Amy Lowell, an American Original
lthough Amy Lowell was brilliant, innovative, prolific, and very popular during her lifetime, her reputation faded in the decades after her death. Such has been the fate of most women poets over the millennia, but in Lowell's case the fall into relative obscurity was also due, in part, to the rising position of Ezra Pound in the literary canon. Lowell had a complex relationship with Pound and, ultimately, they had a falling out. Since the revival of interest in work by and about women in the 1970's, though, Lowell has undergone a reassessment, and a resurgence of appreciation of her work is well underway.
by Wendy Sloan
Early Life, Work, & Influences
Amy Lowell was, first and foremost, a Lowell: a scion of the prominent Boston society family descended from a single ancestor who came over from England in the 1600's. The Lowells were cotton manufacturers and owned textile mills; the city of Lowell, Massachusetts was named after them. The family's prominence can't be overstated, hence the famous old epigram, "For the Cabots speak only to the Lowells, and the Lowells speak only to God." The Lowells were leading intellectuals, lawyers, judges, horticulturalists. Also poets: James Russell Lowell was an older cousin of Amy's, Robert Lowell a younger one. One of Amy's brothers was the president of Harvard; another, an astronomer, founded the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. The Lowells tended to be independent to the point of eccentricity, assertive, used to running things and to running them well. Amy shared these qualities and she was very independent, very assertive, and very brave. The youngest of five children (her oldest brother was some twenty years her senior), she was also used to getting her own way.
Lowell was educated in private schools, through family trips to Europe, and through her own studies in the vast library on the Lowell estate. Lowell's father built the house (1867) and laid out the gardens. The mansion still stands at 70 Heath Street in Brookline. He was an avid horticulturalist, as was Amy, and he named the estate Seveneles after the seven Lowells who lived there. When her father died, Amy bought out her siblings and made Seveneles her home for the rest of her life.
Lowell's education was broad, and so were her interests. She read French: in 1916 she wrote a book on contemporary French poetry, Six French Poets that included her own translations of the poets' work. She had a longstanding interest in Asian cultures. Her brother Perceval was one of the first Westerners to visit Japan after it reopened to the world; he lived there for over ten years and introduced Amy to Asian art and culture. This had a profound effect on her: she would later co-author a book of translations of Chinese poetry, and she wrote a series of poems after Japanese prints. The influence of Asian culture is also recognizable in Lowell's own Imagist work. Keats was another strong early influence, and Lowell, a serious, indeed major, book collector, collected Keats's manuscripts throughout her life. Shortly before her death, she completed her two-volume biography of Keats. Close associates would later say that her intense work on the Keats biography strained Lowell's health and contributed to her early death. Lowell's first book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass (1912), was largely derivative of Keats. It was an immature work, written in virtual isolation, nonetheless displaying control of traditional poetic techniques and forms, such as iambic pentameter, sonnet structure, and rhyme.
Physically, Lowell was broad—portly or matronly, as they say—her hair was piled on her head in a bun, she wore wire-rimmed glasses, and she smoked cigars. Those who remembered her fondly, like Harriet Monroe, the founder and first editor of Poetry magazine, recalled "an imposing figure" (Damon 193). Monroe described her first meeting with Lowell to Lowell's biographer, S. Foster Damon:
I listened to her melodious words of greeting and watched the ponderous
and regal figure slowly descend the steps. She took possession of the
occasion and the company—no one else was of any account.…my
mind was still wool-gathering when, on hearing my name, the newcomer
turned a powerfully reproachful eye upon me with the query, "Well,
since you've taken 'em, why don't you print 'em?" [referring to
several of poems that Monroe had accepted for Poetry]. (193)
With that kind of presence and personality, Lowell quickly made enemies as well as friends in the competitive poetry world. There were men who resented an assertive woman, men who didn't want to share, let alone cede, power or control. And at that time, hopefully more than now, men defined the canon. Some envied her wealth and portrayed her as a mere society dilettante who had bought her way into literature. Her portly build made her an easy target for cheap insults. Pound famously called her the "Hippopoetess," while Carl Sandburg once said that arguing with Lowell was like arguing with "a big blue wave" (Kenner 291). As recently as the 1970's, Pound's major critical proponent, Hugh Kenner, went so far in denigrating Lowell as to compare her to Henry James's character Daisy Miller, a laughably ridiculous statement.(Kenner 292) Lowell was about as far from the flirtatious ingénue of James' novel as can be imagined. The degree to which sexism —indeed, misogyny—prevented a fair estimation of Lowell's work during the Modernist period shocks contemporary sensibilities.
