was poor” in an explicit equation of piety with poverty (Collected Poems 25). This April setting and Lowell’s invocation of Lazarus confirms the consolatory aspect of the poem’s conclusion. Although the poem is predominantly cynical and cannot easily lament without questioning the character of Arthur Winslow, despite his faults, the traditional format of the elegy suggests that Winslow too will be saved.

Although adhering closely to pastoral elegiac tradition, “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” may also be incorporated within American elegiac tradition. Lowell’s “nakedly expressive style,” his cynical tone and his use of recognisably American settings (the Boston Basin and Charles River, for example) mean that the poem, rather than entirely conforming to pastoral tradition, suggests again a movement towards the modern elegiac mode in order to better express Lowell’s experience of grief (Sacks 313). Punning is important to the intertextuality of the poem with Lowell invoking the earlier “Quaker Graveyard” through his use of the nautical words “craft” and “netted.” This also demonstrates a new tendency towards self-referencing within Lowell’s elegies, whereby he begins to look back, not to an established pastoral elegy as an exemplum for his poem, but rather, to his own elegiac canon. This self-referencing intertextuality persists in the elegies of Life Studies.

“In Memory of Arthur Winslow” demonstrates the unease with which Lowell considers the origins of his family’s wealth: “I came to mourn you, not to praise the craft/ That netted you a million dollars” (Collected Poems 24). Here, Lowell considers the difficulties inherent in mourning, and inheriting from, an ancestor whose wealth was considerable and, perhaps, questionably accumulated. Lowell reveals his cynicism at the manner in which his grandfather added to his fortune in a pun on the word “craft”: “You must have hankered for our family’s craft: / The block-house Edward made, the Governor, / At Marshfield, and the slight coin-silver spoons / The Sheriff beat to shame the gaunt Revere” (Collected Poems 24). In contrast with his other talented and enterprising ancestors, Lowell’s grandfather emerges as a crafty opportunist whose wealth has come at a cost to others: “what else could bring / You, Arthur, to the veined and alien West / But devil’s notions that your gold at least / Could give back life to men who whipped or backed the King?” (Collected Poems 24) This elegy for his grandfather clearly demonstrates the difficulties Lowell faced in trying to reconcile his tendencies towards ancestral reverence with his cynicism towards the ways in which his ancestors’ wealth was accumulated.

Although completely renouncing the form of the pastoral elegy, within “Dunbarton” and “Grandparents,” Lowell persists in examining the same issues of inheritance and ancestry that he had earlier considered in “In Memory of Arthur Winslow.” Both “Dunbarton” and “Grandparents” depict anecdotal instances of time spent with Lowell’s grandfather: “Grandfather and I / raked leaves from our dead forbears, / defied the dank weather / with ‘dragon’ bonfires” (Life Studies 74) and the ending of “Dunbarton” shows a comfort and contentedness in the relationship between Lowell and his grandfather that is rarely seen in any of Lowell’s portrayals of his relationships with family members: “In the mornings I cuddled like a paramour/ in my Grandfather’s bed” (Life Studies 73). However, “Dunbarton” is soon disrupted by hints of Lowell’s sceptical attitude towards his grandfather. Although more tempered, the tone of “Dunbarton” and “Grandparents” is, in places, just as cynical as that of “In Memory of Arthur Winslow.” Depicted as “chuckling” on their drive out of Boston, Arthur Winslow is deriving a childlike pleasure thinking about “the gas he [is] saving” as he freewheels down the hill (Life Studies 73). In “Grandparents,” disruptive memories of Lowell’s grandfather persist; “Grandpa still waves his stick / like a policeman” and the inheritance of his grandparents’ farm leads Lowell to meditate on the “Ancien Régime,” the aristocratic French system of government (Life Studies 75). The inheritance of the farm should symbolise Lowell’s entry into the “Ancien Régime” of Winslow authority and wealth. However, despite an ancestral attachment to the farm, Lowell feels isolated there: “The farm’s my own! Back there alone, / I keep indoors” (Life Studies 75). His inability to identify with his maternal ancestors without the interruption of unpleasant memories leads Lowell to childish guilt: “Tears smut my fingers. There / half my life-lease later, I hold an Illustrated London News, / disloyal still, / I doodle handlebar / moustaches on the last Russian Czar” (Life Studies 75). Although questioning Arthur Winslow’s patriarchal rule, in “Grandparents,” Lowell simultaneously berates himself for his inability to remember his grandparents fondly and for his unease at his inheritance of the family farm, considering his inability to conventionally mourn to be symptomatic of disloyalty.

