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

Reminiscence: And I could wish it were 1949 again

The other day, I had a solicitation in the mail from a magazine called Reminiscence. Apparently, a lot of folks like to engage in nostalgia. I confess I occasionally do the same, though I’m aware of how time can soften the contours of the past.

Lit Brothers
Lit Brothers

Still, I like to muse on past events that were really quite wonderful and that I wish I could relive again. After all, why are we given memory if we’re simply meant to forget? If I had to pick a year in which to indulge, it would be 1949. It was a good year for me and for America, too.

 

Collectively, it was a simpler time, relatively free from the frenetic pace, complexity and stress of today.

To be sure, segregation was still a factor in denying Blacks their portion of the American dream and women were still largely subservient to men. China had just fallen to the Communists. At the Kremlin, Stalin ruled with an iron fist and Russia had just tested the A-bomb. The Cold War was on in earnest and so we resorted to an ongoing airlift to save Berlin.

Nonetheless, we had a decisive president in Harry S. Truman, who never skirted making the hard choices like dropping the A-bomb to shorten a savage war or later dismissing a popular, but unruly general. In short, we felt safe.

Four years after World War II, we were at peace, with no protracted conflicts like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We weren’t saddled with mind-boggling national debt, Congressional deadlock, inflationary pressures, the loss of our manufacturing base, or economic recession.

There weren’t any urban riots, decaying cities, or the threat of climate change that imperils our existence. We could never have imagined a 9/11 or the pervasiveness of terrorism.

Here are a few economic facts that put things into perspective about 1949:

Unemployment stood at just 3.8%.

Inflation, a mind-boggling 0.95%.

You could buy a house for an average $7500.

A car for $1400.

Gas, 17 cents for regular.

Let’s put it another way: $100 in 1949 now comes to $967.01 in 2014, with an average 3.5 inflation rate annually since that remarkable year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Most items were still made here in America, including TVs and cars. Cars had turned into long finned gargantuans replete with white wall tires and, with pent up demand, we couldn’t make them fast enough.

We were kings in forging steel and cities like Akron, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem and Lehigh lit up the night sky.

In New England, the textile mills of Lawrence, Lowell and North Adams hummed on.

We were good at making shoes and my father toiled in a neighborhood leather factory.

I was then a street urchin, much like Tom Sawyer, exploring the thoroughfares of Philadelphia, curious and, sometimes, mischievous. Occasionally, I played hooky, skipping school to walk downtown and visually rummage the big, many floor stores like Gimbels, Lit Brothers and Wanamaker’s, bustling with goods and replete with escalator stairs.

Yes, American cities once possessed vibrant downtowns that provided cohesion before the onset of suburban box stores and strip malls. Downtown was the place to be–shopping, movies, eateries.

Baseball was truly our national game, with many of the contests played in the afternoons. It was the era of greats like Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial. They hadn’t lowered the mound to boost hitters. No free agency meant modest salaries. Stadiums were named for people, not corporations or banks. Franchises didn’t move. Players didn’t cheat with drugs. Sundays and holidays meant doubleheaders. What a deal!

We didn’t have playgrounds in Kensington, the ethnic blue collar stronghold, dubbed Fishtown, where I lived near the Delaware River, but that didn’t stop us from playing stick ball, smashing cut-in-half tennis balls against factory facades. You determined singles, doubles, triples and home runs by window level.

I liked venturing down to the wharves, where I could see the cargo ships unloading, waive to their crews, and study their flags to learn their origin. It was here I developed my addiction to visit far off lands.

TVs initially with 4 inch screens, were now selling madly, or at the rate of 100,000 weekly, sadly hinting at foreclosure of neighborhood enclaves where we’d gather nightly on the white marble steps of our row housing, chatting our humanity until late evening breezes whispered their coolness and launched our escape from the steamy heat of asphalt streets and we could at last renew ourselves with sleep. We never dreamed of air conditioning, though a good many of us lived in upstair flats.

Despite TV’s inroads, radio still loomed large with shows like The Shadow, Jack Benny, Suspense and the Lone Ranger. Daytime–Arthur Godfrey was all the rage.

As for TV, showslike Mama, Texaco Theater, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Life of Riley were our staples. At most, you’d be lucky to have three channels, and after the 11 pm news, stations would shut down, sometimes to the National Anthem. They gave you a test pattern to help you get your “rabbit-ear” antennas right.

The music revolution hadn’t begun. No Elvis Presley. No Beatles. No Rock n’ Roll. No heavy metal or hip hop. We had Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Not knowing anything else, we were content.

Lyrics still rhymed, making them easy to remember. No CDs. Just vinyl records that could scratch easily, but the risk worth the sound!

Sinatra and Crosby reigned along with new stars like Rosemary Clooney, Frankie Laine, the Ames Brothers, and Dinah Shore. And then there was the handsome Mario Lanza, whose baritone thunder captured women’s hearts.

In 1949, you could escape Philly’s summer heat with a day movie for only a dime or a quarter at night, and even get in on a double header that included the world news and Disney cartoons. Bogart, Gable, Wayne, Cooper, Grant–and, yes,–Bob Hope (number one) were the big draws. On Saturday afternoons, a special treat with serial showings of Superman!

Despite technicolor and Gone with the Wind, color was rare.

Comedy was big and I laughed till my sides hurt at the likes of the three stooges, and Abbott and Costello. And then there were those shoot ’em up Westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, adept in singing prowess as well as gun savvy. Why we even got to know their horses, Trigger and Champion, unlike the plods of other Westerns apart from the Lone Ranger’s Silver.

Telephones weren’t in abundance, so sometimes we resorted to a neighbor’s phone or a telephone booth to make a call. To call long distance could be expensive, even intimidating, and thus rare. Nice, however to be out of reach. Or on the streets, free of distracted drivers.

Magazines, often pictorial, like Look, Life, and Saturday Evening Post, caught your eye and provided quick reads. And they cost cents, not dollars.

Yes, many doctors still made house calls and health costs were reasonable.

We didn’t have Interstates then. That would come with Eisenhower’s mandate. Main highways were mostly two lanes giving way occasionally to a third lane for passing. Crossing the Ben Franklin for the Jersey shore and fresh fruit took you through spacious countryside with luxuriant tomato farms. Mom and Pop cabins–no motel chains–offered accommodation for $3 a night.

There were only 150 million of us then and even California had ample elbow room. Worldwide, just under 2 billion people, meaning more manageable resources, less poverty, and a cleaner environment.

More of us began to fly–on noisy propeller contraptions that is. Passenger ships still plied the ocean like their ancient predecessors.

What I really liked were the trains and, especially, the sleek new diesel locomotives. Train stations were busy, exciting places, filled with shops, much the way it still is in Europe.

On a sadder note, I miss my once teeming family–my mother and father, brother, oodles of cousins, dear aunts and uncles, and childhood friends, in 1949, luxuriating in life’s bloom. As life stretches out, we mourn our losses as well as count our gains. We learn to appreciate what we cannot keep. I am glad for memory.

I could go on, but you get the picture, or at least my view of 1949–like a fine wine, a year of superbly good vintage. A time of innocence and simplicity, where less proved more, and thus possessed its own indulgent beauty.

But we can’t be Rip Van Winkles either. Time moves on, and we with it.

–rj

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