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The “Lyric Self”

Psychosis, Self-Estrangement, and Estrangement from Reality in Robert Lowell’s Neurodiverse Poetry

“And some go mystical, and some go mad.”[1]—A.M. Klein


This paper illuminates the ways in which medical theories on psychosis can foster a better understanding of how Robert Lowell’s experimental language in “Skunk Hour” (1959) and “The Severed Head” (1964) portrays spiritually epiphanic psychotic experiences that alienate him from reality and his sense of self. Drawing on Jungian theory and various medical theories on psychosis, this paper argues that Lowell’s psychotic states influence, and are reflected in, these poems’ subject matter, prosody, and language to suggest that an awareness of these creative, mystical states and their connections to his poetic choices can demonstrate how his poetry represents neurodiverse experiences that estrange him from reality, lead to self-estrangement, and explode the individuated “lyric self.” By demonstrating how these poems limn spiritual, psychotic experiences that detonate the received concept of the unitary “lyric self,” my paper builds beyond previous readings of these texts (without aiming to idealise or romanticise mental disorders).


Poetry has been associated with mania[2] or, as Socrates phrases it in Plato’s Phaedrus, “divine madness” (59) since classical antiquity. According to Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (2017), “mania is generative; it speeds the mind and fills it with words, images, and possibility” (283–4) and “vaults over the rules of syntax and grammar” (307). Jamison argues that Lowell’s bouts of manic psychosis influenced both his Life Studies (1959) and For the Union Dead (1964) poems, such as “Skunk Hour” (1959) and “The Severed Head” (1964). These two poems highlight the link among madness, mysticism, and artistic creativity. Drawing on Setting the River on Fire, Jungian theory, and medical literature, I shall demonstrate how these poems portray psychotic experiences that dissociate Lowell from reality and his sense of self, which is not merely shattered but thereby enlarged towards an enlightened, visionary state in these texts. This paper argues that Lowell’s psychotic states influence, and are reflected in, these poems’ subject matter, prosody, and language to suggest that awareness of these spiritually edifying states and their connections to his poetic choices can illuminate the way his poetry represents neurodiverse experiences that estrange him from reality, lead to self-estrangement, and explode the cohesive “lyric self.” This essay defines “psychotic” or “psychomimetic” states as any state involving a loss of contact with ordinary reality along with prominent psychotic symptoms. These symptoms include self-estrangement, self-fragmentation, states of inner division or visionary expansiveness, experiencing a loss of ego boundaries, lability of mood, hallucinations, paranoia, irrational and obsessive behaviour, disturbed thoughts or perceptions, “paranoid delusions, hearing voices, [alienation] from others [or reality]” (Scheepers 1), and experiencing a mystical sense of oneness with the cosmos (Scheepers 1; Jamison 293–301). My paper employs Teruyuki Honda, Floortje Scheepers, Waltraut Stein, Heinz Kohut, and Ernst Woolf’s theories on psychosis as a frame for elucidating the way Lowell’s language depicts psychomimetic experiences that alienate him from reality and his sense of self, thus shattering the “lyric self.” This paper uses the term “lyric self” to refer to the “‘model of subjectivity and authority’ that is enacted by the ‘romantic, unitary, expressive self’ in ‘mainstream’ lyric and its predecessors” (Ashton 173). My reading of “Skunk Hour” and “The Severed Head”—whose closing lines portray a visionary experience wherein Lowell’s psychotic states of self-estrangement ultimately shatter his sense of self, which dissolves into the cosmos—diverges from Troy Jollimore, William Logan, Steven Axelrod, and Marjorie Perloff’s interpretations of these poems. Neither I nor these critics aim to romanticise Lowell’s neurodiverse condition. My incorporation of medical literature authored by the aforementioned experts on psychosis along with theories from the fields of psychology (Carl Jung and Jamison), Buddhist studies (Robert Nairn), and philosophy (David Hume) differentiates my approach from theirs (Plato 59; Jamison 283–307; Swift 186–87; Ashton 173; Scheepers 1).

