In the mid-1960’s, after the free verse turn of Life Studies and the somewhat more strictly entuned For The Union Dead, books distinctive for their powerful combination of Baudelairean spleen and frank autobiographical detail, Robert Lowell turned to the writing of sonnets – by the gross. The obsessions which drove those earlier works – the power and impotence of history; the poet’s relationship with his family; divorce; madness; death – are, if anything, even more evident in such works as Notebook 1967-68 and its companion volume, The Dolphin. In these latter two books, Lowell runs roughshod over the conservative qualities long associated with the sonnet. “Obit,” which closes Notebook, is a case in point. Lowell’s status as a renegade (he broke with Eliot!) has always been over-stated. Yet “Obit,” which I’d venture to say is moving to anyone who’s been divorced, is a very traditional sonnet: a love song and elegy that upholds the sonnet’s cultural position as an elite marker of subjective experience.
“Obit” is a lament for the end of a marriage and an era. For Lowell, the personal and the public are nearly always read in terms of each other, and, no exception, this poem’s imagery conflates the historical details of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the initial promise and then demise of his own marriage to writer Elizabeth Hardwick. While most critics seem content to attribute this kind of conflation of the historical and the personal to Lowell’s “vision,” part of the grand scale on which he operates, a sharper critique might suggest that the poet suffers from grandiose self-aggrandizement, narcissistically grafting his domestic woes onto the collective in a bid to inflate their value.
Having already made the radical break from his Agrarian mentors, Tate and Ransom, and seeking to overthrow the tyrannical grip of Eliot as well by following the example of Williams, Lowell now desired for yet another breakthrough. He sets out to achieve it by returning to the most traditional of poetic forms. Yet this turn to the sonnet needs to be read as part of a larger cultural moment, an overall chafing and disgust with the narrowness of Cold War culture in America. His libidinal investment in his own ego, while blatantly sentimental, must be read as a form of resistance to the stifling cultural regime of his time. It can be placed within the overall rejection of conformity that marked other cultural rebellions, from jazz to Mailer to Ginsberg and the Beats (Lowell’s wry remarks about the contemporary fault line between the raw and the cooked notwithtstanding).
The slide into cultural decay that marks “For the Union Dead,” with its “savage servility,” characterizes the post-Kennedy era for Lowell through the deflation of currency, the “old undebased pre-Lyndon/silver, no copper rubbing through.” Looking back on it from a vantage point of almost a decade, the poet muses that he knows now what he would have, if only he could: “old cars, old money ... old wives.” This line is delivered straight on, without any leavening touch of irony. One’s sympathies are entirely with Ms. Hardwick at this point. But the sense of nostalgia the poem’s first quatrain seems to invite is undercut immediately by the very first line itself, with its tone of grim resignation: “In the end it gets us, though the man know what he'd have.”
What is this “it” Lowell invokes? The sonnet's title points to an answer. “It” is either death itself, or its less than noble announcement in the daily newspaper. “It” gets us, Lowell says, with all the weariness of a dying Romantic poet, despite our best intentions, our deepest desires, our protestations of undying love. “It” may not only be the mortal condition, but human fickleness, too; the sad inability to keep faith even with that which is truest and best in oneself. “It” is the failure of love and love’s faith in its own promises.
“Obit” is a Shakespearean sonnet in blank, or unrhymed, verse. The poem does not scan neatly into iambic pentameter so much as follow a loose iambic rhythm. Of course, Lowell, whose technical gifts were superb, could have compelled this sonnet into strict obedience to traditional blank verse meter. Instead, he opted for a more flexible scheme that allowed him to capture the tone and feel of contemporary conversation and thought. As with so much else that he wrote, Lowell strains at the limitations of form, in the process changing our ideas of what a sonnet can and ought to be. With their wild range in pitch and meter, their giddy, freely cannibalistic efforts to capture everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, the sonnets in Notebook and its sequel, The Dolphin, often read like anti-sonnets, poems hell-bent on upending the furniture in the politely ordered room of this quaint, domesticated genre. The results are sometimes powerful, as in “Obit.” More often than not, though, they’re embarrassingly messy, and not in the triumphantly zany and delightful way that Ted Berrigan’s ramshackle and moving sonnets are, which appeared about the same time.
