Amy Lowell's poem "The Taxi," which appeared in her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), is a short poem filled with vivid images that express the poet's passion. In twelve brief lines, readers are made to feel the anguish of the speaker of the poem as she leaves her lover's side. Though the taxi in the title is not mentioned directly in the poem, the image of a taxi pulling the speaker away is central to the poem's effect. Imagery in poetry was important to Lowell, who was heavily influenced by the imagist movement, which was developing in Europe during her early entry into the poetic world.
Aside from using powerful images in her poetry, Lowell also was fond of the free verse form. In "The Taxi," Lowell uses neither a rhyming scheme nor a strict, conventional meter. She was often criticized during her career for not using conventional poetic forms, as free verse was viewed as being more like prose than poetry.
"The Taxi" offers one image after another, pulling the reader deeper and deeper into the suffering that accompanies the speaker's departure. Though many critics at the time did not approve of the form of Lowell's poetry, many praised her for the ability to express her passion through poetry, as she does in this poem.
Born to affluent parents on February 9, 1874, in Brookline, Massachusetts, Amy Lowell led a
privileged but challenged life. Wealth and social status were assured for her at birth, as both sides of her family were part of the top echelon of Boston society. Her father, Augustus, was a prominent businessman, and her mother, Katherine, an accomplished musician and linguist. Lowell's grandfathers, John Amory Lowell and Abbott Lawrence, developed the cotton industry of Massachusetts. Lowell had five siblings. Her brother Percival, an astronomer, founded the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Another brother, Abbott Lawrence, served as president of Harvard University. Her distant cousin Robert became a highly acclaimed poet of the confessional school, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947 for his collection Lord Weary's Castle. However, despite the advantages of wealth and a history of family accomplishments, Lowell would struggle with personal issues of weight (she was overweight due to a glandular problem), romantic love, and professional acceptance. The fact that both her parents died when she was in her early twenties added to her difficulties.
Lowell's education followed a typical path for a well-to-do female of her time. She was educated by a tutor at the family residence in Brookline until she was nine. Then she attended several private schools but never went to college. Instead, she became a voracious reader. Books were readily available to her from her father's enormous private library. Lowell herself would later become a book collector, and she helped to financially support several libraries.
Lowell was inspired to write her first poem by an actress, Eleonora Duse. The two of them met only briefly, but Lowell is said to have been struck by Duse's beauty and presence on stage. This was in 1902, a year that many of Lowell's biographers claim that her career as a poet began. It would not be until 1910, though, that her first poems, four sonnets, were published by the Atlantic Monthly. In 1912, Lowell published her first collection, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass, which received little attention from reviewers.
The next year, Lowell discovered poets who were writing in a new form, referred to as imagism. She traveled to Europe to meet with Ezra Pound, who was promoting the new style of poetry. In 1914, Lowell's collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (in which the poem "The Taxi" appears), demonstrated her own versions of imagist poems. From then on, Lowell published almost one book of poems a year until 1921.
Lowell is known not only for her poetry but also for her nonfiction writing. In particular, she is remembered for her 1925 biography of the English romantic poet, John Keats, which is often praised as one of the most insightful studies of the poet.
Though her poetry seldom won critical praise during her lifetime, Lowell did receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1926, for her What's O' Clock, published in 1925 after her death. Today, Lowell is much more appreciated and is studied for her imagist poems and her female point of view.
Lowell was involved in a relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell, a woman she met in 1909. Some scholars believe that the poem "The Taxi" was inspired by Russell. Lowell and Russell lived together until Lowell's death, on May 12, 1925, of a cerebral hemorrhage at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind. 5
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face. 10
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?
"The Taxi" is a poem that has nothing to do with a cab and yet everything to do with it. The word taxi is not once mentioned in the poem; rather, the reader experiences the speaker's thoughts and sights as the cab carries her away through the streets of an unidentified city. This is a poem about the pain of leaving; in abstraction, the taxi becomes the cause of the pain, pulling the speaker farther and farther away from the object of her love and passion. So although this poem never mentions a taxi, the title gives the taxi a significance that the speaker does not have to explain. The title is used to give the reader an image—a woman being driven away in a cab, looking out the rear window and watching the distance between herself and her lover increase.
The title literally provides the vehicle of this poem, whereas the first three lines provide the direction that the taxi is taking. The speaker uses the first person singular pronoun to tell the reader that she is the one in the cab. She is the one who is leaving. The speaker also uses the pronoun "you" to announce that not only is she traveling from one location to another but that she is leaving someone behind. The speaker is not focused on where she is or where she is going but on what she has been torn away from. She is longing for something she cannot take with her. This inability to take someone with her completely transforms the world around her. Whereas the world was very much alive, presumably, in the presence of this person she is leaving, the world now feels dead. There is no rhythm to the world where there once was a strong beat that stirred her passions. Life is now dull in comparison.
In the fourth line, the speaker begins to convey how much she misses the object of her affections. She uses unusual images of stars and wind that uniquely express her pain. Without directly describing how much pain she is suffering, she is able to express her agony through images of sharpness. Stars protrude from the night skies, reflecting back to the speaker her own voice as she cries out for her lover.
In the fifth line, the wind appears to swallow her cries in its folds or to snag them on its sharp edges as the speaker continues to cry out to the one she loves. She is longing for this unnamed person from whom she is being carried away. But the images of the stars, which are so far away, and the wind, which has no form, are not comforting. The stars and wind lack the ability to empathize with her needs.
Though she does not mention the cab she is riding in, she does mention, in the sixth line, the effect it is having on her. As she is being carried away in the cab she has the illusion that it is not her body that is moving through space but rather the streets of the city that are rushing up and quickly passing by her. This gives the impression that she is stationary while the earth moves under her. Not only does this line provide an image, it also offers an insight into what the speaker is feeling. She is distressed because she does not want to leave her lover, while for some unstated reason she is compelled to depart. In the eighth line the speaker emphasizes again how her lover is being torn away from her.
Lines 9 and 10 continue to describe the pain that the speaker experiences as she leaves her lover. On top of everything else that she is feeling, the city lights now hurt her eyes. This most likely is a way of expressing the tears that are blurring her eyes. The speaker's eyesight becomes so impaired that she can no longer see her lover. This could be a reflection of the speaker's inability to see her lover physically because of the distance that has come between them, or on the psychological level, the inability to recapture a vision of her lover because it pains her to do so.
In the last two lines of this poem, the speaker asks why she should leave her lover, when leaving causes so much anguish. Again, in the last line, the speaker uses a sharp image to emphasize the pain she suffers every time she leaves. She ascribes to the night jagged edges upon which she has been stabbed.
Lowell is often praised for her skill in expressing her passion in her poems. "The Taxi" is a good example of how she instills passion in the poetic images she creates.
Passion defines this poem and drives it forward. The word passion means any deeply felt emotion. In the case of Lowell's poem, the passion is the love that the speaker has for the lover she is either leaving or imagining she is leaving. According to the poem, this passion is so strong that separation becomes torturous for the speaker. It is interesting to note that even though the main theme is the passionate love that the speaker feels, the speaker never mentions the word love. This is due in part to the form that an imagist poet such as Lowell practices in her writing. Imagist poetry does not use abstractions. Love, being an emotion, is an abstract concept; instead of talking about love, Lowell uses powerful images to express it. The speaker could have simply said that she missed her lover when she left, but when she writes that the world feels dead to her when she leaves her lover, she reveals the depth of her passion.
All the images that are used in this poem continue along the same path—they provide vivid images of how strongly the speaker feels about her lover. The speaker's passion rips through her as if something is being torn away from her. She feels lost and unable to stop the forces that are pulling her away. Every effort that she makes to stop the process not only is met with failure but wounds her ever more deeply.
