Alan Williamson

Alan Williamson: On "Central Park"

"Central Park" is delicately framed by a conflict of opposing states of soul in the poet - a vaguely sexual elation ("now light as pollen"), a depressed sense of being used up, mechanized, by the life-process ("now as white / and winded as a grounded kite"). Lowell looks out on a scene of sex-in-nature that might recall the Garden of Eden, but that, to his eye, is as inexorably geometrical as a cubist painting. . . .

This afflicting vision of sameness, of life simplified to mathematics, comes naturally to the Edwardsian side of Lowell; but the real point is that it now comes naturally to all of us, enforced on civilized consciousness by overcrowding, overpopulation, the monolithic architecture of cities. As the painting's pure geometric lines might be overspread with an amorphous gray wash, so, Lowell says, "the stain of fear and poverty . . . darkened every mote of dust" and "each trapped anatomy" (the picture becomes darker still if one remembers anatomy's old meaning, "skeleton").

It is hard to be precise about what this stain-geometry relation means, but one analogy might be a schizophrenic's sense of having a mechanical, active self and a distinct, but immobilized and somewhat formless, inner self.

Under these conditions, Lowell's wistful desire in "Waking Early" for a sexual escape from a devitalized earth, a "sweet volcanic cone," becomes the hopeless wish of mankind:

 

All wished to leave this drying crust,

borne on the delicate wings of lust

like bees, and cast their fertile drop

into the overwhelming cup.

 

This "overwhelming cup" again suggests overpopulation, but, more inescapably, it is a kind of cosmic vaginal symbol, a womb-grave. It implies a regressive nirvana, an escape from individuated consciousness through sexual fulfillment, that leads us back, in a delicate way, to the theme of the death instinct.

The passage of sexual escape leads directly to the picture of the lion in the zoos.

. . .

Rather obviously, this passage is a social parable on the situation of the poor and the blacks - those people who are "humbled" by living conditions that give them a degrading "animal" image of themselves, treated as criminals a priori, controlled by drugs and a ghetto-cage. The parable shows how society's structures practically compel self-definition through crime and flaunted sexuality - qualities which then "prove" its view of the black man's baser nature. But the very use of the image of a zoo suggests that this is all a kind of theater, fulfilling unconscious, projected desires in the spectator-keeper (a point that Black literature has made repeatedly, from the story of the incestuous father in Ellison's Invisible Man to Cleaver's "The Primeval Mitosis"). But if the lion is an image for black rebellion, it is certainly a pessimistic one; for the energy is seen as purely reactive, chained, like some forms of energy in the poems, to terms of aggression and death.

What follows can be taken as a second parable, in which the oppressed appear not as rebels and criminals but as utterly helpless victims, treated with murderous hypocrisy even by the seemingly benevolent agencies of society:

 

Behind a dripping rock, I found

a one-day kitten on the ground--

deprived, weak, ignorant and blind,

squeaking, tubular, left behind--

dying with its deserter's rich

Welfare lying out of reach:

milk cartons, kidney heaped to spoil,

two plates sheathed with silver foil.

 

Though Lowell seems to see little hope in revolution, his bitterest satire is reserved for the conscience-salving of reform. "Welfare" is seen as a way of getting rid of the poor, as - in the terms of the metaphor - inappropriate food, so shielded and sanitary (i.e. rotting) that the "animal" couldn't get at it even if he could see or walk. The total picture that emerges from these stanzas is one of complete vulnerability and dammed-up energy on the part of the poor, explicit shirking of responsibility and implicit paranoid cruelty on that of the rich, and something of the inadequacy-omnipotence dialectic of Lowell's tyrant poems on both sides. We get a very bleak sense of American political possibilities.

The twilight stanza that follows returns to the words shadow and stain, which now have a more special meaning, the degradation attached to being black. But by the same token, the night the shadows portend is a "jungle hour," the hour of revenge not only for the rebelling black criminal, but for alienated and repressed energy in general. The "mouth of night" is a rather terrifying image, suggesting hell-mouth, Old Night, primal chaos, and other archetypal associations like those of the "overwhelming cup." This image, coupled with that of a failing sun, gives the passage an apocalyptic tone. In this atmosphere, the phenomena of twilight are poignant echoes of the poet's earlier elation and the more innocent sexual escapism: one kite still flies, a "snagged balloon" fails to get much help from "the attraction of the moon," another cosmic feminine symbol.

