“Take the Bathtub Out”: New Criticism in Robert Lowell’s Classroom

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By the time Robert Lowell began studying under John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon, he was already a graduate of Allen Tate’s yard in Tennessee. Ransom and Tate, of course, are often identified as founders of New Criticism, although another writer included in that group, Robert Penn Warren, has reminded us that membership could be fluid and disputed, as the New Critics were a heterogeneous assortment: “Let’s name some of [the New Critics]”, he said in a Paris Review interview. “Richards, Eliot, Tate, Blackmur, Winters, Brooks…. How in God’s name can you get that gang into the same bed? There is no bed big enough and no blanket would stay tucked.”1 Likewise, it would be difficult to cram Robert Lowell permanently into any New Critical assemblage. The summer of 1937, after Lowell had driven himself eleven hundred miles south from Boston until his fender nudged the Tates’ mailbox in Tennessee, he didn’t even fit into Tate’s house: When the Tates politely told him there was no room for him to stay, that he’d have to pitch a tent on the lawn, Lowell bought a Sears, Roebuck tent and set it up under a lotus tree. There, occasionally distracted by wandering livestock, he began his study with the writers he later said helped shape him.2 The fall of 1937, in his first term at Kenyon, Lowell did live under John Crowe Ransom’s roof, and after he graduated in 1940, Lowell went on to Louisiana State University, where he studied with Cleanth Brooks and read Dante aloud many afternoons with Robert Penn Warren.3 The “excellent” Brooks and Warren, as Lowell referred to them, had just two years earlier published their New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry.4

New Criticism is often characterized as a revolt against reigning scholarly trends that considered poems mostly as documents for philological analysis, drapery for moral philosophy, addenda to biographies, or objects for vague impressionistic praise. In Cambridge in the twenties, I. A. Richards had discovered that when his students were sat down in front of a poem, they had no idea what in particular to say about it, and in Baton Rouge in the thirties, Brooks and Warren made similar unsettling discoveries. Part of the purpose of Brooks and Warren’s textbook (which had as working titles along the way both Reading Poems and Experiencing Poetry) was to get readers actually to look at the words, and to help give students a vocabulary for discussing lyrics.5

From Tate, Ransom, Brooks, and Warren, as well as others identified with New Criticism, Lowell apparently learned habits of scrutiny, analysis, and composition that deeply affected his art. The complex, difficult poems he published in his early books, Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle, owed a great deal to Tate and to poets whose reputations some of the New Critics helped revive, the Metaphysicals. In 1974, in a tribute to Ransom, Lowell wrote: “The kind of poet I am was largely determined by the fact that I grew up in the heyday of the New Criticism. From the beginning I was preoccupied with technique [and] fascinated by the past.”6 Did Lowell, in his own published criticism, closely resemble any of his New Critical mentors? No; in a 1961 interview, Lowell acknowledged that while he sometimes taught the New Critics at Boston University, his tendency in his own critical essays was toward something “much sloppier and more intuitive.”7 And by this time, his poetry had also taken him some distance from Tate’s; Lowell’s work had altered from what he jokingly referred to as full of ambiguities buried seven layers down to poems that, in his own description, “owe[d] something to Elizabeth Bishop’s simple style.”8

So in what way might the influence of these early mentors and critics have continued to affect Lowell? I would argue that Lowell transmitted some of the New Critical legacy via his own teaching — both in his discussions of anthology poems and in the way he tried to teach his students to write, by exhaustively considering every detail and how each related to the whole. Brooks and Warren said in Understanding Poetry that “one must teach by a constant and analytical use of concrete examples.”9 This also describes exactly how, four decades later, Robert Lowell taught his literature students as well as those in his writing class.

The classes Lowell led at Harvard in the spring of 1977 were a seminar on nineteenth-century English and American poets, and a writing workshop that also surveyed twentieth-century poets. These courses each met for two hours weekly, with a dozen or so students attending. A freshman enrolled in both, I crowded some 250-odd pages with Lowell’s observations on poets ranging from Blake to Plath. Lowell would hunch in a Windsor chair at one end of the long wooden table we all clustered around, and riffling through an anthology, read poems aloud in his soft voice. Tilting his head, murmuring from the corner of his mouth, he’d stop, line after line, to query, praise, reappraise.