Part I: The “Lyric Self” in “Skunk Hour.”

“Skunk Hour” betokens the contiguity between psychosis and mysticism, reconsiders traditional Western conceptions of the self, and signifies the creative value of Lowell’s illness, which melts the veil that separates intellect from experience, as Lowell’s mental states blend into the world he experiences. Lowell communicates his ideas through sound and imagery in this poem, whose rhythms may have been influenced by his psychotic states. Such states, Honda attests, often entail a “heightened auditory awareness” (1). With awareness of Lowell’s psychomimetic states and possibly heightened consciousness of sound during the period that he composed his Life Studies poems, readers can enhance their understanding of the significance of sound in works like “Skunk Hour.” In Logan’s view, this poem “shifts from exterior to interior, from ill landscape to ill landscape within” (90) in its fifth stanza (Honda 1; Logan 90).

Moving beyond Logan’s argument, I argue that this stanza’s religious subject matter, prosody, and sombre imagery mirror Lowell’s erratic, suicidal mental states, which estrange him from ordinary reality:

One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town. (95)

In a letter to Chard Smith, Lowell avers that “the dark and light are not mere…poetic imagery, but something altogether lived” (17) because his psychotic experiences involve “short weeks of a Messianic rather bestial glow…[and] then dark months of…emptiness” (17). Lowell projects his “dark” mental states onto external phenomena, which are endowed with malevolence, and hence he becomes alienated from his menacing surroundings. By referring to the hilltop as “the hill’s skull,” Lowell alludes to the place where Jesus was crucified[3] and evokes the image of a skull, which designates the hilltop as a site of death and symbolises how Lowell’s suicidal states merge with reality. The vowel sound [ʌ] and liquid sound[4] [l] phonetically connect the nouns “skull” [skʌl] and “hull” [hʌl], which is reiterated, and associate the “love-cars” with death, sensitising the reader to Lowell’s dejected experiences of reality. Lowell’s images of the “dark night,” “skull,” and “graveyard” in the stanza’s last lines counterpoint his image of the “love-cars.” These contradictory images suggest that the “love-cars … lay together” not only like lovers but like corpses as well. Lowell correlates death (which “the graveyard” emblematises) with life (which “the town” symbolises) again in the stanza’s penultimate line. These incongruous associations, images, and Biblical allusions demonstrate how Lowell projects his unstable suicidal states, which the poem’s irregular rhyme scheme and stanza lengths betoken, into a world that reflects the incongruities of his “dark” state of mind. These projections strengthen Jamison’s assertion that “the fear[s]…of the psychotic mind are projected…outwardly” (291) because they fuse with the outside world, which Lowell becomes dissociated from as a result (Lowell 17; Jamison 291).

Lowell associates such states with mysticism, as he does in “The Severed Head.” The stanza’s first line (“One dark night”) echoes St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (1579), which describes the soul’s passage to mystical unification with God. Lowell’s allusion to this text suggests that he acknowledges the propinquity between a night blighted by his mental illness and mysticism. Perloff notes a similar link between Lowell’s illness and his spiritual self-discovery. She intimates that Lowell’s pathological experiences induce consciousness expansion since they offer him a greater understanding of the self when she contends that the stanza’s first line instantiates “the painful moment of terror and anxiety that leads to a renewal of self-insight and understanding—this is the central experience that Lowell’s self undergoes” (31). She implies that these states serve as a spiritual means for self-discovery, suggests they are visionary/mystical (as does Lowell), and supports Scheepers’ idea that “the self-conscious mind is…‘hyper-conscious’” during psychosis (Scheepers 1; Perloff 31).

Building from Perloff’s claims, I argue that Lowell’s psychomimetic states thrust him into an enlightening state of self-estrangement that prompts him to re-evaluate traditional Western conceptions of the self in the sixth stanza, which highlights the proximity between madness and mysticism:

A car radio bleats,

“Love, O careless Love. . .” I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat. . .