Lowell now turns to examine the psychology of the oppressor in his moment of peril. But here he uses a direct address, and an angry prophetic tone that carries him farther from the observer stance than he has ventured since Lord Weary's Castle:

 

Old Pharaohs starving in your foxholes,

with painted banquets on the walls,

fists knotted in your captives' hair,

tyrants with little food to spare--

all your embalming left you mortal,

glazed, black, and hideously eternal,

all your plunder and gold leaf

only served to draw the thief. . .

 

The Egyptian imagery springs from the surroundings, Cleopatra's Needle and the Metropolitan Museum, but it is stunningly appropriate, both to the architecture of Fifth Avenue and to an imperial nation with extremes of wealth and poverty and an overextended foreign policy. Lowell sees the American ruling class in much the same way that Eldridge Cleaver does: as people who are essentially, humanly, dead, and driven to seek their lost vitality through simulacra, in their dilettantish art-collecting, and in their sadomasochistic fascination with their social victims. This is the psychology of "Caligula" blown up to a mass scale.

Lowell is also interested in the idea that technology provides a spurious form of transcendence, of immortality. Here, as in "For the Union Dead," his thought parallels that of Norman 0. Brown, who holds, in Life Against Death, that the city is man's most perfect sublimation; in it, he flees both the body and death by identifying himself with pure geometries, with indestructible, ethereally beautiful metals and stones. But a major thesis of Brown's book is that the repressed death-instinct, like repressed sexuality, has its "return of the repressed" in a sense of emptiness, death-in-life, and in the breaking loose of aggressive impulses. The theme of an urban death-instinct has been latent in this poem since the line about "the overwhelming cup." At this point, its return seems to have both a homicidal and a suicidal dimension, as the rich become increasingly obsessed with the violence their splendor may provoke.

Whether this fear springs from guilt or secret desire, it leads to a terrible escalation:

 

We beg delinquents for our life.

Behind each bush, perhaps a knife;

 

each landscaped crag, each flowering shrub

hides a policeman with a club.

 

The syntactical change from "perhaps" to the simple indicative is important. As in a comparable passage in Lowell's translation of Juvenal, the violence of the poor against the rich, though real, is omnipresent only in the rich man's guilty imagination. But society's "deterrent terror" against the poor, on the other hand, has the capacity to be literally everywhere, to fulfill a fantasy of omnipotence.

One can hardly imagine a more scathing radical critique of our class system, extending from its depth psychology to its surface rationalizations. All the same, "Central Park" is not a revolutionary poem, since it offers not the least prospect of a successful and virtuous uprising, but rather, a spiraling release of all destructive tendencies. In another sense, though, it is a radical poem, especially for Lowell, in that it eschews qualification, eschews the "complexity" that can rationalize and blur, and endeavors to see individual human action as at least momentarily identical with the historical or moral force it most deeply serves. It is a poem of seeing through, rather than with, the eye, in the tradition of Blake, of Yeats's "Easter 1916," of Shelley when he wrote

 

I met Murder on the way--

He had a mask like Castlereagh . . .

 

Perhaps this means that "Central Park" lacks a certain human depth or human texture in comparison with "Memories of West Street and Lepke," "Waking Early," or the poem that immediately follows it. Nevertheless, it seems to me one of Lowell's finest achievements as a poet of moral clarification and urgent, vital rage.

Alan Williamson: On "For the Union Dead"

Lowell's nearest approach, in For the Union Dead, to an image of moral political action is to be found in the title poem. As the title suggests, "For the Union Dead" is in some ways a deliberate reply to Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," which revolves around the same two figures, the poet-outsider and the dead hero. But where Tate suffers so intensely at the lack of a personal release into action that the hero is almost totally idealized, Lowell questions - with similar anguish - whether the active man can ever measure up to the moral completeness of the outsider's vision.

