Robert Lowell: The Old Flame
02 January, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Poetry
The Old Flame by Robert Lowell
My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill -
Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stripes
hung on a pole. The clapboard
was old-red schoolhouse red.
Inside, a new landlord,
a new wife, a new broom!
Atlantic seaboard antique shop
pewter and plunder
shone in each room.
A new frontier!
No running next door
now to phone the sheriff
for his taxi to Bath
and the State Liquor Store!
No one saw your ghostly
stare through the window
the scarf at his throat.
Health to the new people,
health to their flag, to their old
restored house on the hill!
Everything had been swept bare,
furnished, garnished and aired.
Everything's changed for the best -
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!
Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,
we heard the plow
groaning up hill -
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.
This poem discusses societal changes that were once unthinkable, and how the narrator comes to terms with these changes and the conservatism that his wife idealized.
Societal change is central to the poem, which concerns Maine, a traditionally very white state. First, it presents the notion of new racial assimilation into the American ideal: "Now a read ear of Indian maize was splashed on the door", representing a society in which nonwhites can also live, and "Old Glory with thirteen stripes hung on a pole", representing the persistence of the old American ideal.
This contrast between change and persistence continues throughout the poem. The control, the labor, and the tools of the market have changed: "a new landlord, a new wife, a new broom". However, the people still idealize the work of their American forefathers. They polish antiques (memories of the past) of the "Atlantic seaboard", which is geographically similar to the first thirteen colonies. In the sixth stanza, they restore the old houses, while at the same time sweeping them bare and replacing the interior with what is new.
The wife is presented as a conservative force who theorized against societal change. Her "imaginary lover", that is, her conception of the ideal person, "tighten[ed] the scarf at his throat", representing disgust and rejection, during the changes wrought while the couple were absent. Her ideals are "fierce", her insight "flaming"; when coupled with the comparison to a wasp, it is made clear that her ideas are threatening rather than friendly. Finally, the designation of "snowbound" implies a degree of being limited in sight and openness (we will discuss snow more later).
However, at the same time, this conservatism is presented as theory only, unable to impede the forces of progress. In the end, "no one saw [her] ghostly imaginary lover", and the wife herself is reduced to a "poor ghost", an abandoned "old love".
The narrator recognizes three things: first, he was never truly able to share the beliefs of his wife; second, the changes being wrought are good; third, he will be unable to participate in this new society.
The narrator's separation from his wife is made clear both in the past and in the present. The existence of the wife's imaginary lover means that the narrator could not serve that ideal, and the implication of "in one bed and apart" is manifest. His acknowledgement of the changes ties into this rejection of his wife's ideals. He observes that the house is still "on top of its hill", that is, still representing the old American ideal of a "city on a hill", then also quite directly says that "everything's changed for the best". Furthermore, he actively hopes for the best for the "new people" and "their flag" and "their old restored house", tying into his final realization of being unable to participate in this new world. It is not clear why the narrator feels alienated: perhaps it is because he cannot adapt, or perhaps because he is too old, but regardless, that he nonetheless wishes the best future for a people not identical to him validates the narrator's goodheartedness.
While the narrator does nostalgically recall his wife's old tirades of "flaming insight", he is clear that his wife's ideals are no longer applicable in this new world. He persists in referring to her with phrases representing abandonment: "old flame", "poor ghost", "old love".
Snow is the focus of the final stanza, and finalizes the notion of change and progress. The plow, representing societal machinery, moves slowly uphill-- towards the American ideal of the "city on a hill". It experiences both hesitation in a red light, then acceptance in the blue light. Its only obstacle on its path to the ideal is the snow on the road, and from this, we can conclude that snow represents coagulation, ossification, and a lack of progress. This further validates the presentation of the wife as "snowbound" indicating a misguided conservatism.
The narrator sees a changing society, and wonders what effects will arise. However, he is comforted by the observation that the old American ideal, the "city on a hill", the Old Glory, are still being upheld by the new people. The American ideal will continue, and change can be a part of it.