Amy Lowell: from The Sisters

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1. Amy Lowell "from The Sisters"a

Amy Lowellb
And she is Sapho—Sapho—not Miss or Mrs.,
A leaping fire we call so for convenience;
But Mrs. Browning—who would ever think
Of such presumption as to call her “Ba.”4
Which draws the perfect line between sea-cliffs5
And a close-shuttered room in Wimpole Street.
Sapho could fly her impulses like bright
Balloons tip-tilting to a morning air
And write about it. Mrs. Browning’s heart
Was squeezed in stiff conventions. So she lay
Stretched out upon a sofa, reading Greek
And speculating, as I must suppose,
In just this way on Sapho; all the need,
The huge, imperious need of loving, crushed
Within the body she believed so sick.
And it was sick, poor lady, because words
Are merely simulacra after deeds
Have wrought a pattern; when they take the place
Of actions they breed a poisonous miasma
Which, though it leave the brain, eats up the body.
So Mrs. Browning, aloof and delicate,
Lay still upon her sofa, all her strength
Going to uphold her over-topping brain.
It seems miraculous, but she escaped
To freedom and another motherhood
Than that of poems. She was a very woman
And needed both.
If I had gone to call,
Would Wimpole Street have been the kindlier place,
Or Casa Guidi,30 in which to have met her?
I am a little doubtful of that meeting,
For Queen Victoria was very young and strong
And all-pervading in her apogee
At just that time. If we had stuck to poetry,
Sternly refusing to be drawn off by mesmerism35
Or Roman revolutions,36 it might have done.
For, after all, she is another sister,
But always, I rather think, an older sister
And not herself so curious a technician
As to admit newfangled modes of writing—
“Except, of course, in Robert, and that is neither
Here nor there for Robert is a genius.”
I do not like the turn this dream is taking,
Since I am very fond of Mrs. Browning
And very much indeed should like to hear her
Graciously asking me to call her “Ba.”
But then the Devil of Verisimilitude
Creeps in and forces me to know she wouldn’t.
Convention again, and how it chafes my nerves,
For we are such a little family
Of singing sisters, and as if I didn’t know
What those years felt like tied down to the sofa.
Confound Victoria, and the slimy inhibitions
She loosed on all us Anglo-Saxon creatures!
Suppose there hadn’t been a Robert Browning,
No “Sonnets from the Portuguese” would have been written.
They are the first of all her poems to be,
One might say, fertilized. For, after all,
A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain
And Mrs. Browning, as I said before,
Was very, very woman. Well, there are two
Of us, and vastly unlike that’s for certain.
Unlike at least until we tear the veils
Away which commonly gird souls. I scarcely think
Mrs. Browning would have approved the process
In spite of what had surely been relief;
For speaking souls must always want to speak
Even when bat-eyed, narrow-minded Queens
Set prudishness to keep the keys of impulse.
Then do the frowning Gods invent new banes
And make the need of sofas. But Sapho was dead
And I, and others, not yet peeped above
The edge of possibility. So that’s an end
To speculating over tea-time talks
Beyond the movement of pentameters
With Mrs. Browning….

2. Explanatory Notes

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, What’s O’Clock (Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1925), 127-37. In “The Sisters” Lowell explores the “queer lot” of “women who write poetry,” emphasizing how few in numbers such women are, much as EBB herself had done in her search for poetic “grandmothers” (see the “Introduction,” p. **). The poem muses about three poets who “scribble down, man-wise … fragments” of themselves: Sapho (Lowell’s spelling), EBB, and Emily Dickinson.

An influential modernist poet and critic, Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was a leading figure in the “Imagist” movement in poetry associated with Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolitte), and other writers.

EBB’s nickname among her family and intimate friends; see the “Introduction,” pp. **.

An allusion to the legend of Sappho’s leaping to her death from the sea-cliffs of Lesbos.

Upon marrying RB, EBB left her family home at 50 Wimpole Street in London; in Florence they made Casa Guidi their principal home; see the “Introduction,” pp. **.

EBB took a skeptical interest in the experiments with mesmerism (hypnotism) and “magnetism” that proliferated in the 1840s, especially given her correspondence with the leading author Harriet Martineau (1802-76) who recorded the apparent healing by mesmerism of a tumor that afflicted her; see “Mesmerism/Magnetism” (BC 9:416). Lowell seems to use mesmerism here to refer more broadly to spiritualism. On EBB and spiritualism, see the Introduction, p. ** and Katherine A. Porter, Through a Glass Darkly: Spiritualism in the Browning Circle (NY: Octagon P, 1972).

Alluding to EBB’s engagement with the Italian Risorgimento (see the “Introduction,” pp. ).

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Amy Lowell. Date: 14-June-2011
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