Lowell's active man, Colonel Shaw, is in many ways highly vulnerable to Lowell's usual critique of the disparity between ideals and realities, and of political theatricality. Like Governor Endecott, Shaw is a gloomy, soul-searching man who ends by being wholly committed to a morally dubious, though seemingly idealistic, enterprise. He accepts the command of the Massachusetts 54th, a Negro regiment officered by whites, trained with a hastiness that suggests no high regard for the value of black lives, heavily exploited for Union propaganda, and massacred in its very first battle. Yet Shaw has redeeming qualities. Though he is engaged in a theatrical venture, he - and his father - desire nothing for themselves but "privacy." "When he leads his black soldiers to death, / he cannot bend his back": meaning, perhaps, that he cannot recant his decision - the absolutism of the idealist - but also that he accepts its consequences personally, and will not provide himself with a security that his men do not have. When Shaw's body is thrown (vindictively, by the Confederates) into a mass grave with his troops, Shaw's father recognizes the appropriateness of this end in the light of his son's principles, and the implicit racism of those Northerners who see in the act only an outrage. He wants no other monument but "the ditch."

The dislike of monuments, the fear that abstract images will too effectively distance unpleasant realities, becomes a central theme in the poem. The exemplary contrast to Shaw is William James, who, "at the dedication [of the monument] . . . could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe," and who seemingly found in this artistic resurrection some sort of emotional compensation for their real deaths. (It may be relevant here that James's one unbookish brother, Garth Wilkinson James, was Colonel Shaw's adjutant, and suffered a wound that left him a semi-invalid for life, in the battle in which Shaw was killed. In spite of his invalidism, the younger James went South during Reconstruction and attempted to run a communal, integrated plantation. William James himself was prevented by poor eyesight from fighting in the Civil War. But even without this information, the contrast between James and Shaw is clear enough.) Later in the poem, the increasing modern romanticization of the Civil War, the "statues of the abstract Union Soldier" that "grow slimmer and younger each year," form a bitter contrast to the country's continuing indifference to racial injustice. Indeed, that indifference is itself encouraged by a distancing medium: the television screen where frightened black faces, become, like the cast bronze of the statue, mere "balloons."

It might be said that Colonel Shaw is a bit of a monument in his action, stonelike, unbending. Yet because he knows concretely, and undergoes in his own person, the full consequences of his choice, he remains a meaningful contrast to all the abstractionists in the poem, from William James to the television set; he represents a compromised, but still living, still responsible connection between ideology, or image, and reality.

The central issue of the poem can be stated in another way: given that mere rebellion or dissociation is unsatisfactory, what can man do with his inner monsters - his bear, snake, and horseshoe crab - that will somehow go beyond them and complete his humanity? "For the Union Dead" probably contains a greater profusion of animal imagery, for its length, than any other poem by Lowell. Nowhere are the organs, acts, and motives of man, the shapes and forms of his self-expression, more insistently animal than here. Yet the simple equation of animal images with brutality, instinct, and raw power that works in the tyrant passages is no longer viable here, although the yearning for a "dark downward and vegetating kingdom" suggesting a subrational unity of consciousness, even a return to the womb, is certainly akin to Caligula's desires. For, in this poem, gentle and humane qualities, and even those faculties of rational choice that seem exclusively human, are seen in animal terms. "The cowed, compliant fish" suggest an analogous quality of blind endurance in the Negroes; but Colonel Shaw's own angry "vigilance is "wrenlike," his ability to combine gentleness with discipline, principle, and readiness for action is "a greyhound's." The imagery thus serves to remind us how far man is a part of evolution, his fate the common destiny of living creatures, his most distinctly human qualities, more refined analogues of traits that animals, too, have had to develop for biological survival.

