R Robert Lowell

July in Washington by Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell’s poem ‘July in Washington’ shows both sides of a coin, the coin being America. Lowell inserts different expressions and comparisons to make his stand clear to readers.

July in Washington by Robert Lowell Visual Representation

‘July in Washington’ is written by one of the best-known 20th-century American poets, Robert Lowell. He was the co-founder and an active contributor to the semi-monthly magazine, The New York Review of Books. Lowell’s poems mostly reflected his past and personal experience with family. He is considered one of the most influential American poets of the post-war era. His famous book of poetry, Life Studies (1959), won the National Book Award in 1960. In this poem, Lowell talks about the defects and imperfect beauty of America, the supreme leader of the world during the time. He was a politically active person who protested against military rule during World War II.


Summary

‘July in Washington,’ written in 1964 by Robert Lowell, is about the United States of America, especially the capital city Washington, D.C., and its pros and cons.

The poem begins with the comparison of America to a “wheel,” which indicates its significance, as it is said to touch every part of the earth. The first line itself indicates the influence the USA had on the world. No one was unaware of its greatness and courage. As the poem continues, readers find that though the speaker is proud of his nation, there are many flaws to its fame. America is beautiful, no doubt, but the political status of America is not appropriate. According to Lowell, “they come here bright as dimes,/ and die dishevelled and soft.”

The poem mirrors the poet’s state of mind. He is a proud citizen of America and, at the same time, disapproves of its political strategies. Lowell had been to jail for his protest against the military rule. This shows that he disagreed with ideologies related to politics. In this poem, he describes the natural beauty of America, with its mountains, rivers, and otters, and then he silently wishes for another shore. He, like the other Americans, wants a different ending. The poem was written after World War II, and thus it states the terror that still dominated the time. As Lowell ends by saying that nothing seems to be in control, his helplessness and desperate need for a new and better world are voiced through this poem.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

The stiff spokes of this wheel

(…)

power launches keep breasting the sulphurous wave.

‘July in Washington’ by Robert Lowell begins with praise to America, as the speaker compares it with the “wheel”. He further explains how it influenced every part of the earth. The poem is written after World War II, thus indicating a phase where the citizens are in a neutral mode, neither happy nor disappointed with the happenings of the surrounding. The “sore spots” indicate the weaker regions of the earth, making the reader understand the supremacy of America all over the glove.

As the poem proceeds to the second couplet with its high praise about America, the speaker refers to the river Potomac which is renowned for its beauty and its historical significance. George Washington’s house is also located near its bank. As this piece shows two different sides of America, the Potomac River is also the same. It is known for its beauty, but it is polluted to a very great extent, as the poet notes how the white swans breast the “sulphurous wave” of the river. Lowell also points out how the war has affected the surrounding.

Lines 5-8

Otters slide and dive and slick back their hair,

(…)

liberators above the breeding vegetation—

In the third couplet, Lowell celebrates the fauna of America by referring to otters and raccoons. He describes how content they are in the wilderness, the way they enjoy their habitat, and are satisfied with their ample supply of food. Nature keeps them happy to stay contented, unlike humans.

In the next couplet, the speaker describes the equestrian statues that can be seen in Washington. The “green statues” symbolize the evergreen glory of the American past. Lowell does not stop there; rather, he personifies the statues as “liberators” that breed on the people’s needs. He explains the political condition of America and its drawbacks; the ones who are appointed to liberate the citizens feed on citizens’ goodwill.

Lines 9-12

prongs and spearhead of some equatorial

(…)

and die dishevelled and soft.

The speaker, in the fifth couplet, moves to the next phase, where he points out the blemishes of his nation. Though he is proud of its flora and fauna, he heavily criticizes the politics of the country. In the first line of this couplet, “prongs and spearhead” signify the action of the liberators and how they attack and desire to “inherit the globe.” The military rules and their commands were not welcomed by the speaker, and therefore he expresses his disgust.

Lowell continues to explain the flaws of his country. He says that the elected members visit the capital city Washington D.C., with the hope of changing something. They appear to be “bright as dimes,” but the sad part is that finally, they “die dishevelled and soft.” This line hints at the lust for power and the unfair means of the politicians prevalent during the post-war era.

Lines 13-16

We cannot name their names, or number their dates—

(…)

some further range of delectable mountains,

The speaker goes on to talk about the good leaders who die without any glory. He says that they are numerous and uncountable, like the “rings on a tree.” This shows the horror that existed during the time, even after the war was ended. Their dreams and ambitions were crushed in the political combat, and they died with unfulfilled dreams for their nation. Nobody knows their names, and no one can “number their dates,” such as their identity.

As the poem ‘July in Washington’ nears its climax, Lowell shifts from the phase of disappointment to that of hope. He wishes that he could have experienced more joy being a part of America if everything ended differently. He speaks on behalf of every citizen who wishes for “another shore” and some other delectable mountain range. The speaker’s sense of escapism is evident in this line.