That we were in classes influenced by the New Criticism was clear from the first session of the 19th-century seminar, when he gave us the paper assignment. It was delivered with the wry proviso that we “talk about the poems — don’t have Hegel be it all. [Write] something that quotes, evaluates, describes.” “Know what a real critic is?” he joshed. “I’m not one. [You] get other critics, quote them, and say it’s nonsense — that’s always a good thing to do. ‘How could R.P. Blackmur have said “Crossing the Bar” failed?'” Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn famously condemned “the heresy of paraphrase”; Lowell pled with us not to turn in any “paraphrases of The Prelude.”10 In class, Lowell sometimes did say directly what he thought the poems were about, but in the most informal terms, and usually only after a close examination of the poem’s details. When he was more summative or apparently felt he was being reductive, he would make fun of himself. One day when he delivered a focused monologue of an analysis, rather than a meandering, querying one, of Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal,” he warned us beforehand by announcing, “I’m going to dogmatize.” But inevitably he gave us the impression that he wanted us to explore poems as freshly and minutely as he did.

In The Well Wrought Urn, published in 1947, Brooks devoted a chapter to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; Lowell’s reading of this poem, in his Spring 1977 class, exemplified how he both followed Brooks and departed from him.11 Brooks took it more or less stanza by stanza, Lowell more or less line by line, from the top:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of silence and slow time . . .12

As Brooks so often did, Lowell immediately began to focus on denotation and connotation. “How do silence and quietness differ?” Lowell asked us. “Is there any difference? How would quietness ravish an urn?” When we were slow to respond, he humorously prodded us: “What would ravish it — someone dropping it?” He went on: “‘Ravished’ means ‘destroyed,’ but it’s a much more sexual meaning and much stronger. There’s something wrong with art that it can’t be ravished — it’s out of time.”

Lowell expanded on this as he hovered over the fourth stanza, which describes the procession to the sacrifice:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? ….. To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, ….. And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? What little town by river or sea shore, ….. Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, ………. Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets for evermore ….. Will silent be; and not a soul to tell ………. Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

“You read the stanza with a good deal of sorrow — why?” he asked. “Why didn’t Keats just describe the people and leave out the part [about] not being able to return [to their town]? They’re caught forever in the toils of art; that whole civilization is gone.” Lowell returned to this point as he dwelt on the last two lines of the poem:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all ….. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Keats, he suggested, was saying there’s “something awful about art — something cold, inhuman, aloof. Keats certainly sought immortality in art. But truth isn’t part of beauty— truth is the age wasting. Beauty is the only truth art has. Rather a desperate poem, rather [a] terrible message from art.”

And then Lowell did something Brooks might not have done: he related those last two lines to Keats’s biography. In each class, Lowell would begin his discussion of a poet by providing a spontaneous, eclectic, but telling scattering of facts about each writer’s life. (He had also told us that for our term papers, we could “bring in biography, brought down to the text.”) Keats, Lowell reminded us that day, was a “young man who pursued art and beauty as [a] religion.” But Keats was “not an ivory tower decadent in the least,” Lowell insisted — “[he] led [a] sensible plucky life. You’d like to be forever 17 and healthy if you’re 24 and dying. But [that] isn’t a real answer. The urn is art.” Of course Lowell meant here, “only art.”

Lowell also spoke that day, as for example Brooks would not have, as a longtime practitioner of the art of poetry. Lowell took the liberty of imagining what Keats, as a fellow poet, might have been thinking about that phrase, “slow time.” Lowell had noted its evocative ambiguity: “I don’t know why [Keats wrote] ‘slow time’ — let [the meaning] waver between: ‘[the urn] took a long time to make’ [and] ‘it’s lasted a long time.'” And then Lowell added, “‘slow time’ — [it] sounds so good — how could [Keats] figure out what he’d meant after he’d said it; how could he resist?”

Meetings of the writing course always involved bringing things down to the text; we would spend much of each class looking at poems by 20th-century writers in the anthologies, then Lowell would comment on ours. Like Brooks and Warren, Lowell constantly taught by the analytical use of concrete examples, often by comparing and contrasting poems by different poets that shared some element in common. The first day, we went over “The Yachts” by William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane’s “Voyages II” and “Repose of Rivers.” Lowell’s discussion illuminated the distance between the two modernists. He began with Williams:

The Yachts

contend in a sea which the land partly encloses shielding them from the too-heavy blows of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.13

