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An Analysis of Robert Lowell’s To Speak of Woe

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    That is in Marriage, Man and Wife and Skunk Hour

    Robert Lowell has always been perceived as one of the most respected poets of his generation. He has become a literary artist who was able to make his own name timeless by creating timeless pieces of literature that captures both the bright and the dim realities of life.[1] Lowell has written about a multitude of realities and ideals in life which made him win a considerable amount of readership. He believed that it is such an agony to realize that there is so much about life to write about without the determination and power to write them down.[2] Some of his most unforgettable works include To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage, Man and Wife and Skunk Hour. Though these works tackle Lowell’s seemingly conventional musings on the concept of marriage, relationships and life, a lot of readers are still being able to relate the cores of these works to different events and situations in the modern day world. In this relation, this discussion shall focus on explicating how Lowell’s traditional and apparently subjective and personal views still work even in the modernity and contemporary leaning of the readers nowadays through three of Lowell’s best works as aforementioned.

    To Speak of Woe That is Marriage

    The ideal of marriage has been used in numerous poems. The popular portrayal of marriage, happy and miserable ones alike implies the truth that marriage will always remain a typical dilemma in adulthood. In this poem, Lowell depicts the sad and dark reality of some marriages. Failed marriages are typical. And in this poem, through a mixture of metaphorical questions, images and form, the poet expressed how he find a failed marriage both terrible and insightful.

    In this work, Lowell undoubtedly made a successful use of mood and tone. From the opening lines alone, Lowell was already able to stage the mood he intended to play all throughout the entire poem.

    “The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open / Our magnolia blossom. Life begins to happen. / My hopped up husband drops his home disputes, / and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes”[3]

    These lines obviously opens to readers Lowell’s personal view of a doomed marriage. For him, it can be compared to something which was originally there but is now fading. It is a wound which is yet to heal and is eventually to leave a very dark scar. His opening lines also obviously reflect how miserable a marriage’s failure is at the start.

    The poem was relatively short. But in this short piece of literature, the author was nevertheless able to compress his principled and subjective view of marriage. Just like any other individual who believes in the sacredness and credibility of marriage, this poem incontestably implies that the poet believes that infidelity is injustice and that leaving one’s spouse who loves the other deeply is equivalent to killing him or her, as what the following line suggests,

    “This screwball might kills his wife, then take the pledge / Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust… / It’s injustice… he is so unjust– / whiskey-blind swaggering home at five”[4]

    Injustice, just like a miserable marriage life has also been a popular subject in literature since people easily relate to it. Injustice has always been part of life’s reality. For at least once in general, people come across an act of injustice that made them want to escape at a particular point in their lives. This may be the reason why despite the obvious fact that this poem was Lowell’s personal musings on the concept of marriage, people still patronized it. A lot of people may have easily contested Lowell’s belief and side on this reality about marriage. However, since this poem deals with a popular subject matter, a lot of people are still enticed to read on and contemplate whether or not Lowell makes sense.

    Man and Wife

    In this work, marriage once again forms the core of the literary work. Just like in the previously discussed work, Lowell once again characterizes his perception of a failed marriage. However, unlike in the first poem, Lowell was able to describe how a blossoming relationship is also like in this work. The line, “All night I’ve held your hand”[5] briefly describes how passionate a blossoming relationship is still like. In most cases, newly wedded couples have the tendency to be more expressive and passionate about their feelings for each other. It is usually by this time of their life that the intimacy will appear powerful. However, in this work, Lowell suggests that most marriages are only able to keep this kind of fire burning for the first chapter of the relationship. Lowell notes that some loves tend to fade and falter. Lines like, “its hackened speech, its homicidal eye – / and dragged me home alive… Oh my petite”[6] tend to suggest that right after a sweet start of marriage, some relationships indeed turn bitter all of a sudden.

