Children of Light, by Robert Lowell

I don’t read much poetry, but I stand in awe of this one, which I stumbled across this morning:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones
And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;
Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,
Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,
They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;
And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock
The riotous glass houses built on rock,
And candles gutter by an empty altar,
And light is where the landless blood of Cain
Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

A bit different view of the American Puritan legacy than you’ll hear in conservative Protesant circles, don’t you think? At the time Lowell wrote this poem he was a Roman Catholic, apparently a fierce one.

Leave a comment if you like, but not about whether Lowell’s portrait is fair and balanced; why look to him for that? But the poet has leveled an accusation, and it’s worth thinking about how much truth it contains. I’m somewhat sympathetic to Lowell’s concise history of the U.S., and so I’ll spend some time thinking about whether the connection he makes with Puritanism is a home truth for agrarians, or just a partisan attempt to place the blame.

For further reading, I highly recommend this piece by Ron Rosenbaum about the poem, which does a bit of exegisis and a bit of historical investigation. (Warning: a particular obscenity appears a few times, but not in a prurient way.) Among other good observations, Rosenbaum points out that to read the poem properly you need to know what unhouseled means.

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10 thoughts on “Children of Light, by Robert Lowell

  1. When you say, “I’m somewhat sympathetic to Lowell’s concise history of the U.S.” are you referring to the history as proposed in the poem or to another book by Lowell?

  2. Are you referring to the history as proposed in the poem or to another book by Lowell?

    Jeff,

    I mean as proposed in the poem. I don’t know much about Lowell besides the poem, but it may be significant that he studied under John Crowe Ransom, one of the Vanderbilt Agrarians.

  3. Rick,
    I am not sympathetic to this poem and I know you said not to comment on the poetry, but I will say that I love Lowell and his Vision of Sir Launfal is one of my favorite poems.

    But I would like to hear you elaborate on how the idea behind the poem could be a home truth for agrarianism.

    Also how does this go along with your idea that writers can be separate from their ideas? Couldn’t the Puritans be used of God in spite of themselves? Because it seems to me that Lowell is singularly pessimistic here and even hopeless. Being oh-so-close to a nihilist myself, I can enjoy Lowell but I hardly think his view leaves us with much beyond despair.

    For the record, I am not one of those ‘read the Puritans’ types. But neither do I think they were Satan’s spawn.

    Anyway, I would love for you to explain in more depth.

  4. Rick,
    For what precisely is Lowell blaming the Puritans? Is it as Rosenbaum asserts, “Pilgrim fathers, self-proclaimed “children of light,” were actually the spawn of the devil turning the New World into an irredeemable hell.”?

    If so, how is that connected to Agrarianist thought?

  5. Cindy

    I am not sympathetic to this poem and I know you said not to comment on the poetry, but I will say that I love Lowell and his Vision of Sir Launfal is one of my favorite poems.

    I put that badly. I only wanted to head off any spirited defense of the Puritans against Lowell’s unfair and unbalanced characterization of them.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to take the liberty of re-ordering the sentences in your comment so I can respond to them.

    For the record, I am not one of those ‘read the Puritans’ types. But neither do I think they were Satan’s spawn.

    I had the same initial understanding of what Lowell was saying, but when I read Ron Rosenbaum’s article I realized that the accusation was less specific. Here are the critical lines: “Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night, / They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;” Lowell states what he thinks the Pilgrims did, i.e. plant the Serpent’s seeds of light, and why he thinks they did it, i.e. because Genevan teachings had led them to break with the true church. But he never says that the Pilgrims did it intentionally. Perhaps the Pilgrims were Satan’s spawn, or perhaps they were merely Satan’s pawns; Lowell leaves it an open question, I think deliberately.

    Also how does this go along with your idea that writers can be separate from their ideas? Couldn’t the Puritans be used of God in spite of themselves?

    Absolutely. And in more subtle ways than we are capable of detecting. For example, I think would have been possible for the Puritans to be as correct in their theology as a human could ever be, and still end up planting the seeds of our future chastisement without ever realizing it. Why? Because humans can’t keep it all in their heads at one time.

    The depth of theological understanding the Puritians developed and promoted may have been a good thing in itself. But the time and energy it takes an individual to reach and stay at such a level may create a fatal imbalance in their lives, stealing time from matters of practical Christian living. It may be a standard that most of us weren’t meant to measure up to this side of the Jordan. Worst of all, it may be a standard that defeats us daily through our inability to approach it.

    It seems to me that Lowell is singularly pessimistic here and even hopeless. Being oh-so-close to a nihilist myself, I can enjoy Lowell but I hardly think his view leaves us with much beyond despair.

    We just watched The Ten Commandments again last night, and during the first part I kept thinking: from Joseph to this in four hundred years! And in this year of crisis I guess we can say: from Calvin to this in five hundred years! Or Luther, or Gutenberg, or Aquinas, or Descartes, or the Pilgrims—whoever you want to blame, with the span adjusted accordingly.

