More on poetry from The Atlantic Monthly.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell" (June 18, 2003)
Writings by and about Robert Lowell offer insight into the life and poetry of a tormented legend.
The Atlantic Monthly | August 1961
From Baudelaire: Le Voyage
by Robert Lowell
For T. S. Eliot
For the boy playing with his globe and stamps,
the world is equal to his appetite—
how grand the world in the blaze of the lamps,
how petty in tomorrow's small dry light!
One morning we lift anchor, full of brave
prejudices, prospects, ingenuity—
we swing with the velvet swell of the wave,
our infinite is rocked by the fixed sea.
Some wish to fly a cheapness they detest,
others, their cradles' terror—others stand
with their binoculars on a woman's breast,
reptilian Circe with her junk and wand.
Not to be turned to reptiles, such men daze
themselves with spaces, light, the burning sky;
cold toughens them, they bronze in the sun's blaze
and dry the sores of their debauchery.
But the true voyagers are those who move
simply to move—like lost balloons! Their heart
is some old motor thudding in one groove.
It says its single phrase, "Let us depart!"
They are like conscripts lusting for the guns;
our sciences have never learned to tag
their projects and designs—enormous, vague
hopes grease the wheels of these automatons!
We imitate, oh horror! tops and bowls
in their eternal waltzing marathon;
even in sleep, our fever whips and rolls
us, like an angel flogging the brute sun.
Strange sport! where destination has no place
or name, and may be anywhere we choose—
where man, committed to his endless race,
runs like a madman diving for repose!
Our soul is a three-master seeking port:
a voice from starboard shouts, "We're at the dock!"
Another, more elated, cries from port,
"Here's dancing, gin, and girls!" Balls! It's a rock!
The islands sighted by the lookout seem
the El Dorados promised us last night;
imagination wakes from its drugged dream,
sees only ledges in the morning light.
What dragged these patients from their German spas?
Shall we throw them in chains, or in the sea?
Sailors discovering new Americas,
who drown in a mirage of agony!
The worn-out sponge, who scuffles through our slums,
sees whisky, paradise, and liberty
wherever oil lamps shine in furnished rooms—
we see Blue Grottoes, Caesars, and Capri.
Stunningly simple tourists, your pursuit
is written in the teardrops in your eyes!
Spread out the packing cases of your loot,
your azure sapphires made of seas and skies!
We want to break the boredom of our jails
and cross the oceans without oars or steam—
give us visions to stretch our minds like sails,
the blue, exotic shore line of your dream!
Tell us, what have you seen?
"We've seen the stars,
a wave or two—we've also seen some sand;
although we peer through telescopes and spars,
we're often deadly bored as you on land.
The shine of sunlight on the violet sea,
the roar of cities when the sun goes down:
these stir our hearts with restless energy;
we ride on the Indian Ocean, where we drown!
No old château or shrine besieged by crowds
of crippled pilgrims sets our souls on fire,
as these chance countries gathered from the clouds.
Our hearts are always anxious with desire.
Desire, that great elm fertilized by lust,
gives its old body, whenever heaven warms
its bark that winters and old age encrust;
green branches draw the sun into its arms.
Why are you always growing taller, Tree—
Oh longer-lived than cypress! Yet we took
one or two sketches for your picture book,
Brothers who sell your souls for novelty!
We have salaamed to pagan gods with horns,
entered shrines peopled by a galaxy
of Buddhas, Slavic saints, and unicorns,
so rich Rothschild must dream of bankruptcy!
Priests' robes that scattered solid golden flakes,
dancers with tattooed bellies and behinds,
charmers supported by braziers of snakes..."
Yes, and what else?
Oh trivial, childish minds!
You've missed the more important things that we
were forced to learn against our will. We've been
from top to bottom of the ladder, and see
only the pageant of immortal sin:
there women, servile, peacock-tailed, and coarse,
marry for money, and love without disgust
horny, potbellied tyrants stuffed on lust,
slaves' slaves—the sewer in which their gutter pours!
old maids who weep, playboys who live each hour,
state banquets loaded with hot sauces, blood and trash,
ministers sterilized by dreams of power,
workers who love their brutalizing lash;
and everywhere religions like our own
all storming heaven, propped with saints who reign
like sybarites on beds of nails and frown—
all searching for some orgiastic pain!
Many, self-drunk, are lying in the mud—
mad now, as they have always been, they roll
in torment screaming to the throne of God:
"My image and my lord, I hate your soul!"
And others, dedicated without hope,
flee the dull herd—each locked in his own world
hides in his ivory tower of art and dope—
this is the daily news from the whole world!
How sour the knowledge travelers bring away.
The world's monotonous and small; we see
ourselves today, tomorrow, yesterday,
an oasis of horror in sands of ennui!
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Copyright © 1961 by Robert Lowell. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1961; The Voyage; Volume 208, No. 2; 37-40.