I recently read Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, which is actually two separate books, Lowell’s 1959 book Life Studies, and his 1964 book For the Union Dead. Even though he wrote two books between the two and many after, it makes sense why Life Studies and For the Union Dead are published together. Both books revolve around the concept of loss, primarily in the context of human destruction. I understand why teachers don’t touch Robert Lowell in the classroom; his work favors the weak, degrades war, and
Life Studies is best known for its long-form poem, “Life Studies”, which is broken up into 15 poems, the first nine of which deal with death of family members, and the final six dealing with the death of pieces of the self. However, the book out with four historical poems, then leads into a prose piece, then a few more historic poems before continuing to “Life Studies”. The first four poems are important because they establish the theme of the irreparable damage on a larger scale.
The first poem, “Beyond the Alps”, is written from the perspective of a post-World War II train ride from the Vatican to Paris, passing through the Swiss Alps along the way. It ties together ideas about using religion to try to make sense of the evil of the war and using the evil of the war to question what god would allow it to happen. He uses this train ride as an illustration that benevolent Switzerland was unable to maintain neutrality without getting destroyed; if god exists, he must have a hand in the evil that took place—or he must have died with benevolence itself. The historical themes continue until “Life Studies”.
“Life Studies” is an autobiographical poem about death and loss. In first person, it goes through the death of five of Lowell’s family members, the first of which he witnessed at age six. It then goes through metaphorical deaths in the narrator’s own life: the death of his sanity, his marriage, and finally, his pride.
The true genius of “Life Studies” lies in Lowell’s use of technique. Throughout the poem, Lowell makes interesting technical moves: present participles as nouns, nouns as verbs, repeated juxtaposition between still bodies and inanimate objects personified with action verbs, and similes that tie back to the painfully literal use of the comparison: “The corps [of his mother on the way back from Italy]/ was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil” (“Sailing Home from Rapallo” lines 34-35). His experimental uses of language are consistently striking throughout the poem, but is the use of end rhyme, alliteration, line length, and structure change as the narrative evolves and carry us through his memories as they felt to him.
The first three poems, “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”; “Dunbarton”, which establishes his relationship with his grandfather; and “Grandparents”, the poem that addresses the death of both of his maternal grandparents, are written in stable, unrhymed prosaic free-verse. The first variation from this appears in the use of end rhyme in the fourth poem, “Commander Lowell”, which describes his father’s life after the navy. The poem uses the first stanza to gradually ease the reader into full masculine end rhyme. The first three lines are unrhymed. However, the fourth and fifth lines end with ‘electric’ and ‘panic’, which is both a slant rhyme and an eye rhyme. It is followed with ‘book’, which clings to the slant rhyme of the previous two lines, but is far from an eye rhyme. Then we are hit with our first masculine rhyme, ‘Louise’ (line 7) and ‘frontspiece’ (line 8), followed by the slant rhyme, ‘bashfulness’. The stanza finishes out with four rhyming couplets, ‘navel’/ ‘tall’, ‘manic’/ ‘attic’, ‘name’/ ‘Vandamme’, ‘asleep’/ ‘sheep’. The poem continues to lead the reader in and out of end rhyme, using slant rhyme, eye rhyme, and internal rhyme to smooth the transition between rhymed and unrhymed verse. This poem ends by slowing the rhyme; the last perfect masculine couplet is five lines from the end. It transitions into the slant couplet ‘Versailles’/ ‘sea’ (lines 69,70), followed by two unrhymed lines, then closing with ‘Yangtze’ (line 73). The brilliance of this technique is that it uses rhyme to speed up and slow down the verse, mimicking the patterns of his father’s apparent instability, which we will see mirrored in his son’s instability later in the poem.
The next five poems flirt with end rhyme, but the prosody is driven by consonance and alliteration. These poems are: “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms” about his father’s death; “Father’s Bedroom” and “For Sale”, both of which address the things he left behind, including his wife; and the two poems about the mother: “Sailing home from Rapallo”, which narrates her corpse’s return from Italy, and “During Fever”, which posthumously rounds out her character.
This marks the end of the literal deaths in “Life Studies”. The next poem, “Waking in the Blue” describes the narrator’s stay at the mental hospital. It swings in and out of end rhyme, relating his present behavior back to his father’s post-war instability. However, the next poem, “Home After Three Months Away” pushes the reader into the beautifully chaotic mania of unpatterned end rhyme. For example, the second stanza opens at line 10 with one unrhymed line, followed by a slant couplet and a perfect masculine couplet, then another unrhymed ending. In lines sixteen and seventeen, we get the slant but perfect eye rhyme, ‘gone’/ ‘one’, followed by an unrhymed line, a perfect masculine couplet, another unrhymed line, then two perfect masculine couplets, followed by the slant couplet, ‘here’/ ‘bear’ (lines 26, 27), which close the stanza before the truly manic rhyme scheme sets in.
