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On "Inauguration Day: January 1953"


Thomas R. Edwards

Imagistically the poem is built upon "enclosure" -- burial by snow, the subway's vaults, the truss of the El, the interred Union dead, the sword in the groove -- foreshadowing the "mausoleum" of the last line. But these images suggest not only constraint and death but ceremony, formal rituals like burial, inauguration, or for that matter battle itself. The city observes the occasion: the subways drum, the girders "charge" as the poet passes them, the snow is the ermine of ceremonial costume. Grant's sword "in the groove" has the fixity of formal posture, and the poet himself rises to the occasion by invoking the "god of our armies." But ceremony itself has another aspect. Its regularity may, with a slight shift of perspective, seem mechanical and lifeless -- not people but machines drum and charge in this poem, and the horseman is evidently not a man but a statue, succinct evidence of what ceremony does to life. Suggestions of impotent stasis and painful breakdown question the dignity of the ceremonial moment. The regal city wears a truss under its ermine, and either truss or wearer groans from the pressure. "Slummed on want" is rather elliptical, but it conjoins original desire (or need) and its terrible present effects to extend the paradox of "groaned in ermine."

. . . .

The poem expands from personal anecdote -- What I Did on Inauguration Day -- to a very serious inclusiveness. "Our wheels no longer move" makes montage of the poet's own situation (his car stalled on an icy street?) and the plight of a nation whose procedures and symbols may be collapsing. The splitting of the fixed stars is a rich image: fixed stars are navigational marks, which at this Ultima Thule of dead winter lose their power of guidance; they suggest the field of stars in the American flag, regular but characterless representations of human interests and purposes that strain against the political abstractions holding them together, as they strained when the North fought the South, as the city now strains at its truss; they hint at some unimaginable yet terrifying annuncation, the cosmologists' expanding universe or the physicists' thermonuclear parody of it ("lack-land atoms"), against which old loyalties and pieties seem frail support. The public situation of January 1953 is in the poem -- Eisenhower, the Korean war, the inner divisiveness of the McCarthy era, and so on -- but it poses larger questions than these alone.

Thus the conclusion of "Inauguration Day: January 1953" draws upon an accumulation of meanings that makes it more than the easy joke it might have been:

and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.

This does sound absurd -- the very sound of "Ike" threatens the solemnity of the day, and Grant quickly recalls the tragi-comic fate of soldiers who turn statesmen in this republic. But this is not Coriolan, and to see only wry despair about the value of public ceremony would be to reduce the last two lines to an epigram broken off from the poem. "Inauguration Day" is more than a complaint that the wrong man got elected, and less than an attack on politics as empty routine. Why does the Republic summon Ike? Because it has forgotten Grant? Because it takes some perverse pleasure in destroying its heroes?

Lowell provides no explicit syntactical connection between the last lines, leaving open a number of readings. . . . "Ambiguity" in itself is no poetic virtue. But in "Inauguration Day" Lowell's modernist style, with its refusals of causal and temporal exactitude, nicely reflects the uncertainties and ironies of serious political concern.

From Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), 217-220.


Michael Thurston

"Inauguration Day: January 1953," one of the few poems Lowell was able to complete before the two great bursts that led to most of Life Studies, brilliantly captures his political awareness and his struggle to address the social in and through the lyric. In this roughed-up sonnet, Lowell consociates war-hero cum president Dwight Eisenhower, New York's Peter Stuyvesant statue, and the tomb of another war-hero cum president, Ulysses S. Grant.The landscape is snowy and shifting; indeed, it buries Stuyvesant, New York's colonial governor. Lowell metonymically transforms Stuyvesant into New York itself, and New York becomes therefore its own threatened monument, the elevated train Manhattan's crippling "truss of adamant." He then retreats back to the single monument commemorating Grant: his tomb. But Grant is not remembered here as victor of Vicksburg or acceptor of Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Rather, the battle Lowell names and with which he identifies Grant is Cold Harbor, where Grant sent charge after doomed charge into the heavily fortified Confederate positions -- a strategy he later repented, but nevertheless repeated to earn his reputation as the killer mathematician willing to outspend the Confederacy with the currency of his more abundant troops. Cold Harbor resonates for Lowell because it prefigures the calculated slaughter that would typify the Second World War; it was, after all, the saturation bombing of civilian targets in German cities that drove Lowell to his conscientious objection to that war. An avatar of Mars, Grant is "God of our armies" who himself, personally, "interred Cold Harbor's blue immortals." He bears responsibility for the heaps of Union casualties from that battle, a desperate attempt to end the Civil War. To conclude the "octave," Lowell cries out to this apocalyptic rider: "Horseman, your sword is in the groove!" Casting a cold eye on the city, this horseman wields a sword fixed, inflexible, incapable of responding to new threats. Unable to protect or to pass by, Grant represents a national postwar paralysis.

