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Analysis of Poem Waking in the Blue by Robert Lowell

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell and a Summary of Waking In The Blue

Waking in the Blue is a confessional poem from the pen of one of America's most influential modern poets. It was written in the late winter of 1958 and published in the book Life Studies in 1959, a seminal work.

The poem takes the reader into the surreal world of the mental health institute, specifically the McLean Hospital, Belmont, just outside Boston. This is where Robert Lowell underwent treatment for manic attacks, a symptom of his bipolar disorder (schizophrenia) which he was diagnosed with in 1954.

His mental and emotional fragility stayed with him all his adult lifehe was in the hospital a dozen times between 1949 -1964which caused havoc with his relationships.

He wrote in a letter to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop:

'Everyone's tired of my turmoil.....These things come on with a gruesome, vulgar, blasting surge of "enthusiasm", one becomes a kind of man-aping balloon in a parade - then you subside and eat bitter coffee-grounds of dullness, guilt etc.'

As with many creative and artistic types his own extreme experiences helped fuel his poetry. For a man who radically changed his views on religion, who was jailed for being a conscientious objector, who was on lithium for years, who could turn physically violent without notice, he did well to produce so much work.

Without the psychic disturbances there'd have been less poetry, perhaps no confessional poetry at all?

Waking in the Blue is both sharply comic and darkly reflective in tone. Written in a free style it represented a breakaway from the more formal earlier work Lowell created in his serious prize-winning book Lord Weary's Castle, 1947.

Lowell definitely turned away from a strict metrical base for his poetry, to a much freer form of line. He left behind the subjects of war, religion and classical European themes which dominated his verse in the earlier years.

Why the drastic change? Well, there seem to be three reasons. The first involves Lowell's being in San Francisco in 1957, on a reading tour. This was the city of Ginsberg, Howl and all that, and the sharp contrast between Lowell's style and that of the Beats hit home. He feared being left behind.

Lowell wrote:

I became sorely aware of how few poems I had written, and that these few had been finished at the latest three or four years earlier. Their style seemed distant, symbol-ridden and willfully difficult...I felt my old poems hid what they were really about, and many times offered a stiff, humorless and even impenetrable surface....I was reading what I no longer felt.

He also returned to a love of prose:

'I felt that the best style for poetry was none of the many poetic styles in English, but something like the prose of Chekhov or Flaubert.'

'Prose is less cut off from life than poetry is...I couldn't get my experience into tight metrical forms.'

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And finally through a deep correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop he admitted being influenced by her poem Armadillo, which he 'replied to' by writing Skunk Hour, a classic Lowell poem.

He acknowledged Bishop's help:

The dedication is to Elizabeth Bishop, because re-reading her suggested a way of breaking through the shell of my old manner.

As Lowell became more aware of his illness and its effect on others, the more he poured himself into free flowing poems, as a sort of self-help therapy. His poems are attempts to understand how to survive in the world, how to mix fact and fiction as art and have it as a stable foundation in the 'flux of life.'

Waking in the Blue

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)

What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale’
more cut off from words than a seal.

This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out ‘Bobbie,’
Porcellian ’29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig’
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

Analysis of Waking In The Blue - Stanza By Stanza

Waking In The Blue is a fifty line poem in free verse, so there is no set rhyme scheme or meter (metre in British English). The lines alter in length and are split into six varied stanzas.

Stanza 1

It's an innocent enough beginning to what is a confessional poem. There's a student waking up following a night-shift at the hospital. His hair is messy and described as a mare's-nest....which is a late 16th century term meaning a muddled confusion or illusory a term with a double meaning, apt for this poem and it's bipolar speaker.

The student's head has been resting on a book, probably one for his study course because it's a literary theory book. The title is also germane - is the speaker about to try and find out the meaning of his existence at this point in time?

The verb 'catwalks' implies the student is putting on an act as he makes his way down the corridor, or else he simply walks as if he's a fashion model, parading his body so to speak.

That short fifth line brings home the idea of blue, an echo in the title of gives it an exotic edge, as in blue that is bright and pure.

But this blue adds only bleakness, which comes as a surprise - that phrase my agonized blue puts a different hue on the effect of the blue. The speaker isn't happy. This is personal.

The speaker's looking out the window at some crows on the fairway (of a golf course?). That word maunder means to move in a slow, idle manner. This is daybreak but the speaker isn't feeling lively - blue could suggest a feeling of loneliness or hurt feelings.