“In Memory of Arthur Winslow” suggests that Lowell has conflicted feelings towards his grandfather and that these emotions centre around his grandfather’s accumulation of wealth, however, it is not until the elegies for Arthur Winslow that appear in Life Studies that the reader becomes privy to the full extent of Lowell’s sense of guilt at his inheritance. Lowell ends “Grandparents” with a reference to the death of “the last Russian Czar” (Life Studies 76). Although this means that the poem does end with a death, it is an unconventional ending for an elegiac poem as this is a reference, not to the death of Lowell’s grandparents, but to the death of a distant Czar. The allusion becomes interesting when we consider the circumstances of Czar Nicholas II’s death. After abdicating in 1917 (the year of Lowell’s birth), Nicholas was assassinated along with his wife, their children and their household staff. Lowell continues his consideration of the issue of inheritance that had been begun in “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” by ending “Grandparents” with an oblique reference to the assassination of the innocent children of Czar Nicholas II who were killed for their father’s sins and, presumably, to prevent their inheritance of his title. This reference equates the experience of the childish Lowell and his feelings of guilt at his inheritance with the tragic consequences of inheritance experienced by the children of Czar Nicholas II. While utilising a similar, characteristically modern, elegiac tone to that of “In Memory of Arthur Winslow,” within “Grandparents,” Lowell’s movement away from the conventions of the pastoral elegiac format allows him to avoid the pastoral need for the consolatory ending that he reverted to within “In Memory of Arthur Winslow” and illuminates more fully the complicated and conflicting emotions which Lowell experienced on the death of his grandfather. Lowell’s deviation from the conventional practices of pastoral elegiac poetry within “Grandparents” allows for a more personal tone and also for a more powerfully allusive ending with, not only personal, but political and international relevance.

Another important elegy in Lord Weary’s Castle is “Mary Winslow,” an elegy for Lowell’s maternal grandmother. Here again, Lowell invokes the pastoral elegiac tradition through allusion to “Lycidas”—“Mary Winslow is dead” (“Lycidas is dead”). Stephen Burt has pointed out that the form and metre of “Mary Winslow” directly imitates that of “Lycidas” (339). The poem’s highly cynical tone again hints at a movement away from the pastoral towards the modern elegy: “[h]er Irish maids could never spoon out mush / Or orange juice enough” (Collected Poems 28). Towards the end of the poem, Lowell describes his grandmother as “our Copley ancestress. / Grandiloquent, square-jowled and wordly-wise” and it is this description, in particular the adjective “grandiloquent,” that deserves further comment (Collected Poems 28). “Grandiloquent” is a word which is found rarely in Lowell’s poetry, however, it appears again, significantly, within Life Studies, in the elegiac poem for his mother, “Sailing Home from Rapallo.” That Lowell chooses to use “grandiloquent” in his elegy for his mother, Charlotte Winslow, and in the elegy for his grandmother, Mary Winslow, implies an inheritance of grandiloquence in the female Winslow family line and also an element of intertextuality between the two elegies. Similarly, within her elegy, Mary Winslow is described as “worldly-wise” connecting her to the worldliness of Charlotte Winslow that is described in Life Studies. In “Sailing Home from Rapallo,” Lowell chooses an elaborate coffin for his mother in his hopes of doing justice to her worldly nature. Although dead, Lowell’s mother travels “first-class in the hold” and her coffin is a replica of Napoleon’s at Invalides (Life Studies 84). “Sailing Home from Rapallo” is an elegiac piece far removed from the formal structure of “Mary Winslow,” however, Lowell’s reiteration of the word “grandiloquence” in his elegy for Charlotte Winslow and his concentration on the worldliness of mother and daughter links the two poems and emphasises that the elegiac style of Life Studies, rather than being a complete departure from Lowell’s early collections, is itself “descended” from the elegiac poetry of Lord Weary’s Castle. Similarly, Lowell’s persistent examination of the issue of inheritance links the elegies for Arthur Winslow found in both collections.

