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 | March 1966
Another summer! Our Independence
Fourth of July in Maine
(For Harriet Winslow)
by Robert Lowell
Day Parade, all innocence
of children's costumes, helps resist
the communist and socialist.
Five nations: Dutch, French, Englishmen,
Indians, and we, who held Castine,
rise from their graves in combat gear—
world-losers elsewhere, conquerors here!
Civil Rights clergy face again
the scions of the good old strain,
the poor who always must remain
poor and Republicans in Maine,
upholders of the American Dream,
who will not sink and cannot swim—
O Emersonian self-reliance,
O lethargy of Russian peasants!
High noon. Each child has won his blue,
red, yellow ribbon, and our statue,
a dandyish Union Soldier, sees
his fields reclaimed by views and spruce—
he seems a convert to old age,
small, callous, elbowed off the stage,
while the canned martial music fades
from scene and green—no more parades!
Blue twinges of mortality
remind us the theocracy
drove in its stakes here to command
the infinite, and gave this land
a ministry that would have made
short work of Christ, the Son of God,
and then exchanged His crucifix,
hardly our sign, for politics.
This white Colonial frame house,
willed downward, Dear, from you to us,
still matters, the Americas'
best artifact produced en masse.
The founders' faith was in decay,
and yet their building seems to say:
"O every time I take a breath,
My God you are the air I breathe."
New England, everywhere I look,
old letters crumble from the Book,
China trade rubble, one more line
unraveling from the dark design
spun by God and Cotton Mather—
our bel età dell' oro, another
bright thing thinner than a cobweb,
caught in Calvinism's ebb.
Dear Cousin, life is much the same,
though only fossils know your name
here since you left this solitude,
gone, as the Christians say, for good.
Your house, still outwardly in form
lasts, though no emissary come
to watch the garden running down,
or photograph the propped-up barn.
If memory is genius, you
had Homer's, enough gossip to
repeople Trollope's Barchester,
nurse, negro, diplomat, down-easter,
cousins kept up with, nipped, corrected,
kindly, majorfully directed,
though family furniture, decor,
and rooms redone meant almost more.
How often when the telephone
brought you to us from Washington,
we had to look around the room
to find the objects you would name—
lying there, ten years paralyzed,
half blind, no voice unrecognized,
not trusting in the afterlife,
teasing us for a carving knife.
O high New England summer, warm
and fortified against the storm
by nightly nips you once adored,
though never going overboard,
Harriet, when you used to play
your chosen Nadia Boulanger
Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach's
precursors on the Magnavox.
Blue-ribboned, blue-jeaned, named for you,
our daughter cartwheels on the blue—
may your proportion strengthen her
to live through the millennial year
Two Thousand, and like you possess
friends, independence, and a house,
herself God's plenty, mistress of
your tireless sedentary love.
Her two angora guinea pigs
are nibbling seed, the news, and twigs—
untroubled, petrified, atremble,
a mother and her daughter, humble,
giving, idle and sensitive.
Few animals will let them live.
Only a vegetarian God
could look on them and call them good.
Man's poorest cousins, harmonies
of lust and appetite and ease,
little pacific things, who graze
the grass about their box, they praise
whatever stupor gave them breath
to multiply before their death—
Evolution's snails, by birth,
outrunning man who runs the earth.
And now the frosted summer night-dew
brightens, the north wind rushes through
your ailing cedars, finds the gaps;
thumbtacks rattle from the white maps,
food's lost sight of, dinner waits,
in the cold oven, icy plates—
repeating and repeating, one
Joan Baez on the gramophone.
And here in your converted barn,
we burn our hands a moment, borne
by energies that never tire
of piling fuel on the fire;
monologue that will not hear,
logic turning its deaf ear,
wild spirits and old sores in league
with inexhaustible fatigue.
Far off that time of gentleness,
when man, still licensed to increase,
unfallen and unmated, heard
only the uncreated Word—
when God the Logos still had wit
to hide his bloody hands, and sit
in silence, while His peace was sung.
Then the universe was young.
We watch the logs fall. Fire once gone,
we're done for: we escape the sun,
rising and setting, a red coal,
until it cinders like the soul.
Great ash and sun of freedom, give
us this day the warmth to live,
and face the household fire. We turn
our backs, and feel the whiskey burn.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.
Copyright © 1966 by Robert Lowell. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1966; Fourth of July in Maine; Volume 217, No. 3; 66-67.