Speaking as a practitioner, Lowell remarked about “The Yachts” that “very few poems attempt this [kind of] narrative; [you] have to do it plainly, [like a] good sporting reporter’s account.” Then, as Brooks might have done, Lowell discussed the ambiguous symbolism of the yachts: “Beauty is terrible — skillful, expensive”; the horror lies in “anything well-made, beautiful, efficient trampling over something it doesn’t notice.” Next, Lowell read Crane’s “Voyages II” aloud, circling over this stanza:

–And yet this great wink of eternity, Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings, Samite sheeted and processioned where Her undinal vast belly moonward bends, Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love. . . .14

Afterward, Lowell asked, “Does Williams lose a lot of grandeur [by comparison]? [Williams] can’t put in lines like ‘undinal belly’. But Crane couldn’t have described a yacht — Crane couldn’t stoop to such prosaic detail. If you want to write a love poem with hyperbolic grandeur on the brink of confusion, but [with a] terrific setting like opera, [‘Voyages II’] does it. This is particularly purple Crane.” Then we considered the opening lines of “Repose of Rivers”:

The willows carried a slow sound, A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead. I could never remember That seething, steady leveling of the marshes Till age had brought me to the sea.

Flags, weeds. And remembrance of steep alcoves Where cypresses shared the noon’s Tyranny; they drew me into hades almost.15

Can you mow [a mead]?” Lowell asked, then added: “Williams would have said ‘meadow,’ not ‘mead.'” About the phrase “remembrance of steep alcoves,” he murmured, “You get used to Crane saying things like ‘alcoves’ for some more obvious word.”

When Lowell would juxtapose poems or poets like this, new qualities would suddenly surface for us in each; sometimes the more unexpected the conjunction, the more we learned. Lowell never gave us creative-writing exercises; instead, he would, for example, focus on diction in the anthology poems, then ask us about our word choices.

“What is the effect of Pound saying ‘chopped seas’ instead of ‘choppy seas’ in stanza three of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’?” he would inquire. “What do you mean by ‘tesserae’?” he would ask a student about a noun in her poem. “Is ‘amber’ a verb? How’d it get in there?” Lapses in decorum were noted: reviewing one student’s offering one afternoon, Lowell gently characterized a phrase in it, “Bugs galore,” as “sort of unfortunate.” He pressed us about our grammatical choices too. “You use an awful lot of possessives.” “[The] syntax is needlessly haphazard.”

Lowell was concerned, as many New Critics were, that the parts of a poem contribute to a cohesive whole. In the writing class one day, Lowell remarked, “Allen Tate said [the] hardest test of technique [is to] write a quatrain. A sonnet’s bound to sound like a sonnet; a quatrain [can be] quite varied. [You have to] make what you do cohere, have [the] emphasis fall on [the] parts you want it to.” Brooks and Warren spoke of poems as “organic forms,” and one of Lowell’s most frequent criticisms was of student poems that were jerry-rigged. “This doesn’t seem organized properly — the connections aren’t right.” “Don’t know that [the] stanzas [are] in [the] right order — this [one] should be further up.” Many of his objections had to do with what we thought we’d meant. “[The] subject is muddied, that’s [the] main trouble.” “I don’t think you quite know what you’re trying to say.” “What on earth is this poem about?” His advice was sometimes quite succinct: “Take the bathtub out.” He once consoled us by saying, “Everyone has direct experience of writing a poem that’s not really pulled together. [You] put your mother-in-law’s humor in and memories of cats — they don’t belong in the same poem.” Toward the end of term, one student brought in a poem depicting her father as a werewolf. (There were several plaintive student poems about families that afternoon, and Lowell joked, “Aren’t children’s grievances against parents a worn-out subject? I should talk, of course.”) My memory of the werewolf narrative is that there was some confrontation between father and daughter at home, then the daughter ran out of the house and collided with a neighbor who also happened to be a werewolf. Lowell tactfully pointed out that the presence of the second werewolf made the plot too confusing.

He never came across as harsh, much less contemptuous, telling us as he did repeatedly, in one way or another, just how difficult it was to write anything good.”Cross out all the lines you can,” he advised a student one day. In the 19th-century poetry seminar, I saw him cross out chunks of masterpieces. He recommended, forexample, culling the lambs from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” When we read Emily Dickinson’s “The Last Night That She Lived,” Lowell objected to the third stanza “clogging up everything. If one of us had written that [stanza], [we’d] want to rewrite. Seems impudent to criticize a great master — but she should’ve cut [it] out.” In another class, he admitted, “I probably seem very arrogant when I take a great poet like Hopkins and I don’t like two lines in his greatest sonnet. But that’s the way people write, and nobody ever makes a perfect poem.”