Although sceptical and questioning, the tone of much of the poetry of Life Studies contains none of the violent judgement found earlier in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” an elegy in which Seamus Heaney suggests, “the percussion and brass section of the language orchestra is driven hard and […] the string section hardly gets a look-in” (136). Contrasting with this early, forceful language, the tone of Life Studies is “numb” and “tamed” (Life Studies 74, 95) and, although frequently presented through the eyes of a child, Lowell’s elegies within this collection are more considered and temperate than the elegies of Lord Weary’s Castle. Lowell’s overt renunciation of the strict formalisms of traditional elegy in Life Studies coincides with his adoption of a less aggressive tone. In Life Studies, Lowell writes from a more mature, contemplative stance, and his tone is closer to the wistful regret of In Memoriam than to the formulaic expression of lamentation found within “Lycidas.” This maturity is best demonstrated in the elegy “My Last Afternoon with Devereux Winslow” contained within Life Studies.

The basis for Lowell’s “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” is an elegiac meditation on life and death. In this elegy, Lowell again chooses to write from the perspective of a child, however, despite the modern imagery, form, language and his use of this child-stance within the poem, Sacks draws attention to Lowell’s adherence to elegiac convention within “My Last Afternoon”:

we recognise how deeply generic Lowell’s poem remains and how its apparently arbitrary array of anecdote and décor is organised not simply by a pattern of images but by a carefully structured adaptation of the devices and strategies of the traditional elegy. (320)

Sacks cites Lowell’s submission to “an overruling figure of authority” in the form of his grandfather, Arthur Winslow, and his invocation of “female figures only to repeat his required detachment from them” as examples of Lowell’s adherence to elegiac convention within “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” (319). Indeed, the poem’s opening section announces its debt to the pastoral elegiac mode as its imagery suggests the pipes of Pan in a distorted manner: “I threw cold water / on my Mother’s and Father’s / watery martini pipe dreams at Sunday dinner” (Life Studies 67). Beginning with an invocation of summer, Lowell also follows traditional elegiac convention and ends the poem with reference to winter. However, although conforming to traditional elegiac practice in places, Lowell’s “My Last Afternoon” is also characteristically modern. Lowell distorts the conventional elegiac imagery until it is almost unrecognisable and also alludes to modern elegiac poetry, most notably, T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.”

Lowell’s contemplation of mortality within “My Last Afternoon” is demonstrated by his repetitive invocation of the image of himself as a child mixing earth and lime on the porch outside his grandfather’s house. The earth and lime imagery and Lowell’s positioning of himself outside his grandfather’s house for the afternoon links Lowell’s poem explicitly to Tennyson’s paired sections VII and CXIX of In Memoriam and to section CXVII in which Tennyson’s speaker must

Contemplate all this work of Time,
The giant labouring in his youth;
Nor dream of human love and truth,
As dying Nature’s earth and lime. (88)

The “earth and lime” of Tennyson’s final line here alludes to the earthly constituents of the human body as distinct from the more elusive material that forms the soul. The fate of “human love and truth” must not be considered to rest with the earthly body; rather, these values will receive immortality through the soul. Within Lowell’s poem, however, the earth and lime are opposed to one another and are only combined by Lowell himself at the poem’s end to create the dust which serves to announce the demise of Uncle Devereux. Throughout In Memoriam, Tennyson is able to look beyond mortal life in this section and find comfort in the immortality of the soul:

Nor dream of human love and truth.
As dying Nature’s earth and lime,
But trust that those we call the dead
Are breathers of an ampler day
For ever nobler ends. (88)

Lowell’s elegy, however, remains fixed on the deterioration of the mortal body and does not suggest the possibility of immortality. Indeed, throughout “My Last Afternoon” there are numerous images of physicality and the distortion or stasis of the physical until all semblance of life has been lost: “Our Scottie puppy / paralysed,” “Distorting drops of water / pinpricked my face in the basin’s mirror. / I was a stuffed toucan / with a bibulous, multicoloured beak,” “the finest poster was two or three young men in khaki kilts / […] They were almost life-size…,” “[Uncle Devereux] was animated, hierarchical, / like a ginger snap man in a clothes-press. / He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease….” (Life Studies 67-72). For Lowell, all ends with the cessation of the mortal body. Although alluding directly to In Memoriam and, as Sacks suggests, adopting some traditional, elegiac conventions, once again, Lowell rejects the tradition of consolation associated with prior elegies and ends his poem on a note of passive inevitability.

Lowell also alludes to In Memoriam through his placement of the narrator of “My Last Afternoon” outside his grandfather’s house. Sacks considers this alienated speaker to be characteristic of the modern, American elegy noting that “the speaker in Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” stands outside the shut gate of a cemetery wall, while [in “For the Union Dead”] Robert Lowell stands outside the “new barbed and galvanised / fence on the Boston Common” (313). Through his separation of the narrator from the deceased and through his description of the intervening doorway in “My Last Afternoon,” however, Lowell again particularly invokes In Memoriam. Lowell’s positioning of his narrator on the outside of the house does not merely suggest general alienation; rather, like Tennyson’s speaker in In Memoriam, Lowell’s narrator is separated from people with whom he should have close ties.

Sections VII and CXIX of In Memoriam form a pair within Tennyson’s elegy as they both depict the speaker standing outside the door of the house that is associated with the deceased. Like the speaker in “My Last Afternoon,” Tennyson’s speaker remains guiltily outside and does not enter: “Behold me, for I cannot sleep, / And like a guilty thing I creep / At earliest morning to the door”(11). Both elegies use these doorway scenes in the same manner, placing one scene at the beginning of the elegy and another at the end to depict the speaker’s continued isolation after the passage of time. In “My Last Afternoon,” Lowell’s speaker demonstrates his isolation from the rest of his family in the elegy’s opening section: “I sat on the stone porch, looking through/ screens as black-grained as drifting coal” (Life Studies, 67). Towards the elegy’s end, however, the porch doorway is explicitly associated with Uncle Devereux:

Near me was the white measuring-door
my Grandfather had pencilled with my Uncle’s heights.
In 1911, he had stopped growing at just six feet.
While I sat on the tiles,
and dug at the anchor on my sailor blouse,
Uncle Devereux stood behind me. (Life Studies 70)

