Amy Lowell (1874-1925)
About the Poet
Noted modernist and imagist Amy Lawrence Lowell was a consummate lecturer and conversationalist, as well as a joker and friend-maker among the great literary figures of her day. She enhanced her promotion of imagism as a viable alternative to traditional forms with the composition of over 600 poems. The sheer volume of verse mars her canon by the inclusion of mediocre works among such masterpieces as "Patterns" and "The Sisters," a defense of female artistry. Until feminist criticism defended her place among early-twentieth-century poets, she was largely neglected, in part because homophobic critics rejected her bisexual and lesbian views on human relationships.
Amy Lowell was one of the prestigious Massachusetts Lowells and was a relative of James Russell Lowell, the first editor of Atlantic Monthly. She was born on February 9, 1874, in Brookline to aristocratic parents, Katherine Bigelow Lawrence and Augustus Lowell. Lowell's mother tutored and educated her, and she completed a basic education at private schools in Boston and Brookline. Much of her learning derived from self-directed reading in the family's vast library. At age 13, to aid a charity, she published a volume of juvenilia, Dream Drops, or Stories from Fairyland (1887), a token of the late-blooming artistry yet to emerge.
Lowell traveled across Europe before settling in the family manor, Sevenels, in 1903. Lowell published her first sonnet, "A Fixed Idea," in Atlantic Monthly in 1910, followed by three more submissions and the translation of a play by Alfred de Musset, staged at a Boston theater.
Acclaimed for Keatsian verse in A Dome of Many-Colored Glass (1912), Lowell stopped mimicking other poets' styles in 1914 and developed an independent voice, in part influenced by Ezra Pound, H. D., Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, and Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Following positive reception of her experimental "polyphonic prose," her term for free verse, in Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914), she published in The Bookman, a respected New York monthly, and edited Some Imagist Poets, 1915-1917 (1917). A landmark work that sets the parameters of imagism, Some Imagist Poets names six requisites for imagism:
- To employ common language that is precisely suited to the phrase
- To search out new rhythms to express new moods
- To welcome all subjects to the field of topics
- To quell vagueness with exact images
- To produce hard, clear verse free of confusion and distortion
- To compress thought as though distilling the essence of meaning
Lowell's own output in the new poetry genre of imagism included Men, Women and Ghosts (1916), Can Grande's Castle (1918), Pictures of the Floating World (1919), which contains some of her best short works, and Legends (1921), a critically successful collection of narrative verse.
Lowell earned a reputation for violating conservative standards by flaunting her obesity, swearing, smoking cigars, and having a same-sex lover, actress Ada Dwyer Russell, with whom Lowell remained all her life. In addition to poetry, she published translations in Six French Poets: Studies in Contemporary Literature (1915), collected critical essays in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917) and satire in A Critical Fable (1922), a reprise of Fable for Critics, written by her illustrious New England ancestor, James Russell Lowell. For Fir-Flower Tablets (1921), a detailed collection of miniatures, she joined Florence Ayscough to translate Chinese verse into "chinoiseries," restatements of Asian idiom in English.
During a period when she experienced eye strain and glandular imbalance, Lowell labored on a two-volume centennial biography, John Keats (1925). A substantial contribution to English criticism, the work began as a Yale address and flowered into exhaustive research. Historians blame the rigor of the insightful study for Lowell's sudden death from cerebral hemorrhage on May 12, 1925, in Brookline. She was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Her posthumous volumes include What's O'Clock (1925), which earned a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, East Wind (1926), Ballads for Sale (1927), Poetry and Poets (1930), and Complete Poetical Works (1955).
In 1916, Lowell published her masterwork, "Patterns," a tense, almost frenzied free verse minidrama spoken in first person. The speaker, traumatized by the news that her fiancé has been killed in combat, attends a formal dance. Dressed in the constrictive gown, powdered wig, and jeweled fan of the eighteenth century, she contrasts the natural colors and configurations of daffodils and squills, bulbs that flower in spring. Tears sprung from pent-up emotions parallel the silent shedding of blossoms from a lime tree.