Then the painful reaction. The eighth line might have been based on the popular saying Absence makes the heart grow fonder...based on a Roman poet Sextus Propertius ..'Always toward absent lovers love's tide stronger flows.'

The speaker is tense. He's missing a loved one and it's killing him. That simile is a harsh image...a harpoon sparring (fighting) in a do or die situation.

The last line of this opening stanza is a direct confession, but it's put in parentheses as if the speaker is whispering the fact and doesn't want to broadcast the message. It's an aside. He can't actually believe it but he does acknowledge that he is mentally ill?

Waking In The Blue Analysis - Stanza 2 and 3 and 4

Stanza 2

Now the longest stanza, a description of Stanley, mentally ill of course, who the speaker grins at.

Stanley is in his 60s and presumably the sight of Stanley tweaks the speaker's sense of humor, but he's not certain the ability to laugh is of use anymore. Back in the day Stanley had athletic flair, was a Harvard fullback no less (at American football), and still looks physically somewhere in there a boy in his 20s.

He's having a bath and the speaker seems impressed by all those muscles. Note the use of the word ramrod, reflecting a total male personage. And further on he's A kingly granite which again suggests that Stanley retains all the physical attributes he honed as a young man, it's just that, well, he hasn't got it upstairs any longer. He hasn't got the words so he's more like a seal.

Stanza 3

Another ex Harvard male is Bobbie, member of the Porcellian club, all male, looking like Louis XVI, a portly monarch who had his head chopped off during the French Revolution.

Bobbie like Stanley has marine attributes. Whilst Stanley is a seal, Bobbie is a sperm whale and is in the nude first thing, messing around with the chairs.

Lowell himself was at Harvard for a short time but broke off studies to go to Kenyon College, a lesser place you might say. But there he studied under John Crowe Ransom, notable poet, and this must have helped galvanize his skills.

Stanza 4

A single line which sums up the two patients (and the speaker?). The word is 'victorious' which implies that they have not failed totally. It's just that they haven't progressed as whole humans, they've ossified - stagnated, got stuck - not moved on perhaps due to stress, genetics, unforeseen circumstances.

Analysis of Waking In The Blue - Stanzas 5 and 6

Stanza 5

This is a summary of the typical day for these guys. They're watched all the time by attendants with short hair, young men who could perhaps be a bit more less sensible. But they're Roman Catholics, too serious about their work, unlike the Mayflower screwballs (protestants), who are not?

Stanza 6

The speaker wraps things up with a hearty breakfast which pushes his weight up to 200 pounds. Wow. He's feeling cocky (in contrast to the seal and the whale who are merely ramrod and roly-poly) so he goes walking off for a shave.

As he looks in the mirror he sees the other patients set against his own image, perhaps he gets the idea that he'll soon look like them even though he distances himself by saying they're twice his age, half his weight. Really?

But his conclusion is stark. They all seem old to the speaker now and they each live on a sharp edge which is a precarious existence because, in their unpredictable and fragile world, the damage could be fatal. The 'locked razor' is a metaphor for potential loss of blood and loss of life; the dangers so readily close.

Waking In The Blue - Theme

Waking In The Blue is a poem of the moment as seen through the reflective eyes of a speaker in hospital being treated for mental illness.

  • The main theme is that of personal well-being within an uncertain existential reality.
  • Throughout the poem there is a tension briefly undermined by a comic approach, fateful reasoning and reflective flashbacks.

Lowell himself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (schizophrenia in his day) and suffered from manic depression most of his adult life, so it is assumed that the speaker is the poet, but we mustn't forget that Lowell mixed fact with fiction in many of his confessional poems.

It's clear from the casual, conversational style and varied line lengths that Lowell chose to chop up what is essentially prose to make his poem. This he felt served his purpose better than strict metrical stanzas - he wanted to free himself up so he could capture the varied flow of thought and feelings.

And this comes out in the poem as the reader progresses through snapshots of the day in the McLean Hospital near Boston. The speaker observes, then reflects, then sums up a moment in a line before attempting a conclusion, putting his current life situation into perspective.

  • There is a comic element, there is tragedy, there is the idea of stasis. Here are the patients and their portraits brought to vivid life, the two main characters being: Stanley and Bobbie, who are essentially stuck, 'ossified young' likened to a seal and a whale respectively.
  • The speaker is compelled to contrast himself against these two, which induces tension and questioning. He seeks to use humor but queries the value of it. Where will it take him? Why the need to laugh when he's caught up in this surreal and disturbing environment?


100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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