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12 - “Oh No”/“Yes Yes”: Lowell and the Making of Mistakes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2019

Saskia Hamilton
Affiliation:
Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University.
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Summary

IN JUNE 1965, to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War and the sending of American troops to the Dominican Republic, Robert Lowell declined an invitation to Lyndon B. Johnson's White House Festival of the Arts in a public statement that was covered on the front page of the New York Times. In August it was reported that LBJ met with college students on the White House lawn and “invoked the poet Robert Lowell”:

“Robert Lowell, the poet, doesn't like everything around here,” he said. “But I like one of his lines where he wrote: ‘For the world which seems to lie out before us like a land of dreams.’ Well, in this great age—and it is a great age—the world does seem to lie before us like a land of dreams.”

Misquote by Johnson

The line that President Johnson attributed to Mr. Lowell actually appears in the last stanza of Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach.” Reached by telephone at his vacation home in Maine and asked about the line, Mr. Lowell said, “that's Milton, the end of Paradise Lost.” Then he corrected himself and agreed it came from Arnold's poem.

“I don't know why the president said I wrote that,” the poet said. “Maybe he was trying to be funny. One shouldn't make that kind of error. But, then, I did too.”

Mr. Lowell recalled that he had used the Arnold line as an epigraph to introduce a poem in one of his volumes, The Mills of the Kavanaughs. He guessed that that was where the president saw the line.

In his biography of Lowell, Ian Hamilton commented on this episode dismissively, calling it a “comic postscript” to Lowell's act of protest, speculating that “Johnson's speech writer, in a hurry to supply an upbeat quote, had not adventured past the title page.” Lowell himself wrote of the incident in a letter to Stanley Kunitz on August 16, 1965: “Wasn't the Dover beach grotesque? Some one from the Times called me at eleven thirty after a party and asked me if the lines were mine. All I could think of were the words ‘world’ and ‘before’ and I said, ‘Oh no, they are by John Milton.’”

Type
Chapter
Information
Robert Lowell in a New Century
European and American Perspectives
, pp. 156 - 169
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2019

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