‘Chinoiseries’ by Amy Lowell is a poem full of descriptive, colorful imagery. The term in the title means a form of European art that was inspired by Eastern art, especially Chinese. The poem is subtly romantic but touches upon a moral lesson. Like most of Amy Lowell’s poems, this one beautifully captures the imagist school of thought pioneered by Ezra Pound in Anglo-American poetry.
Chinoiseries Amy Lowell When I looked into your eyes, I saw a garden With peonies, and tinkling pagodas, And round-arched bridges Over still lakes. A woman sat beside the water In a rain-blue, silken garment. She reached through the water To pluck the crimson peonies Beneath the surface, But as she grasped the stems, They jarred and broke into white-green ripples, And as she drew out her hand, The water-drops dripping from it Stained her rain-blue dress like tears.
In the poem ‘Chinoiseries,’ Amy Lowell gazes at a Chinese artwork and describes the features depicted on it.
In this poem, a speaker gets lost in a chinoiserie art. She sees a garden with “peonies” and “tinkling pagodas.” The speaker then sees a woman sitting by a still lake. She bends forward and reaches the crimson peonies that are beautiful to look at. As soon as she grasps the flower stems, the flowers break in her hands. The poet uses her expert imagery to illustrate how people often spoil the things they admire/desire, and that is a lesson that is well illustrated in the poem.
The poem ‘Chinoiseries’ is an ekphrastic poem, which is a literary work that presents a detailed description of visual art such as painting, engraving, pottery, etc. The poem has a total of 15 lines with no stanza breaks. It is written from the first-person point of view, and the tone of the poem is romantic, enchanting, and reflective. Besides, the poem does not have a set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Therefore, it is an example of a free-verse lyric poem.
Lowell uses a number of literary devices to enhance her description of the art. The devices used in ‘Chinoiseries’ include:
- Symbolism: The “peonies” symbolize bashfulness, love, respect, and honor. In this poem, as soon as the woman touches the flower, it breaks and rips apart. Thus, Lowell’s speaker compares this flower to her loved ones and expresses her fears about how she does not want to hurt them.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “water-drops dripping.” Here, Lowell uses the alliteration of the “d” sound.
- Enjambment: This device is used throughout the text. For instance, the lines “A woman sat beside the water/ In a rain-blue, silken garment” are connected internally.
- Assonance: The ‘ae’ and ‘i’ sounds are repeated in the lines, “A woman sat beside the water/ In a rain-blue, silken garment.”
- Consonance: The “p” sound is repeated in the line, “The water-drops dripping from it.”
- Imagery: Lowell uses exquisite imagery to enhance the details present in the poem. For example, in the lines, “The water-drops dripping from it/ Stained her rain-blue dress like tears,” Lowell beautifully describes how the drops of water change the color of the lady’s dress. It is a kind of visual imagery.
When I looked into your eyes,
I saw a garden
With peonies, and tinkling pagodas,
And round-arched bridges
Over still lakes.
Lowell begins the poem ‘Chinoiseries’ by establishing that she gazes into someone’s eyes as if she is getting “lost” in them. Here, the poet hints at chinoiserie pottery. She compares it to a human being and stares at the engravings as if these are its eyes. Lowell’s speaker starts to describe a garden with beautiful flowers and shining pagodas. Pagodas are traditional monuments native to East Asia. Furthermore, she describes how the round-arched bridges are depicted over the still lakes. The tone of these lines is inherently romantic, awe-inspiring, and reflective.
A woman sat beside the water
In a rain-blue, silken garment.
She reached through the water
To pluck the crimson peonies
Beneath the surface,
In the next lines, Lowell describes a woman sitting by the lake in a “rain-blue” silk dress. She describes how the woman sees crimson peonies underwater and reaches to pluck them. There is a dilemma posed by the figure of the woman reaching out for the peonies growing underwater. In the first place, it is very significant. It reflects the fears she has regarding love and vulnerability that comes with it. The tone of these lines is suspenseful. The “rain-blue” color symbolizes both tranquility and sadness – something that aptly describes the emotions of the speaker.
But as she grasped the stems,
They jarred and broke into white-green ripples,
And as she drew out her hand,
The water-drops dripping from it
Stained her rain-blue dress like tears.
In the last five lines of ‘Chinoiseries,’ the speaker describes how the woman went to pluck the peonies but as soon as she did, the flowers were scattered and ripped apart. As a result, her dress was stained with the “tears” from the peonies. By mentioning the colors “white” and “green,” the poet wants to symbolize how something pure can be ruined simply by lust and greed. As she is aware of this, she is hesitant to be greedy in life and love. As if the things she sees while gazing at the chinoiserie art appear as a warning to her. The overall tone of these lines is imaginative, sad, and romantic.
The main idea of ‘Chinoiseries’ revolves around the theme of admiration and greed. In this poem, the speaker gazes at a work of art. She looks at it in such a manner that it seems she is probably in love with it. Besides, her tone expresses a sense of admiration for the art. On the other hand, the woman’s greed caused the flowers to rip apart and break. Similarly, the speaker fears that the overwhelming love she has for something might break apart her entire relationship.
In its entirety, the poem is a valuable lesson on life and love. The undertones of the piece convey a separate commentary on how people usually ruin the best and most beautiful things due to their rashness and negligence. The lack of empathy for others is what could easily affect or destroy a person.
Amy Lowell was an American poet who followed the imagist school of poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize a year after her death in 1925. Most of her poems are in the free-verse and imaginative. She is one of the most prominent poets of modern poetry. The poem ‘Chinoiseries’ essentially captures the imaginative essence of Amy Lowell’s poems. It was first published in the collection The New Poetry: An Anthology in 1917. In this poem, she depicts an engraving on chinoiserie pottery. Chinoiserie is an 18th-century decorative style of Western art characterized by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques.
In ‘Chinoiseries,’ Lowell’s poetic persona gazes at chinoiserie art as if she looks into someone’s eyes. She sees a garden and a woman by the lake. The woman plucks the peonies underwater and rips them apart. This poem is about how greed can rip apart the things of beauty.
It is an ekphrastic poem that meditates upon chinoiserie art. There is no regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in the poem. It is written in free-verse from the perspective of a first-person speaker.
The tone of the poem is wistful, romantic, and imaginative. This poem is an impassioned ekphrasis of chinoiserie visual art. The speaker of the poem describes the art in an awe-inspiring tone.
Chinoiseries is a decorative style in Western art and architecture popularized in the 18th century. This style is easily characterized by the usage of Chinese motifs and techniques. It is based on the Western interpretation of Eastern art.
The main theme of the poem is how greed ruins the best of things and the fears that come with age. This piece also taps on to the themes of art, nature, romanticism, and lust.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Amy Lowell’s poem ‘Chinoiseries.’
- ‘Chinese Art’ by Elizabeth Jennings — In this poem, Jennings talks about her personal experience of how opinions get influenced by someone dear to her.
- ‘San Sepolcro’ by Jorie Graham — This poem is about the Etruscan wall art and Pierro della Francesca’s fresco Madonna del Parto.
- ‘Lapis Lazuli’ by W. B. Yeats — This piece describes Lapis Lazuli carved by some Chinese sculptor that resembles a mountain with a temple, trees, paths, and two individuals about to climb the mountain.
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