Lowell among the Imagists
Lowell's life changed abruptly in 1912. She submitted work to Poetry magazine; it was accepted and she met and befriended Harriet Monroe. During the winter of 1912-1913, she read a series of poems in Poetry signed "HD, Imagiste," and realized that she, too, was an Imagist. Lowell set sail for London that summer to meet the Imagist circle, bearing a letter of introduction from Monroe to Ezra Pound.
Imagism was first articulated in 1908 by the poet Thomas Ernest Hulme (1983-1917), a friend of Pound's who died young in the trenches of World War I. By 1912, Pound had become the leading proponent of Imagism; he was also the official London contributor to Poetry magazine, in charge of funneling submissions to the journal. The Imagist circle at that time primarily included the following poets: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, Pound's former girlfriend), Richard Arlington (H.D.'s then-husband), F.S. Flint (Pound's close collaborator), John Gould Fletcher (who quickly dropped out, finding Pound overbearingly dictatorial), and, later, D.H. Lawrence (brought in by Lowell, who considered him a genius). When Lowell arrived in London in 1913, Pound was putting together a review of Imagist work, Des Imagiste. Ultimately published in 1914, it included one of Lowell's poems. On her first trip to England, Lowell also began translating French poetry and, by February of 1914, having returned to the States, she was putting together her second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. It proved to be a break-through work and a huge popular success.
In the early summer of 1914 Lowell set sail for England again, this time accompanied by Ada Dwyer Russell. Russell was a retired actress some ten years Lowell's senior; she was to become Lowell's life-long companion. Shortly after their arrival in England, the inevitable falling-out between Lowell and Pound ensued. For his part, Pound proposed not only that he run the next review but also that Lowell finance it, paying him an annual salary. Lowell proposed, instead, that she find an American publisher for an anthology that would be assembled on a more democratic basis, with each poet allotted equal space and equal royalties and selecting their own submission, subject only to a possible group veto if there were a strong consensus against a particular work. The upshot was that Pound dropped out, and the rest of the circle—H.D., Arlington, Flint, Fletcher (rejoining the project), Ford Maddox Ford (who later dropped out), and Lawrence—defected to Lowell, en masse. Lowell and Pound didn't get along well after that. Resenting his loss of control and claiming some sort of right to the term "Imagism," Pound coined the derogatory term "Amygism" to label the work of Lowell and the American school of poets influenced by her.
For, returning to the States just before the outbreak of World War I, Lowell succeeded in compiling, securing publication of, editing, and promoting, through tireless lecturing and reviewing, the ensuing three-volume series of annual Imagist anthologies, Some Imagist Poets, which appeared in 1915, 1916, and 1917. Her stated goal was to create public awareness and acceptance of "the new poetry" in the U.S., and this she did.
Who, then, were the Imagists, and what were the basic principles of poetic practice that they advocated?
The Imagists were part of a developing Modernist trend in poetry that rejected Romanticism and the fuzzy verbosity of late Victorian and Edwardian verse, and that tended more towards a spare Classicism, while experimenting with new rhythms of vers libre or cadenced verse instead of traditional meters and forms.
As Pound put it, the Imagists focused on capturing "the thing," objective or subjective, in the image, such image being considered the primary poetic form. Pound's famous Imagist poem, for example, is a mere title and two compact lines (three lines can make you immortal):
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Or, as Lowell set forth the Imagist principles in the prefaces to Some Imagist Poets, and also in her broader critical work, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1921), the Imagists aimed, "To use the language of common speech, always employing the exact word. 2. To create new rhythms…We do not insist upon 'free verse' as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty …in poetry, a new cadence means a new idea. 3. To allow absolute freedom in choice of subject. 4. To present an image…we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous…5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite. 6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is the very essence of poetry."