I myself am hell;[5]

nobody’s here—

only skunks. (95)

Lowell hears a car radio playing a love song but focuses on the sobbing sounds (aural hallucinations) of his “ill-spirit” in his blood cells because his hyper-self-conscious psychomimetic states have made him introspective. His “ill-spirit” symbolises his sense of self as he perceives it, that is, the aspect of his sense of self that he is conscious of. By expressing that his “ill-spirit” sobs as though he were strangling it, he personifies this perceived part of himself, others it, and alienates himself from himself, as he does in “The Severed Head.” He not only positions himself as responsible for his suffering and self-estrangement but also hints at his self-destructive inclinations: Lowell imagines his hand at the throat of his “ill-spirit,” which resides in cells that are essential to respiration. He portrays his “ill-spirit” as akin to his psychological turmoil, which manifests as physical sensations, inasmuch as it (his “ill-spirit”) is a psycho-somatic phenomenon. Lowell depicts his ill-spirit/self as a spiritual, psychological entity residing in his cells, the fragmentary units that form his body. Jollimore reflects on the “illuminating self-portrait that ‘Skunk Hour’ … reveals itself to be” (1). Yet I demonstrate how Lowell’s illness enables him to experience and represent the self as a fragmentary psycho-somatic phenomenon, which traditional Western philosophers, such as Rene Descartes and David Hume, deem to be psychological instead of both physical and mental. Lowell’s hyper-conscious, visionary states permit him to see the self as a fusion of mind and matter rather than an exclusively mental phenomenon, which is how Hume viewed the self. Hume considered the self:

Nothing but a bundle or collection of different [mental] perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. (284)

Theravada Buddhist thinkers, by contrast, comprehend the self as an illusory “combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces” (Nairn 20). Lowell’s representation of self in this section is more Theravada Buddhist than traditionally Western because he portrays it as a blend of mind and matter and attempts to deny its existence by proclaiming that nobody is present but skunks. Lowell was neither a proponent of Buddhism, nor did he draw upon Buddhist ideas concerning mind and matter or the illusory nature of the self to challenge traditional Western notions of the self in “Skunk Hour.” Yet the fact that his language evokes such a version of self implies that his psychotic experiences are spiritually epiphanic since they help him reach an understanding of self that is, to an extent, comparable to the one that Theravada Buddhists attain through spiritual practices, such as meditation. This link between the insights arising from Buddhist practices and Lowell’s psychosis shows how the experiences that lead Lowell to designate himself as “hell,” reassess the self, alienate himself from his sense of self, and gainsay its existence are both hellishly psychotic and spiritually enlightening.

Lowell’s psychosis similarly leads to self-transcendence.[6] The above passage’s[7] structure and language show how his psychomimetic states allow him to regard the facet of his sense of self that he perceives (namely, his “ill-spirit”) as extrinsic to him, transcend the individual “lyric self,” and move towards a more impersonal version of self. This passage reveals how Lowell’s psychomimetic states draw the perspective of the self outside of itself, propel the self beyond itself in a step that entails othering an aspect of it, and detonate the unitary “lyric self.” The ocular semantic of the enjambment (an empty white space between the sixth and seventh stanza) mimetically opens a chasm on the page that signifies the gulf that Lowell creates between himself and his sense of self when he renders his “ill-spirit” other and impersonalises this element of his sense of self. My argument that Lowell reaches a more impersonal sense of self and shatters the concept of the unitary “lyric self” in the sixth stanza extends beyond Logan’s reading of its final line as the recognition that Lowell “himself is no one and nothing” (94).

