Lilacs by Amy Lowell (1922) — the poet’s own favorite
By Nava Atlas | On May 15, 2020 | Updated June 22, 2023 | Comments (0)
Amy Lowell (1874 – 1925), an influential yet undervalued American poet, was an energetic evangelist of the art of poetry for all her adult life. Here is presented “Lilacs,” said to be the one of the poet’s own favorites, and among the poems she recited most often in her many public readings.
First published first published in the New York Evening Post on September 18, 1920, “Lilacs” went on to be included in a 1922 modernist poetry anthology.
Finally, “Lilacs” became part of Lowell’s 1925 collection What’s O’ Clock, which received the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Unfortunately, the poet died before receiving this honor. She was only 51, having suffered from poor health for some time.
Prior to the publication of What’s O’Clock, Lowell had published the collections A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912) Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), Men, Women and Ghosts (1916), Can Grande’s Castle (1918), Pictures of the Floating World (1919), and more.
Lowell’s poetry was in the genre of “imagism,” which is pretty much what it sounds like, and of which “Lilacs” is a good illustration. According to her own definition, imagism is defined as the “concentration is of the very essence of poetry” and aimed to “produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.”
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Learn more about Amy Lowell
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Amy Lowell’s philosophy of poetry
Who better to present Lowell’s philosophy on the creation of poetry than the poet herself; she wrote in the introduction to Can Grande’s Castle:
“I wish to state my firm belief that poetry should not try to teach, that it should exist simply because it is a created beauty, even if sometimes the beauty of a gothic grotesque.
We do not ask the trees to teach us moral lessons … We distrust a beauty we only half understand, and rush in with our impertinent suggestions. How far we are from “admitting the Universe”!
Lowell’s poetry also demonstrated the art of vers libre, or free verse, of which she wrote:
“It has long been a favorite idea of mine that the rhythms of vers libre have not been sufficiently plumbed, that there is in them a power of variation which has never yet been brought to the light of experiment …
I prefer to call them poems in “unrhymed cadence”, for that conveys their exact meaning to an English ear. They are built upon “organic rhythm”, or the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing, rather than upon a strict metrical system.
They differ from ordinary prose rhythms by being more curved, and containing more stress. The stress, and exceedingly marked curve, of any regular metre is easily perceived.
These poems, built upon cadence, are more subtle, but the laws they follow are not less fixed. Merely chopping prose lines into lengths does not produce cadence, it is constructed upon mathematical and absolute laws of balance and time.”
“Lilacs” is a prime example of vers libre poetry. A Study Guide for Amy Lowell’s Lilacs states that, “True to the movement’s name, “Lilacs” is a poem overflowing with images, of a wide variety of scenes and settings in which the flowers can be found.”
For analyses of “Lilacs,” refer to these excellent sources:
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Lilacs (by Amy Lowell)
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dish-pan was of silver
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting,”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the Song of Solomon at night,
So many verses before bedtime,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the night time
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled Pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of the gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash-tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And windows open to a South wind.
May is a full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.
Color of lilac,
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.