One of the reasons Lowell's poems are praised for their expression of passion is the poet's skill in opening up her emotions without making the poem sentimental or maudlin. Lowell's passion runs deep. There is nothing frivolous or silly about the images she uses to express her passion. The speaker's reaction to the situation does not seem overly dramatic because of the depth and power of the imagery.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Lowell uses many images in her poem to describe her emotions. Create a picture in any art medium depicting the stars, wind, or cityscape that you find in the poem. With your picture on display in your class, read Lowell's poem to your fellow students.
- Read several imagist poems, such as William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," or Ezra Pound's "In a Station of a Metro," both of which can be found on the Internet and in many anthologies of American poetry. Then choose an object or scene to focus on and write an imagist poem about it. Read the poem to your class.
- Choose three of the images Lowell uses to describe her emotions in this poem. Then take a survey among at least thirty students at your school, asking them to associate an emotion with the image. Create a graph of your findings and present them to your class after they have read the poem. Be prepared to lead a discussion afterward.
- Whom do you imagine the speaker of this poem is addressing? What would this person say in response to the poem? Write a letter as if you were that person, and address it to the speaker of the poem. Would you be empathetic to the speaker's emotions? Would the speaker's leaving affect you in a similar way? Or would you reprimand the speaker for being so dependent on you?
Suffering is sometimes the consequence of passion. This is well demonstrated in Lowell's poem. Because she has such strong passion for her lover, she suffers when they are parted. She is blinded and wounded by the lights and by the darkness of the night. In other words, being away from her lover is like torture. It is through Lowell's expression of suffering that she defines her love and passion for this other person. The torture that she experiences is a demonstration of how deeply she loves. In that sense, the speaker might be saying that the suffering is worth the pain because the pleasure of love is so rewarding. On the other hand, she might also
be saying that the suffering is so great that she does not want ever to leave her lover again.
Separation is an underlying theme. Separation is what makes the passion and the suffering rise to the surface so that they become known, looked at, and felt. The taxi is the vehicle of separation. It is what causes the lovers to take leave of one another. This parting has taken place in the past and is being pondered or reflected on in the present. In some ways, it is through this past or imagined separation that the speaker declares her love. She does this in two ways. First, she states that when she has left in the past she has been miserable. She has realized how much passion she has because of the pain she has suffered while separated from her lover. Second, she uses the past separation as a statement of purpose. Why would she ever leave again, she might be asking, when it hurt so much in the past? She might also be reassuring her lover that the lover means so much to her that she promises never to leave again.
One way of reading this poem is to observe the weakness and passivity of the speaker. The elements of passivity are exposed in the statements the speaker makes that insinuate that she is a victim of someone else's actions. For instance, there is the image of the taxi pulling the speaker away from her lover, placing an ever-growing number of streets between them. There is also the speaker's voice, which has been silenced by the stars and the wind, which take her shouts away from her lover's ears. The speaker is also wounded by the night and blinded, all of which are signs of increasing weakness and passivity. The speaker expresses her inability to live fully without her lover. She has become dependent on her lover to prop her up, to make her life whole. To correct this situation, the speaker does not work to actively make herself stronger but rather succumbs to her weaknesses and insinuates that she will not leave her lover again, thus passively giving in to her inability to stand on her own two feet when she is not in the presence of her lover.
In her introduction to her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Lowell refers to the French term vers libre (which means "free verse") to describe the form in which she wrote some of her poems. Lowell often used her own term, unrhymed cadence, to refer to this type of poetry. Today, most poems in English that are written without adherence to a strict meter are referred to as free verse. Though free verse poems are not based on regular meter, they do have a cadence, or rhythm, created through phrases, punctuation, line breaks, and patterns. Rhyme can be used but rarely is in free verse.
Lowell further explained the form by stating that the poems are "built upon ‘organic rhythm,’ or the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing, rather than upon a strict metrical system." Lowell stated that the lines of poetry differ from prose and should not be confused with a system by which prose is merely chopped up and made to look like poetry on the page. "These poems, built upon cadence, are more subtle, but the laws they follow are not less fixed," Lowell wrote. She added that the poems are "constructed upon mathematical and absolute laws of balance and time." Lowell often referred to this type of writing as polyphonic prose, which is defined as a freely rhythmical prose employing characteristic devices of poetry such as alliteration, rhythm, and metaphor. The writing sounds like a poem, but there is no rhyme or strict rhythm.
Free verse, though it was not readily accepted in Lowell's time, has become a very popular form with American poets in recent decades. However, free verse has not been restricted only to the twentieth century. For example, the nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman often used free verse, especially in his collection Leaves of Grass.
Poetic imagery is created through words or phrases that appeal to any sense or combination of senses. The image is something that the reader can visualize or can imagine smelling, hearing, touching, or tasting. Poets use images to pull the reader into the piece through common experience. For instance, in Lowell's poem, the image of a taxi, suggested by the title, is used to portray a sense of traveling as well as the process of being taken away, something readers, especially in an urban setting, could relate to.
Poetic imagery is sometimes referred to as word-pictures. Poets use images to express emotions. In the case of Lowell's poem, the image of streets rushing at the speaker represents her feelings of being taken away by some aggressive, external force. The emotion that is expressed through this image is not just the longing for the lover left behind but also the sense of desperation, as if the speaker were being taken away against her own wishes. The images of the lamps and the night assaulting the speaker graphically suggest her pain.
In its use of imagery, "The Taxi" is a typical imagist poem. The imagists believed the image was the central point around which a poem was formed. They focused on creating strong images upon which their poems would stand.
Imagism refers to a movement in poetry that began in the early part of the twentieth century. The imagist movement was a reaction against the romantic and Victorian era, which stressed sentimental language, idealism, and (in the romantics) an interest in the supernatural. Imagism, in contrast, focused on simple and precise language, which provided accurate (as opposed to fantastic) representations of a poem's central subject. Sentimental language was rejected, as was the use of excessive wordage. The imagist movement was short-lived but influential and centered mostly on English and American poets.
The idea of imagist poetry was based on the thoughts of T. E. Hulme, an English philosopher who dabbled in poetry in the early part of the twentieth century. Hulme's ideas were further explored by Ezra Pound, an American poet who spent much of his life in Europe. Using Hulme's ideas of a poetry that used very simple and succinct language, Pound later defined the basic tenets of imagist poetry and promoted imagist poets. In 1912, Pound endorsed one of Hilda Doolittle's poems and described the poet as an imagist, thus officially launching the imagist movement.
Beside using visual images and precise language, imagist poets strove to remove any abstractions from their work. This was not a poetry of ideals but rather a poetry of what could be seen. The only abstraction in this type of poetry was the invocation of emotions, which was derived through visual images. Imagist poets were determined to use concrete details, which then could be further explored through metaphors. Another aspect of imagist poetry was the freedom to create a poem on any topic of the poet's choosing. Free verse was also encouraged, allowing the poet to work outside the confines of meter and rhyme.
Two years after the movement was defined, Pound moved on to other philosophies. Lowell then took over the leadership of the imagist movement and influenced and promoted other poets, especially American poets, who were writing imagist poetry. Pound later made it known that he disapproved of Lowell's influence and referred to the direction that the imagists took under Lowell's direction as Amygism.
Though the movement is usually listed as having ended around 1917, the imagists would greatly affect American poetry, especially through the popularization of free verse. Some poets who are considered imagists include Pound, Lowell, Doolittle, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams.
Hilda Doolittle (H. D.)
It was the poetry of Hilda Doolittle, or H.D., that caught the attention of Lowell and brought Lowell to England. Lowell was impressed with Doolittle's poetic form and wanted to learn more about it.
Doolittle was born on September 10, 1886, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. H. D., as she liked to be called, attended Bryn Mawr College where she met Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound, who greatly influenced her writing. Doolittle moved to England in 1911 and spent the rest of her adult life in Europe. While living in London, she married novelist Richard Aldington.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1910s: In demonstrations in the United States, women call for equal rights. One of their primary demands is the right to vote.
Today: Though women still struggle for many equal rights, such as equal pay for jobs that still pay higher wages to men, women have made significant progress in achieving equality.
