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On "Commander Lowell"


Stephen Yenser

Ihere is no denying that Lowell's "study" of his father is not wholly complimentary. A Navy man whose interest in ships is basically academic, whose main connection with Pearl Harbor is that he once bought "white ducks" at the commissary there, and whose way of celebrating giving up naval life for a position with Lever Brothers' Soap is to sing "'Anchors aweigh'" in the bathtub, he is bound to appear somewhat ridiculous. The only time he displays a "seamanlike celerity" is when he leaves the Navy - only to squander a small fortune in the less secure civilian world. A revelation of facts such as these constitutes an indictment, and Lowell is not stingy with them.

At the same time, these observations are placed in a context that takes the edges off them and that even manages to return to the Commander some of the dignity that his rank implies. One of Lowell's resources here is the memory of the characters of the people who surrounded his father, so that the latter's weaknesses are in part explained and in part transformed. For example, we know from numerous references that his father was not altogether a satisfactory husband, and we may be inclined to read as further confirmation of this inadequacy the comment that "Mother dragged to bed alone, / read Menninger, / and grew more and more suspicious"; but our response to this comment must be qualified by the opening lines of the poem. . . .

The barely suppressed Freudian interpretation of his mother does much to explain and perhaps even to justify his father's fecklessness. The fact that she read "the Napoleon book" to her son is not meant to go unnoticed; and the very circumstance that a poem purporting to be about his father opens with such pointed remarks about his mother is significant. If it will not do to see the older Lowell as a hapless victim of a domineering wife, neither will it do to view him as the family liability. The situation is too complex to be reduced to such stock explanations; and what Lowell does is to play one character against the other, letting the real situation emerge in the course of this interplay. Much the same thing happens in the second stanza, where the Commander's inability to mix with his contemporaries is set forth. Not to fit in with the country club set, who incongruously regard golf as the game of professionals, and not to be one of the yachting crowd, who ludicrously see themselves as "seadogs" on Sundays, are almost laudable characteristics. It is easy to think it a blacker mark that he was "once successful enough to be lost / in the mob of ruling-class Bostonians." Rather than a type of failure, Commander Lowell might be regarded as a type of hero, although a decidedly Quixotic type. But even the humor of condescension that is accorded a Quixote is banished from the last lines of this poem.

From Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell. Copyright 1975 by the Regents of the University of California.


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