Lowell noted, as Pound had done, the derivation of these principles from contemporary French poetry and from Villon, from Chinese and Japanese poetry (including the haiku), from Greek poetry (which especially influenced H.D.), and from Dante (who influenced Pound, in particular). The Imagists posited these tenets as "not new," but instead having fallen into disuse during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Imagist precepts ultimately gained broad acceptance during the Twentieth Century as basic keystones of good poetic practice.
Note that Lowell's statement of Imagist principles, like her poetry, is more concrete or grounded, less abstract than Pound's. In fact, Pound's views became more and more abstract and complex as he moved from Imagism towards "Vorticism." As he explained Vorticism (Kenner 185), "The image…is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must, perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing"—an observation that would appear to have little use or meaning apart from, possibly, some bad acid trip. Lowell distilled into her poetry not only the image, but human emotion, strong and fully felt. That is one of her accomplishments as a poet: she achieved a combination of strong image with strong emotion, such as in her once very famous poem, "Patterns," the anti-war piece written during World War I—a monologue of a woman's interior train of thought upon receiving notice that her fiancé has been killed on the battlefield.
In her critical work, including Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, Lowell was also a strong advocate for styles of the "new poetry" other than Imagism. She lauded Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, and, especially, Robert Frost. Lowell met Frost in England, where North of Boston was originally published in 1912. And Lowell wrote a series of New England narrative monologues—persona poems—somewhat similar to Frost's longer narratives, like his "A Servant to Servants," "Home Burial," and "Death of the Hired Man." The speakers in Lowell's narrative persona monologues are downtrodden, oppressed women trapped in poverty and bad marriages. Some of these poems, like "The Basket," from Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, are gothic thrillers. Just don't ask what's in the basket—and for God's sake don't look inside! Largely forgotten today, they were extremely popular during Lowell's lifetime and her most popular work at readings.
Unlike Pound's Imagist circle of expats, Lowell respected—indeed, absorbed—the work of her fellow Modernist American poets who had remained in (or, in Frost's case, returned to) America. And her identification with such American Modernist poets underscores another significant difference between Lowell and Pound and his Imagist circle: Lowell neither shared Pound's condescension towards the States nor felt alienated from American culture. On the contrary, she fully embraced American culture and immersed herself in it. Lowell traveled widely throughout the United States and read and lectured frequently to large audiences. She was a strong proponent of poetry as an oral art, like many other practicing poets of her day. Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), after all, was her contemporary.
Amy Lowell & D.H. Lawrence
Another literary friendship that throws light on Lowell's work is her relationship with D.H. Lawrence. During her second stay in England, Lowell and Lawrence shared some good times. There were dinners in London, at Lowell's hotel, and in August of 2014 Lowell drove to the country, with Russell, in Lowell's maroon motor car for a visit with Lawrence and his wife, Frida. They were a "foursome," the two couples. After Lowell's return to the States, she maintained a correspondence with Lawrence until her death in 1925. In their letters Lowell and Lawrence discussed literature, mutual friends, the war, and so on, but mainly their work, including of course the poems Lawrence sent Lowell as submissions to the Imagist anthologies. They exchanged their new books as they came out. Lowell wrote reviews of Lawrence's work and lectured on it as well; he dedicated a book of poems, "New Poems" (1918), to Lowell. And at the close of each of her letters, Lowell would inquire of Lawrence as to Frida, and Lawrence, in his letters to Lowell, sent his regards to Ada.
Though at first blush Lowell and Lawrence may seem like polar opposites—Lowell with her millions, Lawrence the struggling artist from a family of destitute coal miners—they were both perennial outsiders, and, more importantly, they shared a commitment to writing about sex as a central part of life. Lawrence, of course, gained notoriety for his explicit writings on heterosexual sex, while Lowell wrote a bit—but just a bit—less obviously, though no less radically, about her lesbian relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell. In her letters, Lowell tried to convince Lawrence how to write about sex and still be published and accepted. And it is clear from her work that Lowell followed her own advice.
For Lowell and Lawrence shared a specific problem, a problem both practical and artistic: how to remain true to oneself in writing about love and sex, yet avoid offending a prejudiced public, or, worse yet, being censored. In her letters to him, Lowell advised Lawrence not to "change [his] attitude a particle" but to "use[d] India rubber [eraser] in certain places." (Letters, 67) (Letter dated October 4, 1918). And while Lawrence didn't follow Lowell's advice, this was precisely the strategy Lowell pursued in her own writing.