This line of thought is the key to the importance of the elegy on the aquarium with which the poem begins and ends. Imagistically, the passage functions as an overture on many levels, but its overriding emotional tone is nostalgia: Lowell mourns the loss of a curiosity about other living beings that made people want aquariums. Modern men no longer wish to acknowledge their kinship with the animal world, but prefer the comforts and thrills given them by machines, televisions, urban centers oriented around the "civic sandpiles" of underground garages. Here, Lowell's thought begins to parallel - and may, indeed, be influenced by - Norman 0. Brown's in Life Against Death. In Brown's view, man creates cities and technologies partly in order to identify with them and thereby escape his two greatest fears, his animal instincts (purged in the cleanness of mechanical processes)and animal mortality (denied in the seeming permanence of steel and stone). But, Brown says, in culture as in individual neurosis, what is repressed reappears, and is more pervasive and uncontrollable in direct proportion to the intensity of the repression. This is also Lowell's vision, as revealed in the last stanza of the poem:

 

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

 

Denied a fixed locality in the scheme of man's city or his mind, the fish suddenly appears everywhere.

In turning to the seemingly impersonal power of machines, man is condemned to endless repetition not only of animal motives but of animal forms, his final point of reference for both form and purpose being his own biologically evolved nature. The same point is made earlier in the phrase "yellow dinosaur steamshovels," with the added suggestion that the end product of man's self-perfection will be his self-destruction. Protected from the knowledge of his animality and mortality by the spurious permanence and orderliness of the machine-world, man becomes not only more powerful, but also more dangerous, because he is spared direct responsibility: he is so shielded from the horror of reality that he can not only commit the Hiroshima bombing, but then use it to advertise a safe. Or perhaps the meaning is almost the reverse: modern man is so terrified of technological war that he can endure its image only when aided by a further identification with the inanimate permanence of - money! Suspect though the monuments are, their disappearance from the modern city is the sign of something far worse: an almost schizophrenic dissociation of the fact that war happens to living human beings, which, again, liberates man's cruelty.

If Lowell's dark vision of advanced civilization parallels Norman 0. Brown's, his image of a hero closely resembles Brown's psychological ideal, not in that ideal's more notorious sexual aspects, but in the conception of a willing self-surrender to time and death. For the portrait of Colonel Shaw provides a moral resolution to the question of animality and death, as to that of political abstraction. Imagistically, as I have shown, Shaw is in touch with his animal nature, and able to draw from it his most heroic qualities; further, his acts are finally justified by his willingness to accept physical suffering and death in a brutal, unvarnished form, to accept "the ditch" of mass burial. The very next stanza menaces mankind with a death of a different order: "The ditch is nearer." This ditch is a many-layered symbol, bringing together nuclear annihilation, the absolute zero of outer space, the blank terror in the faces of the Negro schoolchildren, the hollowness of ideals out of touch with real circumstances, the bubble on which Colonel Shaw suffers, waiting for the "blessed break."

Taken together, the two ditches pose an inexorable alternative: Yeats's "blind man's ditch" of natural birth and death, with its ugliness and uncertainties, as against an abstracted, centerless existence, whose quest for perfection of power easily metamorphoses into pointless and suicidal violence. But what is at issue is more than a restatement of the perverse argument that the tyrant is more pitiable than the tyrannicide, the monster than the abstractionist; for Colonel Shaw provides a pattern of the action that is quintessentially human: "he rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die." Man, who alone has rational knowledge of death, alone can voluntarily accept it, philosophically as well as in particular circumstances, for the sake of a complete and life-giving response to existence. It is paradoxical but moving that this act is said to make Shaw rejoice, surely a rare word in Lowell. Shaw's attitude is the diametrical opposite of the effort of the threatened identity to include the entire world in its own being, the effort that unites tyrant and tyrannicide, Satan and mechanized man: that might be called man's less lovely, equally peculiar, power to choose death and live.

The ideal implied in the portrait of Colonel Shaw is explicitly stated in the concluding passage of moral advice in Lowell's translation of juvenal's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," a passage which Lowell (unlike his source, according to an essay by Patricia Meyer Spacks) calls the portrait of a "hero":

 

pray for

a healthy body and a healthy soul,

a soul that is not terrified by death,

that thinks long life the least of nature's gifts,

courage that takes whatever comes - this hero

like Hercules, all pain and labor, loathes

the lecherous gut of Sardanapalus.

