Robert Lowell

It's interesting that while on the west coast and different parts of the country you see the immigrant experience going strong, people coming to America and dealing that old culture, Lowell is dealing with a culture that we have been studying since the first day of class. That is, the old Puritans. As much as we are a melting pot of all these other cultures this puritan shadow still falls upon us, it still has an impact today. So it hasn't gone away. Especially in Boston. He is from a patrician family, the Lowells. He's related to Amy Lowell, whom we studied earlier.

These leading Protestant families were called the Boston Brahmans, like the upper class of people in India, and of course they look down upon everyone else (another old Puritan habit). They especially looked down on these new-coming Irish immigrants with their Catholicism and their different cultural ways. And here they are with their roots in England, some of them even talk with an English accent (Have you ever heard Bill Buckley speak?).

Robert does two things that really split him off from his family. He has a generational problem, if not a cultural problem.

  1. He converts to Roman Catholicism. This was the religion of the rabble. Proper Boston families were congregationalists, unitarians, all these other descendants of the old protestant main line churches, presbyterians. And here he becomes a Roman Catholic.
  2. Then also he was a conscience objector in World War II. So, he's a bit separated from his family and his background, but never the less has to deal with it.

"Mr. Edwards and the Spider"

And we get to that right off the bat with 'Mr. Edwards and the Spider'. Which Mr. Edwards are we talking about? Jonathan Edwards. Why does the leaf fall in the woods? A message from God, remember? Mr. Edwards, I don't know if we mentioned this at the time, died at a relatively young age as a result of the small pox vaccine. Now here is a guy, who represents the previous era, being killed by science. He would have done better to just trust in God to get him through the small pox. His famous sermon, what was his famous sermon? 'Sinners in the hands of an angry God.' And of course this spider here comes from that sermon. The idea of the spider dangling over the fire the same way god dangles us over the fires of hell, that at any moment the string may snap. Now how do spiders do this? They spin these little webs out, what do they call those webs? Have you heard the term gossamer? Gossamer is the web the spiders spin so they can fly through the sky. Kind of like a kite, it lets the spider float through the air.

The web goes up into the air and the wind catches it and carries it off into the air. And also like a kite the tail helps to keep it from going to high, the tail of the kite weighs it down as well. So he sees

the spiders . . . .

So what happens to these spider when the wind is westerly? Ok, which was does a west wind blow from? It blows to the east from the west. What coast does Mr. Lowell live on? The east coast. And so if the wind is blowing east, it is blowing out to the Atlantic Ocean. So what is going to happen to these spiders? They are going to die. Like Mr. Edwards' spider. Here is this great desire to get from tree to tree to start up a new generation. But instead the wind blows them out to sea and they die.
Among the many remarkable traits of spiders, none has excited greater interest nor produced more fantastic speculation than that of `ballooning'. The ancients were familiar with some of the phenomena attending the flight of spiders, for Aristotle believed that spiders could shoot out their threads, and Pliny wrote: `In the year that L. Paulus and C. Marcellus were consuls, it rained wool.' Often during the late summer and autumn months on quiet, hazy days, the air is filled with shining strands and threads of gossamer, the silk produced by the spiders that have attempted to fly and failed. Sometimes one sees a field or meadow carpeted with silk and a host of little spiderlings spreading their lines in vain attempts to fly. On the other hand many are successful-
   Darwin, in 1839, recorded the arrival on H.M.S. Beagle of `vast numbers of a small spider, about one-tenth of an inch in length, and of a dusky red colour's when the ship was sixty miles from the coast of South America-and ballooning is without doubt an important factor in the distribution of many species all over the world. Nor is it confined to any particular season. The prosaic translate `gossamer' as `goose summer' in reference to the fanciful resemblance of the fragile skeins of silk to the down of geese which fly about when one renovates feather beds and pillows; but gossamer translated as `God's summer' refers to the legend that this gossamer is the remnant of Our Lady's winding sheet which fell away in these lightest fragments as she was assumed into heaven."
Isn't this great stuff? Magee asks after finishing a rather exceptional piece from Lowell.

'What are we in the hands of the great God?' This is of course goes back to the angry God, and God is mad. He is upset with us because we are sinful. And all of our defenses are like thorns, they can keep out a human enemy, but what about the fire? They can't stop a fire, in fact they help it because they just become part of the fire, they fuel the fire. Our defenses only add to our destruction. We have a sickness past your cure. Well who can cure your sickness? This is classic Calvinism. It is beyond our cure, who can cure it? God. Yes, Gods grace. But we don't have a lot of grace when we are focusing on gods anger. So what are we going to do to resist god? How will the hands be strong? How will the heart be endure? What are we going to do against and angry god? 'A very little thing, a little worm.'

