Isle of Lesbos : Poetry : Historical : Amy Lowell

 

Amy Lowell
1874-1925

Amy Lowell (27k JPG image), American Imagist poet, was a woman of great accomplishment. She was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, to a prominent family of high-achievers. Her environment was literary and sophisticated, and when she left private school at 17 to care for her elderly parents, she embarked on a program of self-education.

Her poetic career began in 1902 when she saw Eleonora Duse, a famous actress, perform on stage. Overcome with Eleonora's beauty and talent, she wrote her first poem addressed to the actress. They met only a couple times and never developed a relationship, but Eleonora inspired many poems from Amy and triggered her career.

Ada Russell, another actress, became the love of Amy's life. She met Ada in 1909 and they remained together until Amy's death in 1925. Amy wrote many, many poems about Ada. In the beginning, as with her previous poems about women, she wrote in such a way that only those who knew the inspiration for a poem would recognize its lesbian content. But as time went on, she censored her work less and less. By the time she wrote Pictures of the Floating World, her poems about Ada were much more blatantly erotic. The series "Planes of Personality: Two Speak Together" chronicles their relationship, including the intensely erotic poem "A Decade" that celebrates their tenth anniversary.

Amy's dedication to the art of poetry was consuming. She purchased her parent's estate upon her death and established it as a center of poetry, as well as a place to breed her beloved English sheepdogs. She promoted American poetry, acting as a patron to a number of poets. Amy also wrote many essays, translated the works of others, and wrote literary biographies. Her two-volume biography of Keats was well-received in the United States, though it was rejected in England as presumptous.

She is best known for bringing the Imagist movement to America. Her own work, full of lush imagery but slim on excess verbage, was similar to that of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), an emerging Imagist poet in England. . When Amy saw the similarity, she travelled to England to research the movement and ended up bringing back volumes of poetry to introduce Imagist work to the United States. Ezra Pound, the "head" of the movement, was most offended by Amy's involvement. He threatened to sue her, something which delighted her no end, and finally he removed himself from the movement entirely. She argued that this was good; he would ruin it anyway. Pound took to calling the movement "Amygisme," and engaged in plenty of scathing attacks against her.

Beyond the nasty slurs hurled by Pound, Amy was criticized for many more things that did not actually reflect her skill as a poet. Critics were offended by her lesbianism, by the way she wore men's shirts and smoked cigars, and even by her obesity. They argued that she must not have experienced true passion, reflecting a common prejudice that women who are overweight cannot possibly be sexual beings. In the face of these barbs, her literary career suffered, and she did not achieve the status as a poet she so richly deserved.

Her admirers defended her, however, even after her death. One of the best rebuttals was written by Heywood Broun , in his obituary tribute to Amy. He wrote, "She was upon the surface of things a Lowell, a New Englander and a spinster. But inside everything was molten like the core of the earth... Given one more gram of emotion, Amy Lowell would have burst into flame and been consumed to cinders."

Amy's book, What's O'Clock, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, a year after her death.

Biography by Alix North

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Selected Works

Aubade

As I would free the white almond from the green husk
So I would strip your trappings off,
Beloved.
And fingering the smooth and polished kernel
I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond counting.

Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

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Interlude

When I have baked white cakes
And grated green almonds to spread on them;
When I have picked the green crowns from the strawberries
And piled them, cone-pointed, in a blue and yellow platter;
When I have smoothed the seam of the linen I have been working;
What then?
To-morrow it will be the same:
Cakes and strawberries,
And needles in and out of cloth
If the sun is beautiful on bricks and pewter,
How much more beautiful is the moon,
Slanting down the gauffered branches of a plum-tree;
The moon
Wavering across a bed of tulips;
The moon,
Still,
Upon your face.
You shine, Beloved,
You and the moon.
But which is the reflection?
The clock is striking eleven.
I think, when we have shut and barred the door,
The night will be dark
Outside.

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The Garden by Moonlight

A black cat among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock.
The garden is very still,
It is dazed with moonlight,
Contented with perfume,
Dreaming the opium dreams of its folded poppies.
Firefly lights open and vanish
High as the tip buds of the golden glow
Low as the sweet alyssum flowers at my feet.
Moon-shimmer on leaves and trellises,
Moon-spikes shafting through the snowball bush.
Only the little faces of the ladies' delight are alert and staring,
Only the cat, padding between the roses,
Shakes a branch and breaks the chequered pattern
As water is broken by the falling of a leaf.
Then you come,
And you are quiet like the garden,
And white like the alyssum flowers,
And beautiful as the silent sparks of the fireflies.
Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?
They knew my mother,
But who belonging to me will they know
When I am gone.

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Madonna of the Evening Flowers

All day long I have been working,
Now I am tired
I call: "Where are you?"
But there is only the oak-tree rustling in the wind.
The house is very quiet,
The sun shines in on your books,
On your scissors and thimble just put down,
But you are not there.
Suddenly I am lonely:
Where are you? I go about searching.