As Lillian Faderman, a leading authority on Lowell, has demonstrated, Lowell used her eraser "only perfunctorily, rubbing out of much of her love poetry only explicit references that would identify the gender of the speaker" (Faderman 45). Unlike her persona narratives, where the woman speaker's voice is clear as such, in her love poems Lowell rarely identifies the sex of the speaker, even when clearly addressing a woman beloved. She could count on her reader's heterosexual bias to insure they'd assume a male speaker. At the same time, Lowell frequently filled her love poems with autobiographical detail—descriptions of Seveneles and its gardens, for example, or of her dogs, and so on—making her identity clear to those who knew her well. In this way, as Faderman puts it, Lowell "provides a double discourse." (Faderman). In this way, too, Lowell produced love poetry expressing universal human emotions that prevail in any love relationship, regardless of the sexual identity of the partners.
Another ploy Lowell used to avoid coming into conflict with the prejudices of her day was burying the more explicit love poems in the middle of a larger work. Lowell cautioned Lawrence to do the same: she upbraided him for permitting his poem "The Tortoises" to be released separately, instead of including it in a larger volume, among other works (Letters, 105) (Letter dated March 20, 1922). "You do not want to stress your sexual side to a public incapable of understanding it," she wrote (Letters). Lowell used this technique herself in placing her sequence of love poems, "Two Speak Together," in the middle of her fourth volume of poetry, Pictures of the Floating World (1919).
Lowell also helped Lawrence along financially, in both big and small ways, and always with tact. Early on in their relationship, Lowell sent Lawrence a typewriter; she told him she had replaced it with a newer model. Thrilled, Lawrence wrote the last parts of The Rainbow and most of Women in Love on it; they both considered Women in Love his best novel. Lowell introduced Lawrence to publishers, tried to wring money out of an editor who owed him royalties, and punctually forwarded him his share of the royalties from the three anthologies Some Imagist Poets. Lowell sent Lawrence and each of the other contributors their share of the gross earnings and covered the expenses herself. Finally, in 1916, in response to a letter from Frida saying that Lawrence's health was in serious danger, Lowell sent money—a few thousand dollars, which was quite a bit at that time—and she did so again several times when he needed it. Lowell was also the first to review Lawrence's novels in the States and she continued to promote him after he was banned in Boston and England (even Women in Love required litigation in New York); she steadily continued to promote his work over the years. When Lawrence finally gained recognition and became financially comfortable, Frida wrote, in one of her last letters to Lowell, that she had "not forgotten how you befriended us when we were nobodies!" (Letters, 134) (Letter dated August 14, 1923).
Ada Dwyer Russell was a distinguished actress in her late forties, soon to retire from the stage when Lowell met her. Lowell befriended her, courted then pursued her, and finally convinced Russell to go to England with her in 1914. Upon their return to the States, Lowell asked Russell to live with her at Seveneles with a salary paid by Lowell equal to what Russell had earned as an actress. Russell, for her part, ran Lowell's household, critiqued her work, prepped her for readings and lectures, joined in hosting guests and dinners. In short, she relieved Lowell of the day-to-day chores of life, leaving Lowell free to devote herself to her work. Lowell's routine schedule was to write undisturbed from midnight to dawn and to wake for the day at two or three in the afternoon. In this way, with Russell's assistance, Lowell accomplished more in her 13-year career—roughly from 1912 until her death in 1925—than most people do in a much longer lifetime. Lowell's oeuvre included some eleven books of poetry (including one book of translations from the Chinese, and three books published posthumously); three books of criticism (largely collections of her many lectures, reviews, and essays); and a two-volume biography of Keats. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1926.
But Russell was not only Lowell's companion: she was her inspiration and, as is now perfectly obvious, the love of Lowell's life. Their relationship was clearly not platonic. Some of Lowell's very best poems, as is now appreciated, are the love poems she wrote to Russell.