We are all vile worms. Have we talked about this saying before? The puritans love this saying. I don't know how we missed it? It's a way of saying we are all sinful. There you have it, that's the way they looked at us and at nature. The things they find in nature to compare us to are the things we find the most repulsive. Worms, spiders, do you want to be a worm? Do you like worms? Do you like spiders? I don't think so. It generally draws up an image that is negative. Something that we are afraid of, something repulsive. They are comparisons. The classic puritan comparison is to compare us to something repulsive. To say that God finds us even 10 thousand times more repulsive then we find that worm or spider. So we are a little worm.

Then he goes on to say . . .

So they can have a big impact.
  Where is your authority once you are dead?
  So he was killing spiders; he kind of removes himself from it. It ones of the marks of Puritans, at the moment they are parading you through the street and whipping you and lopping of ears and noses, they tend to say it is God doing it. They think they are just the hand of God, that this is really God's action. So I saw the spider die but I did not kill the spider. But when you throw a spider into a fire it dies.
  Have you ever put a bug on a brick by a fire or on an old Franklin stove top and watch it sizzle up? That is how we are when we are put into Hell. There is a big theological debate about the nature of Hell. About what is behind this stanza. That is, is Hell ever-lasting? Are you destroyed in a moment of terrible anguish and pain but then you cease to exist? Does the soul blink out of existence? Either way the suffering is infinite. If you measure it with an hourglass, by the sands of time thing, will it be ten minutes or a trillion years. Either way it is infinite. 'To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.' All of a sudden we are no longer the vile spider, but we are being bitten by the black widow of death. He has shifted his image a death, but true death is to die and know it.

'Memories of West Street and Lepke'

Because he was a conscientious objector, Lowell spent a year in jail, New York's West Street jail. Lepke Burkhalter, a member of Murder Inc., was there as well.
  So even the bums are rich where I am living now. Teaching only on Tuesdays wearing pj's, and reading books all day, must be a pretty good life. Must be an English Professor. So she is quite brightly colored in her pj's as well. But this is now, what about back then? These are not people he is used to being around. Not the type at all. He remembers back to when he was in jail. So, don't mess with them or come between them and their steaks. Why? Well, he's form this Boston upper class, and those types were not upper class. So what about JW? They are pacifists, they don't pledge allegiance to a to a secular fallen worldly government. They are very much separation of church and state. Above and beyond most people. So why does he get special treatment? Why does he have stuff no one else has? He's got connections, he is part of the Mob.

Skunk Hour
Robert Lowell

For Elizabeth Bishop

'Skunk Hour' for Elizabeth Bishop. They point out that this is a response to Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Armadillo.'

So she's got all these connections, but she is getting old. Imagine living on Darbone and buying up all the camps on the other side? That's pretty much money is it not? So, there is some mad economics going on right now. The millionaire is gone, they didn't say he was broke.
  Now what are love cars? What does he mean by that? You all know this. Cars with people making out in them. This is of course from Milton's 'Paradise Lost' where the devil is carrying around hell with him as he travels out of hell. He can't leave it behind. He is upset that he can't have any fun while others do. They are not going to be run off when there is food to be had.

The class takes a break at this point.

For the Union Dead
Robert Lowell

“Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.”
'For the Union Dead.

Relinquunt Omia Servare Rem Publicam.' (They left all to serve the republic.)This is what is on the memorial in Boston across from the Massachusetts State House.

This memorial is in dedication of the first all black regiment in the United States history, the 54th Massachusetts regiment. They led a charge against Fort Wagner in South Carolina. They all died. Does this sound familiar? Yes, the movie Glory was based on this regiment and their CO Robert Gould Shaw who the South had buried with the troops to disgrace him.

But Robert Lowell honors them all. And it's strange that he would honor them, why is that? Because he was a Conscientious Objector (C.O.). But I guess some wars are allowed to be fought.  Is every war immoral, or are some worth fighting?  This distinguishes the pure pacifist from the partial one.

So he's talking about the change in the life style of America due to the need for people to park their cars someplace. And it is such a factor now that owning a car is a very important aspect to life. He sees this as not such a good thing. This was a serious event in American history. This was when they were allowed to prove that they were as good as White men on the battle field. Very important. Similar to the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII. "He cannot bend his back" has two levels
  1. Statues can't bend
  2. His pride as a human soldier kept his back straight.
He has chosen to live to die for this cause. War has changed.  There is no glory in dropping a bomb, just destruction.

This is pointing out the desegregation of schools in the South. This is just another battle, except being fought by a new generation and even younger people.

So the cars are here, the fish are gone.

The faces of the children are from one of the early integration efforts--Little Rock is a good example.  Ironically, one of the last great battles over integration would occur in the 1970s right in the area around this monument--South Boston.