Stephen Yenser: On "Man and Wife"

In "Man and Wife" the setting and the landscape are vividly colored by the filter of tranquilized derangement through which the poet sees them. The initial lines, which in effect if not in intention parody Donne's "The Sunne Rising," owe much of their power to just this kind of distortion:


Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed;

the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;

in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,

abandoned, almost Dionysian.


The submerged violence rises to the surface of the poem in the description of the magnolia blossoms that "ignite / the morning with their murderous five days' white." A few lines later, where the speaker sees himself as having been "dragged ... home alive" from "the kingdom of the mad" by his wife, Lowell glances back at the confinement in McLean's Hospital and the incarceration in the West Street jail, each of which testifies to both the poet's isolation from the world and the problems of living in that world. "'To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,'" which seems to have begun with a translation of Catullus, shifts to the wife's point of view and reiterates the possibility of violence: "'This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.'" Her own febrile temperament, as well as her husband's tortured mind, is implied in her conception of his moonlighting: "'free-lancing out along the razor's edge.'"


Title Stephen Yenser: On "Man and Wife" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Stephen Yenser Criticism Target Robert Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell
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