    Just like the previously analyzed poem, Lowell also did a great job in setting the mood and tone in this poem. As it appears, Lowell has a thing for using magnolia as a symbolism for a relationship’s blossom and death. In this work, Lowell opens with a description of a bed and a broad daylight which is supposed to light up a room for a positive scene. He once again mentions a particular flower in, “At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street / blossoms on our magnolia ignite”[7]; these lines, obviously presents a pleasant atmosphere which can be easily interpreted as Lowell’s metaphorical depiction of the beginning of a marriage. Through  clear and detailed description, the author was also able to present a marriage’s fall. In a swift and sudden pace, the mood of the poem turned into a bitter realization of a fading love in a relationship. Lowell characterized this reality through, “too boiled and shy / and poker-faced to make a pass, / while the shrill verve”[8] which clearly portrays how the wife feels the slowly dying interest and attention of her husband towards her. This was perceived through the weakening connection formed through communication and body language which was also carefully expressed in this poem. Lowell’s lines were clearly depictions of the different stages of marriage which ends in doom. At first, there surely is the sweet beginning where intimacy and passion still reign, while as the marriage sets of to its dawn, everything seems to suddenly fade.

    Apparently, in this work, the author tackles the same ideal of marriage as that of To Speak of Woe That is Marriage. Though in this particular poem, Lowell talks less of violence and of cheating. Rather, he focused on the usually inexplicable phenomenon of a fading love which obviously happens to a lot of people even nowadays. Just like in the discussion of the previous work, a lot of people may easily disagree with Lowell’s ideal of a love which easily fades through time. A lot of people will surely want to argue that true love is eternal and that it will endure everything regardless of how long (time) it has been running. However, maybe a lot of people would also find it hard to contest the fact that some marriages are done in a blink – without history and without careful contemplation on each other’s true feelings and on each other’s real capacity of being with the person. Hence, this is Lowell’s indirect suggestion that hasty marriages may also conclude a sudden fall. Though this is apparently the author’s personal and subjective perspective on the strength of marriage, a lot of people might have found this interesting since it obviously tackles a popular subject matter which is still being debated even in the modern times of today – marriage.

    Skunk Hour

    Unlike the first two poems, Skunk Hour does not appear to dwell on the ideal of marriage. Instead, it speaks about the condition of a particular town which was pictured by the author to decline in terms of resources and economy, slowly over the years. Several lines give readers an idea about what the town is like.

    “Thirsting for / the hierarchie privacy / of Queen Victoria’s century […]

    The season’s ill – / we’ve lost our summer millionaire / who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean”[9]

    Instead of a dying and fading love in a marriage, this poem talks about the fall of an originally rich town. Lowell describes not just the fading beauty of the town’s aesthetic appearance, but as well as the diminishing quality of people’s lives. Lines like, “I myself is hell / nobody’s here”[10] seem to depict a dark and miserable situation where people easily become helpless, hopeless and less optimistic.

    This poem would appear similar to the first two poems discussed as Lowell also did a good job in using symbols to stand for his insightful views on things. In this work, he seldom used symbols; however he did a good job in depicting the Queen Victoria as a symbol of the century and as a symbol of authority from whom, partly, the people’s agony about their miserable and oppressed life came from. In some ways, Lowell’s personal views on authority and government is perceivable in this particular symbolism. But aside from this, probably the most interesting symbolism in this work is the usage of the image of a skunk. Lowell notes,

    “only skunks, that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat / They march on their soles up Main Street: / white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire / under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church”[11]

    In these lines, it is apparent that Lowell considers the skunks as some of the most positive creatures in times of depression and distress. In a way, this can be interpreted as the author’s perception of an ideal of model outlook when life becomes difficult and trying. In several ways, this work may appear different than what the two aforementioned poems tried to entail to readers. For one, this work does not dwell on love and relationships. Instead, it talks about life and how top survive it in tough times. However, this poem posses a similar feel, tone and mood with the two aforementioned poems. Lowell appears to do well in depicting human sadness and misery. Because if this poem would signify one thing, it would probably be the bitter reality about life that it is not always a bed of roses; and with that, Lowell meant, life can really become extremely difficult to the point of just wanting to give up.

