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Robert Lowell's most memorable lines undermine, negate, and denounce: each phase of his career rejected one source of value and authority in the name of another, which Lowell rejected in its turn. The story of Lowell's negations and rebellions also and therefore makes a story about the changing grounds of his poetic authority. As several writers have explained, Lowell's early embrace of New Critical poetics, along with his apocalyptic Catholicism, served him as ways of rejecting his own genteel New England Protestant ancestors and the secular history which they had helped to make. Frequently noticed but never addressed at length, Lowell's frequent deployment of Miltonic devices, echoes, and allusions served him as ways to reject or rebel against the orthodoxies about poetry which Lowell had slightly earlier embraced. Milton's short poems helped the young Lowell develop his distinctive persona and tone, one that could sound at once authoritative and iconoclastic. His early uses of Milton can give us not only ways of reading Lowell, but also insights into the reception of Milton himself, who presented to the poets and critics of midcentury America a very different face from any he presents now.
Many thinkers--most famously Harold Bloom--have argued that poets establish themselves and their styles by challenging, or "misreading," specific precursors and that this process resembles a child's relation to parents. (1) Whatever the general applicability of Bloomian or Oedipal models of poetic development, some such models certainly fit Lowell, who, as Randall Jarrell said in 1962, "always had an astonishing ambition, a willingness to learn what past poetry was and to compete with it on its own terms." (2) As Langdon Hammer points out, early and late "Lowell's writing is derivative in this incontestable and almost overwhelming sense: it continually uses other writers' words." (3) These uses take the forms of allusion, reuse of key words, and incorporation of large blocks of text, as in the chunk of Thomas Mann's Tonio Kroger embedded in Lowell's "The Exile's Return." (4) By alluding and quoting and picking up stylistic devices, Lowell allied himself, early on, with the great dead; he used their words for his own projects of attack. (5) If this is true of Mann, Propertius, or William Cobbett, each of whom appears in only one Lowell poem, it is even truer of Jonathan Edwards and of Milton, who appear and reappear; and it is true in another sense of Lowell's longest project of "quotation," the religious doctrine that informed his life and his poems throughout the 1940s. Lowell, of course, called himself then a Catholic believer, although Vereen Bell has tagged the poems' doctrines as "Christian nihilism." (6) Both Lowell's religion and his Miltonic echoes gave him ways to reject specific temporal authorities--rejections that furnish many of the poems' emotional centers.
Among those authorities were his teachers. Robert Lowell began to write serious poetry at a time, and in a milieu, in which critical doctrines seemed to have an unusual ability to shape young poets. "Never have poetry and criticism in English been so close together," Allen Tate wrote in 1955, describing Lowell's first readers--Ransom, Randall Jarrell, and Tate himself. (7) Tate was both Lowell's entree into the literary world of the 1940s and his first thorough coach in the craft of verse. The young Lowell who pitched his Sears tent on Tate's lawn was also rejecting the "training" which Harvard had offered--leaving his parents' house, his family, and their New England, a rejection for which the Agrarian Tate had already provided ideologically congenial tools. (8)
But the same young poet who apprenticed himself to Tate, then moved to Ohio to study with John Crowe Ransom, had also begun to make obvious and constant use of Milton. Some of the poems from Lowell's first books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946), allude obviously to Milton's, or borrow bits of Milton's language, and most of them use Miltonic aural effects, such as trimeter substitutions, multiple and transferred (though never inverted) adjectival phrases, and caesurae on the seventh or later syllable of a pentameter line. (9)
Here, for example, is part of Lowell's "Mary Winslow":
The bell-rope in King's Chapel tower unsnarls And bells the bestial cow From Boston Common; she is dead. But stop, Neighbor, these pillows prop Her that her terrified and child's cold eyes Glass what they're not: our Copley ancestress, Grandiloquent, square-jowled and worldly-wise, A Cleopatra in her housewife's dress ... (10)
And here is Milton's first digression in "Lycidas":
Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse, So may some gentle Muse With lucky words favor my destin'd Urn And as he passes turn And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud; For we were nurst upon the selfsame hill, Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill. (11)
Aurally and technically, the first passage has imitated the second. Lowell follows Milton in using pentameters interrupted-- twice in sucession--by heavily enjambed trimeter and in writing an elegy which gives unusual force to landscape. At the same time, Lowell's lines have an accelerated pace and a violent, almost vindictive tone completely alien to all of Milton's poetry except a few political sonnets; these sonnets kept turning up in Lowell's verse for exactly that reason. (12)
The important point is not that Lowell ever sounds just like "Lycidas," but that he has obviously used devices learned from it. Jarrell wrote of Land of Unlikeness that its essential influence was …