- 1910s: The free verse form is popularized by the imagist poets despite the fact that this relatively new poetic form is not considered poetry by many literary critics.
Today: Although the imagist movement in poetry has passed, free verse is still a popular form of poetry in the United States.
- 1910s: Separated lovers rely on long-distance telephone calls and telegrams to communicate with each other. The primary means of transcontinental travel is by train, which takes several days. Trips across the ocean are made on ships.
Today: Technology has greatly increased people's ability to stay in contact with loved ones who are far away. Mobile phones enable not only affordable long-distance conversations but also text messaging and emailing. Coast to coast air travel in the United States takes only five hours; flights to Europe take just a few hours more.
Doolittle's first poems were published in the magazine Poetry in 1913. Although known in Europe, Doolittle's work did not receive much attention in the United States until Lowell promoted Doolittle's poems there. Although known as one of the great imagist poets, Doolittle broke away from the movement after World War II. The years that followed were some of her most creative. She died from complications from a stroke on September 21, 1961. In her lifetime, Doolittle published several collections of poetry and four novels.
Women's Rights in the Early Twentieth Century
The image of the genteel female who stayed home and raised children and had little if any civil rights was beginning to change at the turn of the twentieth century. More women's voices were being heard in literature and in politics. In 1903, women formed the National Women's Trade Union League, which advocated improved working conditions and wages. A decade later, the National Women's Party was formed to apply pressure on the U.S. Congress to give women the right to vote. During this time, World War I broke out and women assumed working positions that men who had joined the military had held. This provided women with a taste of what it was like to hold down a job outside the home and to earn a decent salary. This opportunity also demonstrated that women were capable workers. After the war ended, women won the right to vote with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.
Lowell's writings were often disparaged in her lifetime. Her experiments with free verse, which contained neither rhyme nor meter, were largely misunderstood by many critics and therefore ridiculed for their supposed lack of form.
In a 2004 article for the Washington Post, Edward Hirsch suggests that Lowell's "poetry has been underestimated for most of the past 75 years." Hirsch adds that Lowell's work, for the most part, has also been "too easily dismissed, sometimes insulted, often ignored." Hirsch claims that Lowell's name is often mentioned merely as an anecdote or a footnote in essays devoted to the study of poetry and her work is not given the attention it deserves. Hirsch, unlike many of Lowell's contemporaries, commends Lowell for "her exuberant work in free verse." He then points out that of all her work, "Lowell is most moving as a poet of Eros," in other words, in her poems about love and passion.
William Lyon Phelps, writing for the New York Times during the time that the poet was still alive, also pointed out that many critics mocked Lowell's poetry. "For some years she was a mark for the shafts of humor, ridicule and parody," Phelps states in a 1921 review. Phelps, though he admits he does not appreciate all of Lowell's work, says he especially admires her more traditional poetry, which he refers to as "beautiful and original." Phelps goes on to describe Lowell as "a poet of imagination and passion, with a remarkable gift for melody, a sound technique, and an acute perception of the color and tone of words."
In a 1922 article for the New York Times, Norreya Jephson O'Conor notes that Lowell was endowed with family financial support and an extensive education, which allowed her the time and the knowledge to develop into a poet, but that this would not have done her any good had it not been for her natural talents. O'Conor writes that Lowell "also possessed a nature remarkably sensitive to impression, the true inheritance of a poet." O'Conor, like many of Lowell's contemporary critics, is not so enamored of Lowell's free verse poems, however. O'Conor does praise Lowell's collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, in which "The Taxi" was published, but the critic's positive review is based mostly on the more conventional poems in that collection. The critic concludes this review with a positive comment:
Her [Lowell's] enthusiasm and courage in upholding her artistic beliefs have done much to win respect for the profession of poetry, and her influence upon individual poets, even upon those who have never adopted the innovations in form which she has made familiar, has been noteworthy.
Vindicated by time, Lowell's poetry is now widely celebrated and studied.
Hart is a published author and freelance writer. In this essay, she examines the "organic rhythm" Lowell employs in "The Taxi."
Lowell was often criticized in her time for her free-flowing poetry, which went against the strict rules of traditional English poetic form. This form was based on regimented patterns of rhyme and cadence, or rhythm. Words at the ends of lines often rhymed with one another. Lines were written in uniform patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. The rhythm of most traditional poetry was regular—could be heard like a systematic tapping of a pencil on the top of a table. Many poems were based on an iambic meter, in which one unstressed syllable was followed by one stressed syllable, over and over again. Most common was iambic pentameter, or five iambic feet (units that contain one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable). The rhythm would sound something like the following: ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum. Such formal meters became so closely associated with poetry that any poem that did not follow such conventions was criticized for not being any different from regular prose. Unrhymed and loosely metered forms were definitely not poetry, according to these literary critics.
Lowell did not buy this assessment, and she was not alone. She was not the first to write poetry without rhyme and regular rhythm. In her introduction to her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, in which her poem "The Taxi" was published, Lowell explains that she was influenced by French poets who came before her, including Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle, Albert Samain, and Paul Fort. She states that despite the criticism she received, she believed herself to be a poet, a craftsman who studied poetry and invested much effort and discipline into her art. She understood the traditional poetic form, but she did not always feel that her sense of poetry fit into the confines of rhymed and strictly measured meter. So Lowell was attracted to a different (and more radical for her time) poetic form, what the French called vers libre, or free verse. Though rhyme and regular meter were not necessarily present in poems written in the form of vers libre, other poetic devices, such as images and metaphors, were.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Amy Lowell: Selected Poems (2004) is a relatively new collection of Lowell's life work, offering the reader an overview of the poet's development. This collection was edited by Honor Moore.
- Another collection of Lowell's poems, selected by Peter Seymour, is The Touch of You; Amy Lowell's Poems of Love and Beauty (1972). Some critics have found these poems to be some of Lowell's best.
- E. Claire Healey and Keith Cushman edited a collection of correspondence between Lowell and English novelist D. H. Lawrence titled The Letters of D. H. Lawrence and Amy Lowell, 1914-1925 (1985). This book offers an intimate glimpse into both the personal and professional sides of Lowell. Lawrence was both a supporter and a critic of Lowell's poetry, and these letters demonstrate how he played out both of these roles.
- Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who was better known as H. D., was a contemporary of Lowell's. Lowell greatly admired her work. H. D.'s poems can be found in H. D.: Collected Poems, 1912-1944 (1983).
- Another well-known imagist poet was Richard Aldington (1892-1962). Aldington was born in England and was married to H. D. for a short period. He is remembered for his writing about his experiences in World War I. Aldington's Images of War (1919), a collection of poetry, and his novel Death of a Hero (1929) are two of his more well-known works.
- Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was an American poet who was greatly responsible for creating the imagist movement. Pound's most famous imagist poem is "In a Station of the Metro," which can be found in the collection Modern American Poetry, An Anthology, edited by Louis Untermeyer and reprinted in 2008.
Moreover, meter is often present in such poems; it is just irregular. The meter in free verse forms can be tapped out with a pencil, for example, but the beat might change from line to line, depending on the emotional content of the phrase the poem is focused on. In the preface to Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Lowell refers to the meter of her poetry as unrhymed cadence. She explains that unrhymed cadence is not the same thing as the rhythm that might be present in a piece of prose, which is even more loose. She does, however, claim that the "organic rhythm" upon which she builds her poetry is drawn from the more natural rhythms of the spoken word. In other words, the rhythm is based on the words chosen, the meaning of the words, and the emotions behind them. Pauses, as signified by punctuation and breaks in the poem's lines, also help to create the rhythm and are similar to the pauses the speaker would make to take a breath. These pauses also add drama to the poem, as the emotion builds, the poet states, "until it burns white-hot."
If the cadence of Lowell's poem "The Taxi" were counted out, readers would see that the range of beats, or syllables, per line varies from four to thirteen. Some of these beats follow the unstressed/stressed pattern, but not consistently. For instance, the first line begins with two unstressed syllables before it gets into the unstressed/stressed rhythm. The same happens in lines 3 and 4. Line 2 changes this pattern.