 

This hero, though something of a tyrannicide in his "loathing," has managed to conquer the tyrannous "gut" motives of oral absorption. He finds his basic integrity not in his acts but in the amount of "pain and labor" in his life, the burden of responsibility and moral insight that he is able to bear. And, as with Shaw, his greatest moral success is seen in his triumph, not over worldly temptation, but over the fear of loss of identity in death. This idea of an only barely activist heroism of insight dominates the political poetry, and to some extent the personal poetry in "For the Union Dead."

Alan Williamson: On "Ariel"

Consider the beginning of a much finer poem, "Ariel" itself:

Stasis in darkness.

Then the substanceless blue 

Pour of tor and distances.

The two near-spondees, rhyming, balanced around the insignificant pivot "in": a line could hardly contrive to have more "stasis," less forward movement to it. Moving ahead another five syllables, a hypothetical second line completes itself with the third occurrence of the rhyme--falling, yet again, on an abstract word denoting a privation of quality or presence. Thus, "blue" enters like the declaration of a second theme: because it is a quality; because it is formally unexpected; because it is only the second long vowel in the poem. The theme expands instantaneously, in a "pour" of long-vowel assonance and rhyme, then curiously sinks back under the first theme, as the velocity of the bolting horse melts concrete objects to an abstract blue of "distances."

This little sonata already contains the essential action of the poem. The second theme, of velocity, intensified quality, intensified selfhood, will be developed around the symbolic long i and the related long e, in what must be one of the most aurally spectacular passages in English poetry since Dylan Thomas:

And now I

Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.

The child's cry

 

Melts in the wall.

And I

Am the arrow,

 

The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive 

Into the red

 

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

As in the mountain vision in The Bell Jar, the "I" is "honed" against the sun until it is "saintly and thin and essential." It is thrust to the end of the line, against unconditioned space; underscored with ideas of purification, expansion, intensity, and above all speed and daring ("White / Godiva," "unpeel," "seas," "child's cry," "flies," "suicidal," "drive"). But finally, at the crisis, "I" metamorphoses into "Eye," fuses with the cosmic, impersonal awareness, or sheer Being, of the sun itself. Specific identity--like specific perception in the opening stanza—"melts" in the "cauldron" of its own acceleration, back to a formless monism.

I have dwelt on this poem not only because it is a tour de force, but because its melding opposites reveal a side of Plath's ontological vision peculiarly relevant to her stylistic development. In a certain sense, as we shall see, the opening stanza we examined so laboriously contains the plot not only of "Ariel" the poem but of Ariel the book.

The philosophical vacillation between motion and stasis runs through all of Plath's late writing.

From Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Copyright 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Alan Williamson: On "They Dream Only of America"

… How many movies have we all seen on the subject of runaway children who cross paths with a murderer – a subject whose appeal, surely, is to our own anxiety about the relation between normal venturesomeness and the completely out of bounds?

And hiding from darkness in barns They can be grownups now And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily – The lake a lilac cube.

When the children " can be grownups," the evidence of evil is at once "more easily" – and I think the missing word has to be "found" or "recognized." So that again it is precisely the recognition scene that is averted – averted by stopping time, freezing the journey of escape in an eternal present of pastoral beauty. And one notices how the same detail that makes the last line suggest an abstract painting also betrays the effect of psychic containment: the lake water held to the dimensions of a cube.

"‘They Dream Only of America’" is one of the most clearly structured poems in The Tennis Court Oath, possessing essentially a traditional double plot. The story of the children and the murderer reflects the shadowy story of the narrator’s friend, whose journey to lose himself in America, driving "hundreds of miles / At night through dandelions," becomes more and more terrible, as he takes everything that happens for a "sign" (presumably of impending evil, the broken leg mentioned in the last stanza). He ends, like the children earlier, paralyzed between alternatives of ecstasy and destructiveness: "There is nothing to do / For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it."

I do not mean to maintain that all interrupted stories in Ashbery can be ascribed to psychic censorship. Often, the uncertainties of paranoia, the elusivness of essentially nostalgic desires, provide more relevant explanations. My point is that it is the imitation of psychological tension – approach and avoidance, affirmation and denial – that gives Ashbery’s disjunctiveness a force far exceeding mere aesthetic novelty.

