Amy Lowell (1874-1925) composed over 600 poems during her lifetime, and her poetic style was heavily influenced by the Imagist movement led by Ezra Pound. Though born into a prominent New England family, Lowell was unable to attend college and instead was largely responsible for educating herself, accumulating a huge collection of books over the years. Her poetry was not all well-received at its time of publication, and many critics seem to have been somewhat offended by her sexuality. Lowell lived with actress Ada Dwyer Russell from the early 1900s until her death in 1925, though the nature of their relationship remains unclear after all correspondence between them was burned by Russell upon Lowell’s death. However, the unknown presence in this poem is believed to be Russell, of whom Lowell considered Madonna of the Evening Flowers to present ‘so exact a portrait’.
Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1926 for her volume entitled What’s O’clock? (1925).
The most striking aspect of this poem is the emphasis on the visual: the precise descriptions of the sun shining on the ‘books’, ‘scissors’ and ‘thimble’ lying exactly where they were left, contrasted with the unexplained absence of the ‘you’ to whom the poem is addressed. Though Lowell does not present us with the person’s physical description, their absence is very keenly felt throughout the poem, mainly due to the effect they have on the speaker themselves: ‘Suddenly I am lonely’. The swiftness with which this mysterious, absent person is able to impact upon the speaker makes the relationship between the two an extremely compelling one to encounter: the urgency of the speaker’s desire to be reunited with the absent person is resolved by the second stanza, and we are able to see just how profoundly the poem’s speaker is affected by the presence of the so-far absent ‘you’: ‘I look at you, heart of silver […] And I long to kneel instantly at your feet’. The poem’s movement from the domestic into religious vision is another effective technique of Lowell’s: the poem’s title, as well as images of the ‘Canterbury bells’, emphasises the extent to which both the absence and physical presence of ‘you’ stirs the emotions and reactions of the narrator.
Madonna of the Evening Flowers
All day long I have been working
Now I am tired.
I call: “Where are you?”
But there is only the oak tree rustling in the wind.
The house is very quiet,
The sun shines in on your books,
On your scissors and thimble just put down,
But you are not there.
Suddenly I am lonely:
Where are you?
I go about searching.
Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.
I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes,
You tell me that the peonies need spraying,
That the columbines have overrun all bounds,
That the pyrus japonica should be cut back and rounded.
You tell me these things.
But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur,
And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,
While all about us peal the loud, sweet Te Deums of the Canterbury bells.
Amy Lowell, 1919.
If you liked this, here’s a link back to another of Amy Lowell’s poems: The Pike