LOWELL, ROBERT (1917-1977, American Poet)
THE WORKING PAPERS FOR HIS IMPORTANT POEM 'FALL 1961', comprising the autograph draft in pencil with additions and revisions in ink and six successive typescript versions mostly with autograph revisions preserving unused readings, 7 pages, quarto, the final two typescripts with typed name and address '15 W 67 NYC', numbered in pencil 1-7, unbound, 1961
[First typescript, beginning]
back and forth, back and forth
the orange and blue swin[g]ing Oriole's nest
back and forth, back and forth
the swinging of the orange and blue
ambassadorial face of the moon
My point of rest
A father's no shield for his child
my child stands behind me
I can't stand behind her
[Final printed version, extracts]
Back and forth, back and forth
goes the tock, tock, tock
of the orange, bland, ambassadorial
face of the moon
on the grandfather clock...
A father's no shield
for his child.
We are a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears...
Back and forth!
Back and forth, back and forth --
my one point of rest
is the orange and black
oriole's swinging nest!
'FALL 1961' IS LOWELL'S MAJOR COLD WAR POEM OF THE KENNEDY YEARS. THE PRESENT PAPERS REVEAL THE COMPOSITIONAL PROCESS FROM ITS CONCEPTION TO THE FINAL VERSION, with numerous reconsidered and unrecorded readings and re-castings - the fine use of 'ambassadorial', for instance, does not appear in the draft - and they retain passages that did not reach the final version.
Published in his acclaimed collection, For the Union Dead, 1965, the poem crystallized the sense of nuclear fear and paranoia in the West during the Cold War, 'the defining horror of the age.' Lowell was a noted pacifist poet who consistently opposed militarism in war, served in prison as a conscientious objector, denounced the Vietnam War, was a major critic in writing of government policy, attended anti-war rallies and deplored nuclear weapons.
The context of the poem is the year 1961 when 'the Cold War grew warmer by degree:' the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the U.S.; the erecting of the Berlin War; Soviet and U.S. tanks confronting one another at the Friedrichstrasse crossing point; the Soviet Union ending its three-year moratorium on nuclear testing; the U.S. resuming underground testing; and the 'Sky II Shield' simulating a U.S. reaction to a Soviet attack. This led to the nuclear face-down crisis known as the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, the closest the world has come to a nuclear war.
Lowell himself wrote, at about the same time that he was composing 'Fall 1961', in the Partisan Review: 'No nation should possess, or retaliate with its bombs. I believe we should rather die than drop our own bombs. Every man belongs to his nation and to the world. He can only, as things are, belong to the world by belonging to his own nation. Yet the sovereign nations, despite their feverish last minute existence, are really obsolete. They imperil the lives that they are credited to protect.' Four years later he added: 'We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and may even be drifting our way to the last nuclear ruin.'
In a letter to Elizabeth Bishop of 3 October  Lowell noted: '...there's just a queer, half-apocalyptic, nuclear feeling in the air, as tho nations had died and were now anachronistic, yet in their anarchic death-throes would live on for ages troubling us, threatening the likelihood of life continuing. I guess this is my personal, eccentric impression, but things are very queer, as if one's clothes were full of holes!'
In reply, Elizabeth Bishop commented on 'Fall 1961': 'Your poem is haunting me - I find I have it almost memorized - We had a clock that had a ship that rocked back and forth, and another one that showed something moving in the window of a house on a green hill - I always thought it was shaking out the sheets in the bedroom. "Radiant with terror" - but best of all, I think, are the old sayings used in the ghastly new context.'
Michael Gallagher considered this poem as the first of three in For the Union Dead that might qualify as a 'great poem.'
'The greatest [male] American poet of the second half of the 20th century, Lowell was an agent of major transformation whose work affected the ways in which others read and wrote poetry. The quality of his observations on the interior life, the variety and grace of his poetic structures and metres, the depth of his learning, and the brilliance of his language should qualify Lowell as our grand master of the art of writing.' (The Hand of the Poet). Seamus Heaney described 'Fall 1961' as 'wonderfully chaste and bare-handed'.
The major repositories of Lowell's papers are the Houghton Library at Harvard, and the Harry Ransom Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Also see lot 331.
REFERENCES: Steven Gould Axelrod, 'Robert Lowell and the Cold War', New England Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 3, September 1999; Michael Gallagher, review of 'For The Union Dead', An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 54, no 214/215, 1965; The Hand of the Poet, New York Public Library, 1977; For the Union Dead, 1965; Words in Air, 2008; Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, 1988.