An example is the early Imagist work, "The Taxi," written during their courtship, which appeared in Lowell's second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. It was one of the poems of Lowell's that Lawrence liked best, as he wrote Lowell, "I think 'A Taxi' is very clever and futuristic—and good." (Letters, 17) (November 18, 1914).
When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges
of the night.
Notice Lowell's use not only of visual imagery but of sound and touch as well: the world "beats dead/Like a slackened drum"; the "sharp edges" of night "wound", the city lamps "prick." The extensive use of sensory imagery not only of sight but also of sound and touch is characteristic of Lowell's work. Lowell contrasts the natural world (stars, wind) with the human creations of modern technology (streets, lamps) yet all are hostile to the speaker: the stars are "jutted," the lamps "prick"—all are part of the "sharp edges of the night" that wound. Notice, too, that in this poem Lowell doesn't identify the sex of either the speaker or the subject: it is gender-neutral. Just as she advised Lawrence to do, Lowell used this device frequently throughout her love poems to protect her privacy and to enable her to avoid censorship.
Lowell's most famous poem during her lifetime was the anti-war poem, "Patterns." Written during World War I, it first appeared in the 1916 edition of Some Imagist Poets and subsequently in Lowell's third book, Men, Women, and Ghosts, a huge popular success. Because it was and is Lowell's most famous poem by far, and because it is in many respects so typical of her work, it warrants inclusion here in spite of its length:
I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jeweled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.
My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whale-bone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.
And the splashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding.
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.
I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.
Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
"Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday sen'night."
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
"Any answer, Madam," said my footman.
"No," I told him.
"See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer."
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths.
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.
In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And, I answered, "It shall be as you have said."
Now he is dead.
In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The quills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?
Not exactly Lady Chatterley's Lover, but close. Not only the then-radical anti-war theme, but the reaction to and struggle against traditional sexual repression are strongly emphasized throughout. Our lady's formal garden is patterned, restricted, and her "passion/Wars against the stiff brocade" of her gown. Her "boned and stayed" gown of stiff brocade make her, too "a rare pattern," with "[N]ot a softness anywhere about" her, and hides what's "underneath": "the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin;" a soft woman who "guesses" her lover is near, though hiding, and "the sliding of the water/Seems the stroking of a dear/Hand upon her." Throughout, the natural life-force of sex is contrasted to the "patterns" of a repressive society: the flowers blow freely in the wind, flutter in the breeze; the speaker hears "the splashing of waterdrops," and longs to escape her stiff gown: "I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground./All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground." The sexual imagery is explicit: shedding her pink and silver gown, she "would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths/And he would stumble after/Bewildered by my laughter." She would lead him in a "bright and laughing maze" for her "heavy-booted lover" until "he caught me in the shade, /And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me, /Aching, melting, unafraid." A poignant, sad daydream it is, for at this point in the narrative we learn of the letter our lady received that day, now hidden in her bosom, saying her love has been killed in battle. "In a month, here, underneath this lime, /We would have broke the pattern; / He for me, and I for him…He had a whim/That sunlight carried blessing. / And I answered, "It shall be as you have said."/ Now he is dead." Lost to her forever "In a pattern called a war."
All of the strongest characteristics of Lowell's poetic technique are here: the narrative style, the extended metaphor contrasting the patterned, formal garden with society's patterns of war and sexual repression, the vivid descriptive imagery at once highly visual—capturing shades of light and color—and also calling into play all of the senses—sound, touch, smell—making Lowell's poem both sensuous and sensual. Even some of her favorite words are here, for we will meet the "silver" woman again, and in more personal, autobiographical love poems. Traditional poetic devices are used masterfully—repetition, assonance, alliteration, but loosely, following no traditional poetic form. Rhyme is used frequently throughout, though in no set pattern, and appears frequently at the end of lines, lending those lines special emphasis: "Not a softness anywhere about me, /Only whale-bone and brocade. / And I sink on a seat in the shade/Of a lime tree. For my passion/Wars against the stiff brocade." And, "he would stumble after, Bewildered by my laughter." And especially, "I answered, 'It shall be as you have said.' Now he is dead."
