"He showed concernment for his soul. Some thingsRobert Lowell is one of those poets with very few friends and very many enemies, and that's at least partly due to the fact that there are several editions of Robert Lowell. There is Robert Lowell the agrarian (above) of New England, Robert Lowell the diffident yankee, Robert Lowell the insane person, Robert Lowell the confessional, and Robert Lowell the noisome political actor. That's a lot for one poor madman to bear. It's even more for one bundle of poetic skill to have to voice. Me? I pick and choose. I kind of like his snarky poems about other poets, despite the poet, and I somewhat like the pretending stridency of the early stuff.
In his experience were hopeful. He
Would sit and watch the wind knocking a tree
And praise this countryside our Lord has made.
. . . though a thirst
For loving shook him like a snake, he durst
Not entertain much hope of his estate
In heaven. Once we saw him sitting late
Behind his attic window by a light
That guttered on his Bible; through that night
He meditated terror, and he seemed
Beyond advice or reason. . .
. . . In the latter part of May
He cut his throat. And though the coroner
Judged him delirious, soon a noisome stir
Palsied our village. At Jehovah's nod
Satan seemed more let loose amongst us." -- Robert Lowell, "After the Surprising Conversions" 1946
What I really like, though, is the madness that has an unchanging essence. It is a very American form that did not quite mature with our century.
First, this is A-OK with me, because the evangelical movement continues along the path described here. A successful meeting results in X souls saved. I have seen a weekly service at a school populated by Christian students have an alter call as a regular feature. Further, the ministers exclaim at each meeting that the top priority for the students is to save their classmates by introducing them to the Gospel. Later, the speakers are ranked on how many were saved.
(I used to be upset that these folks assumed that anyone in the U.S. had not heard the Gospel. However, my students, who attend church every week, do not recognize Gospel quotations -- even ones I consider most famous, like "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last," or "Judge not, lest ye be judged," or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Now, my complaint is that the ones who are supposed to "introduce" the others to the Gospel are unlikely to have read one of them still.)
However, the poem is only consciously about the underlying problems of evangelical preaching. By speaking of this figure powerless to stop his village from killing itself, completely unequipped to deal with his crisis, Lowell gets at despair itself and the call to repentance. When we convince people that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God, it gets pretty hard to convince them that forgiveness is available. Some people will never believe in their own guilt, but more will never believe in their forgiveness.
Each pleasure or admiration will call to mind some way of falling short. It took the exceptionally radical (and I think toxic) view of perseverance of the saints to get evangelical preaching past this point. Today's evangelicals preach a once-saved-evermore-saved to get people past even being bothered by their sinning, but this introduces its own poisons.
So it is, also, that the modern -- triumphant over disease, glorified by radio, triumphant over the atom and the atmosphere -- had a horror betraying each marvel. Every chemist could be a murderer, and every physicist a world killer. The Janus mask of the 20th century never came off, and being responsible was too much for anyone but the most glib, oblivious, or maniacal.
Finally, though, Lowell's own guilt is captured. The depressive will fall back to William Cowper's malady of feeling damned and need distraction or encouragement, but all of the latter will fail, as it does not penetrate the internal certainty -- the "Satan let loose." Lowell, who had his insanity possibly as an incubus, had his guilt, too.
The flies that fall to the water's edge are food to the trout.