Men and Mermaids: Robert Lowell’s Martial Masculinity and Beyond

  • Ian Gregson


The major concern of confessional poets with exploring their own identities inevitably involves an exploration, explicit or implicit, of their gender identities. When Robert Lowell turned to confessional writing the evidence, in particular, of the prose piece ‘91 Revere Street’1 indicates that gender was among the most pressing of his concerns — in depicting his ancestors, his parents and his childhood self he is obsessed with what constitutes manliness. Within its first two pages Lowell is worrying about the complex mixture of masculine and feminine in his ancestral inheritance and doing so in terms of the imagery which he associates — throughout his poetic career — with each. His father’s ancestor, Major Mordechai Myers was a military man who successfully wooed Miss Charlotte Bailey, ‘thus proving himself a better man than his rivals, the united forces of Plattsburg’ (19). Yet there was was ‘something undecided, Mediterranean, versatile, almost double-faced about his bearing’ and his ‘suffering, almond eye rested on his luxurious dawn-coloured fingers ruffling an off-white glove’ (20). Most importantly, ‘these relatives of my Grandmother Lowell seemed to have given my father his character’ and this by contrast with the ancestors of his maternal grandfather, the ‘iconoclastic, mulish Dunbarton New Hampshire Starks’ with their ‘granite back-countriness’. The imagery on his mother’s side is all hard masculinity, while on ‘the joint Mason-Myers bookplate, there are two merry and naked mermaids — lovely marshmallowy, boneless, Rubensesque butterballs, all burlesque-show bosoms and Flemish smiles. Their motto, malo frangere quam flectere, reads “I prefer to bend than to break”’ (20).


Great Bosom Chinook Salmon Male Image Bare Breast Maternal Grandfather 
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1 Men and Mermaids: Robert Lowell’s Martial Masculinity and Beyond

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    Robert Lowell, Life Studies (London: Faber, 1959) 19–59. This volume henceforth LS.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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© Ian Gregson 1999

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  • Ian Gregson

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