Amy Lowell’s “A Fixed Idea”: An Exploration in Paradox

A Fixed Idea

What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant; and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.

Amy Lowell

I read the above poem by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) and wanted to share my thinking about it with you.

Lowell wrote some 650 poems, though uneven in quality. She is largely known to us as an early modernist and for “imagism” in particular, inspired by Hilda Doolittle (HD) and Ezra Pound. “A Fixed Idea” appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1910.

I like the poem and think you will too. We’ve all been there. We’ve had a crush on someone in earlier days or found a rare happiness in the coalescence of experience that we look back upon with nostalgia.

This poem, however, centers in paradox. When we can’t let go, reminiscence can give way to pain and even remorse as equally traumatic as remembered suffering.

All of this is very Keatsian, Keats along with Wordsworth an exponent of nostalgic remembrance. No surprise then that in her final years she wrote a definitive biography of Keats.

Many readers infer that “A Fixed Idea” deals with a past romantic love, though the poem can imply more than that as “you” grammatically applies to its antecedent, the fixed idea of the poem (l.1, single thought”), and title. In turn, this lends the poem a universality that augments its appeal.

What isn’t ambiguous is the poem’s pervasive theme of obsessiveness that embellishes the past with a burdensome present. To have known past joy no longer palpable is time’s inexorable consequence. We transcend by letting go:

The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined.

Nostalgia is always a constant of the human psyche, abounding in the archetypal admonition to avoid the fate of those who perished in their folly of a backward glance.

Fundamental to human identity is our ability to reckon our losses, extricate ourselves from the past, and live in the present, asserting ourselves in the cauldron of life’s new challenges that serve to enlarge rather than diminish ourselves. Identity finds itself in “quest” (l. 13), not stasis.

Our poem, written in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, exhibiting two rhetorical sections, octave and sestet, one general, the other amplifying, is an Italian sonnet. In the former, we have recall of past happiness “once kind” (l. 1) and “welcome still” (l. 2).

The sestet, however, transitions into antithesis with its extended metaphor, or image, of the persona’s fixation as a nesting bird that weighs upon her heart, impeding her life:

…you cannot know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.

Like all good poetry, “A Fixed Idea” is more than what it seems. In short, it’s precisely our clinging that lies at the crux of human unhappiness, our attempting to possess what, given life’s Protean flux, was never ours to own.

–rj

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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