Lowell's meter, too, while not strictly or rigidly metrical, is rhythmic or, to use her word, "cadenced" and employed with skill and sophistication to match sound to sense. In fact, Lowell introduced and adapted this style of rhythmic cadence into English. Called "polyphonic prose," it is derived from the French symbolist poets—Paul Fort, in particular, one of the poets Lowell translated and analyzed in her 1915 work Six French Poets. The cadence follows the rhythms of speech, and shifts with them. Yet while the meter of "Patterns" flows loosely, it is nonetheless deftly employed to suit the shifting meaning of the lines. Lowell's meter is also, as we say today, "informed", that is, the product of practiced familiarity with formal metrical technique. Note, for example, the falling meter of the anapestic line, "And I sank on a seat in the shade…" describing our lady collapsing onto a garden seat.
Yet Lowell's personal love poems to Russell, overlooked during her lifetime, are now considered her best work. Many appeared in her fourth book, Pictures of the Floating World, particularly in a middle section, "Two Speak Together," a 43-poem sequence including some of the poems that have become her most esteemed, such as "Vernal Equinox," "Venus Transiens," "The Letter," "Madonna of the Evening Flowers," "Wheat-in-the-Ear," and "The Weather-Cock Points South." Lillian Faderman has said that these poems "had no equal until Adrienne Rich's sequence 'Twenty-one Love Poems' (1976)." Faderman, an expert on lesbian literature, has written a ground-breaking essay on Lowell, "Which, Being Interpreted, Is as May be, or Otherwise, Ada Dwyer Russell in Amy Lowell's Life and Work." Still others of Lowell's now-famous poems, such as "Paradox," a particularly sexy one, were not published until after her death. "A Rainy Night," apparently set in a canopy bed at Seveneles, was uncollected until the posthumous publication of her complete works; it had appeared in the journal "Egoist" in July of 1915.
Faderman concludes, "The lesbian poems in Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914), Pictures of the Floating World (1919), What's O'Clock (1925), and Ballads for Sale (1927), comprise one of the most detailed records in literature of an emotional and erotic relationship between two women, from their sometimes ecstatic, sometimes painful courtship, through the highs and lows of the life they built together, to Lowell's anticipation of its end by her premature death" (Faderman 49-50).
Lowell's love poem, "A Rainy Night" is remarkable for both its beauty and, to this reader, the unmistakable femininity of its imagery:
A RAINY NIGHT
And white, moving light,
And the snap and sparkle of rain on the
An electric lamp in the street
Is swinging, tossing,
Making the rain-runnelled window glass
Glitter and palpitate.
In its silver luster
I can see the old four-poster bed,
With the fringes and balls of its canopy.
You are lying beside me, waiting,
But I do not turn.
I am counting the folds of the canopy.
You are lying beside me, waiting,
But I do not turn.
In the silver light you would be too
And there are ten pleats on this side of
the bed canopy,
And ten on the other.
In this delicate love poem, the feminine sex of the speaker and subject are unstated, yet strong hints abound: the bed is a canopy bed—that is, a woman's—and the speaker is momentarily distracting herself from the overwhelming beauty of the lover by counting up the pleats, or folds, on each side of the canopy—not an especially masculine pastime, is it? Surely, we are in Lowell's bed—or Russell's—in a bedroom at Seveneles. The poetic style is classic Lowell: the lilting "cadenced" verse, the sensory imagery—the "snap" of rain against the window, that favorite word, "silver" repeated—the "silver luster" and the "silver light". The imagery is strong and clear, as is the resulting emotional effect.
The sexual imagery of the beloved is explicit in the next, O'Keefe-esque poem, "The Weather Cock Points South," but the sex of the speaker is, as usual for Lowell, gender-neutral.
I put your leaves aside,
One by one:
The stiff, broad, outer leaves,
The smaller ones,
Pleasant to touch, veined with purple;
The glazed inner leaves.
One by one
I parted you from your leaves,
Until you stood up like a white flower
Swaying slightly in the evening wind.
The following love poem, "Madonna of the Evening Flowers," is classic Lowell, delivering beautiful, striking, imagery in a flowing vers libre to convey strong emotion with powerful impact. While the sex of speaker is neutral, the subject is clearly a woman—with her thimble and scissors and flower-like beauty—and, in any event, the setting is unmistakably Seveneles, making it crystal clear to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Lowell's life that she is the speaker and Ada Dwyer Russell the Madonna of the Evening Flowers. All of the poetic characteristics of Lowell's poetry are brought into play in this lovely autobiographical tribute to Lowell's life with Russell.
