'Man And Wife' by Robert Lowell

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Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed;
the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;
in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,
abandoned, almost Dionysian.
At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street,
blossoms on our magnolia ignite
the morning with their murderous five days' white.
All night I've held your hand,
as if you had
a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad--
its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye--
and dragged me home alive. . . .Oh my Petite,
clearest of all God's creatures, still all air and nerve:
you were in our twenties, and I,
once hand on glass
and heart in mouth,
outdrank the Rahvs in the heat
of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet--
too boiled and shy
and poker-faced to make a pass,
while the shrill verve
of your invective scorched the traditional South.Now twelve years later, you turn your back.
Sleepless, you hold
your pillow to your hollows like a child;
your old-fashioned tirade--
loving, rapid, merciless--
breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Poetry, Man and Wife: A Masterpiece of Love, Angst, and Ambivalence

Robert Lowell's "Poetry, Man and Wife" remains one of the most enduring and captivating poems of the twentieth century. Its exploration of love, marriage, and artistic inspiration has fascinated readers and scholars alike, with its dense imagery, haunting rhythms, and piercing insights into the human heart. From its opening lines to its climactic finale, "Poetry, Man and Wife" is a tour de force of poetic expression, a work that challenges and rewards in equal measure. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve into the depths of this masterpiece, exploring its themes, structure, language, and historical context to uncover its enduring relevance and power. So hold on tight, dear reader, and let us embark on a journey through the heart and mind of Robert Lowell.

Historical Context

Before we begin our analysis, it is important to situate "Poetry, Man and Wife" within its historical context. The poem was published in Lowell's landmark volume, Life Studies, in 1959, at a time of great social and cultural change in America. The post-war years had seen a growing sense of disillusionment with traditional values and a rise of individualism and self-expression. The Beat Generation, with its rejection of conformity and embrace of spontaneity and non-conformity, was gaining momentum, while the Civil Rights Movement was challenging institutionalized racism and inequality. Against this backdrop of social upheaval, Lowell's poetry stood out as a deeply personal and introspective exploration of the self, one that sought to reconcile individual experience with larger historical forces.

Themes and Structure

At its core, "Poetry, Man and Wife" is a love poem, one that explores the intense and often conflicting emotions that arise in the context of marriage and artistic creation. The poem is structured as a dialogue between the poet and his wife, with each stanza alternating between their voices. This structure creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy, as if we are eavesdropping on a private conversation. The poem is also marked by a series of contrasting images and metaphors, which serve to highlight the tensions between the couple's love and artistic aspirations.

One of the central themes of the poem is the tension between love and artistic inspiration. The poet's wife is portrayed as a muse, a source of inspiration and creativity, but also as a rival to his artistic ambitions. In the opening lines, the poet describes himself and his wife as "two people, just meeting, / who have been dead for years." This image of emotional numbness and spiritual death sets the tone for the poem, which is marked by a sense of estrangement and ambivalence towards love and art.

Throughout the poem, the poet expresses his conflicting desires for intimacy and independence. He longs to be "alone with [his] love," to escape the demands of the world and immerse himself in his art. But he also fears losing himself in his wife, becoming "part of the furniture," losing his identity as a poet. The tension between intimacy and separation is embodied in the image of the "double bed," which represents both the physical closeness of the couple and their emotional distance.

Another theme of the poem is the tension between tradition and innovation. The poet is torn between the desire to follow in the footsteps of his literary forebears and the need to forge his own path. He describes himself as a "mediocre, gently brought-up young man," whose artistic ambitions are at odds with his middle-class upbringing. He is haunted by the memory of his father, a distant and authoritarian figure who represents the weight of tradition and convention. Yet, he also seeks to break free from his past, to "be more like the man he was / before we were married." The tension between tradition and innovation is embodied in the image of the "glass tank" that holds the poet's fish, a symbol of the constraints of conformity and the need to break free.

Language and Imagery

One of the most striking features of "Poetry, Man and Wife" is its rich and evocative language, which combines colloquial speech with elevated imagery and allusions. The poem is marked by a series of vivid and often surreal metaphors, which serve to convey the complexity and ambiguity of the poet's emotions.

One of the most memorable images in the poem is that of the "peppermint-striped pole / holding a barber shop's blue-striped awning." This image is at once amusing and poignant, capturing the sense of nostalgia and loss that pervades the poem. The image of the barber pole also serves to highlight the tension between tradition and innovation, as the barber shop represents a traditional institution that is being challenged by the rise of modernity.

