Lowell’s “Hawthorne”

As noted before, Robert Lowell includes numerous allusions to the history of New England in his poetry, and that’s particularly true in the section entitled To the Union Dead. While the title poem of this section is certainly a powerful statement of how our nation’s values seem to have been corroded by commercialism, my favorite poem in the section is:


Follow its lazy main street lounging
from the alms house to Gallows Hill
along a flat, unvaried surface
covered with wooden houses
aged by yellow drain
like the unhealthy hair of an old dog.
You’ll walk to no purpose
in Hawthorne’s Salem.

I cannot resilver the smudged plate.

I drop to Hawthorne, the customs officer,
measuring coal and mostly trying to keep warm-
to the stunted black schooner,
the dismal South-end dock,
the wharf-piles with their fungus of ice.
On State Street
a steeple with a glowing dial-clock
measures the weary hours,
the merciless march of professional feet.

Even this shy distrustful ego
sometimes walked on top of the blazing roof,
and felt those flashes
that char the discharged cells of the brain.

Look at the faces-
Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes and Whittier!
Study the grizzled silver of their beards.
Hawthorne’s picture,
however, has a blond mustache
and golden General Custer scalp.
He looks like a Civil War officer.
He shines in the firelight. His hard
survivor’s smile is touched with fire.

Leave him alone for a moment or two,
and you’ll see him with his head
bent down, brooding, brooding,
eyes fixed on some chip,
some stone, some common plant,
the commonest thing,
as if it were the clue.
The disturbed eyes rise,
furtive, foiled, dissatisfied
from meditation on the true
and insignificant.

I’m sure my preference for this poem is colored by my own historical awareness of New England, an awareness that has stemmed primarily from my study of literature. It obviously doesn’t hurt that Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers from the area. Perhaps, even more importantly, despite my fondness for Emerson and Thoreau, there is something almost redemptive about Hawthorne’s brooding sense of the darkness of the human soul.

It is apparently a brooding suspicion that Lowell shares, perhaps identifying more with the sensitive Hawthorne than the more stoic Romantic images of his own forefather.

It’s obvious that the outwardly pietistic Puritans hold no appeal for Lowell, as suggested in the lines “You’ll walk to no purpose/ in Hawthorne’s Salem.” And, like Hawthorne, Lowell seems to feel trodden down by “the merciless march of professional feet.”

Like his transcendentalist contemporaries Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne sought the miraculous in everyday life, but unlike them he was unable to find it there, instead finding something much darker, much more threatening. While it may not be what h was looking for, it, nevertheless, seems “true” and may well leave us with a “disturbed,” if not bewildered, look in our own eyes.

While we may well want to believe the best of our fellow man, we do not have to look too far to see evidence that shows otherwise, do we?