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On "July in Washington"


Stephen Yenser

Repeated references to "circles" and the image of "the sulphurous wave" on the Potomac suggest that the American capital is an infernal hub of colonialism whose "stiff spokes" prod at "the sore spots," the underdeveloped and vulnerable nations of the world. The United States seems as incapable of controlling its destiny here as the poet-speaker was of controlling his own destiny earlier; the country's influence expands aimlessly and inexorably, "circle on circle, like rings on a tree."

But the rings in the trunk of a tree tell age as well as growth, and the poet-speaker seems to detect signs of the passing of this era and the introduction of a new one in the oxydizing "green statues" and the "breeding vegetation" that is probably the avant-garde of a second invasion of the Continent. The implication is that the new era will be one in which American civilization will sink back into the wilderness from which it sprang. The reason for this retrogression is suggested by the mocking juxtaposition of "The elect" and "the elected," which points up the great disparity between virtue and political success even as it jeeringly identifies salvation with worldly power. The obsolescence of the concept of heroism implicit in this irony prompts the reference to the men whom the statues are supposed to commemorate: "We cannot name their names, or number their dates." If in "The Mouth of the Hudson" the poet-speaker contradicted Hart Crane's optimistic view of man's ability to transcend the apparent future of the New World, in these lines he declines the role that Yeats arrogated to the poet in "Easter 1916" - that of murmuring the "name upon name" of legendary political heroes. Neither meliorism nor mythology is possible in a world whose leaders are unctuous as otters that "slide and dive and slick back their hair" and rapacious as raccoons that "clean their meat in the creek."

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


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