When Lowell’s speaker claims that Uncle Devereux is standing behind him, it is clear that he means, not the person of Uncle Devereux, but rather, his pencilled outline on the doorway. In this section, the real person of Uncle Devereux is conflated with a fictional character, “a ginger snap man in a clothes press,” which suggests his survival (Life Studies 70). Like his Aunt Sarah who takes refuge from the world in a “bed of troublesome snacks and Tauchnitz classics,” Lowell’s speaker retreats from the death of Uncle Devereux by caricaturing him and insisting on his continued presence through this fiction (Life Studies 70). Sacks has commented that “recent elegists tend to suggest their willingness to work within a fictional world rather than point confidently to a world of “truth” beyond the frame of fiction” and “My Last Afternoon,” through its fictionalising of the dead person demonstrates that, while Uncle Devereux is doomed in the real world of “human love and truth,” there is a brief suggestion of the possibility of his survival in his fictionalised state (327). Similarly, the doorway section VII of In Memoriam initially attempts to hold on to the physical presence of the deceased only to acknowledge the fruitlessness of this enterprise: “Doors, where my heart was used to beat / So quickly, waiting for a hand, /A hand that can be clasp’d no more” (11). Towards the elegy’s end, however, it appears that the passage of time and the writing process has been therapeutic for the speaker and he begins to come to terms with the death through contemplating an imagined version of the deceased: “… in my thoughts with scarce a sigh/ I take the pressure of thine hand” (89, my emphasis). It is only through their isolation from others and through their fictionalising of the deceased that the speakers of both Lowell’s and Tennyson’s elegies can come to terms with the deaths with which they are faced.

While persistently concerned with issues of inheritance, parental and patriarchal dominance and Lowell’s desire to distance himself from his relatives, the elegies of Life Studies differ from the earlier elegies of Lord Weary’s Castle through their committed engagement with the “elegiac mode” rather than with traditional elegiac structures (Bloomfield 155). Writing in the “elegiac mode” throughout Life Studies, primarily from the standpoint of a child, Lowell fully embraced the modern American elegy, which allowed him to write more emotively and to avoid consolatory elegiac conclusions. With Life Studies, Lowell also renounced the aggressive tone which he had used to challenge existing structures in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and adopted the more temperate, controlled tone of In Memoriam, which allowed for a more meditative approach. Life Studies saw Lowell skilfully combining modern elegiac traits; a cynical tone, a challenge to authoritative figures and the use of a child’s perspective with more traditional elegiac conventions such as a chronicle of the deceased’s illness, the recording of the deceased’s last words and the invocation of female, muse-type figures. Referring to both modern and traditional elegiac poetry, in Life Studies, Lowell confidently adopted the “elegiac mode” in order to better depict his grief. However, without his earlier experimentation with the structures and tone of the formal pastoral elegy in Lord Weary’s Castle, this transition from “cooked” to “raw” elegies would not have been possible.



[1] Life Studiesis remarkable for its highly personal, autobiographical writing and, indeed, many of the elegies contained within the collection conform to Bloomfield’s definition. The elegiac tone of the collection is, however, combined with a despairing contemplation of “the tranquillized Fifties” so that Life Studiesbecomes both self-directed and socially directed.

[2] I would like to acknowledge the problematic nature of the terms “modern elegy” and “American elegy.” The definition of what is “modern” and what is “American” provided by both Ramazani and Sacks are exclusive terms which do not engage in a lengthy consideration of the cultural and poetic traditions of mourning associated with regions outside the North American east coast. I use the term “American” in the same sense as Sacks, who, in The English Elegy, defines the “American elegy” through an examination of several North American poets. Hence, his use of the term “American” applies to the distinctively North American experience, landscape, values etc. portrayed by these poets.


Works Cited

Bloomfield, Morton W. “The Elegy and the Elegiac Mode: Praise and Alienation.” Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory. History and Interpretation. London: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Burt, Stephen. “Rebellious Authority: Robert Lowell and Milton at Midcentury.” Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000-2001): 337-47. JSTOR. Web. 27 June 2009.

Heaney, Seamus. “Lowell’s Command.” The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.

Jarrell, Randall. “Fifty Years of American Poetry.” The Third Book of Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.

Lowell, Robert. Collected Poems. Eds Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, with the editorial assistance of DeSales Harrison. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

—. Life Studies. 1959. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

—. National Book Award for Poetry Acceptance Speech, 1960. Accessed on 20/11/09 at <>.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Death by Water: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell.” ELH 34.1 (1967): 116-40. JSTOR. Web. 27 June 2009.

Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Sacks, Peter M. The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. In Memoriam: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Erik Gray. Norton, 2004.