Line 2 has four beats and an iambic rhythm that sounds like ta-dum, ta-dum. This ever-so-slight change in rhythm between the second line and its other three companions makes the second line stand out. The second line is not only the shortest line of the first four, it is also the most dramatic. Its brevity and its subtle change in rhythm also provide the first hint of emotion. This beat that the speaker refers to is akin to the beat of the heart, a suggestion reinforced by the iambic rhythm of this line, which mimics the rhythm of a heartbeat. Without this beat, the world appears dead. Though the change in cadence is subtle in the second line, the poet has purposefully composed it to be different from what comes before and after it. The break from iambic meter in line 3 suggests the end of the heartbeat. The pause at the end of line 2 is also purposeful. By pausing there, the last word of the second line receives more attention. The world appears dead. The speaker feels dead. Lowell wants to make sure that the reader not only understands this but also feels this. So she uses both rhythm and pause to grab the reader's attention.
Lines 6 and 7 provide another example of how Lowell uses organic rhythm. Line 6 could be read with an emphasis on the first syllable, followed by two unstressed syllables and ending with a stressed syllable. So the rhythm is dum, ta-ta dum. The rhythm in line 7 is related to the rhythm in line 6, but it also differs slightly. In line seven, the rhythm could be read as dum, ta-ta-ta dum-ta. Note that both of these lines are very short, with four beats in line 6 and six in line 7. These short lines imply speed. The quickness of the beats reflects the tempo that the speaker feels as the taxi races down the streets, pulling her away from her lover. As the speed of the beat increases, so too does the intensity of the speaker's emotions. The distance between the speaker and her lover increases and builds a more powerful wedge between them. There is a sense that things are happening so quickly that the speaker has no power to stop them.
Also note that the poet has used only three words in line 6. She could have used the article "the" to start off the line and the verb "are," thus creating a complete sentence: "The streets are coming fast." One reason the poet might have chosen not to do this is that by paring down the sentence, she changes the rhythm. By using only the three words, the line begins with a stressed sound. This increases the sense of urgency. If she had used the complete sentence, with the extra article and verb, the rhythm would have been the more monotonous, less emotional iambic rhythm.
The last line offers another example of how the poet uses organic rhythm. The line begins with an unstressed syllable and continues in a rocking motion of iambic meter until it comes to the most important words in this line. There the rhythm dramatically changes. With the word "edges," it becomes trochaic, consisting of a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable. This rhythm is aggressive, almost suggesting a stabbing motion, thus dramatizing the final image of the poem. It raises the heat of emotion. The speaker does not want to ever leave her lover again because leaving her lover is like inflicting an injury on herself. Lowell has used the organic rhythm of the words themselves to create an emotional sensation in the reader. The cadence of this final line enacts the last image, which is then indelibly impressed upon the reader's mind.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "The Taxi," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Carl E. Rollyson Jr.
In the following excerpt, Rollyson addresses Lowell's relationship with Ada Russell, who was the inspiration for the poem "The Taxi."
When Amy Lowell died in 1925 at the age of 51, she was at the height of her fame. Her two-volume biography of John Keats, published in the last year of her life, had been greeted in this country with almost universal acclaim. She was the premier platform performer among her generation of poets.
In 1926, Lowell's posthumous volume of verse, What's O'Clock, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. She had remained in the public eye ever since the publication of her second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914). She had wrested the Imagist movement away from Ezra Pound, producing three best-selling anthologies of Imagist verse while publishing a book of her own poetry nearly every year. Pound retaliated, calling her appropriation "Amygism."
The pugnacious Lowell dominated the poetry scene in every sense of the word, supporting journals like Poetry and The Little Review, and publishing pronunciamentos about the "new poetry." Standing only five feet tall and weighing as much as 250 pounds, she made good copy: The sister of Harvard's president, she smoked big black cigars and cursed. She lived on the family estate in Brookline, Massachusetts, where her seven rambunctious sheep dogs terrorized her guests. She wore a pince nez that made her Iook—so one biographer thought—like Theodore Roosevelt. She was even known to say "Bully!" Lowell traveled in a maroon Pierce Arrow, which she shipped to England in 1914 when she decided to look up Pound and seize her piece of the poetry action in London. Pound wanted her monetary support but scorned her verse. When she chose not to play by his rules, he mocked her, parading around a party she was hosting with a tin bathtub on his head—his way of ridiculing her bath poem, written in her patented polyphonic prose:
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the
water and dance, dance, and their reflections
wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my
finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a
foot, and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie
back and laugh, and let the green-white water,
the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The
day is almost too bright to bear, the green water
covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here
awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
Reading this dithyramb to the Poetry Society of America, Lowell caused an uproar. This was not poetry at all, the conservative membership protested. Another account of this episode mentions titters, as Society members envisioned the elephantine poet at her ablutions—or rather her profanation of what a dignified poet ought to perform.
Lowell went on lecture tours the way rock bands roll from town to town today, with an entourage, a suite at the best hotel, and a gathering of reporters awaiting her latest outrage. On the lecture platform, she would read a poem and then pause, looking out at her audience: "Well, hiss or applaud! But do something!" Almost always she got an ovation—and some hisses. At receptions and dinner parties, she was carefully watched. When would she light up? She seldom disappointed, although her favored stogie was, in fact, a small brown panatela.
Other women poets—chiefly Elinor Wylie and Edna St. Vincent Millay—also commanded press attention, but none had Amy Lowell's authority. Publishers deferred to her contractual terms. D. H. Lawrence, Richard Aldington, H. D., and others depended on her largesse and her business sense. She was Poetry, Inc. Today she would be, of course, Poetry.com. T. S. Eliot called her the "demon saleswoman" of modern poetry. Academic critics such as John Livingston Lowes deemed her one of the masters of the sensuous image in English poetry. She helped make the reputations of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost.
Of course, Lowell had her detractors, but their views were rarely reflected in reviews of her books. As Norman Mailer said of Marilyn Monroe—Lowell had crashed through a publicity barrier, which meant that no matter what kind of press she got, it all accrued to her benefit. Although she came from a wealthy and staunchly capitalist family and called herself "the last of the barons," it was not her politics but her poetics that captured the public imagination. She was for free verse, or what she called "cadenced verse." Although she would produce sonnets and other sorts of poems with rhyme schemes, she was celebrated for lines of uneven length, a bold, informal voice, and bright, colorful sensory imagery.
Lowell was all surface, her grumbling dissenters alleged, but she always seemed to carry the day by switching modes—from grand historical narratives, to hokkus, to lyrics, to polyphonic prose, to books about contemporary poetry that read as though she had just left the lecture platform to address you, the common reader.
It is not surprising, then, that her enemies—never able to get much traction during her lifetime—should pounce just as soon as the energetic Lowell dropped dead from a stroke. The urge to cut this incubus down to size was irresistible. Clement Wood, a poet and critic who had feuded with Lowell, was first up in 1926, producing a biography systematically dismantling Lowell's reputation as a poet and critic. Lowell had been prolific and prolix, producing in a fifteen-year span an immense and uneven variety of verse and prose that made her an easy target for tendentious criticism. Wood's verdict, in short, was that Lowell was no poet at all. He skirted her lesbianism with references to the "Sapphic fragments" of a "singer of Lesbos." He employed what he called the "new psychology" to suggest her work was wish fulfillment, the product of a desire to be accepted. Lowell's need was pathological, Wood implied, because of her obesity—a word he never used, referring instead to her "immense physique." Wood favored sarcasm, concluding, "All the Harvard pundits and all the claquing men can't set Miss Lowell on a pedestal again." He was chaffing John Livingston Lowes, chair of Harvard's English department, and countless critics who had reviewed her writing positively.
