THE LANGUAGE OF THE SELF IN THE POETRY OF ROBERT LOWELL
WALLINGFORD, KATHARINE TAPERS
Doctor of Philosophy
Robert Lowell inherited from the New England Puritans not only his habit of obsessive self-examination, not only his fascination with the process of that self-examination, but also his awareness of the significance of language in that process. This trinity of concerns forms the basis as well of the process of psychoanalysis, with which Lowell was familiar through his active participation in the culture of his time, and more personally through the tragedy of his manic-depressive illness. Although Lowell was never psychoanalyzed, he spent many years in psychotherapy, often with therapists who were psychoanalytically inclined; and since he believed firmly in the identity of self and language--"one life, one writing"--he was uniquely situated to write a poetry of self-examination using the methods of psychoanalysis: Association. Free association enables the subject to sneak through the bars of repression and gain access to the unconscious. Lowell's poems often work through a chain of association of images and ideas which have meaning not in themselves but in their relation to one another. Memory. Lowell uses his memory to look back into the past in the hope of better understanding the present. Life Studies, where the process is most evident, began as an exercise at the behest of his psychiatrists, and he used this technique effectively throughout his career. Repetition. Critics of psychoanalysis see the process as one in which the patient is trapped in an endless series of futile iterations, and some of Lowell's poetry reflects this stifling repetition. But the positive aspect of repetition--"working through" a painful situation until it is mastered--appears in Lowell's poetry as well. Relation. Contemporary psychoanalysts stress the fact that the search for one's individual identity is not a solitary activity, but rather one which takes place in dialogue, through language. In his poetry, Lowell attempts to define himself through discourse with the "other." Through his poetry of self-examination, Lowell finds no absolutes or certainty, but rather tentative, day-by-day answers to the questions of our common existence: "How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?"