In the poem's second stanza, the poet enlarges the dual droplets to include a parallel "plashing of waterdrops / In the marble fountain," a rhythmic "dripping [that] never stops," symbolic of the grief she will never escape. As though casting off the constraints of fashion and social propriety, she fantasizes about meeting her lover among the hedges. By supplanting a silver and pink gown with the flesh hues of her own body, she envisions a passionate chase in which the man, graced by reflected light from "sword-hilt and buckles," stumbles after her as though held back by the trappings of military rank. At the climax, complex interweavings of grief and dreamlike seduction are emotionally too much for the speaker to handle, threatening in line 57 to overwhelm the dreamer.
Lowell develops the narrative with romantic plotting in lines 60 through 71. After receiving a standard wartime communication, the speaker begins a rhythmic pacing, replicated in the juxtaposition of short and long lines. Stiffly clad in "correct brocade," she sees herself upright among the blooms. To dramatize loss, she relives the blessing of sunlight, rhyming "And I answered, 'It shall be as you have said.' / Now he is dead."
Line 91 retreats from past and present to predict the flow of seasons, each with its characteristic flowers and weather. Locked in a prim celibacy, the speaker regrets that war has negated passion. The closing couplet, suited to the charged atmosphere of tumbling emotions, crackles with defiance of the feminine role of mourner and the masculine world that wastes good men in war.
"Madonna of the Evening Flowers," set at Sevenels and composed in honor of Ada Russell in 1919, is an opulent piece that displays Lowell's deft verbal abilities. The three-part text moves from simple description to sensuous impressionism. Composed in unrhymed cadence, it draws energy from visual profusion, including oak leaves feathered by the wind and late afternoon sun reflected off mundane objects — books, scissors, and a thimble. From an unassuming domestic still life, the central stanza follows the seeker into a religious vision sanctified by the pure heart of the unnamed "you." Color and sound mount into a surreal chiming of bell-shaped garden flowers, which enrich the holy setting with connections between their common name, Canterbury bells, with the cathedral and shrine in southeastern England.
The final stanza injects a playful note of miscommunication. The speaker, who stands transfixed by mystic thoughts, discounts the gardener's mission to assess growth, spray, and prune. Enraptured in wonder, the speaker shuts out sounds to absorb the aura of the gardener, whom the steepled larkspur transforms into the Virgin Mary, traditionally clad in blue as a symbol of devotion. Lowell concludes the poem with a kinesthetic gesture by turning sight into sound; the color and shape of the bell-blossoms evolve into an organ swell, a traditional anthem, a Te Deum ([We praise] thee, God) of worship and adoration.
Similarly majestic, "Venus Transiens" [Venus Crossing Over] (1919), replete with Renaissance awe at female grace, derives its title and drama from Sandro Botticelli's painting depicting Venus rising from the sea, a mythic birth of beauty out of sea foam. Again, Lowell wreathes her subject in silver and blue, colors that reflect the light of sea and sky. The sands on which the speaker stands anchor her to the real world while the waves and sky uplift her beloved to a sublime, exalted state. The viewer stands apart from subject, as though the human element is permanently distanced from the divine.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Compare Amy Lowell's praise of female beauty with that of Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and the Pre-Raphaelites.
2. Refute Amy Lowell's statement in "The Sisters" that women who write poetry are "a queer lot." Comment on her choice of Sappho and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as models.
3. Apply Amy Lowell's six precepts of imagism to her poems "Lilacs" and "Night Clouds" as well as to the works of three American imagists: H. D.'s "Lais" or "Heat," e. e. cummings's "Buffalo Bill's," "in Just-," or "i was considering how," and William Carlos Williams' "Nantucket" or "Flowers by the Sea." Determine which works fit the constraints without compromising lyricism and aesthetic grace.
4. Discuss the role of fantasy in Amy Lowell's poetry.