Maintaining Appearances and Encroaching Death in Robert Lowell’s “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms”

American poet, Robert Lowell is one of the frontrunners of the confessional poetry movement that would become popular in the 50s and 60s, a movement that would include others such as Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and W.D. Snodgrass. Lowell’s poetry collection Life Studies is one of the first collections to include extensive autobiographical content within his poetry. Every artist takes inspiration from experiences in their lives (you write about what you know after all), but Lowell explicitly infuses facts about himself and his family in discussing broader themes concerning human nature. This is unlike other poets I’ve discussed in this blog, such as Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost, whose writing is much more allegorical. I wanted to look at the poem “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms” from Life Studies, a touching poem on the decline of his father. “Terminal Days” grapples with the theme of death and the ways that people face the inevitable. Although meditation on death is a far-reaching, philosophical theme, Lowell explores the topic through the personal and mundane. Lowell uses autobiographical information describing his father’s last days and his father’s refusal to acknowledge death up until the very end of his life. I’ll show you the poem below, and then give a very brief analysis (no need to get too heavy, the topic of death needs no help on that front):

TERMINAL DAYS AT BEVERLY FARMS

At Beverly Farms, a portly, uncomfortable boulder
bulked in the garden’s center
an irregular Japanese touch.
After his Bourbon “old fashioned,” Father,
bronzed, breezy, a shade too ruddy,
swayed as if on deck duty
under his six pointed star-lantern-
last July’s birthday present.
He smiled his oval Lowell smile,
he wore his cream gaberdine dinner-jacket,
and indigo cummerbund,
His head was efficient and hairless,
his newly dieted figure was vitally trim.

Father and mother moved to Beverly Farms
to be a two-minute walk from the station,
half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.
They had no sea-view,
but sky-blue tracks of the commuters’ railroad shone
like a double-barreled shotgun
through the scarlet late August sumac,
multiplying like cancer
at their garden’s border.

Father had had two coronaries.
He still treasured underhand economies,
but his best friend was his little black Chevy,
garaged like a superficial steer
wtih gilded hooves,
yet sensationally sober,
and with less side than an old dancing pump.
The local dealer, a “buccanneer,”
had been bribed a “king’s ransom”
to quickly deliver a car without chrome.

Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
father stole off with the Chevie
to loaf in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”

old-fashioned-big

Lowell characterises his father as someone who makes an especial effort to maintain appearances even in the twilight of his life. His father persists in smiling up until the very end of the poem, smiling his “oval Lowell smile” (9) after drinking an “old fashioned” (4) and on the day of his death he has a morning of “anxious, repetitive smiling” (43). The repetition of his smiling emphasises his desire to resist his oncoming death and maintain his standard lifestyle. His last words of “I feel awful” (45) are understated and it appears as if his father attempts to appear polite and not a burden up until his death. Lowell describes his father’s meticulous appearance in his “cream gabardine dinner-jacket,/and indigo cummerbund” (10-11) as “vitally trim” (13). There is irony in the line “vitally trim” as we find out within the next few stanzas that his father had recently had two coronaries. Consider the orientation of the line, “Father had had two coronaries” (23) with the rest of the third stanza, which consists of descriptions of his father’s car. The sentence about the coronaries is a contained grammatical thought and yet is linked to the rest of the paragraph about his father’s material possessions. The closeness of the coronaries with the black Chevie shows the extent to which his father wishes to ignore his declining health and focus on his material opulence.

 The environment in the poem is metaphoric for the ever-approaching death of Lowell’s father. From the beginning, there is already an obtrusion on Beverly Farm in the form of a “portly, uncomfortable boulder” (1) that “bulked in the garden’s centre” (2). The boulder acts in a similar way to the cliché of the “elephant in the room” as it is unavoidable and does not seem to fit in with the rest of the garden. Considering Lowell describes his father as ignoring death until the end, the idea that he will soon die is a large, ugly boulder in his mind. The train tracks described in the second stanza play a similar role that the boulder plays in the poem. Lowell’s parents moved to Beverly Farm so they could easily take a train to get to the doctors his ailing father needs, thus making the train tracks inevitably linked to his father’s mortality. Lowell associates the “sky-blue tracks of the commuter’s railroad” (18) with one important simile: the tracks are “like a double-barrelled shotgun” (19). The sumac also represents death as they multiply “like cancer” (21) at the border of the garden. The figurative language regarding the railroad associates it with encroaching death as the colour of the tracks connotes the idea of heaven. Both the shotgun and cancer are two hostile images. Shotguns are used primarily in hunting, implying that the railroad (and thus death) is hunting Lowell’s father and is approaching quickly. Cancer of course has negative connotations. Cancer grows aggressively in the body, shutting down vital organs in order to sustain itself. That the sumac is multiplying by the garden’s border shows that death is coming for Lowell’s father and that he does not have much time left.

Lowell writes with love and respect for his father in his last days of his life, showing the extent his father endeavoured to keep his life as normal as possible despite his decline in health. Despite attempts to maintain regularity at Beverly Farms, the environment foreshadows his father’s demise, through the railroad and boulder that encroach on the beautiful space on the Farm. Lowell writes with sensitivity and insight and manages to write about very personal matters without the reader ever feeling like they cannot relate to the situation or outsiders to the scene, something that is always a risk factor when a poet speaks of something focused explicitly at themselves. “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms” fuses larger discussions on death and how some people face their death with autobiographical content; in his father’s case, he faces it in an “abrupt and unprotesting” (41) way.

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