This poem was written in 1917 and initially published in The Little Review. It is evocative of much of Amy Lowell’s verse, which was often inspired by her contemporary moment. At the same time, this poem contends with what it meant to be a woman in the early 1900s, including the restrictions placed on women’s lives and choices.
‘Patterns’ by Amy Lowell is a moving WWI poem in which a woman contends with the death of her fiancé.
The poem begins with the speaker describing walking out to the garden in a beautiful, stiff gown and admiring the various flowers growing around her. Almost immediately, the poet presents readers with examples of juxtaposition. The woman should if one only considers her surroundings, be happy and content. But, it is soon revealed that she is dealing with something that has changed her entire future.
Rather than spending joyful hours in the garden with her husband, she’s now dealing with the fact that the man she was going to marry has died in the war, and she is going to be confined to a “pattern” of sorrow that involves her traversing the garden paths for the foreseeable future.
You can read the full poem here.
The meaning is that patterns control our lives, from love to war, mourning, and joy. Throughout, the speaker alludes to the pattern she had been living prior to her engagement. She knew that her loving fiancé and her upcoming marriage were going to help her move into a better pattern for the rest of her life. But, another pattern, the war, took that away from her. All throughout the poem, the poet also alludes to the pattern in the natural world, as the flowers bloom, die, and bloom again.
Amy Lowell engages with themes of a woman’s role in society, loss, war, and more within her poem ‘Patterns.’ Throughout, the poet alludes to the speaker’s dissatisfaction with her life prior to her engagement to her now-deceased fiancé. She thought that she was going to escape into a more joyful and loving pattern to live throughout the rest of her life. But, World War I asserted a far more powerful pattern on her existence and has forced her into a pattern of sorrow and mourning.
Structure and Form
‘Patterns’ by Amy Lowell is a seven-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines end with very different words and have different numbers of syllables in each line. The stanzas vary in length, ranging from nine lines up to twenty-two.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Repetition: occurs when the poet repeats a specific element of the poem. This could be an image, word, phrase, technique, etc. In this case, the poet repetitively refers to the speaker’s gown and the flowers surrounding her. The dress represents the “pattern” she was stuck in and was soon to escape through marriage, as well as the sorrow she’s now confined to for the rest of her life.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not use “like” or “as.” For example, the dress, sun, and garden all serve as metaphors representing the lost future with her fiancé and the sorrow she’s now going to experience for the rest of her life.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines one and two of the third stanza.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “down” and “daffodils” in lines one and two of stanza one and “blowing” and “bright blue” in the following line.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, they “squirmed like snakes.”
I walk down the garden paths,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.
In the poem’s first lines, the speaker begins by describing a walk she took down a garden path. On all sides, she is surrounded by beautiful flowers. She details the surroundings while also noting how she too, in her “brocaded gown” and with her “powdered hair,” is a “rare / Pattern.” The word “rare” is interesting to analyze in this context. Specifically, it becomes clear what the speaker has just learned about her fiancé. (She is certainly not the only woman who lost a would-be husband in the War.)
My dress is richly figured,
And the train
For the lime tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.
The second stanza is longer than the first but, spends its lines similarly. She describes her dress, its train, her heels, and the jewelry she’s wearing. She seems far overdressed for her surroundings and makes a beautiful and sorrowful sight as she walks along to the garden.
Words like “sink,” “stiff,” and “weep” make it clear that the speaker is not walking through the garden simply for the pleasure of it. She has learned something about her life and, to come to terms with it, is walking in nature. She makes sure to contrast, through a literary device known as juxtaposition, the beauty of the world around her and its seemingly carefree nature to her sorrow.
And the splashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.
The speaker is tuned into all the small happenings around her. From small petals falling from flowers to the splashing of water drops from the “marble fountain. “The “dripping never stops,” she says. Here, the water dripping onto the path is a symbol of the disruption the speaker has experienced in her own life. The seeming perfection of this idealized natural world is interrupted by the dripping fountain just as the news the speaker has recently learned about her fiancé has severely changed her life.
The poet utilizes another example of juxtaposition when she describes the speaker’s body as soft and as contained within a gown. The stiff gown is another symbol of the reality the speaker is facing. Her “soft” body within the gown represents the life she could’ve had with her lover, and that is now hidden away forever (as she later reveals). In the following lines, she transitions into an imaginary scenario. In the garden, she is in a very different world, with the man she loves with his “hand upon her.”
The stiff, brocaded gown that the speaker has been wearing throughout the entire poem strikes her as offensive and unbearable in the final three lines of the stanza. She wishes that she could see it on the ground, tumbled in a heap with all the pink and silver, representing the future happiness the speaker will now no more extended experience, tarnished and destroyed.
I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.
In the future that the speaker is now no longer going to experience, she would be the “pink and silver” as she ran along the paths with her lover stumbling behind her. They live in a happy, loving world that is deserving of beautiful jewelry and gowns. But, the reality she’s facing is very different.