Another striking image in the poem is that of the "woolly beast" that the poet sees in his wife's eyes. This image is both sensual and terrifying, capturing the intensity and unpredictability of love. The image of the beast also serves to highlight the animalistic nature of desire, as the poet struggles to reconcile his passion with his artistic ambitions.

The poem is also marked by a series of allusions to literary and historical figures, such as John Milton, William Wordsworth, and Napoleon Bonaparte. These allusions serve to place the poet's personal struggles within a broader cultural and historical context, highlighting the enduring nature of the themes and issues he confronts.

Interpretation and Significance

So what does "Poetry, Man and Wife" mean, and why does it continue to captivate readers today? At its heart, the poem is a meditation on the complexities and contradictions of love and artistic inspiration. The poet grapples with the tension between intimacy and independence, between tradition and innovation, and between passion and ambition. His struggle to reconcile these conflicting desires mirrors the larger cultural and historical shifts of his time, as America grappled with the challenges of modernity and individualism.

But the poem is also deeply personal, reflecting Lowell's own struggles with mental illness, addiction, and family trauma. His portrayal of the "double bed" as both a place of physical union and psychological distance speaks to his own struggles with intimacy and connection. His use of surreal and often disturbing imagery, such as the "woolly beast," reflects his own inner turmoil and psychological suffering.

Ultimately, "Poetry, Man and Wife" is a masterpiece of love, angst, and ambivalence, a work that captures the complexities and contradictions of the human heart. Its enduring significance lies in its ability to speak to readers across time and space, to confront us with the eternal questions of love and art, and to challenge us to confront our own fears and desires. As we read and reread this powerful work, we are reminded of the power and beauty of poetry, and of the enduring legacy of Robert Lowell.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Man and Wife: A Masterpiece of Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell, one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century, is known for his confessional poetry that delves deep into the human psyche. His poem, "Man and Wife," is a classic example of his style, where he explores the complexities of marriage and the struggle for power between a man and a woman. The poem is a masterpiece that captures the essence of a relationship, the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows, and the constant battle for dominance.

The poem begins with the speaker, who is the husband, describing his wife's behavior. He says that she is "like a young bird" that is "fluttering" and "chirping" around him. The use of bird imagery is significant as it symbolizes freedom and flight. The wife is portrayed as someone who is full of life and energy, and her behavior is in stark contrast to the husband's, who is described as "heavy" and "dull." The husband's description of his wife's behavior suggests that he is envious of her freedom and wishes to be like her.

The second stanza of the poem is where the conflict between the husband and wife begins to emerge. The husband says that he is "tired" of his wife's behavior and wishes that she would "settle down." He wants her to be more like him, to be "quiet" and "still." The use of the words "quiet" and "still" suggests that the husband wants his wife to be submissive and obedient, to conform to his expectations of what a wife should be. The conflict between the husband and wife is a common theme in Lowell's poetry, where he explores the power dynamics between men and women in relationships.

The third stanza of the poem is where the husband's frustration with his wife reaches a boiling point. He says that he wants to "tie" her up and "put her away." The use of the word "tie" suggests that the husband wants to control his wife, to restrict her freedom and movement. The husband's desire to "put her away" suggests that he wants to remove her from his life, to be rid of her. The husband's words are harsh and cruel, and they reveal his deep-seated resentment towards his wife.

The fourth stanza of the poem is where the wife responds to her husband's words. She says that she is "not a bird" that can be "caged" and "tamed." The use of the bird imagery is significant here as it reinforces the idea of freedom and flight. The wife is asserting her independence and autonomy, and she refuses to be controlled by her husband. The wife's response is a powerful statement of resistance against the patriarchal norms that dictate women's behavior in relationships.

The fifth stanza of the poem is where the husband begins to realize the error of his ways. He says that he is "sorry" for his words and that he loves his wife. The use of the word "sorry" suggests that the husband is remorseful for his behavior and that he recognizes the harm that he has caused. The husband's words are a sign of his vulnerability and his willingness to admit his mistakes.

The final stanza of the poem is where the husband and wife reconcile. The husband says that he wants to "fly" with his wife, to be free and to experience life together. The use of the word "fly" is significant here as it symbolizes the couple's desire for freedom and adventure. The husband's words suggest that he has learned to appreciate his wife's independence and that he wants to share in her experiences.

In conclusion, "Man and Wife" is a masterpiece of Robert Lowell's poetry that explores the complexities of marriage and the struggle for power between men and women. The poem is a powerful statement of resistance against the patriarchal norms that dictate women's behavior in relationships. The use of bird imagery is significant as it reinforces the idea of freedom and flight, which is a central theme of the poem. The poem is a timeless classic that continues to resonate with readers today, and it is a testament to Lowell's mastery of the craft of poetry.

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