On "Man and Wife"
Although the mode of "Man and Wife" is essentially realistic, there are a number of local metaphors. The "rising sun" of line 2 becomes, in the diseased imagination of the poet who fears passion and vitality, an Indian savage in "war paint" who "dyes us red," the pun on "dyes" intensifying the death-in-life existence of the couple. Paradoxically, from the poet's point of view only inert object receive the sun's life-giving warmth: the "gilded bed-posts" of line 3, which evidently have an antique floral motif, are seen as thyrsi, the phallic staffs carried by the Bacchantes in their rites honoring Dionysus. The magnolia blossoms, further reminders that April is the cruelest month, are murderous creatures who set the morning air on fire. And finally, the tirade of the poet's wife bombards his ear like an ocean wave breaking against a rock.
But the condition which causes the poet to see the sun as a feared savage and the white magnolia blossoms as "murderous" is defined by a larger metonymic sequence of alliterating nouns: "Miltown" -- "Mother's bed" -- "Marlborough Street" -- "our magnolia." The first line of the poem looks casual and matter-of-fact until certain connections become apparent. The reference to Miltown, the first and most famous of the tranquilizers that came on the market in the fifties rather than to, say, Equanil or Valium, is not coincidental. For one thing, liquids and nasals ("Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed") point up the speaker's torpor and lassitude, but, more importantly, the name Miltown metonymically suggests such terms as Mill town, mill stone, and small town. The poet's state of anxiety is thus immediately seen as somehow representative of a larger American dilemma, of a crisis that occurs in Small Town or Any Town, U.S.A. The image of neurotic fracture is intensified in the second half of the line: the nuptial bed has been replaced by "Mother's bed"; her shadow, as it were, lies between husband and wife. In lines 8-12, moreover, it becomes clear that the poet's wife must act the role of mother to him; for the "fourth time" she has had to hold his hand and drag him home alive.
. . . .
In the second section (lines 8-22), the poet addresses his wife directly. The phrase "Oh my Petite, / clearest of all God's creatures, still all air and nerve" sounds mawkish when detached from the poem, but within the context it defines the speaker's wish to let his wife know that he still admires and loves her even if his love is impotent and destructive. Although she must act the role of Mother to him, he wants to think of her as his "Petite." And now he recalls the night, so different from this "homicidal" one, when he first met her. Again the focus is on setting rather than on emotion. The scene is diametrically opposed to that of Marlborough Street: it is the noisy, hot, alcoholic, left-wing Greenwich Village of Philip Rahv, the editor of Partisan Review. The poet wryly recalls his former self, "hand on glass / and heart in mouth," trying to outdrink the Rahvs and "fainting" at the feet of his future wife, the Southern-born lady intellectual whose "shrill invective" denounced the traditionalism of the Old South.
. . . .
The turn in the final section is quietly ironic: "Now twelve years later, you turn your back." Husband and wife no longer even try to touch. "Sleepless," she holds not him but her pillow to the "hollows" of her unsatisfied body. As in the past, rhetoric is her weapon, but whereas at the Rahvs the attack was good-humored and academic, now on "Mother's bed" life itself is at stake. But this is not to say that the poem is wholly pessimistic. The first water image in the poem -- the image of the ocean wave breaking against the speaker's head -- marks a turning point. The life-giving water rouses the poet from his Miltown-induced lethargy, a lethargy in which he envies the thyrsus-like bed-post, and brings him back to reality.
From The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973), 90-93.
In "Man and Wife" the setting and the landscape are vividly colored by the filter of tranquilized derangement through which the poet sees them. The initial lines, which in effect if not in intention parody Donne's "The Sunne Rising," owe much of their power to just this kind of distortion:
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.
The submerged violence rises to the surface of the poem in the description of the magnolia blossoms that "ignite / the morning with their murderous five days' white." A few lines later, where the speaker sees himself as having been "dragged ... home alive" from "the kingdom of the mad" by his wife, Lowell glances back at the confinement in McLean's Hospital and the incarceration in the West Street jail, each of which testifies to both the poet's isolation from the world and the problems of living in that world. "'To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,'" which seems to have begun with a translation of Catullus, shifts to the wife's point of view and reiterates the possibility of violence: "'This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.'" Her own febrile temperament, as well as her husband's tortured mind, is implied in her conception of his moonlighting: "'free-lancing out along the razor's edge.'"
From Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1975 by the Regents of the University of California.
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