Robert Lowell’s “Returning Turtle”

I should have known that as soon as I pronounced that all of Robert Lowell’s poems seemed too despair-ridden for my taste, I would find one, and more, that managed to find at least a little joy amid life’s gloom. Most of them seem to center around his daughter Harriet, though it’s certainly dangerous to speculate too much on the exact causes of joy in anyone’s life.

Whatever the reason, I found this poem, among several others in the section entitled For Lizzie and Harriet, rather uplifting after the constant barrage of despair in earlier poems:


Weeks hitting the road, one fasting in the bathtub,
raw hamburger mossing in the watery stoppage,
the room drenched with musk like kerosene “
no one shaved, and only the turtle washed.
He was so beautiful when we flipped him over:
greens, reds, yellows, fringe of the faded savage,
the last Sioux, old and worn, saying with weariness.
“Why doesn’t the Great White Father put his red
children on wheels, and move us as he will?”
We drove to the Orland River, and watched the turtle
rush for water like rushing into marriage,
swimming in uncontaminated joy,
lovely the flies that fed the sleazy surface,
a turtle looking back at us, and blinking.

It’s hard not to believe that returning the turtle wasn’t the idea of the narrator’s young daughter Harriet, since there’s little in earlier poems to suggest such concern for others. No matter whose idea it was, though, the very act of setting the turtle free, the act of caring for another living creature, seems to bring him an “uncontaminated joy” seldom seen in any of his other poems.

It’s the kind of futile and meaningless act that can renew our faith in mankind. Seen in the light of all the injustices that take place daily in the real world. It’s hard to make too much of such acts of charity. Still, they seem to offer some slim hope that our youth’s natural concern for those weaker than themselves might eventually grow to make this a better world.

Unfortunately, such optimism is short lived in Lowell’s poetry since the last book of poems entitled “The Dolphin” turns back to darker themes, perhaps because it was written after Lowell’s divorce and remarriage.

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.

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?

Lowell’s “Terminal Days At Beverly Farms”

Although the much more famous and anthologized “Skunk Hour” is included in [from] Life Studies, my favorite poem in this section is “Terminal Days At Beverly Farms” because it seems to lie at the heart of this section focusing on Lowell’s family, particularly his father, but also his grandfather and his mother, and, finally, the narrator’s own life.

The poem is preceded by a much longer poem entitled “Commander Lowell 1887 – 1950” which contains the revealing lines “Smiling on all, Father was once successful enough to be lost/ in the mob of ruling-class Bostonians.” These poems, in their own inexplicable way, the same way life often fails to shed light on itself even while revealing its final secrets, provide a strange insight into a poem like “Walking in the Blue,” a poem which seems to take place in a “house for the “mentally ill.'”


At Beverly Farms, a portly, uncomfortable boulder
bulked in the garden’s center
an irregular Japanese touch.
After his Bourbon “old fashioned,” Father,
bronzed, breezy, a shade too ruddy,
swayed as if on deck duty
under his six pointed star-lantern-
last July’s birthday present.
He smiled his oval Lowell smile,
he wore his cream gaberdine dinner-jacket,
and indigo cummerbund,
His head was efficient and hairless,
his newly dieted figure was vitally trim.

Father and mother moved to Beverly Farms
to be a two-minute walk from the station,
half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.
They had no sea-view,
but sky-blue tracks of the commuters’ railroad shone
like a double-barreled shotgun
through the scarlet late August sumac,
multiplying like cancer
at their garden’s border.

Father had had two coronaries.
He still treasured underhand economies,
but his best friend was his little black Chevy,
garaged like a superficial steer
wtih gilded hooves,
yet sensationally sober,
and with less side than an old dancing pump.
The local dealer, a “buccanneer,”
had been bribed a “king’s ransom”
to quickly deliver a car without chrome.

Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
father stole off with the Chevie
to loaf in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”

There is something deeply dismaying in this father whose “figure was vitally trim” and spent the morning of his death in “anxious, repetive smiling,” all the time feeling “awful.”

It is a portrait of an ineffectual man so out of touch with his very self, so fascinated with an image of himself, that he never recognizes the spotlight of the train of history aimed at him “like a double-barreled shotgun,” approaching so fast that in the end his death is “abrupt and unprotesting.”

When death finally comes I won’t be greeting it with polite civility (my apologies to Emily). No, I’ll be raging, raging against the dying of the light, not standing around with my “cream gaberdine dinner-jacket,/
and indigo cummerbund sipping an “old-fashioned.”