The sound of Lowell’s language complements his images of his “ill-spirit.” Readers who are sensitised to Lowell’s potentially sound-heightening psychotic states can enhance their readings of the significance of sound in “Skunk Hour,” which suggests that he has become hyper-conscious of sounds, as he hears rather than sees his “ill-spirit” sob. Logan speculates that Lowell might be “suffering auditory hallucinations, a symptom of psychosis” (92) in the sixth stanza. The liquid sound [l] in “ill-spirit,” “blood,” and “cell” produces a sense of light, flowing movement, which complements the rhythm generated by the sibilant sound [s] in these words. This flow of aural energy, which sonically enhances the image of flowing tears that the verb “sob” conjures up, is disrupted by the jarring percussive plosive sounds [p, t, b, and d] in “ill-spirit,” “sob,” and “blood.” Since these rhythmically disruptive sounds are aurally redolent of sobbing, they echo the psychotic suffering conveyed by the image of Lowell’s sobbing “ill-spirit,” which sublimates in “The Severed Head.”

“Skunk Hour” spotlights how Lowell’s suicidal, psychotic states of estrangement are creative and spiritually enlightening because they elevate his self-conscious mind into a state of hyper-consciousness that galvanises him into reconsidering his fissured sense of self. Lowell’s image of his hand at his “ill-spirit[’s]” throat, the plosive and sibilant sounds that echo his “ill-spirit[’s]” sobs, and the optical semantic of the enjambment represent Lowell’s self as a fractured fusion of mind and matter that is extrinsic to him. The sense of self that “Skunk Hour” represents is not a cohesive, individuated “lyric self” since “individuation means becoming a single, homogeneous being” (Jung 418).

Part II:[8] The “Lyric Self” in “The Severed Head.”

“The Severed Head,” which limns a dream concerning Lowell’s psychotic, mystical experiences, delineates an even more fragmented version of self than “Skunk Hour” does. Lowell interacts with a hallucination that symbolises his shadow archetype[9]—which I interpret as emblematic of his illness—while submerged in the dream world of “The Severed Head.” This poem portrays his psychotic and mystical experiences as inextricably linked. He alludes to such a link in his letter to George Santayana, wherein he avers that “the mystical experiences and explosions turned out to be pathological and left [him] … inert, gloomy, aimless, vacant, [and] self-locked” (Bauer 29). He also hints at a link between his dreams and psychotic experiences when he describes the “‘experiences’ that led to the hospital [as seeming] like a prolonged dream” (Jamison 108–9) in a letter to Dorothy Shakespear. Lowell’s illness initially estranges him from his sense of self and his dream world. Yet when he accepts his shadow as part of himself, he partially individuates and experiences states of cohesion, which, after he fails to individuate properly, crumble into psychotic states of disunity that sublimate his ego and catapult him beyond the self to a new, disembodied spirituality. This poem’s energy derives largely from the conflict of forces that ultimately preclude Lowell from fully attaining individual cohesiveness (individuation) by destroying his sense of self, which dissolves into, and becomes one with, the cosmos (Bauer 29; Jamison 108–9).

The opening stanza portrays the beginning of Lowell’s dream, wherein he experiences psychotic symptoms, including hallucinations and feelings of alienation from his sense of self and reality. After explaining that “[his] house was changing to a lost address” (49), whose “nameplate [had fallen] like a horse-shoe from the door, / where someone, hitting nails into a board, / had set his scaffolding” (49), Lowell reports having heard this anonymous man:

[pour] mortar to seal the outlets, as [Lowell] snored,

watching the knobbed, brown, wooden chandelier. (49)

Since Lowell sees the chandelier and hears the mortar being poured while snoring in his sleep, this poem could be read as a dream that blends into reality. Though, given that Lowell experiences psychotic symptoms in this dream, I argue that it is a dream about psychosis to sensitise readers to how the psychotic version of self that the poem evokes shatters and expands, thereby shifting towards an enlarged nirvanic state. He depicts his abode as a “house” rather than a “home” to alienate himself from it, which, devoid of a nameplate, becomes “a lost address” on the verge of dereliction. Lowell hears his room being sealed and conveys his distress by representing his “small / chance of surviving in this room” (49) as an imaginary “spider crab” (49), the world’s largest crab species. Lowell imagines an enormous crab in his cramped room to instantiate his odds of surviving in a way that enkindles a sense of claustrophobia, which the sound and imagery of the succeeding lines compound: “Its shut / windows had sunken into solid wall” (49). The glide sound [w], which sonically fuses “windows” with “wall,” accentuates the image of the windows merging into the wall. The sinister sibilant sound [s/ʃ] in “Its,” “shut,” “windows,” “sunken,” and “solid” further intensifies the stifling atmosphere that this image, showing how Lowell’s hallucinations warp reality, engenders. These sounds and images demonstrate how Lowell’s hallucinations morph into his dream world, render it menacingly claustrophobic, and estrange him from it (much as his presumably sound-heightening hallucinatory psychotic states alienate him from reality in “Skunk Hour”). These feelings of alienation develop into a sense of self-estrangement when a tentacled hallucination attacks him in the stanza’s subsequent lines:

I nursed my last clear breath of oxygen,

there, waiting for the chandelier to fall,

tentacles clawing for my jugular. (49)

The three caesuras generated by the commas at the end of this passage’s first two lines disrupt their rhythm and slice them up into disjointed fragments, which mimetically represent Lowell’s laboured, irregular breaths and heighten the anticipation that the reader feels while Lowell struggles to respire under a chandelier that may fall on him. This atmosphere of suspense peaks when Lowell hallucinates an entity that claws at his throat, thereby treating him as an enemy/other. By throttling Lowell, this hallucination—which, like his “ill-spirit” in “Skunk Hour,” constitutes a part of Lowell’s sense of self insofar as it is a manifestation of an illness that forms a crucial dimension of his identity—alienates Lowell from an aspect of himself, throws him into a state of self-estrangement, and thus propels him towards an enlarged, splintered version of self. According to Axelrod, Lowell’s poem is an imitation of Tate’s “The Buried Lake” (1960). Both poems, in Axelrod’s opinion, “describe a surrealist dream in which the dreamer descends into the dark ‘buried lake’ of the unconscious in quest of mystic illumination and a reintegration of self. But … Lowell’s dreamer has been granted only a dreary vision of his own decapitation” (153). Yet Lowell’s dream presumably represents a psychotic experience because the psychotic symptoms he experiences in this stanza (hallucinations and feelings of alienation from reality and self-estrangement) are synonymous with the symptoms he experiences in other poems that represent his illness, such as “Skunk Hour,” “Man and Wife” (1959), or “Waking in the Blue” (1959) (Axelrod 153).

Lowell’s tentacled hallucination stops choking him when he hallucinates his editor, who can be construed as Lowell’s shadow archetype, in the stanza’s succeeding lines. The editor approaches Lowell “with a manuscript” (49) and proceeds to scratch “in last revisions with a pen” (49) which leaves “no markings on the page” (49). Lowell describes his illness as a “holocaust of irrationality” (Jamison 314), and his editor not only evinces such irrationality by scratching in revisions with a pen that leaves no marks on the page, but he signifies the propinquity between psychosis and creative work as well. Given that this man appears in a dream, mirrors Lowell’s sex (male), and instantiates the psychotic aspects of Lowell’s disposition, he can be interpreted as a hallucination that emblematises Lowell’s shadow archetype. This archetype, Jung maintains, comprises all the unconscious psychological components that an individual considers morally or socially unacceptable but may also display “good qualities, such as…creative impulses” (423), and, in dreams, always appears in a form that reflects the dreamer’s sex. The editor epitomises Lowell’s objectionable characteristics, including his mental instability and irrational, psychotic behaviour, which, Jamison claims, made him “menaced and menacing” (314) and took a toll “on his relationships” (315). His shadow exemplifies such behaviour in this stanza’s subsequent lines, wherein Lowell attests that his editor “shook his page” (50):

tore it to pieces, and began to twist

and trample on the mangle in his rage. (50)

Since Lowell’s editor shreds a page he has edited with a pen that leaves no marks on it in a fit of unprovoked rage, Lowell’s description of his illness as a “rage monstrous, causeless” (Jamison 314) could equally describe his shadow/editor’s (who represents “his [manic] rage”/illness) irrational, psychotic behaviour. His furious outburst not only mirrors Lowell’s manic rage and capriciousness but also spotlights how the editor can be understood as Lowell’s shadow because he embodies these socially reprehensible, psychotic characteristics even after Lowell permits him to hold his hand, which connects Lowell with his shadow (Jamison 314–15; Sattler 469–73; Jung 423).