From Alan Williamson, "The Diffracting Diamond: Ashbery, Romanticism, and Ant-Art" (Chapter 6) in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1984) 121-122.

Alan Williamson on: "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

That moral and intellectual relativism is itself an issue in the poem is indicated, I think, by the dominant imagery of clothing. Of course, Lowell has used this imagery throughout, to denote human absorption in roles; but its exaggerated employment here underlines the fact that Lowell must now perceive people and situations through these roles and appearances, without the prophet's confident penetration to spiritual conditions. A further complicating factor is that the characters in the poem are all extreme, contradictory, sui generis - all Dickensian solipsists. Their relation to social processes is obscure and mystified, most of all to themselves; and taken collectively, they mirror the author's own confusion about the possibility of interpretive or moral judgments on society. Indeed, not the least solipsistic among them is the author.

The opening stanza reveals Lowell's subtle discomfort at his accommodated position, at the growing distance between his concept of himself and any of the roles he must or can play. He sees himself as an underground eccentric, wearing his pajamas most of the day; but this eccentricity - and the daily load of laundry - is made possible by a respectable job, though one so luxurious it hardly seems such: "Only teaching on Tuesdays." He "hog[s] a whole house" - a residential arrangement quite appropriate to his class and background, but clearly unnatural in terms of his own feelings. Lowell proceeds to invent a bizarre but appropriate analogue to his own paradoxical status:

even the man

scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,

has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,

and is a "young Republican."

(Perhaps this figure deserves to be interpreted more seriously, as Marcuse's vision of the superficially unexploited proletarian who pays for his comforts by a subtle regimentation extending not only to his politics but to his play - "a beach wagon" - and his sexuality - "a helpmate." But the archness of tone suggests that Lowell intends him - for the present, at least - mainly as metaphor.)

Within bourgeois community and responsibility, Lowell has found at least one vital center for his life, his baby daughter: "Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear." Yet even the daughter's importance is cheapened when it must be expressed through the irrelevant poetry of departure of advertising. This rhetoric bears out a dominant pattern of excess, especially of over-size - in Lowell's house, his teaching arrangements, the age-discrepancy between him and his daughter - a pattern that has some of the terror, if not the moral implication, of Macbeth's "giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief." At the very least, Lowell's exaggeration of his contentment is a subtle way of questioning it - of admitting that he is "selling" himself.

One reason, presumably, for Lowell's delayed parenthood is the very different kind of commitment that engaged his youth:

Ought I to regret my seedtime?

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statements . . .

"Ought I to regret my seedtime?" is the essential question of the poem: has Lowell's present ironic vision transcended, and so gained the right to reject, his earlier committed one? The question, for me, recalls one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell: "In seedtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." The proverb is relevant to more than Lowell's occupation, for the Devil is satirizing the conventional life-cycle, claiming that it is merely a mind-forged manacle designed to prevent man from ever enjoying his instincts, ever distinguishing his true self from his society's rationalizations.

Lowell's mature irony does indeed reveal disturbing, incontrovertible truths about his earlier self. His revolt was itself solipsistic, ineffective, merely bizarre, or at least society could make it seem so: the apolitical, Dionysiac Negro he was paired with was no better an objective correlative of his commitments than his fellow professors and Marlborough Street neighbors would be now. The phrase "telling off" makes his argument seem a sloppy emotional catharsis; just as, later, the comparison of the prison roof to "my school soccer court" would reduce his martyrdom to a compulsive repetition of childhood experiences involving authority, violence, and exhibitionistic attention-seeking (assuming that the reader makes the obvious connection with "91 Revere Street"). Of course, this too could be seen as part of society's mystification: prison makes the dissenter doubt his own manhood and judgment, since it reduces him to the dependence of a child.

At times, however, Lowell's irony backfires: the use of a technical psychoanalytic term like "manic" in a subtle descriptive context, however accurate it may be, suggests a complacent patness attained at some cost to richness of feeling and recollection.

