Inauguration Day: January 1953

Robert von Hallberg: On "Inauguration Day: January 1953"

In the 1952 election, New York went solidly for Aldai Stevenson, the candidate favored by intellectuals. Robert Lowell was deeply disappointed at Stevenson's stunning loss to Eisenhower; intellectuals felt shut out of office. This poem gives a powerful sense of how it was then to stand in the cold: frosty, yes, but for a poet invigorating too; with alienation came fresh access to biting, severe statement such as a poet has to be grateful for, though perhaps only in the short run. The political stakes of the 1952 election looked especially high to intellectuals; as Lowell represents them, they were cosmic. General Grant ended his bloody wilderness campaign with the battle of Cold Harbor, the worst slaughter of the war--that is the historical reference Lowell thought appropriate to Eisenhower's election. Even for New Yorkers, though, speaking of Eisenhower as an outland candidate was stretching things some: two years earlier, he had been president of Columbia. Yet Stevenson was plainly the northeastern, urban favorite, and he lost miserably. The forces behind Eisenhower's victory, as Lowell saw them, included a tradition of warrior-presidents such as Grant but, more important, the deathly spirit of America, the mausoleum in the heart of the nation. So sweeping is Lowell's vision here that even the stars are meant to figure in this historical moment, and in an odd way. Those fixed stars are being cracked open, like atoms, to mark a world-historical moment. Lowell manages, quite surprisingly, to associate Eisenhower with nuclear fission, even though the only person ever to order the military use of nuclear weapons was the outgoing Democratic president. (Of course, Eisenhower was involved in the decision to devastate Dresden, in protest of which Lowell refused induction and served a six-month prison sentence.) Lowell's effort to magnify the political loss suffered by Democrats, especially the urban, intellectual Democrats, was so strenuous that Civil War history, astronomy, and an odd manipulation of recent military history were all made to lend resonance to the moment. Given this bird's-eye view of the culture, a single political division becomes the axis for dividing the cosmos. In 1953, when to most observers the nation was settling in for a snooze, the culture seemed in extremis to Lowell; so he reverted conspicuously to the extremist style of his War book, Lord Weary's Castle. It would be another fifteen years before the culture would seem similarly doomed to many of his contemporaries.

Thomas R. Edwards: On "Inauguration Day: January 1953"

Imagistically the poem is built upon "enclosure" -- burial by snow, the subway's vaults, the truss of the El, the interred Union dead, the sword in the groove -- foreshadowing the "mausoleum" of the last line. But these images suggest not only constraint and death but ceremony, formal rituals like burial, inauguration, or for that matter battle itself. The city observes the occasion: the subways drum, the girders "charge" as the poet passes them, the snow is the ermine of ceremonial costume. Grant's sword "in the groove" has the fixity of formal posture, and the poet himself rises to the occasion by invoking the "god of our armies." But ceremony itself has another aspect. Its regularity may, with a slight shift of perspective, seem mechanical and lifeless -- not people but machines drum and charge in this poem, and the horseman is evidently not a man but a statue, succinct evidence of what ceremony does to life. Suggestions of impotent stasis and painful breakdown question the dignity of the ceremonial moment. The regal city wears a truss under its ermine, and either truss or wearer groans from the pressure. "Slummed on want" is rather elliptical, but it conjoins original desire (or need) and its terrible present effects to extend the paradox of "groaned in ermine."

. . . .

The poem expands from personal anecdote -- What I Did on Inauguration Day -- to a very serious inclusiveness. "Our wheels no longer move" makes montage of the poet's own situation (his car stalled on an icy street?) and the plight of a nation whose procedures and symbols may be collapsing. The splitting of the fixed stars is a rich image: fixed stars are navigational marks, which at this Ultima Thule of dead winter lose their power of guidance; they suggest the field of stars in the American flag, regular but characterless representations of human interests and purposes that strain against the political abstractions holding them together, as they strained when the North fought the South, as the city now strains at its truss; they hint at some unimaginable yet terrifying annuncation, the cosmologists' expanding universe or the physicists' thermonuclear parody of it ("lack-land atoms"), against which old loyalties and pieties seem frail support. The public situation of January 1953 is in the poem -- Eisenhower, the Korean war, the inner divisiveness of the McCarthy era, and so on -- but it poses larger questions than these alone.

Thus the conclusion of "Inauguration Day: January 1953" draws upon an accumulation of meanings that makes it more than the easy joke it might have been:

 

and the Republic summons Ike,

the mausoleum in her heart.

 

This does sound absurd -- the very sound of "Ike" threatens the solemnity of the day, and Grant quickly recalls the tragi-comic fate of soldiers who turn statesmen in this republic. But this is not Coriolan, and to see only wry despair about the value of public ceremony would be to reduce the last two lines to an epigram broken off from the poem. "Inauguration Day" is more than a complaint that the wrong man got elected, and less than an attack on politics as empty routine. Why does the Republic summon Ike? Because it has forgotten Grant? Because it takes some perverse pleasure in destroying its heroes?

Lowell provides no explicit syntactical connection between the last lines, leaving open a number of readings. . . . "Ambiguity" in itself is no poetic virtue. But in "Inauguration Day" Lowell's modernist style, with its refusals of causal and temporal exactitude, nicely reflects the uncertainties and ironies of serious political concern.