Though Lowell always emphasized how every choice as one wrote had to be weighed again and again, he was never an aesthetic martinet. He could in fact be irreverent about stringent prescriptions for coherence. Once he censured a student writer for actually “carrying a figure too far — [you’ve] kept the tulip [in] too long.” He had this to say about “Dover Beach,” after he noted that the sea imagery in the first three stanzas is not continued in the fourth: “[It’s] possible [the] last stanza [was] written for something else, tacked on by [a] stroke of genius. In [the] good old days of [the] New Critics, [Arnold would] be attacked for not carrying [the] sea imagery through, but by that time you’re tired of it, welcome the change.”

Like his New Critical mentors who celebrated Modernism, sometimes against considerable opposition, neither was Lowell at all rigid about figurative language that was sometimes obscure. “[This is a] wonderful piece of observation,” he told one student — “don’t know what it means, but one accepts it.” “Rather surrealistic images,” he remarked, about a passage in another student’s poem — “I like them, though I don’t understand them.” He did want our imagery to be accurate. One day in the writing class, he studied several poems by Elizabeth Bishop, praising her descriptions for their verisimilitude and affectionately mimicking her strictness: “‘But curbs don’t slope on 18th Street.'” He would query any image of ours that he felt was not true to life. “Do haystacks look like cottonball clouds?” “Visually, that plant isn’t anything like a fist.” “I find it awfully odd that the china should be stuck together with jelly.” “Isn’t that a little farfetched?” was a question he asked more than once. One day several students brought in poems about children whom Lowell diagnosed as caricatures. He then picked up the anthology, turned to “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” and showed us how Ransom had done it, adding, with his customary grace, that “awfully few people” could “do this kind of poem.”

I didn’t know that our classes had started late that term because Lowell had been in the hospital with congestive heart failure, and I had no idea of the wearing turmoil in his personal life. When I think of all this, and his stoicism in meeting these classes, his brilliance and generosity, I’m reminded of Christopher Ricks’s moving description of the practice of close reading. At the end of his essay “Poetry and Loneliness,” Ricks writes: “. . . the ‘close reading’ of poems, a lonely activity which can yet be shared, may do something to ameliorate our propensity to evacuate the suffering, not only of others but of ourselves, into abstraction. There are the particulars of rapture, and likewise takingly, those of grief.”16 What a privilege it was to share that activity, close reading, with Robert Lowell, watching him light on and enlighten us about all those particulars.17

1 Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews [vol. 1], ed. and introd. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Viking Press, 1958), p. 200.

2 Most of these details, which appear actually to be drawn from two different trips to Tennessee in April and then in summer 1937, can be found in Lowell’s “Visiting the Tates,” in his Collected Prose, ed. and introd. Robert Giroux (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), pp. 58-60. Cf. Ian Hamilton’s account of these months in Robert Lowell: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1982), pp. 44-52.

3 For Lowell’s stay in Ransom’s house, see Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 53-54.

4 Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 75-76 quotes from a letter of Lowell’s to Robie Macauley about his classes at LSU (n. 6, p. 479), which includes his reference to Brooks and Warren as “excellent.”

5 I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929), pp. 12-15 (for example); Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry, rev. ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1950), “Letter to the Teacher (1938),” p. xi: “the poem in itself . . . remains finally the object for study.”

6 Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography, p. 57, citing the Kenyon Collegian of Dec. 15, 1974 (n. 17, p. 478). Lowell alluded to the formative influence of the New Critics several times in “A Conversation with Ian Hamilton,” Collected Prose, pp. 275, 278, 284.

7 “An Interview with Frederick Seidel,” Collected Prose, p. 237.

8 Source not identified.

9 Brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry, pp. xvii-xviii.

10 Chapter 11 of Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947) is titled “The Heresy of Paraphrase.”

11 Brooks, op. cit., chapter 8, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes.”

12 Citations of Keats’s poem are from pp. 385-87 of Poets of the English Language, vol. IV: Blake to Poe, ed. W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952), which was a textbook for Lowell’s course.

13 W. C. Williams, Selected Poems, introd. Randall Jarrell (New York: New Directions, 1949), p. 77.

14 The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, ed. and introd. Brom Weber (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), p. 36.

15 Op. cit., p. 16.

16 Christopher Ricks, “Poetry and Loneliness,” in Loneliness, ed. Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), p. 193.

17 This paper was delivered at the meeting of the ALSCW in Athens, Georgia in April 2013.