Monday, September 1, 2014

Robert Lowell: The Quaker Graveyard In Nantucket

(for the text of this poem, click here for its page at The Poetry Foundation)

   I cannot read this poem without immediately being reminded of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem For Doomed Youth”, the desolate, wretched deaths of a myriad anonymous soldiers, so lonely, so abject, so utterly abandoned:

                           No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells;
                            Nor any voice of mourning…


   This, one feels, this naval ritual, this sombre, solemn burial at sea, is what each of Owen’s unnamed heroes also merited, yet never received – unless the Generals, of course. Lowell’s dead sailor is anonymous too, and as grisly and as putrid as any of Owen’s corps turned corpses; but he is also dignified, and above all it was individual dignity whose loss Owen was lamenting. Indeed, in the light that “flashed from his matted head”, and in the “marble feet”, it might have been the Statue to the Unknown Sailor itself that had been trawled by the drag-net, and then raised onto the deck for a brief moment as a monument. The simple act of closing his eyes further dignifies, reprieving the dead soul from oblivion, and at the same time allowing those who live an instant’s pause for reflection upon their own privileged state. Human beings need these rituals, and not for the sake of the dead alone, but to ratify the living covenant. So the body is weighted down and buried in Davey Jones’ locker; so “the guns of the steeled fleet recoil and then repeat the hoarse salute”. Larkin in his “Church-Going” would have removed his hat and cycle-clips and stood with his agnosticism in approving silence, for it is precisely these instances of reverent, civilised behaviour that ennoble us and give our lives and deaths a meaning.

    I like, especially, Lowell’s unshackled approach to rhyme and metre. Without doubt it is he who is the master, unlike so many of us for whom the need to accept the dictates of a pattern formed arbitrarily in the initial moment of inspiration becomes a slave’s collar. So the opening line happens to be an iambic pentameter – does this compel the poet to constrain his impetus and force every line against its will into scanning just the same? And yet the poem does scan, most precisely in fact. The metre, the rhyme, is subservient to the poet’s needs, enabling him to control its flow, allowing him to strike the appropriate balance between the formal and the informal, a classical and a free verse form combined: unfettered and yet disciplined. Too often a meek submission to formal demands lends artificiality to a poem; too often we do not say what we mean, simply because our lucidity is in opposition to our structure. How absurd! I wish to use this word, in this way, in this place; but I cannot, because two lines on I will need a rhyme for it and do not have one; but I cannot, because it has the wrong number of syllables. How utterly absurd!

    But there are other shackles, the ones imposed by history and culture, and even Lowell cannot escape from these. Simply to pronounce the name “Nantucket” is enough to snap the lock closed, for an American poet especially. Nantucket is Moby-Dick’s domain, Herman Melville’s kingdom, and willingly or unwillingly Ishmael and Ahab and the Pequod are evoked. But to evoke Melville is also to evoke what Melville evoked: Biblical allusions, Jonah and Leviathan in particular. All art is inevitably shackled in this way; while freedom, like the sea, defines its own prison. Lowell is driven to plumb the fathoms deeper than the sea-graves of Warren Winslow and the unknown sailor; but this does not present a problem, for it is his intention to do so anyway. What is inexorably evoked thus becomes the very channel through which he navigates ever deeper, through the Quaker Graveyard into the metaphorical ocean – the “whale-road” one might say, citing Beowulf – where Moby-Dick himself becomes Leviathan, where the swallowed Jonah becomes the Sacrificial Son, and any single death, while always remaining personal and individual, becomes at the same time universal. It is this harnessing of past and present, this yoking of the personal and individual, this combining of the ordinary with the mythological – and what I have said about rhyme and metre is a part of this careful synthesis – which is the real achievement of this poem.      

   In the end this is a poem about the killing of the whale, not the human; however gruesome the cadaver dragged up in the first movement of the sonata, it is as nothing when compared with the crucifixion of Leviathan in the third; and the twenty-one gun salute has taken on truly apocalyptic proportions. Lowell’s “Sailor” has been transformed into Coleridge’s “Mariner”; Moby-Dick has metamorphosed into an albatross. Perhaps this is the “rough beast” which Yeats imagined, passing through Nantucket en route to Bethlehem?

    I travelled through New England with my family in 1970, when I was just fifteen. It seemed a green and pleasant enough land, and I presumed these epithets explained its sobriquet. In those days I knew nothing of Melville or of Lowell, had only vague notions about the great souchong incident that led to the War of Independence, and was interested above all else in identifying the spot where Teddy Kennedy had driven over the water’s edge of minor scandal. I remember well the fishing trawls of Hyannis port, and the soup bowls of clam chowder, and the volumes of Henry James on sale in every bookstore. But I saw, then, only the visible landscape, the blue littoral and the Devon-coloured hills, the lush opulence of middle-class America. I am grateful to Lowell, and to Melville, for revealing the hidden landscape of the region, its metaphoric hinterland, carved not out of rock, but human souls.

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