It is clear through the speaker’s use of language, especially in the line “Aching, melting, unafraid,” that she is overwhelmed and horribly saddened by the loss of her future happiness. When she imagines the emotions she would have experienced in her lover’s arms, these three individual words come to mind. Now, knowing that this future is never going to happen, readers can envision how “afraid” and unhappy the speaker is going to be.
As with the previous stanza, the last three lines bring in the reality of the speaker’s situation. She feels as though she’s going to “swoon” or pass out under the weight of the dress and jewelry she’s wearing. As noted previously, the extravagant clothing she has on represents the confinement she’s being forced to deal with. This is also symbolized in the final line of stanza four when the poet describes the “sun” and the “shade.” The light and warmth of the sun, which is very often used as a symbol of hope, joy, and love, disappears behind clouds.
Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Up and down.
The fifth stanza is one of the longest in the poem. It’s at this point that the speaker reveals why her situation is filled with so many examples of juxtaposition. She’s in a beautiful place, wearing a beautiful gown and with an idea of a lover who, seemingly, would make her happy and fulfilled. But, it’s also clear that she is experiencing sorrow and anger. In her bosom, the speaker reveals she has a letter that was brought to her that morning. It informed her that “Lord Hartwell” died an action in the war.
When she read it, it was hard for her to comprehend the words on the page. They “squirmed like snakes.” This line is a great example of personification and a simile. She informs the footman that she has no response to the letter, offers the messenger summer freshman, and walks into the garden.
The dress she was wearing when she received the news holds her upright, rigid to the pattern of her life. She walked up and down the garden, trying to comprehend the news she’s just received while maintaining her composure, something important within society’s standards and expectations for women in the early 1900s.
In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
Now he is dead.
The sixth stanza uses simple language to describe how Lord Hartwell and how the two would be married in a month. He would’ve been “here” under the same lime tree she’s now sitting, and the two would’ve broken the pattern that has so far structured their lives. She knew that “he was for me, and I for him.” But now, the future that seemed so sure, and just around the corner, is lost. Now, “he is dead,” the speaker ends this stanza. She’s no longer avoiding thinking or saying the words as she had been in stanzas one through five.
In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Christ! What are patterns for?
The seventh stanza concludes the poem with a prediction of how she’s going to deal with future seasons. Whether it’s summer or winter, she knows she’s going to walk up and down the pattern garden paths in her stiff gown. Flowers will change, with daffodils giving place to roses, but she will continue in the same way, even when the snow comes.
She will continue to wear her “brocaded” gown, which, as time passes, will become “gorgeously arrayed” and will remain “boned and stayed” against her body. These final two words refer to the structure of the gown, the features that keep it upright and as “stiff” as the speaker has suggested it is.
It will become a kind of armor, protecting her “soft” body from “embrace.” Every hook, button, and piece of lace that holds it together, of which there are many, will work to keep her body from anyone else for the rest of her life.
She will form a new pattern of mourning and walking through the garden that will, in a way, break the previous pattern she was so longing to get out of. The poem ends with the speaker summarizing what happened to her fiancé. The man who is going to “loose” her from the previous pattern of her structured and confining life died in a “pattern called war.”
This war, specifically the First World War, is a pattern of violence that is, in many ways, predictable. The poem ends with an exclamation, “Christ! What are patterns for?” The new “pattern” she thought she was going to become a part of is lost, consumed by a more powerful “pattern”—war.
The poem is about the patterns of life. The speaker has dealt with the patterns imposed on women in early 20th-century society for her entire life. She thought she was going to escape the pattern she had been living by marrying this person she loved. But, he was consumed by another pattern, war. Now, she suggests that she’s going to restructure her life into a pattern of sorrow that involves her walking back and forth in her garden, no matter the season, for the rest of her life.
‘Patterns’ is a free verse WWI poem that’s divided into seven stanzas of varying lengths. The poem does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern but does maintain a structure of sorts as the poet repetitively inserts images and references to “patterns.”
Amy Lowell’s first poem was ‘Fixed Idea,’ published in 1910 when the poet was thirty-six. Two years later, her first collection was published.
The meaning is that life is structured by patterns, joyful ones, and sorrowful ones. War is, and the speaker’s contemporary moment, the ruling pattern. Men go to war, fight, and die. It is the same pattern that the speaker’s fiancé was consumed by. With the news of his death and as a woman in the early 20th century, the speaker is confined to a very different pattern.
In ‘Patterns,’ the dress symbolizes the speaker’s confinement to a specific pattern in life. Through marriage, she was soon to escape the confines placed on single women within early 20th-century society. Now, the dress symbolizes the pattern of mourning and the isolation she will be stuck in. It also becomes an armor of sorts, keeping the speaker away from any other happy relationships she might find.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Amy Lowell poems. For example:
- ‘The Garden by Moonlight’– describes a garden under the light of the moon and the various types of life one can spot around it.
- ‘A Lady’ – analyzes an old woman and her worth. She’s beautiful and faded, and the speaker decides to dedicate her “vigor” to her.
- ‘Petals’ – uses flower petals as a metaphor for how human beings live their lives and share their heart.