Lines 17-20

distant hills powdered blue as a girl’s eyelid.

(…)

we no longer control could drag us back.

The beauty of the speaker’s dream is described in the penultimate couplet. He imagines faraway hills that are “powdered blue.” This image would indicate the glam if the war had another ending, rather than mentally, physically, and emotionally affecting the people. The two words with more or less the same meaning, “least little,” is the use of tautology, which emphasizes how they long for a better place, and a little push can shove them in that land.

In the final couplet, the speaker says that although they land in the dreamy region, “the slightest repugnance” drags them back to the reality of the time. As the poem ‘July in Washington’ ends, the poet takes the readers back to reality and confronts the fact that they no longer have control. They are helpless and should live with the reality that surrounds them. He also indicates that America may return back to its state of futility if it does not repel at the right moment.

Structure

Lowell’s ‘July in Washington’ consists of twenty lines, divided into ten couplets. Lowell uses the first-person point of view by using “we” and “us”. It indicates what the speaker subjectively thinks about his nation. Besides, the poem is written in a loose meter, without a regular rhyming pattern. Primarily, Lowell wrote poems in traditional meter, but as he started to write confessional poetry, he started using the free verse form. Hence, this poem does not follow any regular rhyme scheme, but readers can find a few slant rhymes, such as “American” and “vegetation”; “shore” and “there”. These words, more or less, rhyme closely.

Literary Devices

The poem ‘July in Washington’ contains a number of literary devices and poetic techniques to make it more effective on readers. These include:

  • Metaphor: As the poem begins, readers find Lowell comparing Washington city to a wheel, suggesting its importance and influence worldwide: “The stiff spokes of this wheel.”
  • Simile: This poem contains a number of comparisons shown using “like” and “as,” making them examples of simile. It occurs in “On the circles, green statues ride like South American,” “The elect, the elected . . . they come here bright as dimes,” “circle on circle, like rings on a tree,” and “distant hills powdered blue as a girl’s eyelid.”
  • Alliteration: The poet uses alliteration in several places to create internal rhyming in the poem. It occurs in “stiff spokes,” “sore spots,” “we wish,” “least little,” etc.
  • Consonance: The repeated usage of the similar consonant sounds of “s” and “n” can be seen in the following lines: “power launches keep breasting the sulphurous wave”; “We cannot name their names, or number their dates—”.
  • Enjambment: The poem is in a continuous flow from one line to the next with no punctuations between. In couplet seven, the first line runs through two consecutive couplets, starting from: “We cannot name their names, or number their dates—/ circle on circle, like rings on a tree—/ but we wish the river had another shore,/ some further range of delectable mountains,/ distant hills powdered blue as a girl’s eyelid.”


Historical Context

In ‘July in Washington,’ the poet Robert Lowell begins by exalting America and its natural beauty. As readers proceed, they find the flaws that exist in the country. The poem was written during the post-war times when the citizens of the country were going through various problems in their day-to-day lives. Lowell is known for his confessional poetry, where he talks about his personal experiences. This quality is also evident in this poem. Besides, Lowell was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and was elected the United States Poet Laureate in 1947. He is regarded as the last of America’s influential public poets.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘July in Washington’ about?

Robert Lowell’s poem ‘July in Washington’ is about the importance of America as well as the flaws that were engrained in its apparent glory. The speaker of this piece not only upholds the positive side of the country but also points out its downside that is affecting the nation from within.

What is the theme of ‘July in Washington’?

The poem deals with various themes. It ranges from nationalism to a feeling of repulsion towards the end. As the poem begins, a sense of patriotism is depicted through the speaker’s admiration for his country’s nature. In the last few lines, the emotion is changed into disappointment. Towards the climax of the poem, the speaker wishes to witness a more beautiful place on some other shore of the Potomac River.

Why does the poet compare Washington to a “wheel”?

The poet compares the United States or its capital city Washington to a “wheel” to indicate the significance of the nation across the globe. The “stiff spokes” of the wheel suggests America’s supremacy, and “touch the sore spots” indicates the influence it had on every part of the world.

What is the speaker’s mood in ‘July in Washington’?

The speaker, who is the poet Robert Lowell himself, shows different emotional aspects in the poem. He commences with a feeling of love for the nation. Then he expresses his disgust for the defects that exist in the country, and lastly, he is optimistic about finding a different “shore”. However, a sense of pessimism lingers throughout the poem.

How does Robert Lowell explain the politics of America in ‘July in Washington’?

In this poem, Lowell explains the inherent flaws in the politics of America. According to him, the “liberators” breed on citizens’ dreams, and myriads of inspired members who came “bright as dimes” lose their lives in the political turmoil. The history does not remember their names.


Similar Poetry

The following list contains a number of poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Robert Lowell’s ‘July in Washington’. You can also explore other Robert Lowell poems.

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July in Washington by Robert Lowell Visual Representation
Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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