    A lot of people may have easily shrugged the idea of wanting to read on with this poem since it is quite difficult to discern the main objective of this work as compared to the other two, which is to promote a stronger and a more sacred marriage or romantic relationship. Aside from this, the subject matter of this poem also appears to be less interesting and engaging as compared to the topics of the previously discussed works. However, despite this difference, Lowell clearly made a good job in depicting his ideal of sadness and misery in various ways. Through his creative usage of symbols, everything seemed to form a collage which reflected Lowell’s perspective of the problems and predicaments of life during the Victorian era. And despite the popular reception on this work, this has still become one of the most review works of Robert Lowell which might have been brought by the relateability or the closeness of the themes of sadness, misery, trials and desperation to readers. True enough, though the main thought of this work may be harder to decipher as compared to the previously discussed poems, the themes involved in this work are definitely human themes which easily allowed readers to relate to each line.

    Conclusion

    Marriage, love and relationships are some of the most universal ideals in life. All people go through the emotions involved in these things, hence, reading about such subject matters allow people to let themselves be part of a particular literature. Seldom or nearly impossible it is find a person who have not experienced nor thought nor mused about these ideals. Lowell’s  To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage and Man and Wife tackle these concepts. However, the entirety of both poems were made out of the author’s very subjective and radical views of marriage and love which might have easily drawn other readers into an argument with the poet’s views. B But apparently, these two works are also some of Lowell’s most read and reviewed works. This is because of the simple fact that although Lowell’s tone and usage of language are apparently conventional, the poems nonetheless deal with very popular and relateable subject matters that easily engage readers.

    On the other hand, Skunk Hour may not deal with equally attractive and engaging concepts or ideals as what the aforementioned poems have, similarly though, it carries Lowell’s trademark of setting the tone and atmosphere of his work well from beginning till end. More importantly, it also talks about significant issues – neediness, poverty, oppression, misery and chaos – which makes it easy for readers to relate and empathize with the subjects in the poem. Thus, it can be deduced that form and art are not sufficient for an author to be loved and patronized well. Indeed, his ideals and concepts have to touch popular subject matters and issues so as to make readers easily attached and involved in each line.

    Bibliography

    Bengtsson, G. “Robert Lowell – Man and Wife”, American Poems, http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/robert-lowell/2414 (accessed July 6, 2010)

    Carruth, H. “A Meaning of Robert Lowell”, The Hudson Review 20, no. 3 (Autumn: 1967)

    Davidson, P. H., Robert Lowell: A Literary Life, Basingstoke, Hampshire: PALGRAVE, 1996

    November, D & Rosenberg, L., I Just Hope It’s Lethal: Poems of Sadness, Madness and Joy, Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton and Mifflin Co, 2005

    Parini, J., The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, Boston, Massachusetts: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006

    [1]    Carruth, H. “A Meaning of Robert Lowell”, The Hudson Review 20, no. 3 (Autumn: 1967) 437.
    [2]    Davidson, P. H., Robert Lowell: A Literary Life (Basingstoke, Hampshire: PALGRAVE, 1996) 40.
    [3]    Parini, J., The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry (Boston, Massachusetts: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006) 787.
    [4]    Ibid.
    [5]    Bengtsson, G. “Robert Lowell – Man and Wife”, American Poems, http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/robert-lowell/2414 (accessed July 6, 2010)
    [6]    Ibid.
    [7]    Ibid.
    [8]    Bengtsson, “Robert Lowell – Man and Wife”.
    [9]    November, D & Rosenberg, L., I Just Hope It’s Lethal: Poems of Sadness, Madness and Joy, (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton and Mifflin Co, 2005) 82.
    [10]  Ibid.
    [11]  November, D & Rosenberg, L., I Just Hope It’s Lethal, 83.

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    An Analysis of Robert Lowell’s To Speak of Woe. (2017, Feb 12). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/robert-lowell/

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