Robert Lowell’s “The Worst Sinner, Jonathan Edwards’ God”

No doubt about it, Robert Lowell is a brilliant poet who offers considerable insight into modern life. Unfortunately, most of what he offers is insight into the negative aspects of modern life, which, as we all know, are considerable. Though those insights may well be true, in the end one cannot thrive on negative truth alone. Indeed, such insights may well lead to madness, divine or otherwise.

Here’s an example of one of many powerful poems that stand well on its own:


The earliest sportsman in the earliest dawn,
waking to what redness, waking a killer,
saw the red cane was sweet in his red grip;
the blood of the shepherd matched the blood of the wolf.
But Jonathan Edwards prayed to think himself
worse than any man that ever breathed;
he was a good man, and he prayed with reason-
which of us hasn’t thought his same thought worse?
Each night I lie me down to heal in sleep;
two or three mornings a week, I wake to my sin-
sins, not sin; not two or three mornings, seven.
God himself cannot wake five years younger,
and drink away the venom in the chalice-
the best man in the best world possible.

Anyone who’s read Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or any of his other powerful sermons would immediately be struck by the accuracy of this portrayal. There is something brutal in the very nature of man, some blood element, some violent streak, that has surfaced from the very beginning our history. We may well be by our very nature, sinners. And, yet, how can one simultaneously be a “good man” and the “worst sinner?”

Who of us in our own twisted sense of self-importance has not at one time considered himself the greatest sinner of all? Seen in the light of Edwards’ vision, we are all sinners, daily sinners, perhaps even worse sinners than Edwards himself, seven days a week.

If I read the end of the poem correctly, even Jesus, “God himself,” became a “sinner” when he donned human flesh, and even he “cannot drink away the venom in the chalice” though he be the “best man in the best world possible.”

If there is no hope for such as these, then, what possible hope is there for the rest of us? Certainly we are beyond redemption. Unfortunately, read as a whole, that is more and more the message I’m getting from Lowell’s Selected Poems.

The sections entitled History and Nineteen Thirties are replete with examples of sinners and sins committed throughout history, as suggested by these lines from the opening poem entitled, “History,” “History has to live with what was here,/ clutching and close to fumbling all we had -/ it is so dull and gruesome how we die,/ unlike writing, life never finishes.” Everyone from Alexander the Great to Stalin is portrayed in their full sinfulness. Even poets like Robert Frost are not spared the harsh spotlight of fame.

While it may be the perfect poetry to bring our recent elections to an end, it is not, so not, the kind of poetry one wants to read heading into the holiday season. I will be finishing the volume as soon as possible, hopefully later today.