Poetry Corner: Robert Lowell

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I live near an old whaling port, and the air I breathe is usually sea air.  Having grown up in a city far from the coast I can tell you that it’s very different.  However, by some distance, the most nautical, seafaring, ocean-soaked environment that I’ve ever been to is Cape Cod.  The Perfect Storm is not a great movie, but it does capture something of this essence – life on the edge of a vast and dangerous ocean. Another poet who had a remarkable gift of evoking the sea was Orcadian George Mackay Brown, from another community where the sea, with its gifts and snares, permeates daily life. Interestingly, Lowell visited the rarely travelled Brown in Orkney – see this great little memoir. The only other writing that I’ve come across that’s comparable when it comes to conjuring up images of man and the sea is Masefield’s short and brilliant Cargoes.

Nantucket_NASA_2002
Nantucket

But back to Lowell. A manic depressive New Englander who died aged only 60, in 1977, he was highly successful in his lifetime, albeit life was never smooth for him. Oddly, like Mackay Brown, he was a convert to Catholicism.

This poem is longish, but worth it.  The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket (1946. Try this very brief interpretation)

[FOR WARREN WINSLOW, DEAD AT SEA]
Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth. 

I 
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket— 
The sea was still breaking violently and night   
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, 
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light   
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,   
He grappled at the net 
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs: 
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   
Its open, staring eyes 
Were lustreless dead-lights 
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   
Is blocked in yellow chalk. 
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea   
Where dreadnaughts shall confess 
Its hell-bent deity, 
When you are powerless 
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced 
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste   
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute 
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet   
Recoil and then repeat 
The hoarse salute. 
II 
Whenever winds are moving and their breath   
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,   
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death   
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear   
The Pequod’s sea wings, beating landward, fall   
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall   
Off ’Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash   
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,   
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears   
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash   
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids   
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids   
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,   
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush   
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush   
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones   
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast   
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East. 
III 
All you recovered from Poseidon died 
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine   
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,   
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,   
Nantucket’s westward haven. To Cape Cod   
Guns, cradled on the tide, 
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock 
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand   
Lashing earth’s scaffold, rock 
Our warships in the hand 
Of the great God, where time’s contrition blues   
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost 
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died   
When time was open-eyed, 
Wooden and childish; only bones abide 
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed   
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news   
Of IS, the whited monster. What it cost   
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale’s slick   
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:   
“If God himself had not been on our side,   
If God himself had not been on our side,   
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,   
Then it had swallowed us up quick.” 
IV 
This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale 
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell   
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools   
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:   
This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,   
Snatching at straws to sail 
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,   
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,   
Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals: 
Clamavimus, O depths. Let the sea-gulls wail 
For water, for the deep where the high tide   
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.   
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,   
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,   
The beach increasing, its enormous snout   
Sucking the ocean’s side. 
This is the end of running on the waves; 
We are poured out like water. Who will dance 
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans 
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves? 
V 
When the whale’s viscera go and the roll   
Of its corruption overruns this world 
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole   
And Martha’s Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword   
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat? 
In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat 
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,   
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,   
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears   
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail, 
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags   
And rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,   
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,   
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven timbers   
Where the morning stars sing out together 
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers   
The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide   
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side. 
VI 
OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM 
There once the penitents took off their shoes   
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;   
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file   
Slowly along the munching English lane,   
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose   
Track of your dragging pain. 
The stream flows down under the druid tree,   
Shiloah’s whirlpools gurgle and make glad   
The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad   
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see: 
Our Lady, too small for her canopy, 
Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness   
At all or charm in that expressionless 
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before, 
This face, for centuries a memory, 
Non est species, neque decor, 
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes 
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,   
Not Calvary’s Cross nor crib at Bethlehem   
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham. 
VII 
The empty winds are creaking and the oak   
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,   
The boughs are trembling and a gaff   
Bobs on the untimely stroke 
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell   
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It’s well;   
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,   
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:   
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh   
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,   
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil   
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife   
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time 
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime   
And breathed into his face the breath of life,   
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.   

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

 

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2 thoughts on “Poetry Corner: Robert Lowell

  1. For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell

    Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam.

    Tx for the reminder- modern day ‘republicans’ forget those who came before & gave their all, dying in ditches a hundred years ago

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