Cheryl Walker: On "Sisters"

When Lowell wrote her important poem "The Sisters," late in her life, she went back to Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson. In "The Sisters" she certainly acknowledges the positive contribution each of these women made and she also revives them literally in her imagination, enjoying a romp with each, using the social energies that made her such a famous hostess. However, she also writes that they leave her "sad and self-distrustful." It must be said that Lowell, like H. D. and Louise Bogan, among others, was interested in superseding as well as giving acknowledgment to a feminine literary tradition. Furthermore, she associates such a feminine tradition with marginality, ascribing to men the primary authority for poetry. Lowell begins:

 

Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot

We women who write poetry. And when you think

How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.

I wonder what it is that makes us do it.

Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,

The fragments of ourselves.

 

Since Lowell's poem is such an important breakthrough, the first grand attempt by a woman poet in America to situate herself within a feminine literary tradition, "The Sisters" is worth pausing over. From the eighteenth century forward, women have acknowledged the importance of other women poets, but usually their focus has been on a single individual like Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Felicia Hemans.

Here Lowell brings together three strong poets instead of one. She also acknowledges the autobiographical focus of women's poetry when she says that these poets scribble down the fragments of themselves. Of the Lesbian Poet she writes:

 

Ah me! I wish I could have talked to Sapho,

Surprised her reticences by flinging mine

Into the wind. This tossing off of garments

Which cloud the soul is none too easy doing

With us to-day.

 

In addition to what may have been Lowell's sense of continuity with Sappho as a lesbian, she also sees both the freedom and the limitations inherent in a poetic mask. For Browning, Lowell has particular sympathy because "her heart was squeezed in stiff conventions," just as Lowell's was at times.

However, Browning's connection with a powerful male poet (which might have helped her scribble down "man-wise" her fragments) leads Amy Lowell into dangerous territory. She imagines Elizabeth deferring to her husband, "for Robert is a genius." This makes Amy uncomfortable and she adds that she doesn't much like "the turn this dream is taking." Yet this dream moment is significant. The daunting presence of male achievement continued to haunt Lowell's imagination throughout her career, rendering her deferential as well as defiant.

Leaving Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lowell imagines an afternoon with Emily Dickinson, which seems to delight her more. (In fact, she began a biography of Dickinson though she never got very far with it.) Despite the fact that her assessment of Dickinson is skewed by the early twentieth-century vision of the Amherst poet as a frustrated spinster, Lowell intuitively grasps the complexity of the earlier poet's demanding psyche.

 

    I think she'd be exacting,

Without intention, possibly, and ask

A thousand tight-rope tricks of understanding.

But, bless you, I would somersault all day

If by so doing I might stay with her.

 

Each of these poets excites Lowell’s admiration and respect. However, at the end of "The Sisters," Lowell insists that she will not be restricted by the heritage they represent. Her "answer," she says, will not be any one of theirs. Why did Amy Lowell summon these women poets only to reject the traditions they represent? In the last lines one can actually hear Lowell imperiously hurrying her guests to leave, as she might have done at the end of an evening at Sevenels. "Put on your cloaks, my dears, the motor's waiting." Then, shooing them out the door with assurances that they "have not seemed strange to me, but near, / Frightfully near, and rather terrifying," she breathes a sigh of relief as she wishes them "Good night!"

Clearly, her need to separate herself from these women was complicated. In addition to her ambition to compete with a masculine tradition to which, she perceived, they did not belong, she also found that they made her self-distrustful, wondering as she did after writing the Keats biography if her commitment to invading the masculine sphere was the right one.

However, her desire to distance herself from these women also derives in part from her discomfort with the female roles they represent. Sappho's is the least objectionable. Yet Lowell admits that she knows only "a single slender thing about her"--that she was a lover. The role of the lover, especially the lesbian lover, is one Amy held dear. And, in fact, she may be singling Sappho out for special intimacy: "we two were sisters / Of a strange, isolated family." Yet Lowell wanted to be more than a love poet. She wanted to compete in the intellectual realm, a territory traditionally belonging exclusively to men.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning she sees in the guise of the female invalid, a common figure in the nineteenth century. She pities Browning for being bound by Victorian conventions, yet she admires her "over-topping brain." Then, with typical Lowell perversity, she actually criticizes Browning for being overly intellectual, saying she needed to escape "to freedom and another motherhood / Than that of poems." The love sonnets are the first Browning poems Lowell finds "fertilized" for, she concludes, "A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain." In her demand for balance between heart and head, we can hear the androgynous Amy speaking. Yet she finds Browning in any case "vastly unlike" herself, for the earlier poet was "very, very woman." Did Lowell insist on seeing her this way in order to be able to dismiss an intellectual rival? Did she see herself as also potentially guilty of one-sidedness?

Dickinson, the great experimenter, is the closest to Lowell in many ways, and therefore--as Bloom might predict--she comes in for the harshest reproach. Though Sappho "spent and gained," and Browning, after a miserly youth, "cut the strings / Which tied her money-bags and let them run," Emily

 

        hoarded--hoarded--only giving

Herself to cold, white paper. Starved and tortured,

She cheated her despair with games of patience

And fooled herself by winning. Frail little elf,

The lonely brain-child of a gaunt maturity,

She hung her womanhood upon a bough

And played ball with the stars--too long--too long--

 

None of these women fully represents the poet that Lowell wished to be: intellectual but passionate, sensitive to self and others but able to capture, as she praised D. H. Lawrence for doing, "the real throb, and misery and gusto" of life. For Lowell this meant choosing an androgynous persona. The spinster self was a greater liability, despite her capacity to "play ball with the stars," than the tough, manly self whom Lowell had never yet seen represented in a woman poet.

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Criticism Overview
Title Cheryl Walker: On "Sisters" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cheryl Walker Criticism Target Amy Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets
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