The first quatrain lays out the poem’s argument, or complaint: the chafing against death by a desire belatedly realized; the longing for old ways of living, for the old emotional currencies; and the understated candor of the poet’s admission, in line 4, that, “I could live such a too long time with mine,” meaning his wife. Pity the poor wife. The second quatrain, which begins like the first, (“In the end”), introduces a repeating musical figure as well as a conceptual motif, and expands the emotional reverie into a broader philosophical arena in which the poet meditates on the nature of being and death. “Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest/of all transcendence in a mode of being, stopping/all becoming.” This almost sounds like Wallace Stevens. In fact, it may be a quotation from Marcuse, according to the book’s “Afterthought,” but since Lowell doesn’t set off these lines with quotation marks, it’s hard to know.
At any rate, these ambiguous and somewhat enigmatic lines suggest that even the effort to attain some manner of transcendence over the daily business of life is fraught with its own built-in trap of delusional self-importance. Moreover, Lowell (the poet as “hypochondriac” -- line 5), also expresses the dubious hope that just before death, he might be vouchsafed a moment of perfect clarity and stillness. “Tis a consummation devoutly to be desired,” as that other grand ditherer in consciousness, Hamlet, opined, in a slightly different context.
The third quatrain actually begins its turn midway into line 8 with “I’m for and with myself in my otherness” and continues to line 12. The recognition that psychic opposition is actually a form of mutuality testifies less to a spiritual overcoming than to the kind of self-possession made possible by psychoanalysis. Lowell goes on to contemplate a form of renewal and possible redemption, albeit on an impersonal, cosmic scale, by an intense identification with “the eternal return of earth’s fairer children,/the lily, the rose, the sun on dusk and brick,” that is, through the reassuringly universal constants of nature itself, as well as those of human behavior: “the loved, the lover... their unconquered flux.” The dialectical motion of being and becoming considered in the second quatrain, in which the latter is subsumed by the former, is set back into play once more, and through it the poet attains to a broadening of consciousness, a kind of second life, via his panoramic perspective on the little things of life, a rose, the sun at dusk, a pair of lovers.
These lines achieve a mysterious and very affecting degree of tenderness and pathos, reminiscent in some ways of sections in Rilke’s Duino Elegies. It’s almost as if the speaker of the poem has already shuffled off his own mortal coil and now regards the earth he once inhabited from a disembodied vantage point, full of longing for the merely human joys and sorrows (“their painful ‘It was’.”) which he himself can no longer possess. This is where the full weight of the poem’s title makes itself felt. The poem’s nostalgia moves from the personal perspective of lamenting a lost way of life and affection to a posthumous mourning for life itself.
The closing couplet makes a plea and an admission, while its solemn music also returns us to the sort of formal closure we expect the sonnet to provide. “After loving you so much, can I forget/you for eternity, and have no other choice?” The unguardedness of these lines manages to be deeply touching. The unbearable regret Lowell expresses here commingles with the sense that what is irrecoverable in life is precisely that which marks it as most profoundly human. The forlorn dejection of the narcissist is made to stand eloquently for a larger sense of loss and the heady style of “Obit” proves itself to be thoroughly and comfortingly classical in its sensibility. Lowell almost rescues the sonnet from its worse tendencies – its grandiosity and “gigantism,” as he calls it in his “Afterthoughts” -- transforming it into an instrument of tremendous flexibility and restoring to it its accustomed intimacy through his use of colloquial, idiosyncratic language.
Yet the problem with deploying a language of raw emotion, whether it’s Lowell’s mawkish self-pity, or Ginsberg’s hyped-up adverts for the liberation of the self, is that it inevitably falls prey to the sentimentalism which underwrites it. In the end, sentimentalism is a kind of totalitarianism writ small; it is the repression, or even evacuation, of the self in the service of a master idea about the purity of an impossibly unmediated emotion. The unmoored “it” floating in the first part of the sonnet before its dramatic turn, persists, as Lacan would say, as the symptomatic kernel of trauma that keeps generating a perverse pleasure. “It” is not death at all, really, but the gratification the poet takes in revisiting the occasion of his painful loss. “Obit” revels in such discordant pleasure. Nobody ever worried a sore tooth, or a bereft soul, like Robert Lowell.
(1997, rev. 2010)