Lowell's next biographer, S. Foster Damon, produced a monumental biography in 1935, noting that Wood's snide attack had not been widely reviewed or credited, but the damage had been done—in part because Wood had played off the epithets of critics like Witter Bynner, who had dubbed Lowell the "hippopoetess," a term Ezra Pound also took up as a way of conflating the person with the poet. Damon, a member of Lowell's inner circle, restored her dignity by detailing her heroic dedication to her writing and to the cause of poetry, but he also unwittingly played Wood's hand by emphasizing the "triumph of the spirit over the tragedy of the body." Poetry, in other words, is what Lowell could do instead of living a full, "normal" life. Damon meant his words as a tribute, but because he did not tell the complete story of Lowell's love life and her working days, he could not recover for readers the Amy Lowell he knew.
Damon's plight raises two issues that plague Lowell biography. Lowell's lover and constant companion, Ada Dwyer Russell, destroyed their letters at Lowell's request. As unfortunate was Lowell's directive to her secretaries that they destroy the drafts of her work each day. Damon could have partly rectified this enormous loss had he candidly described the intimacy between "Peter" (Lowell's nickname for Ada) and the poet. But Russell, who had worked closely with the poet, was also Lowell's executor. Russell lived until 1952, resisting all requests to tell the story of her relationship with Lowell, and thus depriving readers not merely of a love story but of an insight into the poetic process. Damon's reticence made it all too easy for Wood's virulent version of Lowell to metastasize in Horace Gregory's hostile Amy Lowell: Portrait of the Poet in Her Time (1958). Employing Wood's vulgar Freudianism, Gregory sketched a view of a masculinized woman who used her bulk as a defense against a hurtful world. Gregory seemed to have no idea that Russell and Lowell had been lovers, although the evidence was rather plain to see, eventually emerging in Jean Gould's Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (1975). Relying on critics such as Glenn Richard Ruilhy, who published in 1957 an edition of Lowell's poetry that emphasized her stunning love poetry, as well as on fresh interviews with Lowell's surviving family and friends, Gould began the work of restoring the person and poet to her full humanity and range ….
Source: Carl E. Rollyson Jr., "The Absence of Amy Lowell," in New Criterion, Vol. 26, No. 1, September 2007, pp. 77-81.
In the following excerpt, Orr considers Lowell as a Modernist poet.
… "On or about December 1910," wrote Virginia Woolf, "human character changed." You can tell a lot about someone by how much irony he reads into this announcement. Many people have taken Woolf's statement at face value, leading to the persistence of what you might call the creationist theory of Modernism. (And Eliot said, "Let there be a general sense of displacement and alienation": and there was a general sense of displacement and alienation.) As many critics have noted, this can be a deeply unsatisfying way of looking at early twentieth-century poetry—for one thing, it tends to overstate the importance of minor but "modern" looking poets like H. D., while struggling to explain the persistence of major but un-"modern" looking poets like Frost. If human character really changed in 1910, someone would seem to have forgotten to tell quite a few humans about it.
It's useful, then, to remember that "Modernism" was at least as much a convergence of period styles as a literary revolution. Nothing illustrates this fact quite as decisively as the poetry of Amy Lowell. Lowell, who died in 1925, was an enthusiastic modernist, a talented literary impresario, and an unremarkable poet in the Poundian imagiste mode—which is just another way of saying that most of her poems look like this:
Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.
Of course, the above also looks a lot like this:
Through the upland meadows
I go alone.
For I dreamed of someone last night
Who is waiting for me.
Flower and blossom, tell me do you know of her?
Which in turn could easily be mistaken for this:
green, gold and incandescent whiteness,
you have brought me Spring and longing,
in your irradiance.
In other words, shortly after December 1910, everyone from Amy Lowell (first quote) to John Gould Fletcher (second) to F. S. Flint (third) sounded like a Chinese translation. Viva la revolucion! Honor Moore, the editor of this volume, argues that Lowell's achievement is best seen not in her earliest poetry, but in "the erotic lyrics she wrote to the woman with whom she lived the final twelve years of her life." She's right. Yet even Lowell's strongest poems in this vein remain far less interesting than Virginia Woolf's correspondence with Vita Sackville-West, to say nothing of Woolf's Orlando: A Biography. But then, how could it be otherwise? Virginia Woolf was a genius; Amy Lowell was only a modernist ….
Source: David Orr, "Eight Takes," in Poetry, Vol. 187, No. 3, December 2005, pp. 233-48.
Diane Ellen Hamer
In the following excerpt, Hamer discusses Lowell's use of polyphonic prose, spare images, and free verse.
All told, Lowell wrote nine books of poetry and four books of prose, and edited several anthologies, in the twelve years from age 39 to her death of a stroke at 51. Some of the poetry is exquisite and timeless, some is dreadful and forgettable. Lowell usually wrote in free verse—vers libre, as she called it. Her body of work is sufficiently large that most readers will find something of interest, what with subjects ranging from history, war and the Far East to lesbian love, gardens, and everyday life activities.
Amy Lowell was born in Boston in 1874 to Augustus and Katharine Lawrence Lowell, part of the large Lowell-Lawrence clan. She was the baby sister of the future president of Harvard University, Abbott Lawrence Lowell. She was first educated at home and later at private schools reserved for upper-class girls. She was largely self-educated, though, as she didn't do well in the confines of the classroom. She was a smart, sensitive tomboy caught in a social class and a larger culture that made it very hard for her to find herself. In time she would come to be regarded, quite incorrectly, as a lonely old maid. Her letters and her friends' reminiscences show that she had crushes on girls and women from an early age, and that she understood on some level that making a life with another woman was not socially acceptable. However, upon meeting the actress Ada Dwyer Russell in 1912, she emerged as both a writer and a lesbian ….
Russell was instrumental in Lowell's success, both as her muse and as her helpmate, tending to Amy's personal and work needs with absolute devotion and care. It's a love story that can only be gleaned from the poetry, which is to say that Lowell chose to be far less obvious about their relationship than did that other lesbian couple of the era, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In a section of Pictures of the Floating World (1919), many of the love poems are gathered in a section that Lowell called "Two Speak Together." Most of the poems are short and episodic, or in some cases a series of haiku-like passages stitched together into a longer piece ….
Lowell's first book of poetry was mostly conventional fare, but after reading a poem by HD (Hilda Doolittle), who called herself an "imagiste," Lowell declared herself to be an imagiste as well. Unfortunately, as she explored the world of the "new poetry," she wound up in a feud with Ezra Pound. Pound was willing to use Lowell for funding and networking, but wasn't above ridiculing her when it suited him. Nor did other authors refrain from disparaging Lowell in their letters and dinner conversation, even while continuing to use their friendship with her to advance their own careers. As shown by Bonnie Kime Scott in her essay in the American Modern collection, Lowell was to D. H. Lawrence "a poet, a friend, and a facilitator, rather than a patron, [such] that she was rewarded his dedication of New Poems in 1918." However, Lawrence and others sometimes "expressed doubts about her poetry and the very lectures she used to spread their reputations. They worried that they were not always enhanced by her agency." Regardless of the infighting, Amy Lowell and Ada Russell did have a large circle of friends made up of other writers, society people, and family members who frequented their home, often for elaborate dinner parties. Lowell commanded their attention on these occasions but was also capable of genuine concern for her friends and colleagues.
At the height of her notoriety, Lowell was her own best promoter. She believed that marketing oneself was necessary to sell poetry to the general public. She used her reputation as a cigar-smoking woman to attract people to her public performances, which in turn she used to advance both her own career and those of her friends. By traveling and reading her poems before women's clubs and poetry groups, at society teas and small invitational events, she brought her poems to life and managed to market them to literary magazines and anthologies. Her poems were meant to be read aloud, especially those in what she called polyphonic prose. Here the typescript looked like prose, but the cadences and rhymes created a more musical sound, which she likened to the effect of a symphony, with many voices in one. "Only read it aloud. Gentle Reader, I beg, and you will see what you will see," she wrote in the preface to Men, Women and Ghosts (1916).
