Amy Lowell's "Penumbra"

Updated on July 20, 2019
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Amy Lowell


Introduction and Excerpt from "Penumbra"

Amy Lowell's "Penumbra" consists of five versagraphs in uneven lines. The poem completes a difficult but nearly successful task of convincing the speaker's partner that after the speaker's death, the partner will remain linked to her through her writings and the household items they share.

The success of the speaker's intent is marred by the last line of the poem (explained later); otherwise the concept is an interesting and unique one, as it looks into the future after the speaker's death, a departure from the traditional looking back on nostalgic events.

Excerpt from "Penumbra"

As I sit here in the quiet Summer night,
Suddenly, from the distant road, there comes
The grind and rush of an electric car.
And, from still farther off,
An engine puffs sharply,
Followed by the drawn-out shunting scrape of a freight train.
These are the sounds that men make
In the long business of living.
They will always make such sounds,
Years after I am dead and cannot hear them. . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "Penumbra" at Poetry Foundation.

Reading of "Penumbra"


Departing in nature from the nostalgic looking back into the past of John Greenleaf Whittier, James Whitcomb Riley, or Dylan Thomas, Amy Lowell's poem, "Penumbra," gives a nod to the future after the speaker's death.

First Versagraph: The Sounds of Men Working

The speaker is sitting quietly on a summer night listening to "the sounds that men make / In the long business of living." She has heard a street car and a railroad engine. The lines sound very prose-like, as if she had merely broken the lines of a diary or journal entry.

The first eight lines feature the sound of men working. The speaker then makes a bizarre remark, and that remark immediately turns the prosy sounding lines into a more poetic sound: "They will always make such sounds, / Years after I am dead and cannot hear them." These lines encourage the audience to ponder the next move, wondering why the speaker is contemplating her death.

Second Versagraph: Musing on a Summer Night

In the second versagraph, the speaker replays the setting: it is summer, she is sitting alone, and she is thinking about her death. Then she asserts, as if conversationally addressing someone who shares her residence, that the other person will get a glimpse of her chair with its unique covering as it stands in the "afternoon sunshine."

The speaker continues to report what the housemate will see after the speaker's death: the speaker's "narrow table" where the speaker does her writing for hours on end, the speaker's dogs that will seem to be asking where the speaker is and when she will be coming back.

The speaker's choices of items and events would sound depressing and maudlin except for the speaker's ability to render them so naturally. Readers can easily concur that such events are, in fact, likely to take place in the speaker's absence.

Third Versagraph: Musing About the House

Then the speaker muses about the house itself: the house will continue to sit where it is. It is the house the speaker grew up in; it has watched her play with dolls and marbles, and it has given protection to the speaker and her books.

Continuing her musing about the house, the speaker asserts that the house will still be looking at the same places it did while she was growing up: at the places in the home where she "ghosts and Indians," and at the room where the speaker took her net and "caught black-spotted butterflies."

Fourth Versagraph: Safe in the House

The speaker's purpose becomes clear in the fifth versagraph: she is comforting herself that her partner will be safe in this house. She is letting her partner know that after the speaker has died, the house will continue to protect her life mate just as the speaker has done.

The speaker has protected her partner, and because she feels certain that the house will continue to protect that partner, the speaker can take comfort in that fact and likely hopes that the partner will feel the same protection. The speaker then attempts to comfort the partner with the assurance that the speaker's presence will still be palpable:

the speaker says that she will impart in whispers her "thoughts and fancies" from the book she has written. That books pages will continue to inform the housemate all that the speaker wants her partner to hear and know.

Fifth Versagraph: A Penumbric Essence

In the final versagraph, the speaker further assures the partner that the speaker's presence, though only a penumbric essence, will be tangible and strong; therefore, it will keep the partner from settling into loneliness.

The speaker claims that her love will continue communicating with her partner as the housemate experiences the remaining presence of "the chairs, and the tables, and the pictures." The speaker claims that those household fixtures will then become the speaker's "voice." As the house will continue to protect the housemate, the speaker's household possessions will continue to remind the partner of the speaker's undying love.

The Unnecessary Final Line

This poem should have left off the last line, "And the quick, necessary touch of my hand." The speaker's entire discourse has been to make strong her spirit's presence for the partner after the speaker's death. But the last line undoes that task. If the "quick . . . touch of [her] hand" is "necessary" for the partner to still be in touch with the speaker, that touch is clearly impossible after the speaker's death.

The speaker has assigned her "voice" to those household items and to the pages of her written discourse in her book. She has not assigned a "touch of the hand" to anything. That touch of a hand must simply be inferred spiritually and not tied to the present's event of that same touching, regardless of how "necessary" it may now be.

All of the other links are possible: through the speaker's writing and the household items that the two share. Possibly leaving out the word "necessary" would help, but leaving off the entire last line would have kept in tact the work done of spiritualizing her presence for the partner.

Amy Lowell


Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Sue Grimes


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