Randall Jarrell



Randall Jarrell. "From the Kingdom of Necessity" (Poetry and the Age, 1953)

Many of the people who reviewed Lord Weary's Castle felt that it was as much of an event as Auden's first book; no one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell's, it seems to me. Anyone who reads contemporary poetry will read it; perhaps people will understand the poetry more easily, and find it more congenial, if they see what the poems have developed out of, how they are related to each other, and why they say what they say.

Underneath all these poems 'there is one story and one story only'; when this essential theme or subject is understood, the unity of attitudes and judgments underlying the variety of the poems becomes startlingly explicit. The poems understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites. In this struggle one opposite is that cake of custom in which all of us lie embedded like lungfish - the statis or inertia of the stubborn self, the obstinate persistence in evil that is damnation. Into this realm of necessity the poems push everything that is closed, turned inward, incestuous, that blinds or binds: the Old Law, imperialism, militarism, capitalism, Calvinism, Authority, the Father, the 'proper Bostonians', the rich who will 'do everything for the poor except get off their backs.' But struggling within this like leaven, falling to it like light, is everything that is free or open, that grows or is willing to change: here is the generosity or openness or willingness that is itself salvation; here is 'accessibility to experience'; this is the realm of freedom, of the Grace that has replaced the Law, of the perfect liberator whom the poet calls Christ.

Consequently the poems can have two possible movements or organizations: they can move from what is closed to what is open, or from what is open to what is closed. The second of these organizations - which corresponds to an 'unhappy ending' - is less common, though there are many good examples of it: 'The Exile's Return,' with its menacing Voi ch'entrate that transforms the exile's old home into a place where even hope must be abandoned; the harsh and extraordinary "Between the Porch and the Altar,' with its four parts each ending in constriction and frustration, and its hero who cannot get free of his mother, her punishments, and her world even by dying, but who sees both life and death in terms of her, and thinks at the end that, sword in hand, the Lord 'watches me for Mother, and will turn / The bier and baby-carriage where I burn."

But normally the poems move into liberation. Even death is seen as liberation, a widening into darkness: that old closed system Grandfather Arthur Winslow, dying of cancer in his adjusted bed, at the last is the child Arthur whom the swanboats once rode through the Public Garden, whom now 'the ghost of risen Jesus walks the waves to run / Upon a trumpeting black swan / Beyond Charles River and the Acheron / Where the wide waters and their voyage are one.' (Compare the endings of "The Drunken Fisherman" and "Dea Roma."). "The Death of the Sheriff" moves from closure - the 'ordered darkness' of the homicidal sheriff, the 'loved sightless smother' of the incestuous lovers, the 'unsearchable quicksilver heart / Where spiders stare their eyes out at their own / Spitting and knotted likeness' - up into the open sky, to those 'light wanderers' the planets, to the 'thirsty Dipper on the arc of night.' Just so the cold, blundering, iron confusion of 'Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue' ends in flowers, the wild fields, a Christ 'once again turned wanderer and child.' In "Rebellion" the son seals 'an everlasting pact / With Divers to contract / The world that spreads in pain'; but at last he rebels against his father and his father's New England commercial theocracy, and 'the world spread / When the clubbed flintlock broke my father's brain.' The italicized words ought to demonstrate how explicitly, at times, these poems formulate the world in the terms that I have used.

"Where the Rainbow Ends" describes in apocalyptic terms the wintry, Calvinist, capitalist - Mr. Lowell has Weber's unconvincing belief in the necessary connection between capitalism and Calvinism - dead end of God's covenant with man, a frozen Boston where even the cold-blooded serpents "whistle at the cold". (The poems often use cold as a plain and physically correct symbol for what is constricted or static.) There "the scythers, Time and Death, / Helmeted locusts, move upon the tree of breath," of the spirit of man; a bridge curves over Charles River like an ironic parody of the rainbow's covenant; both "the wild ingrafted olive and its root / Are withered. [these are Paul's terms for the Judaism of the Old Law and the Gentile Christianity grafted upon it]; "every dove 'the Holy Ghost, the bringer of the olive leaf to the Ark] is sold" for a commercialized, legalized sacrifice. The whole system seems an abstract, rationalized "graph of Revelations," of the last accusation and judgment brought against man now that "the Chapel's sharp-shinned eagle shifts its hold / On serpent-Time, the rainbow's epitaph." This last line means what the last line in "The Quaker Graveyard" - "The Lord survives the rainbow of His will" - means; both are inexpressibly menacing, since they show the covenant as something that binds only us, as something abrogated merely by the passage of time, as a closed system opening not into liberation but into infinite and overwhelming possibility; they have something of the terror, but none of the pity, of Blake's "Time is the mercy of Eternity."

Then the worshipper, like a victim, climbs to the altar of the terrible I AM, to breathe there the rarefied and intolerable ether of his union with the divinity of the Apocalypse; he despairs even of the wings that beat against his cheek: "What can the dove of Jesus give / You know but wisdom, exile?" When the poem has reached this point of the most extreme closure, when the infinite grace that atones and liberates is seen as no more than the acid and useless wisdom of the exile, it opens with a rush of acceptant joy into: "Stand and live, / The dove has brought an olive branch to eat." The dove of Jesus brings to the worshipper the olive branch that shows him that the flood has receded, opening the whole earth for him; it is the olive branch of peace and reconciliation, the olive branch that he is "to eat" as a symbol of the eaten flesh of Christ, of atonement, identification, and liberation. Both the old covenant and the new still hold, nothing has changed: here as they were and will be - says the poem - are life and salvation.

Mr. Lowell's Christianity has very little to do with the familiar literary Christianity of as if, the belief in the necessity of belief; and it is a kind of photographic negative of the faith of the usual Catholic convert, who distrusts freedom as much as he needs bondage, and who sees the world as a liberal chaos which can be ordered and redeemed only by that rigid and final Authority to Whom men submit without question. Lowell reminds one of those heretical enthusiasts, often disciplined and occasionally sanctified or excommunicated, who are more at home in the Church Triumphant than in the church of this world, which is one more state. A phrase like Mr. Lowell's "St Peter, the distorted key" is likely to be appreciated outside the church and overlooked inside it, ad maiorem gloriam of Catholic poetry. All Mr. Lowell's earliest poems would seem to suggest that he was, congenitally, the ideal follower of Barth or Calvin: one imagines him, a few years ago, supporting neither Franco nor the loyalists, but yearning to send a couple of clippers full of converted minutemen to wipe out the whole bunch - human, hence deserving. (I wish that he could cast a colder eye on minute-men; his treatment of the American Revolution is in the great tradition of Marx, Engels, and Parson Weems.) Freedom is something that he has wished to escape into, by a very strange route. In his poems the Son is pure liberation from the incestuous, complacent, inveterate evil of established society, of which the Law is a part - although the Father, Jehovah, has retained both the violence necessary to break up this inertia and a good deal of the menacing sternness of Authority as such, just as the pomes themselves have. It is interesting to compare the figure of the Uncle in the early Auden, who sanctifies rebellion by his authority; the authority of Mr. Lowell's Christ is sanctified by his rebellion or liberation. [...]

Randall Jarrell. "From the Kingdom of Necessity" (Poetry and the Age, 1953)