MADONNA OF THE EVENING FLOWERS
All day long I have been working,
Now I am tired.
I call: "Where are you?"
But there is only the oak-tree rustling in
The house is very quiet,
The sun shines in on your books,
On your scissors and thimble just put
But you are not there.
Suddenly I am lonely:
Where are you?
I go about searching.
Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue lark-
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.
I think the Canterbury bells are playing
You tell me the peonies need spray-
That the columbines have overrun all
That the pyrus japonica should be cut
back and rounded.
You tell me these things,
But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the
And I long to kneel instantly at your
While all about us peal the loud, sweet
Te Deums of the Canterbury bells.
Lowell died at the relatively young age of 51 in 1925. In 1916, she and Ada had an accident when they were out riding in a horse-drawn carriage. Lowell preferred to travel the back lanes of New England with horses—to her summer house, for example. On that particular ride, the buggy got stuck in the mud and Lowell got out and lifted it herself. She was injured in the process and developed a hernia that never healed properly, despite repeated operations during the remaining years of her life. Her health was broken and, ultimately, during a hernia flare-up in 1925, Lowell suffered a blood clot and died of a stroke. She left Ada Russell a life estate in Seveneles.
Lowell's enemies outlived her by many decades and, in light of the essential misogyny of the Modernist period, perhaps it is no surprise that her reputation suffered with the years. "Patterns" survived almost alone and was routinely taught in high schools in the United States at least into the 1960's. And it is classic Lowell, exposing the human cost of war and sexual repression, and combining strong imagery with strong emotion delivered in a flowing vers libre.
Today, with the resurgence of interest in women's work and the new attention to lesbian and gay sensibilities, Lowell is undergoing a strong revival. Yet perhaps "revival" is the wrong word for it, given the fact that her truly beautiful lesbian love poems are now being read as such, by the general public at least, for the first time. And it is high time, for a reassessment of Lowell's unique oeuvre is long overdue. Lowell's love poems are inspiring a new generation of poets. For example, the poet Mary Meriam recently published a significant volume for poetry lovers, Lady of the Moon, including a selection of Lowell's best love poetry, Faderman's critical essay, and Meriam's own very fine 27-sonnet sequence recreating the trajectory of the Lowell/Dwyer relationship in their own voices (Meriam).
Throughout her work—the American Gothic New England persona poems, the technically radical works like "Patterns", the translations, the ground-breaking prose poems, the love poems—Lowell gave expression to a uniquely female perspective and voice. In so doing, she has left us a body of exceptionally beautiful, emotionally compelling work.
Damon, S. Foster, Amy Lowell (Houghlin Mifflin, 1935)
E. Clair Healey & Keith Cushman, editors, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence & Amy Lowell, 1914-1925 (Black Sparrow Press, 1985)
Faderman, Lillian "'Which, Being Interpreted, Is as May be, or Otherwise': Ada Dwyer Russell in Amy Lowell's Life and Work," reprinted in Lady of the Moon (Meriam, ed.) (Headmistress Press, 2015)
Gould, Jean, Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975)
Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era (University of California Press, 1971)
Lowell, Amy. John Keats (Houghton Mifflin, 1925)
…. Men, Women and Ghosts (MacMillan, 1916)
…. Pictures of the Floating World (MacMillan, 1919)
…. Poetry and Poets (Houghton Mifflin, 1930)
…. Six French Poets (MacMillan, 1916)
…. Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (MacMillan, 1914)
…. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (Houghton Mifflin, 1921)
…. The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, introduction by Louis Untermeyer (Houghton Mifflin, 1925)
Lowell, Aldington, et. al., Some Imagist Poets (Houghton Mifflin, 1915, 1916, 1917)
Meriam, Mary, Lady of the Moon (Headmistress Press, 2015)
Munich, Adrienne & Melissa Bradshaw, editors Amy Lowell, American Modern (Rutgers University Press, 2004)
Rollyson, Carl, Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries (ASIA Press, 2009)