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.
I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes.

You tell me that the peonies need spraying,
That the columbines have overrun all bounds,
That the pyrus japonica should be cut back and rounded.
You tell me all these things.
But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur,
And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,
While all about us peal the loud, sweet, Te Deums of the Canterbury bells.

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Autumn

They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia,
Opulent, flaunting.
Round gold
Flung out of a pale green stalk.
Round, ripe gold
Of maturity,
Meticulously frilled and flaming,
A fire-ball of proclamation:
Fecundity decked in staring yellow
For all the world to see.
They brought a quilled, yellow dahlia,
To me who am barren
Shall I send it to you,
You who have taken with you
All I once possessed?

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Taxi

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.
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.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?

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Carrefour

O you,
Who came upon me once
Stretched under apple-trees just after bathing,
Why did you not strangle me before speaking
Rather than fill me with the wild honey of your words
And then leave me to the mercy
Of the forest bees?

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Venus Transiens

Tell me,
Was Venus more beautiful
Than you are,
When she topped
The crinkled waves,
Drifting shoreward
On her plaited shell?
Was Botticelli's vision
Fairer than mine;
And were the painted rosebuds
He tossed his lady,
Of better worth
Than the words I blow about you
To cover your too great loveliness
As with a gauze
Of misted silver?
For me,
You stand poised
In the blue and buoyant air,
cinctured by bright winds,
Treading the sunlight.
And the waves which precede you
Ripple and stir
The sands at my feet.

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White Currants

Shall I give you white currants?
I do not know why, but I have a sudden fancy for this fruit.
At the moment, the idea of them cherishes my senses,
And they seem more desirable than flawless emeralds.
Since I am, in fact, empty-handed,
I might have chosen gems out of India,
But I choose white currants.
Is it because the raucous wind is hurtling round the house-corners?
I see it with curled lips and stripped fangs, gaunt and haunting energy,
Come to snout, and nibble, and kill the little crocus roots.
Shall we call it white currants?
You may consider it as a symbol if you pelase.
You may find them tart, or sweet, or merely agreeable in colour,
So long as you accept them,
And me.

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In Excelsis

You -- you --
Your shadow is sunlight on a plate of silver;
Your footsteps, the seeding-place of lilies;
Your hands moving, a chime of bells across a windless air.

The movement of your hands is the long, golden running of light from a rising sun;
It is the hopping of birds upon a garden-path.

As the perfume of jonquils, you come forth in the morning.
Young horses are not more sudden than your thoughts,
Your words are bees about a pear-tree,
Your fancies are the gold-and-black striped wasps buzzing among red apples.
I drink your lips,
I eat the whiteness of your hands and feet.
My mouth is open,
As a new jar I am empty and open.
Like white water are you who fill the cup of my mouth,
Like a brook of water thronged with lilies.

You are frozen as the clouds,
You are far and sweet as the high clouds.
I dare to reach to you,
I dare to touch the rim of your brightness.
I leap beyond the winds,
I cry and shout,
For my throat is keen as is a sword
Sharpened on a hone of ivory.
My throat sings the joy of my eyes,
The rushing gladness of my love.

How has the rainbow fallen upon my heart?
How have I snared the seas to lie in my fingers
And caught the sky to be a cover for my head? How have you come to dwell with me,
Compassing me with the four circles of your mystic lightness,
So that I say "Glory! Glory!" and bow before you
As to a shrine?

Do I tease myself that morning is morning and a day after?
Do I think the air is a condescension,
The earth a politeness,
Heaven a boon deserving thanks?
So you -- air -- earth -- heaven --
I do not thank you,
I take you,
I live.
And those things which I say in consequence
Are rubies mortised in a gate of stone.


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Where to Read More...

  • Amy Lowell, Impressionist Poet. A great source of information about Amy Lowell's Imagist style. Explores, among other things, her musical inflences. Part of Modernism American Salons.
  • Amy Lowell, "Patterns" (individual poem)
  • Amy Lowell: Brief Life of an Imagist Poet 1874 - 1925 from Harvard Magazine.
  • Selected works by Amy Lowell
  • Grave of Amy Lowell (photo)
  • American Literature on the Web: Amy Lowell (links to electronic texts)
  • Amy Lowell, Patterns
  • Amy Lowell, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass
  • Amy Lowell, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914)
  • Amy Lowell, Pictures of the Floating World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925)
  • Amy Lowell, What's O'Clock (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914) Pulitizer Prize Winner
  • Amy Lowell, Ballads for Sale (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927)
  • Amy Lowell, Complete Poetical Works (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955)
  • S. Foster Damon, Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, With Extracts from her Correspondence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935)
  • Jean Gould, Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (New York: Dodd Mead, 1975)
  • Glenn Richard Ruihley, The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975)
  • Richard Benvenuto, Amy Lowell (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985)

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