Lowell borrowed from and expanded upon the work of earlier writers to achieve her aural effect. This dependence upon hearing the poems read aloud has undoubtedly limited their appeal. But the main reason that Lowell is barely more than a footnote in literature can be traced to the 20th-century scourges of misogyny, homophobia, and fat phobia (Lowell was far from thin). It didn't help that as an upper-class woman she was often considered a dilettante, and her death at 51 cheated her out of the longevity that might have given her more time to establish herself in American letters. Even with her penchant for entertaining and traveling, she did not develop a cult of personality as, say, Stein and Hemingway did.
Although she won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and two of her poems, "Patterns" and "Madonna of the Evening Flowers" are widely published in poetry anthologies, her fame today is confined to a rather small number of devoted readers. Her lasting contribution to modern poetry will probably be the combination of her use of polyphonic prose and her spare images. While she will never be as widely known as Gertrude Stein or Djuna Barnes, she does join them and other innovative writers who blasted into the 20th century with new ways of looking at and writing about the world. In the end, like Stein, Lowell may well be best remembered not for her poetry but for her public persona as a cigar-smoking iconoclast who broke free of conventional sex roles to become an American original.
Source: Diane Ellen Hamer, "Amy Lowell Wasn't Writing about Flowers," in Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Vol. 11, No. 4, July-August 2004, pp. 13-15.
In the following essay, Healey discusses Lowell's contribution to the Imagist movement.
Amygism may be considered a term of reproach, yet, in truth, one cannot overlook Amy Lowell's contribution to the Imagist movement. She was unwavering in her attempt to create a climate conducive to the writing of Imagist poetry and the unpublished essays discussed here attest to her devotion to this poetic experiment.
Imagism was described by Ford Madox Ford as a "slender and lovely little movement." Though this little movement flourished between 1912 and 1917, it was in the summer of 1913 that the Imagists began to hit their stride. In that summer Miss Lowell made her first visit to London, and was suitably introduced by Ezra Pound to the current literary personalities, among them Richard Aldington, H. D., Ford and F. S. Flint. For the next few months Amy Lowell associated herself with the Imagists of London, fully aware of what it meant to be a member of such a select group.
Though Miss Lowell had the distinct advantage of being a relative of the distinguished James Russell Lowell, a descendant of the Lowles of Somersetshire, she had not, at the time of her first London visit, achieved any real distinction as a poet or critic. Robert Lowell expressed these sentiments about his relative in 1965: "My distant cousin Amy, some of whose poetry really is rather good, struck her brothers Percival and Lawrence as being a bit odd. They wished her well, but didn't quite understand what she was about."
A glance at Miss Lowell's adventure with the Imagists, however, leads one to suspect that she did know what she was about, for not long after her London arrival she was publicly recognized as an Imagist poet. Pound launched her, along with William Carlos Williams and Skipwith Cannell, in the September issue of The New Freewoman. Pound also arranged for the publication of her poetry in the influential magazine, Egoist, and promised that "when he got through [with her] she'll think she was born in free verse."
From the time of her first contact with the Imagists, Miss Lowell became an ardent campaigner, demonstrating limitless energy and a cultivated devotion to poetry. However, because of the discord within the Imagist group, together with a certain amount of public indifference, the enthusiasm for the "school" began to wane after Miss Lowell's second visit to London in July, 1914. From that time there was a shift of allegiance and authority from London to Boston with Amy Lowell ultimately importing to America a modified version of the Imagist credo which Pound and his colleagues had drafted in 1912.
By the fall of 1914 it became apparent that a splinter group was organizing itself and eventually H. D., F. S. Flint, Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher were attracted into the Lowell orbit, despite warnings from Pound that the movement would collapse when "pleasure seekers exploited Imagism with cheap imitation." Under Lowell's zealous leadership, however, the splinter group embarked on a program to place before the public its own Imagist poetry and its own reconstituted doctrine. The careers of several poets were intimately involved as Amy Lowell began her promotion of Imagism in the United States.
With the control which Miss Lowell was about to assume came the responsibilities of critic, a role which Pound had previously carried out for the Imagist group. Along with her poetry Miss Lowell wrote a number of critical essays and from thence her poetic credenda eventually emerged. In the role of critic she wrote six prefaces to her own volumes of collected poems, two studies of French and American poetry, and a number of essays, some of which still remain unpublished. In her determined campaign for recognition, her strategy was not unlike that of Pound when he first arrived in London in 1910: "Publicize. publicize."
Among Miss Lowell's unpublished papers are two undated manuscripts, one simply entitled "The Imagists," which was probably written about May, 1915, when, as Miss Lowell writes, "the author of the oldest Imagist poem, T. E. Hulme [was] … in the trenches at Ypres." "The Imagists" is a précis, an attempt by Miss Lowell to define the term "Imagist" and to review for her American audience (an audience which did not fully understand or appreciate Imagist poetry), the principles of the school.
This is the name by which a new school of English poetry styles itself, which started about 1908, and has undergone an important development during the course of the present war. In England all literary activity is not at a standstill, as it is with us. Life continues, thought also, imagination also, although the author of the oldest Imagist poem, T. E. Hulme, at this moment, as are many French poets, is in the trenches at Ypres. The English Imagists evidently come from the French symbolists. One sees that at once in their horror of the cliché, the horror of rhetoric and the grandiose, of the oratorical style, that easy style with which the imitators of Victor Hugo have disgusted us forever. As positive precepts, they wish precision of language, clearness of vision, concentration of thought, all of which they like to combine in a dominant image. Mr. Harold Monroe, who has given an excellent outline of Imagism in the last number of the Egoist, finds the greater part of these principles in the best English poets and theorists of poetry, from Dryden to Matthew Arnold, but recent poets have neglected them too much. It is in this way that new literary schools are formed; they are always a reaction against the carelessness of the leading school and the worship which it necessarily has for cliché started during its ascendancy. In poetry, even more than in any other art, constant renewal is necessary, and when we see a school endeavoring to do this, above all by invoking eternal, although disregarded principles, we can only augur for its future.
From still another point of view, I could consider Imagism as a proof of the vitality of the English race. To renew poetry "to the sound of the canon of the West" as Goethe said, is a fine proof, not of decadence, but of force. When one has that one puts it into everything.
This unpublished essay was written about the time of the publication of the anthology Some Imagist Poets, and in the preface to that anthology Miss Lowell points out the "differences in taste and judgment" which had arisen among the contributors since the publication of Des Imagistes in 1914.
In another unpublished essay, "Two Imagist Poets," Amy Lowell further develops her convictions regarding Imagist poetry. Although she seems perplexed that the American public is having difficulty understanding Imagism, she makes no attempt in this essay to explain Imagism. Instead she focuses on two members of her splinter group, Richard Aldington and F. S. Flint, and is graciously generous in her praise:
… my joining the Imagists was a case of "birds of a feather flocking together." I well remember the first poems I ever saw by H. D. and how beautiful I thought them, and I remember the almost painful delight with which F. S. Flint's "London" and "The Swan" affected me. No succeeding reading has dulled my pleasure in these poems; they have taken their place as permanent possessions.
It is interesting to note that months before she composed these unpublished essays, Amy Lowell wrote her own preface to Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds. In this preface, written during the heyday of Imagism, she describes poetry as a trade. Although she was intimately associated with the Imagists, she still felt justified, while experimenting with Imagism, to use the "more classic English meters." Apparently referring to Imagism, she remarked in that preface that schools are founded on reaction against the old and "the present poetic revival has proved … that a great many of the younger poets are seeing things their ancestors never saw."
It was inevitable, if not totally accidental, that Miss Lowell was to become known to her American audience as "the founder of Imagism," an idea to which Pound, in high dudgeon, objected strenuously. But early in her association with she Imagists, Miss Lowell, with characteristic assurance, had confided to Margaret Anderson that she had joined the London literary circle in 1913 in order "to put the Imagists on the map." Her excursion with the Imagists, during the period from 1913-1917 was a way of life for her. From the moment of her first introduction into the coterie in London, she gave totally of her time, energy, and convictions; in her self-appointed role of spokesman for the Imagists, she was as dauntless and inexhaustible as Pound had been before her.
