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10 - Robert Lowell's Credo

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2019

Frank J. Kearful
Affiliation:
Professor Emeritus at the University of Bonn, is vice president of the Robert Lowell Society and has published numerous articles on Lowell.
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Summary

IN A LETTER TO Hannah Arendt dated January 9, 1961, Lowell refers to “Pigeons,” his enclosed imitation of Rainer Maria Rilke's “Taube, die draußen blieb” (Pigeon that stayed outside, 1950) as “really my own credo” and wonders if it “isn't quietly my finest poem,” which may reflect his dropping of the confessional “I” of Life Studies (1959). He wanted to put it out of chronological order and have it end his forthcoming Imitations (1961), which began with Homer and would otherwise have finished with Boris Pasternak, who had died in 1960. Lowell separated “Pigeons” from his four other Rilke imitations and dedicated it to Arendt, whom he thanks in the acknowledgments for her help with the German poems. His letter to her had begun “here's the Rilke,” as if she had been expecting it. Best known as a political philosopher, she was also a poet and keen reader of Rilke, with a particular fondness for “Taube, die draußen blieb.” I suspect that Arendt had put Lowell on to it.

This essay first addresses Lowell's poetics in Imitations with regard to how he made Rilke's “Taube, die draußen blieb” a poem of his own featuring two of his major tropes, hands and touch, exile and return, which underlie the “credo” embodied in “Pigeons.” He was probably attracted to Rilke's poem because the same tropes are central to it, and he responded to its rhythmical phrasing by adapting it within his own versification. I read “Pigeons” against the foil of his manic-depressive illness and his stubborn faith in the power of his art to transmute and transcend that illness. My interpretation of the poem along these lines will take account of two important studies as a key to Lowell's poetics, Kay Redfield Jamison's Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (2017) and Nikki Skillman's The Lyric in the Age of the Brain (2016).

In the introduction, Lowell informs readers of Imitations that it is “partly self-sufficient and separate from its sources, and should be first read as a sequence, one voice running through many personalities, contrasts and repetitions.”

Type
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Robert Lowell in a New Century
European and American Perspectives
, pp. 131 - 144
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2019

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  • Robert Lowell's Credo
    • By Frank J. Kearful, Professor Emeritus at the University of Bonn, is vice president of the Robert Lowell Society and has published numerous articles on Lowell.
  • Edited by Thomas Austenfeld
  • Book: Robert Lowell in a New Century
  • Online publication: 26 June 2019
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781787444645.011
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  • Robert Lowell's Credo
    • By Frank J. Kearful, Professor Emeritus at the University of Bonn, is vice president of the Robert Lowell Society and has published numerous articles on Lowell.
  • Edited by Thomas Austenfeld
  • Book: Robert Lowell in a New Century
  • Online publication: 26 June 2019
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781787444645.011
Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Robert Lowell's Credo
    • By Frank J. Kearful, Professor Emeritus at the University of Bonn, is vice president of the Robert Lowell Society and has published numerous articles on Lowell.
  • Edited by Thomas Austenfeld
  • Book: Robert Lowell in a New Century
  • Online publication: 26 June 2019
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781787444645.011
Available formats
×