In the next ten lines, which are followed by an unrhymed closing couplet, there are four different rhymes, one of which only appears in the line preceding the couplet and rhymes with the first line of the couplet; therefore, it should be ignored. Lines twenty-eight through thirty-seven are as follows:
Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends to our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelvemonths ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet…
This scans roughly into an A/B/A/B/B/C/C/C/B/C pattern.
The final poem about his loss of sanity, “Memories of West Street and Lepke” is prosodiclly driven more similarly to the final four poems about his parents. The content of the poem is similar to “Waking in the Blue”, although rather than taking place in a mental hospital, it takes place in prison during Lowell’s one year sentence, which apparently was for refusing the draft. This is followed by two poems about the death of his marriage, which he repeatedly alludes to as a war in and of itself.
The first poem about marriage, “Man and Wife”, is driven more by its structure than its prosody. It opens, establishing a scene of the narrator waking up next to his wife on a sunny spring morning and leads us through a glimpse of their meeting, all in the first stanza, the first twenty-two lines of the poem. In the second and final stanza, we are given a five-line glimpse of his wife, turned away from him in bed, changed from his absence.
The second poem about marriage is the shortest poem in “Life Studies”; it is also the only one not written in free verse and, most importantly, the only one written from a perspective that is not the narrator. Still written in first person, ‘“To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage”’ begins and ends with quotation marks to signal that it is not from the narrator’s perspective but his wife’s. Unlike a Shakespearian or Petrarchan sonnet, it is written entirely in rhymed couplets. The pentameter couplets reinforce the content, which is an outside perspective, a stable perspective, on the narrator’s mania, discussing his alcoholism and use of prostitutes. It ends with the volta in the final couplet: ‘Gorged by the climacteric of his want,/ he stalls above me like an elephant.”’ We aren’t given a true glimpse into the narrator’s behavior until this poem; we are only told what he wants to tell us. In this poem, the destruction that the narrator is causing his family is made clear.
In the first sections of the poem, the narrator compares himself to a lizard and stuffed toucan; in the final poem in “Life Studies”, “Skunk Hour”, he indirectly compares himself to a skunk. This poem is where the narrator crashes, using technical moves to drag the reader down with him. It claims a set form, written in sestets and rhyming, softly, subtly, throughout the poem. We finally see a self-awareness that does not exist in mania: “My mind’s not right” (line 28), “I myself am hell;/ nobody’s here—/ only skunks…” (lines 31-33). The poem ends with the image the skunk digging through the garbage, her tail raised, the narrator in fear. Then she gets her head stuck in a sour cream container, “…drops her ostrich tail,/ and will not scare” (lines 47-48). Although this is the final poem in “Life Studies”, the final section Life Studies, the book For the Union Dead, clings to this tone of humility.
For the Union Dead combines the historically driven poetry from the beginning of Life Studies with his use personal narrative in the long-form poem. These poems weave in and out of reflections on his personal life, time, society, history, and age. The book begins with poems that re-examine pieces of his personal history addressed in “Life Studies”. We get to see his life re-written from the place we were left, from the perspective of the skunk with her head stuck in the can, no longer cocky enough to spray. He starts with a poem about his wife, which is an important place for the reader to see remorse after she revealed the reality of his mania only a few pages beforehand.
“Water” is a slow-moving poem written in quatrains, reflecting on a memory he had of his wife and himself before things got bad—a memory that time has changed:
Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time,
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,
but it was only
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green….
We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.
From the final quatrain, we can see his wish to go back, but given the previous context, we also understand why “the water was too cold for [them]” to mend their relationship and go back to happier times.
The second poem in For the Union Dead that I would like to discuss is about half way through the book. “Epigram”, dedicated to philosopher and holocaust survivor, Hannah Arendt, is only seven lines. Like the opening poems in Life Studies, it reflects on the past, this time at The Battle of Thermopylae. Rather than using this story as an illustration for nationalism, he associates it with Arendt, who is known for her work discussing collective agency for those who lose their ‘place in the world’, arguing that a ‘plural presence’ that stands up to their oppressors creates a performance the effects the ‘chain reaction’ of history, much like the Spartans did with the Persians. The poem starts, “Think of Leonidas and perhaps the hoplites,” which presents to a contemporary audience one of the most romanticized battles of all time. It calls to mind the desire to give meaning—any meaning—to the complete destruction caused by war presented “Beyond the Apls”, but with the parallels between war and self-destruction that were established throughout the book, it also begs for meaning in the loss of the self.
However, the title cannot help but call to mind Oscar Wilde’s famous epigram about war: “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” And I think that quote sums up Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell—it turns the ‘wicked’ absolutely vulgar. We aren’t allowed to glamorize any of it, from Marie de Medici hiding in Italy from her son to Lowell’s illness to nuclear war, continually eluded to in For the Union Dead. It presents a post-WWII disbelief in benevolence without presenting life as utterly meaningless. I still don’t know what he argues the meaning is, but I think it has something to do with history.