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On "The March II"


Robert von Hallberg

The variety of diction and tone in this particular poem results not just from a freedom from any one stiff loyalty but more from an even-handedness that, given the circumstances, ought to be authoritative. The first line sets the casualness of his comrades (he once wrote "heaped," but "flung" better insists on the accidental formation of the group) against the biblical measure of the truly devout, those who gather together in God's name; the irony is gentle and only self-deflating. If this confederation does not quite measure up to its most dignified tradition, neither is the base language of television advertising - "to follow their dream" - quite right either; this group meets in that vast area in between. The tone here is arch, but nowhere flip; the difference between Lowell's archness and Merrill's is crucial. However light Lowell can seem, he is never far from earnestness: "our Bastille, the Pentagon ... my cowardly, / foolhardy heart." Those oppositions locate the seriousness. He admits, with amused sophistication, to fearful quaking but also claims, all the more forcefully for the line break, courage beyond prudence; insofar as the Pentagon is the Bastille to be stormed, one must be foolhardy - or, better, ironic - just to stay with the fight. The end of the first sentence, closing the octave, is above all else convincingly goodhumored: "how weak / we were, and right." To speak of a political poem of 1967 as good-humored, urbane, and yet serious is high, rare praise.

Lowell's seriousness might possibly be questioned in the octave, but surely not in the sestet, where the poem turns and turns again, in the plainest of idioms. The trampling second wave of troops comes without warning or explanation, all the more surprising after the mincing first contingent - and also without reason. There is no suggestion of malice or of motive at all; the stunning charge is only part of the unexplained circumstances, perhaps even a goof. Lowell renders no reproach, only an urbane but plain toast to "those who held" but also to a soldier who, out of simple human kindness that knows nothing of political encampments, broke ranks and helped him regain his footing." The last turn, not altogether a surprise, is that having toasted those who held, he flees, recovering the sophisticated composure of the octave, where his cowardice was admitted in advance. The poem ends with comprehensive resolution, Lowell having given up nothing: not his irony about the composition of the demonstrators, his doubt about the possibility of success, his admission of his own weakness, or above all else his claim to a sensibility that, however urbane, includes admiration for simple virtues directly expressed - "your kind hands." The poem is richly sensitive, intelligent, and wholly conscionable, as rather few political poems, especially of 1967, are.

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


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