Robert Lowell’s “After the Surprising Conversions”

Unable to limit myself to reading economics for an extended period of time, I’ll be continuing to jump back and forth between economic theory and poetry for the next little while.

At the moment, I’m reading Robert Lowell’s Selected Poems, one of the major poets of the 20th century I somehow managed to overlook in a lifetime of reading poetry. I’m still not sure who brought him to my attention, perhaps it was Diane McCormick. As usual, I’ve had the book around for quite awhile, waiting its turn to be taken down off the shelf.

I’m finding the poetry, to say the least, somewhat challenging, and more than a little depressing. What I’ve read so far manages to convey much of the angst of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland combined with the much more personal despair of a Theodore Roethke. Lowell is one of those famous New England Lowell’s who was incarcerated as a conscientious objector in World War II. He was also a manic-depressive who was hospitalized many times during his tumultuous lifetime.

Those things probably wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that they all seem to show up regularly, even in his early poetry. Like Hawthorne, who also seemed to be haunted by famous relatives, Lowell’s poetry is populated by famous New Englanders, who, unfortunately, are less famous to those of us not steeped in New England history. Many of the poems would seem to require considerable decoding that could only be accomplished by research that does not seem to be readily available on the internet yet. Luckily, other poems stand on their own, or at least become clear within the context of the other poems in this volume of poetry.

Some like this one:


September twenty-second, Sir: today
I answer. In the latter part of May,
Hard on our Lord’s Ascension, it began
To be more sensible. A gentleman
Of more than common understanding, strict
In morals, pious in behavior, kicked
Against our goad. A man of some renown,
An useful, honored person in the town,
He came of melancholy parents; prone
To secret spells, for years they kept alone-
His uncle, I believe, was killed of it:
Good people, but of too much or little wit.
I preached one Sabbath on a text from Kings;
He showed concernment for his soul. Some things
In his experience were hopeful. He
Would sit and watch the wind knocking a tree
And praise this countryside our Lord has made.
Once when a poor man’s heifer died, he laid
A shilling on the doorsill; though a thirst
For loving shook him like a snake, he durst
Not entertain much hope of his estate
In heaven. Once we saw him sitting late
Behind his attic window by a light
That guttered on his Bible; through that night
He meditated terror, and he seemed
Beyond advice or reason, for he dreamed
That he was called to trumpet Judgment Day
To Concord. In the latter part of May
He cut his throat. And though the coroner
judged him delirious, soon a noisome stir
Palsied our village. At Jehovah’s nod
Satan seemed more let loose amongst us: God
Abandoned us to Satan, and he pressed
Us hard, until we thought we could not rest
Till we had done with life. Content was gone.
All the good work was quashed. We were undone.
The breath of God had carried out a planned
And sensible withdrawal from this land;
The multitude, once unconcerned with doubt,
Once neither callous, curious nor devout,
Jumped at broad noon, as though some peddler groaned
At it in its familiar twang: “My friend,
Cut your own throat. Cut your own throat. Now! Now!”
September twenty-second, Sir, the bough
Cracks with the unpicked apples, and at dawn
The small-mouth bass breaks water, gorged with spawn.

seem remarkably relevant to our times. In a sense, by employing the language of the past, the language of the early Puritans, it brings our whole past to bear on our present.

In another sense, it reflects our own times where even the best of our Institutions are perverted to lead us astray, as if “At Jehovah’s nod/ Satan seemed more let loose amongst us.” We find ourselves mired in an “unholy” war against an “axis of evil” committing despicable torture that is somehow dismissed as “part of war,” as if we weren’t all part of that war.

Unfortunately, the poem also reminds me of an all-too-real incident that happened when I first started teaching high school years ago and a brilliant young student whose parents were teachers and long-standing members of the community committed suicide to protest the Vietnam War, at least according to the note he left. Some said the young man had too sensitive a conscience, that he “He showed concernment for his soul. Some things
In his experience were hopeful.” “Right after his death, another student also committed suicide; as a result, more and more students began to question the war, while others increasingly despaired of ever ending what they considered an unjust war.

Luckily, I haven’t heard of any bloggers literally committing suicide over Bush’s re-election or our war in Iraq, but I have heard considerable despair over his re-election. That expression of despair has spread to the point where some, despite their personal efforts to turn the country around, find themselves feeling personally responsible for what is happening.