Source: Claire Healey, "Some Imagist Essays: Amy Lowell," in New England Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1, March 1970, pp. 134-38.
Winfield Townley Scott
In the following excerpt, Scott discusses Lowell's skill and reputation as an Imagist poet.
The spring of 1935 marked a decade since the death of Amy Lowell. Ten years ago, with scant ceremony, even as she had wished, her ashes were buried at Mount Auburn; the prim stone with the name, two dates, and "Brookline" was set over them, and there, beneath madonna lilies and lilacs, lay the last of the most flamboyant lady in American letters.
Her death, like her brief career, was headline news. Almost every one who read knew something about Amy Lowell. She did not become a celebrity until she was almost forty years old, and at her death she was only fifty-one; but during those eleven years she had written nearly seven hundred poems, two volumes of critical essays (and material from which another was made), and an enormous, twelve-hundred-page biography of John Keats. Her reviews and her letters were innumerable. She traveled extensively; she read and lectured widely. In spite of her unwieldy body and her pathetic illnesses her vigor was amazing. There is no indication that, had she lived, her production of poetry would not have continued to flourish. She was planning with Florence Ayscough another volume of translations from the Chinese, she was arranging a visit to Mary Austin to study Indian poetry in the Southwest, she was preparing to write her autobiography.
Everybody, indeed, had heard of Amy Lowell in one way or another: she made a wider personal impression than any other writer of her time. Already before Mount Auburn had received her ashes, Miss Lowell was something of a legendary figure. Nobody who met her could forget that forthright lady of the vast bulk, the oaths, and the cigars. The voluminous publication of her work kept her constantly in the public eye. And there were picturesque stories: of "Sevenels" and its dinners over which Ada Russell presided and at which Miss Lowell was invariably late; of how she worked by night and slept by day—and when the queen slept, the castle held its breath, and when she woke, it burst into a wild activity of butchers and bakers, cooks and gardeners, maids, and chauffeurs, and secretaries. Here were wealth and work combined in extraordinary splendor. The world heard, repeated, and did not forget: the big bed with its umbrella and its many pillows; the special hotel suites with clocks and mirrors swathed in black at her arrival; the bardlings who came and went at "Sevenels"—one of them with his trousers torn by the famous sheep-dogs; of "Winky," the cat; of the champagne raid to supply Eleanora Duse—and all the intriguing, endless rest of the romance.
Now, since the days of these rare deeds, ten years have slipped away—ten years that should provide a fair perspective for trying to decide just how much of her story will endure. Certainly Amy Lowell survives as a legendary figure, and she will continue to do so. Genuinely spectacular characters are too few for us ever to let go such a gorgeous specimen as she. Eccentricity, however, makes for only a second-rate kind of immortality; such was not Miss Lowell's ambition, nor should it be the primary concern of any one who takes literature seriously. The important considerations are those that confront her work, which is no less extravagant than her career. Out of all this "electrical storm" of making verse and prose is there anything left to give promise of endurance in American letters? If so, what is it, and where does it belong? These questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered; yet the time seems ripe for trying to answer them.
To begin with, the fame of Amy Lowell is in a state of excellent health. The collection of clippings kept by Mrs. Russell approaches a score of massive scrap-books, and additions arrive at the rate of one hundred a month. In other words, Amy Lowell is mentioned in print about three times, on an average, every day. During this decade, too, have appeared the four posthumous books which complete Miss Lowell's own work; What's O'Clock, the first of them, won the Pulitzer award. There has been no single volume of her collected verse, but Selected Poems, edited by John Livingston Lowes, was published in 1928. A large, official biography by S. Foster Damon appears this autumn. No study of her has been brought out except that by Clement Wood, a book which forfeits respect, in spite of its partial truthfulness, because of the gloomy atmosphere of personal resentment which hangs over most of the pages.
So much for the footnotes to fame. On the other hand, the poetic scene has shifted considerably since Miss Lowell's death. There was a time, in the heyday of the battles about "free verse," when all the experimentalists looked alike. Now they do not. Ezra Pound, the chameleon, seems to have little connection with the imagists of yesteryear, and his literary influence has been second only to that of T. S. Eliot, who, as the most imitated poet and critic of the past decade, has no resemblance whatever to the group of Amy Lowell. Most of those who stood in that mythical "front rank" with her are lost to view. Edwin Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, and Elinor Wylie are dead; Edgar Lee Masters and John Gould Fletcher have faded badly; H. D. seems as minor as she is remote. Many poets, like Carl Sandburg, are concerned chiefly, or wholly, with prose; and Robert Frost has added nothing significant to his secure reputation.
Beside Robinson's Tristram, Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body has been the most noted poetry; Robinson Jeffers has gained, ironically enough, the most publicity—and a position of genuine worth; Edna Millay's prestige, unlike her talent, continues undiminished; Hart Crane and Archibald MacLeish have come to fame, and the first of them is dead. Aside from these, there have been no prominent appearances. Many of the young poets who looked like heirs to the thrones ten years ago have just gone on being promising—or, worse yet, they have not.
It may be, as Mr. MacLeish, I believe, has remarked, that whatever position poetry holds in America to-day is due to the showman's genius of Amy Lowell. Yet much that she herself stood for seems already sunk out of sight. The indeterminable benefits of "imagism" may remain to bless us, but certainly most of its own expressions have little to do with our current poetry. The more prominent magazines have lapsed into the verse habits of the early nineteen-hundreds: rarely do they print anything but competent, rhymed bromides. There is little tumult and shouting compared with the brave days of poetry in vers libre. It may not be insignificant in regard to Amy Lowell that this state of comparative silence as to versification has existed ever since her grave received the ashes of a very tired body and brain.
So, in brief, have the ten years since her death gone by. During that time, Amy Lowell has been both affirmed and denied. To a larger extent she has been ignored—an almost inevitable condition following the death of an author and not necessarily significant. Joseph Conrad, a very great artist, leaps to the mind as an apt parallel, but these lapses of public memory have followed all careers, from Shakespeare's down. In other words, Amy Lowell, now that she is dead, no longer commands the place of prominence she had in life, but the hold of her name on the public mind is tenacious. All questions about her literary production resolve themselves into a single, timely query—what will attain to a fairly sure permanence? The answer will be found not in the posthumous decade but, probably by virtue of it, in the one that went before it.
However it is looked at, Amy Lowell's life contained elements of doubt and disillusionment and even tragedy; yet there was some triumph and there was, near the beginning of her career, something which one feels bound to call luck. It was extraordinarily fortunate for her that the poetic movement called imagism arose when it did. The movement did not make her a writer—she was that already—but it made her a successful and a famous writer.
After ten years of conscientious study of verse and the methods of making it, Miss Lowell, in 1912, published her first book, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass. That book shows what she had learned. It is completely negligible; only her later fame makes certain of the sonnets of some autobiographical interest. As literature the entire book fails. Its notes are Keatsian or Wordsworthian; they sound only as echoes—never with authority, fresh personality, or even promise. It was as literary, as secluded and unaired, as most of the verse then being written in America. It is not wholly fanciful to suppose that she was thinking of these poems when, in the opening lines of her second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, she mentioned her discarded work as "vile abortions." This second volume is really a combination of the old imitations and the new experiments. To pick it up after the first is to be struck immediately with its surety. For whatever it was worth, her own voice had come to her at last.
Thus Amy Lowell, having deliberately set out to learn the craft of poetry, came to the end of ten years with nothing to show but feeble imitations of the great masters. When the windows of the vers libre movement were first opened, the fresh air awakened her own work quite as much as it did the rest of American verse. She learned more in one year than she had previously learned in ten. The poetic renaissance brought such poets as Lindsay and Sandburg an audience and fame; to Miss Lowell it brought a way to write. Even though she already possessed certain gifts which enabled her to appreciate an experimental school of poetry; even though, while not among the discoverers of the "new" poetic principles, she had the perspicacity to join the movement and the vigor to do more than any other in forwarding its purpose—she was, after all, exceedingly lucky. The proof of this good luck lies in the difference in content between her first book and her second.
