Amy Lowell's "St. Louis" and Yearning for the New England Past
ENGL 451 – Maxwell
September 27, 2007
Amy Lowell’s “St. Louis” and Yearning for the New England Past
Despite this poem’s title, Amy Lowell’s “St. Louis” is as much about New England as it is about the title city. The narrator depicts the long, flat American Bottom as the region in which she is presently located, but it primarily functions as a contrast for her past in the hilly American Northeast. This poem uses St. Louis as a symbol of stagnancy in the present and valorizes New England, which it nostalgically associates with a magical, idealized past.
Even before the first line, we learn that the poem is situated in the month of June. What follows are three stanzas, each with their own distinct purpose. The first stanza introduces us to the humid summers of St. Louis, where the narrator writes the poem. The second stanza looks back and remembers the quaint New England landscape. The third mentions both areas in a final rapidfire comparison.
One can tell stanza one represents the narrator’s depiction of her present time and location because in lines 23 and 30 the she refers to St. Louis as “Here,” as well as calling it “Now,” also in line 30. The narrator clearly disassociates herself with St. Louis when she refers back to it as “not mine” (12). She never refers to it directly as “St. Louis,” but it can be assumed because of its reference to St. Louis’s humid summers and flat landscape.
The poem begins with an underwhelming description of St. Louis: “Flat, / Flat” (1-2). The first two lines contain only two words, and they are not even different words. Thus, from the very beginning, the narrator establishes St. Louis as a dull place in two ways: first, by implying that there is little to say about St. Louis by using the same single-word line twice; second, by using a word with negative connotations. According to Dictionary.com, the 14th definition of “flat” is “without vitality or animation; lifeless; dull,” and uses the example phrase “flat writing.” The narrator implies from the start that St. Louis is both lifeless and mundane due to its unvarying geological features.
Word choice also proves to be significant in line 7, where the narrator writes that the Mississippi River’s “steams” the area “full of moist, unbearable heat.” Instead of simply calling the muggy condition “unpleasant,” she writes that the humidity is “unbearable.” She is not just mildly bothered by the heat, but actually feels oppressed by how ruthlessly it bears down on her. She marvels at the ability of the its permanent residents, who must have “Great lungs to breathe this hot, wet air” (11), knowing that she could never become accustomed to it.
The second stanza takes us to the location the narrator refers to as “Before” in line 13 and “There” in line 25. Unlike St. Louis, this is an area with which the narrator identifies, which can be seen in the first word of her line that says, “Mine is a land of hills” (13). She never clearly identifies her region of origin—the words “Massachusetts” or “New England” never appear. Yet, one can infer that she means New England because of the second stanza’s references to hills, “tired farm-houses” (20), and “old meeting-houses” (21), the loci of the American Revolution’s conception and part of New England’s cherished political past.
The hills of New England are compared favorably to the burdensome flatness of St. Louis when she refers to them as “Lying couchant in the angles of heraldic beasts” (14).The landscape of the St. Louisan Present inspires no imagination in the narrator, which is why she does not compare the landscape to anything. The hills of New England, however, are almost magical. Unlike St. Louis’s, the New England landscape has a personality achieved through the personification of the hills as animals. The narrator echoes the idea of personification in line 16, where she calls New England “A land of singing elms and pine-trees.” Compare that to St. Louis, where “The orchards are little quincunxes of Noah’s Ark trees” (8). To the narrator, the trees in St. Louis all seem to be arranged in the same pattern, a quincunx. The very unusualness of the word “quincunx” brings attention to the tree pattern. The narrator could have simply described the standard pattern as being five trees, with one in each corner of a square and one in the middle. Yet she chose not to, instead using the term that would make readers notice the eeriness of the idea that trees grow in an arranged order. The New England trees would then seem to grow more organically, in no particular arrangement (or at least none that the narrator mentions), and are at the same time mythical and enchanting due to their personification, while the St. Louis trees are more stiff and arranged, more uncreative and practical (i.e., good wood for Ark-building).
If a concrete location like St. Louis is tied to the abstract concepts of Here and Now, and life there is stagnant and predictable, and New English is associated as There and Before, where life was ideal and magical, then these places come to represent not only actual geographical locations and specific eras of history, but about places in one’s own personal history: the lackluster Present and the nostalgic Past. The narrator, who is stuck in a rut in a “St. Louis” state of mind recalls a time when life was still mysterious and exciting. Bogged down in the heavy heat of aging, she looks back at a time when life was light and easy.
The third stanza could be viewed in two ways. Perhaps it serves to unite St. Louis and New England, the past and present, as indicated by describing St. Louis and New England in the same stanza. I would argue, however, that instead, the third stanza stands for the face-off between the two regions and times, the narrator ultimately seeking refuge in nostalgic desire for her past life as represented by New England. She allots eight of eleven lines in stanza three to describing New England, giving only three to St. Louis, thereby indicating her diehard devotion to the past. She resolves to remember the past with endearment, having given up on finding joy in the present. In addition, the narrator never describes St. Louis and New in the same line, which illustrates their opposition, as does the starkly contrasting images of “boiled feathers” (23) and “lilacs” (25). The former, an image of St. Louis, hints at a gruesome animal death. The latter, on the other hand, is pleasant vision of natural New England beauty. Thus, the New and the Old are irreconcilable, St. Louis (the Present) and New England (the Past) separated in the narrator’s mind forever.
Lowell, Amy. “St. Louis.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2007. 1355.