In the prison scenes Lowell's vision of anomalies and disconnections becomes still more intense and maddening. The pervasive costume imagery absorbs - though with a grimmer irony than usual - so palpable a reality as the New York slums: "bleaching khaki tenements." The prisoners, defined by garments ranging from "rope shoes" to "chocolate double-breasted suits," are worlds unto themselves, and worlds full of self-contradiction. One, Abramowitz, carries pacifism to a cosmic extreme, yet clearly has his own problems about aggression and masculinity (he is called a "flyweight" and urgently wishes to be "tan"). Lowell can finally dismiss his point of view with a rather sneaky reference to Eden and the Fall. Nor can Lowell feel much common cause with the other war protesters, one of whom belongs to a sect the Catholic C.O. has never even heard of Still less, of course, is there a feeling of unity among the prisoners in general. Indeed, the prisoners' interactions reveal to Lowell another, equally important kind of disunity; the ethical contradictoriness of our society, which punishes the aggressive conformist for his acquisitiveness while bearing down on the eccentric for his dislike of force, but allows the persecution of the eccentric by the conformist to go on in prison just as it does elsewhere.

Something unanticipated happens in the poem, however, when Lowell focuses on the last prisoner: "Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke."

. . .

One difference is technical. Where, before, hesitancy and the sense of disconnectedness expressed themselves in abstention from eloquence, halting metrics, submerged or doggerel rhyming, now the lines become emphatically iambic, the rhymes prominent, regular, stately; there is a touch of the surging periodicity of Lord Weary's Castle.

We are led to look for a reflection of this increased intensity in the moral content of the lines. One insight that becomes very clear is the real power of money and violence cutting across all claims of value and principle in American life. Morally repudiated and condemned to die, Lepke is still czar, still "segregated" into privilege like a Southern white, still given "things forbidden the common man." Further, these things are exactly what the conventionally respectable desire: the American Way of Life, an unexamined jumble of consumer goods, piety, patriotism. As the scavenger earlier identified with these things against his own class interests, Lepke identifies with them against the whole legal and moral tenor of his life; unless, of course, one cynically concludes that the law and public life are themselves so pervaded by this doublethink that their ostensible values are meaningless.

For Lepke, as the citation from John Foster Dulles would suggest, is a symbol of at least one aspect of American public life. He has organized, bureaucratized, depersonalized individual murder; America, in the "tranquillized Fifties," has done the same thing with its power to annihilate mankind. Lepke is "lobotomized," has had certain electrical connections in his brain severed (whether literally or metaphorically is not to the point here). America, too, has "lost connections," between its values and its acts, the fiction and the reality of its motives, the news and the appropriate emotional reaction; it too "drifts" toward its fate, unable and unwilling to change. (Rightly considered, the phrase "agonizing reappraisal" was as grotesque when spoken by Dulles as when applied to Lepke.) America, too, is "calm," "tranquillized" as Lepke is "lobotomized"; but in both cases the calm may be merely the psychological effect of an overwhelming, inescapable fear of execution or nuclear annihilation. And here Lowell's analogy carries an especially frightening implication; for in Lepke's single-minded concentration on death, his attitude seems to change from terror to fascination to love. Death becomes an "oasis," the only escape from fear. A number of radical writers have seen such a Dr. Strangelove psychology in the attitude of Americans toward the bomb; and we remember that both Freud and Marcuse predicted a resurgence of the death instinct in very advanced civilizations.

The concluding phrase, "lost connections," seems to reflect not only on Lepke and official America, but on the poet himself. For he too, at the beginning, suffers from an inability to connect his inner identity with his social roles; and an inability to go beyond an inclusive, defensive irony to the patterned vision of social processes that might allow him to locate himself, and reopen the possibility of political engagement. This vision arrives with the symbol of Lepke; and it is important that Lepke is a symbol, while the other characters, because of their obscure or mystified relation to society, remain unbudging, fruitless particulars. The return from observation to symbolism, like the more intense metrics, and like the vision itself, suggests a kind of breakthrough or change of heart in Lowell - one that, I believe, is mirrored in the structure of Life Studies as a whole.

From Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1974 by the Yale University Press.