A Dome of Many-Colored Glass was not merely the lame, unpromising book of a young poet; it was the sort of first book that shows maturity and long apprenticeship. It proves that its author desired to write poetry, that she could find no individual way of writing it, and that, after all, she had very little to say. One thing, however, Amy Lowell could do strikingly well: her skill at making pictures with words was superlative. The essential emphasis in the new school of poetic experimentation was the picture—the "image." Its tenets were antagonistic to conventional inversions, to the hackneyed; they contained much in favor of new forms, of unrhymed and cadenced verse. At the moment of this manifesto, Miss Lowell wandered somewhere in the rear of what was soon to be called the enemy company; the moment after, she appeared in full uniform as commander-in-chief of the oncoming "imagists." It makes a perfect scene. Her move was as wise as it was inevitable; she could not have imagined for herself a more fortunate accident.
From this time on, the victories were largely hers. Not many people would choose to deny that she often achieved technical brilliance; that her experiments in verse forms were sometimes important and always interesting; that she was honest and daring; that she exhibited a productivity the variety and volume of which are, in themselves, striking; that her career as poet and critic—as distinct from any consideration of her own creation in those rôles—was unquestionably one of invigorating helpfulness in a dozen directions. All this belongs to literary history and is not necessarily a mark of literature itself. It remains to determine her real successes as a creative writer.
Too much criticism is written in a mystery-story manner: the critic, honestly striving not to beg his questions, amasses the evidence for his conclusions—or, less honestly perhaps, he strives to surprise and convince all at once at a climax. There is no good reason for wasting words. Amy Lowell's ultimate fame, as far as her own work is concerned, will rest on a dozen short poems and her biography of Keats. Such a record would not be bad, by any means, but this radical subtraction from the whole seems remarkable only to us who are near enough to be aware of the vast bulk of her writings—most of which later generations will easily forget.
The majority of Amy Lowell's poems are poetry of the present tense: the poem and the events seem to be simultaneous. Reflection is generally rapid and casual. It is a spoken poetry and, because much of it is in the cadence which Miss Lowell closely allied to natural human breathing, these qualities are appropriate to the case. It is, consistently enough, a poetry of pictures, and therefore it is not surprising that it is rarely, if ever, a profound poetry. At its best—such as "Lilacs," or "To Carl Sandburg," or "Meeting-House Hill"—it is a poetry of feelings and moods; never is it a poetry of thought and ideas. It is not static or dull at any given point, for Miss Lowell observed keenly and recorded sharply. After the period of her first two books she was almost invariably expert in craftsmanship …
Her life, her career, was a magnificent masterpiece. She, herself, must have thought it a failure, ultimately, for she could not be what she most desired to be—a great poet. Her poems are the work of a woman who would have shown an extraordinary energy in any career; they are, even at their most expert, remarkable in the very light of their weakness—for Amy Lowell was not essentially a poet at all.
"God made me a business woman," she said, "and I made myself a poet." In a limited sense she did; but the poet is not quite the genuine article. First, she loved poetry; then, about the age of thirty, she decided to write it. After ten years of work, she appeared in print without the least sign of the real spark—no valid power of observation, no memorable gift of expression. Intelligently, then, she swung into the new experiments and, with a certain skill at description and great vigor of personality, improved her technique till it was a clever instrument. Her most famous poem, "Patterns," illustrates her most characteristic abilities: vivid picturization, verse beautifully handled, and the symbolism of an idea. But the pictures outweigh the idea, the verse is better than the pictures, and the whole poem does not fuse into fine art. It remains embroidery work.
"Patterns," to be frank, is artificial and theatrical. Much of Amy Lowell's verse—and most of it, of course, is less well done than "Patterns"—must share the oblivion of all writing that has never really lived. As a poet Miss Lowell lacked the profound and vital power of penetration. She never said anything undeniably important about life. She never even implied as much. Her frequent use of symbolism had a varying success. With it, she occasionally secured a fine, macabre effect—as in "Time's Acre" and "Four Sides of a House"; but, altogether, her symbolism has neither the simple profundity of Yeats's poems nor the involved profundity of Blake at his best; it increases the turgid making of pictures.
A few of her things, however, give promise of long life. A dozen times or so—in the poems already cited, in the "Madonna of the Evening Flowers," in "Garden by Moonlight," and one or two more—she wrote not to hide but to reveal herself. She shows a little of what she actually felt, of what she was really like. These are poems of moods, of feelings; yet the author of them had learned how to use words with astonishing effect. Here is not display, but expression; and the very earnestness, the very sincerity, of her feeling matches her command of image, of cadence, and vocabulary. Qualities of technique, in turn, are strengthened and assured. These are not great poems: at best, they put her name a little below such poets as Whittier and Longfellow.
So, after a decade, all that Amy Lowell said seems to threaten to return to the nothingness that it was in the beginning. A little remains, and, as things go in the world of letters, that little is a great deal. Perhaps she thumped her drum loudly in order not to hear the beating of her own heart. It is all of a piece with the oddity of life that only the drum stops.
Source: Winfield Townley Scott, "Amy Lowell after Ten Years," in New England Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 1935, pp. 320-30.
Bevers, Chris, A History of Free Verse, University of Arkansas Press, 2001.
Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States, Belknap Press, 1996.
Gould, Jean, Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement, Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Guest, Barbara, Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World, Doubleday, 1984.
Hirsch, Edward, "Amy Lowell's Poetry Has Been …" in the Washington Post, March 21, 2004, p. T12.
Hughes, Glenn, Imagism and the Imagists; A Study in Modern Poetry, Biblo-Moser, 1973.
Lowell, Amy, "The Taxi," in Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Houghton Mifflin, 1921, p. 96.
———, "Preface," in Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Houghton Mifflin, 1921, pp. x-xi.
Moody, A. David, Ezra Pound: Poet I; The Young Genius 1885-1920, Oxford University Press, 2007.
O'Conor, Norreya Jephson, "Amy Lowell as a Leader in Contemporary Letters," in New York Times, January 29, 1922, p. 51.
Phelps, William Lyon, "Amy Lowell, Poet in Spite of Herself," in New York Times, June 12, 1921, p. 46.
Robinson, Janice S., H. D., The Life and Work of an American Poet, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
Scott, Clive, Vers Libre: The Emergence of Free Verse in France 1886-1914, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Beach, Christopher, The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
This collection describes various movements in twentieth-century American poetry, including the imagists as well as the Harlem Renaissance movement, the New Critics, the confessionals, and the Beats. Beach provides a comprehensive overview of modernism that will help students understand the roots of contemporary American poetry.
Gioia, Dana, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke, eds., Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2003.
These fifty-eight essays written by fifty-three different American poets, including Amy Lowell, offer various views of the nature and function of poetry.
Heymann, C. David, American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell, Dodd Mead, 1980.
Heymann's book examines the lives of Lowell and her more successful brother James and cousin Robert, offering a view of the entire family, their wealth and social status, and the times in which they lived.
Meskimmon, Marsha, Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics, Routledge, 2003.
Throughout much of history, the products of women's creativity were either unrecognized or considered insignificant. In this book, Meskimmon examines creative work by women from many different cultures and a wide variety of different historic periods.
Munich, Adrienne, and Melissa Bradshaw, eds., Amy Lowell, American Modern, Rutgers University Press, 2004.
This book contains a collection of essays about Lowell's position as a poet, the influences of her times, the imagist movement, and female poets of the twentieth century, giving the reader a broad background in which to understand Lowell and her accomplishments.
Pratt, William, Imagist Poems, Storyline Press, 2001.
This book is described as the only anthology of imagist poems. Poets such as Lowell, Ezra Pound, H. D., Richard Aldington, and many more are included.