The five-line "sestet" of this altered Petrarchan sonnet develops this figure of paralysis. All the city, all the earth take on the frozen aspect of these monuments: "Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move." Lowell seems to say the world will end in ice, not fire; the fear of nuclear apocalypse gives way here to a dread of chilly calculation. The stars are "fixed," the orbits of the planets cease, and everything, like the stone statues, like the Union soldiers at Cold Harbor, dies. From this death, "the Republic summons Ike," latest in its long line of martial heroes hoped to heal and lead the country (and a general who helped to formulate the strategy of fire bombing German cities, the provocation for Lowell's conscientious objection to military service in World War II). Eisenhower, though, is already his own monument, the hero of D-Day, liberator of Europe, beloved and unassailable. The presidency to which he ascends is its own grave, the White House a columned and marmoreal resting place. The nation, dead as its monuments, looks to install death itself at the helm. Ike is "the mausoleum in [its] heart."

Provoked by the defeat of Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, "Inauguration Day" certainly responds to what Lowell finds a critical historical moment: the repudiation of a mild-mannered intellectual in favor of a war hero. But surely the cold here refers to the Cold War more broadly, too, and the El, decrepit and groaning through the slums, facing demolition by decade's end and replacement by the subway's more powerful drumming, might well refer to the poet's own reliance on form's "truss of adamant."

Language and syntax loosen in "Inauguration Day," become somewhat more relaxed than in the poems of Lord Weary's Castle. The instability of snow and "lack-land atoms" are matched by the imperfection of the poem's form, from the four-stress line that replaces the sonnet's iambic pentameter to the altered stanzaic structure, the loosening of the rhyme scheme, the sentential incompletion in line five, and the relaxed diction of "the El" or, slangier still, "in the groove." While moments in this poem are no less clotted than Lord Weary's Castle, the overall effect is less, well, monumental. The poem casts doubt on itself, on its own pronouncements; or, perhaps, it threatens to succumb to the same entropy that surrounds Stuyvesant, its last enjambed sentence a winding down to the heat death Lowell imagines for the world. Here, Lowell identifies a bit more with that world. While we might read this, as Robert von Hallberg does, as Lowell choosing to stand "out in the cold" where alienation provides access to critique, I find it more important that Lowell locates himself at the mercy of split atoms, in the same danger others share, and as part of the Republic that calls death to take the helm. The poem embodies a self suffering Cold War anxiety and the city's shape-shifting, a self with whom readers join in that chilling position, that utter vulnerability fought off, unsuccessfully and ambivalently, with the fixed sword of the sonnet and the creaking truss of forms falling apart.

From "Robert Lowell's Monumental Vision: History, Poetic Form, and the Cultural Work of Postwar Lyric." (American Literary History, forthcoming 2000).


Robert von Hallberg

In the 1952 election, New York went solidly for Aldai Stevenson, the candidate favored by intellectuals. Robert Lowell was deeply disappointed at Stevenson's stunning loss to Eisenhower; intellectuals felt shut out of office. This poem gives a powerful sense of how it was then to stand in the cold: frosty, yes, but for a poet invigorating too; with alienation came fresh access to biting, severe statement such as a poet has to be grateful for, though perhaps only in the short run. The political stakes of the 1952 election looked especially high to intellectuals; as Lowell represents them, they were cosmic. General Grant ended his bloody wilderness campaign with the battle of Cold Harbor, the worst slaughter of the war--that is the historical reference Lowell thought appropriate to Eisenhower's election. Even for New Yorkers, though, speaking of Eisenhower as an outland candidate was stretching things some: two years earlier, he had been president of Columbia. Yet Stevenson was plainly the northeastern, urban favorite, and he lost miserably. The forces behind Eisenhower's victory, as Lowell saw them, included a tradition of warrior-presidents such as Grant but, more important, the deathly spirit of America, the mausoleum in the heart of the nation. So sweeping is Lowell's vision here that even the stars are meant to figure in this historical moment, and in an odd way. Those fixed stars are being cracked open, like atoms, to mark a world-historical moment. Lowell manages, quite surprisingly, to associate Eisenhower with nuclear fission, even though the only person ever to order the military use of nuclear weapons was the outgoing Democratic president. (Of course, Eisenhower was involved in the decision to devastate Dresden, in protest of which Lowell refused induction and served a six-month prison sentence.) Lowell's effort to magnify the political loss suffered by Democrats, especially the urban, intellectual Democrats, was so strenuous that Civil War history, astronomy, and an odd manipulation of recent military history were all made to lend resonance to the moment. Given this bird's-eye view of the culture, a single political division becomes the axis for dividing the cosmos. In 1953, when to most observers the nation was settling in for a snooze, the culture seemed in extremis to Lowell; so he reverted conspicuously to the extremist style of his War book, Lord Weary's Castle. It would be another fifteen years before the culture would seem similarly doomed to many of his contemporaries.

From American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Copyright 1985 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.


Charles Altieri

"Inauguration Day: 1953" shows the culmination of the processes begun by "The Banker's Daughter." Ike is the father figure so reduced, so without the dignity of Hellas' altitude, that he can in no way stimulate the imagination or serve as a model for action. There is no relief, no promise in the demonic winter world of the poem. Prose world and earth have conquered: we are reduced to "cyclonic zero of the word." When this poem, too, comes around to death, death has become the spiritual condition of the living ("mausoleum in her heart").

from "Poetry in a Prose World: Robert Lowell's 'Life Studies.'" Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 1


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