    I actually take comfort from this, because it reminds me that God’s actions in history happen at a scale that render me insignificant—and, consequently, not responsible for the result. Time and again generations have lived and died in the middle, after the bondage began and before it was lifted. If I had lived in the third century BC, it would have been many generations since God had spoken to His people and many more before He would do so again.

    Despair only comes when you make the mistake of viewing the current failing project as the last, best hope. Being an ardent Catholic, Lowell probably saw the Protestant project as one more assault on the church (and the good life, I guess) that would eventually pass from the scene. I try to take an even longer view than that, not mourning any of the towers that man has constructed in the last six thousand years, learning what I can from how each of them crumbled.

    I would like to hear you elaborate on how the idea behind the poem could be a home truth for agrarianism.

    So far I only have the barest inkling of how to approach that truth analytically, which is why I’m fascinated that a ten-line poem with an agenda could point to it. When I first read the phrase “the Serpent’s seeds of light,” I thought: is Lowell referring here to my favorite culprit, Enlightenment thinking? Whether or not that is correct, it has been a valuable exercise for me to go through the poem puzzling out the light/dark imagery and try to interpret it as an indictment of the Enlightenment. And if it is correct, then Lowell must be saying that, despite standing in opposition to so much of Enlightenment thinking, Calvinism must have adopted and propagated some fatal element of it.

    And now comes the hard part to say, which is that I agree with Lowell that the increasingly downward trajectory of Enlightenment society strongly suggests that some change we adopted along the way was fundamental, and fundamentally bad. Lowell proposes a villain, and I don’t know if he is dead on or partly right or just full of it. I keep looking for my own candidate villain, trying to look objectively at every last innovation introduced over the past five hundred years, and some of them—the classless society, rootlessness, placing too high a value on learning, privacy, freedom—are so deeply embedded in our thinking after five hundred years that it is sometimes offensive just to raise questions about them.

  6. Jeff,

    My answer to your question is probably somewhere in my long reply to Cindy. If you don’t find it there, please ask again and I’ll try to answer it concisely.

    For what it’s worth, I thought Rosenbaum’s understanding of the Puritans was refreshingly free of the usual cartoonish caricatures, but still deficient enough that you have to take what he says about them with a grain of salt.

  7. I especially enjoyed your last paragraph on The Enlightenment. It is very true that for Catholics, Protestantism probably falls right smack in the middle of it and while I am not even remotely tempted to be a Catholic, I do find that criticism interesting and worth studying.

  8. Rick,

    I haven’t been able to figure out if enlightenment thinking launched the reformation or vice versa. But, it would seem that the two movements launched in the middle ages (reformation and renaissance) certainly fed off of and reinforced each other. They both accented individual rights as opposed to the ruling hierarchy, and later on, gave impetus to free market capitalism versus mercantilism. The results produced unprecedented commercial prosperity and individual freedom, at the cost of splintering the church, rampant usury accepted as normal, and never-ending social change at a family destroying pace.

    The pendulum will swing back towards traditional society when we bump into the finite limits of God’s creation, and try in vain to exceed them. The erection of this particular tower of Babel will end in the same way the original did. With like-minded families wandering away in countless directions, to build again local communities. The endless compounding of interest encouraged unfortunately by the protestant reformation doesn’t fit well in a world of physical limits, and thus we are witnessing the death-throes of modern finance capitalism. ‘Efficiency’ will in time come to mean local, decentralized production of everything the local population needs, eventually leaving a surplus for trade, but most of production will go to local subsistence in the beginning. That’s assuming the land is rich enough to support a robust local population. I think we will see mass exoduses from unsustainable places like L.A. , Phoenix and Las Vegas. The bread basket of the country should experience population growth, some of it overwhelming and painful in the short haul. But, the New world order, status quo forever, types are pretty much doomed without a global financial system powered by international fiat money and unlimited (ha!) cheap petroleum. The banking system has been exposed as the sham it is, big government will bluster and then follow suit, big corporations will either topple or splinter and restructure, and lines on maps will be re-drawn to reflect the new power structure created by thousands if not millions of local communities.

    And traditional, patriarchal, christian, western culture will survive, revive, and soldier on; and ultimately we will be better off for the hard-won wisdom. Long-term, I’m optimistic. Short-term not so much.

  9. I believe when he refers to the serpents seed of light he is referring to a certain teaching, the controversial serpent’s seed doctrine. It has been said that after Adam and Eve ate from the tree that the serpent left Eve with child. Through this the offspring of their union was Cain who killed his brother and was cursed to be landless.

    so here i think this is Lowell saying that there is no home for puritanism and that it is a dying way.

    “the candles gutter by an empty altar,”

    I hope I revealed some incite into this for all of you.

    ~Sam Thomas

  10. Richard Lowell’s “Children of Light” is rife with symbolism. Read the poem carefully. What is the meaning and style as expressed through its use of symbolism, structure, allusion, and diction?

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