Alan Williamson: On "Daddy"

Archetypally, Plath's father is represented either as godlike but fragmentary, protean, inaccessible ("The Colossus," "Full Fathom Five," or else as the dark father, the Nazi and torturer. That this latter image is archetypal, the biographers, I hope, have made clear enough: in life Otto Plath, far from being a Nazi, left the Kaiser's Germany partly because he was a militant pacifist. Possibly the image stems from Plath's early anger at her father as a Prussian "autocrat"; yet her longing for him is so evident, in The Bell Jar and elsewhere, that one's mind is drawn more to the traditional etiology of masochism. In place of what is really feared--abandonment, indifference--malignity or persecution is substituted, both because it implies concern, or at least involvement, intention, on the part of the other, and because it constitutes a very high degree of presence. Nothing is so unlike the inaccessibility of a corpse as the intrusiveness of a tyrant, a jailer, a torturer. In an oblique way, "Daddy" seems to acknowledge all this. At a point in the poem when the Nazi theme has reached a pitch of hysterical inarticulacy ("the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you"), the father's real image suddenly comes to mind, and there is a comic incongruity:

You stand at the blackboard, daddy, 

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

The speaker seems suddenly half-aware that the fantasy image needs defending, and the true grounds of reproach—as well as a much more loving underlying feeling--slip out:

But no less a devil for that, no not 

Any less the black man who

 

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

The father's negative omnipresence, while it conveys a truth about the state of obsessive mourning, also expresses an unappeased wish on the part of the hurt little girl whose voice can still be heard here.

[. . . .]

[T]he vampire mythology of "Daddy" . . . confirms the Laingian presupposition that intimacy saps one's limited stock of vital forces, threatens one's very being. But, by a deeper logic, if men are the undead, it means that they are the dead: the "dead lover," the dead father, returning in his death-denying disguise of omnipotent will. To find love a negative, obliterating experience is thus to feel reunited with the father. Insofar as the "blood flood" signifies menstrual blood, it is also to become one with the barren moon-goddess, the evil father's consorts In this overdetermination, we come very near the core of the masochist theme in Plath's work.

"Daddy" represents a vengeful literary assimilation, after the separation, of Plath's marriage to the same complex, and the same ritual. To reproduce the (masochistically transformed) image of the father, she has chosen a man for his dominating, sadistic qualities, regarding even his sexuality, like Marco's or Irwin's, as a torture instrument:

And then I knew what to do. 

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

 

And a love of the rack and the screw. 

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I'm finally through.

And yet the opening premise itself ("I made a model of you") implies the possibility that she has merely imagined him this way, or else made him this way by her will to respond only to this element in him; and thereby has, in a sense, destroyed him, or at least the relationship ("If I've killed one man, I've killed two"). It is, after all, the destruction of the model that makes the voodoo rite of exorcism effective. There is a burden of guilt as well as abusiveness to this passage, which can only be glossed over if it is to be read as a straightforward attack on the husband's character. Rather, the poem, here as in the passage quoted earlier, wavers near the Jungian therapeutic point at which the archetype becomes so inflated that it can no longer be imposed on a living, or even a dead, person. If the separation is not completed, it is perhaps because the archetype is occasioned by an absence, not a presence; so that, grim as it is, it alone offers the possibility of connection. As Holbrook has pointed out, the concluding rhyme-word "through" means not only through with the father in his vampire disguise, but through to the father where he actually is--in the grave.

It should be clear why--without denying Plath insight into the social harmfulness of supermasculinity as an ideal--I disagree with a radical feminist interpretation of her work. Its burden, on the more intimate level, seems to me not sexual "oppression" but the ambiguous attractions a more-than-human Other may hold for ego weakness in either sex. Plath's writings describe a complex of feelings in which (as in the masculine Madonna complex) the other sex does not easily ‘scape whipping. If men are figures of indomitable will, they are morally beyond the pale--as in the lines from "Three Women": "It is these men I mind.... They are jealous gods / That would have the whole world flat because they are." But if they are not gods, the note of sexual contempt for "small" men quickly becomes audible. It was Plath's strength, and a good deal of her despair, that she realized--if not precisely this--the possibility that deep conflicts among her conscious and unconscious values and wishes might have made her unhappiness almost inevitable.

From Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Copyright © 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.