When he accepts his shadow as a part of himself by allowing his editor to caress his hand in the first stanza, Lowell partially individuates and experiences fleeting visionary states of unity and equanimity:

His hand caressed

my hand a moment, settled like a toad,

lay clammy, comfortable, helpless, and at rest. (49)

Lowell depicts his shadow’s veins as “pulsing to explode” (50) in the stanza’s succeeding line to show that his shadow symbolises his volatile manic psychosis. By accepting and integrating his shadow side into his personality, Lowell takes an important step in the process of Jungian individuation, a process whereby the different unconscious aspects of the personality are brought into consciousness, synthesised, and harmonised so that the personality can become wholly developed. According to Jung, dreams are “the direct expression of unconscious psychic activity” (140). They are “manifestations of—we might even say messages from—the unconscious that compensate for deficiencies in the ego or in the waking life”[10] (Sattler 472). From a Jungian standpoint, Lowell permitting his shadow’s hand to caress his own can be construed as an acceptance of the unconscious messages (about unreconciled pathological contraries which need to be integrated into his personality structure) that his dream embodies. Since Lowell’s shadow hallucination allows Lowell to accept his shadow and partially individuate at this point in the dream, this hallucination enables him to draw repressed, unconscious facets of himself up to the surface of his mind, integrate them into a cohesive selfhood, and achieve a sense of inner harmony, rendering his hallucinations harmless. After Lowell accepts his shadow, the hitherto hostile tentacled hallucination becomes calm and ceases to arouse feelings of self-estrangement. This is especially clear in the second stanza, wherein Lowell reveals that its “tentacles” (50):

thirsting for a drop of life,

pant with calm inertia. (50)

The hallucination is no longer hostile. This shift in its behaviour indicates that when Lowell accepts his shadow as part of himself, his pathological states transform into mystical ones that help him attain a sense of harmonious unity. Rather than suffocating Lowell or distorting his surroundings, which were melting before his shadow’s “comfortable” hand caressed his hand, his hallucinations (the “fast fish” (50) that “stirred / and panted” (50), the benevolent “ocean butterflies” (50), and the tranquil tentacled entity) exist in harmony and have a symbiotic relationship with Lowell. The fact that his illness produces nightmarish and mystical hallucinations, such as the tentacled entity, which is maleficent in the first stanza yet peacefully inert in the second, may explain why Lowell describes his illness as “a magical orange grove in a nightmare” (Jamison 314). This description, like Lowell’s use of the term “inertia/inert” in both his poem and letter to Santayana concerning his pathological, mystical experiences, signifies the contiguity among his nightmarish, psychotic experiences, magical, visionary experiences, and sources of creativity. His description also indicates a link between dreams and psychosis. At the beginning of this poem, Lowell’s illness induces the same pathological states of alienation and disunity that he experiences in “Skunk Hour,” but after he accepts his shadow (illness) and partially individuates, these states metamorphose into mystical states of unification and serenity in the second stanza, which, like “Skunk Hour,” shows that psychotic experiences involve both mystical and pathological states. Axelrod recognises that Lowell’s “surrealist dream” is mystical, but he reads the poem’s ending as “a dreary vision” of Lowell’s decapitation, which I argue is nirvanic rather than dreary. The category of psychosis adds to understandings of Lowell’s poetry as handled in a surrealist register by showing how the sense of self that his poetry evokes is not merely shattered but thereby enlarged towards a surreal, nirvanic state (Jung 140; Sattler 469–73; Jamison 303–314).

Lowell’s shadow prevents Lowell from wholly individuating by abandoning Lowell. Consequently, Lowell experiences states of disunity that induce his psychotic vision of his decapitation, which symbolises an ego death that blasts Lowell outside of the individual self and finite world to a new, disembodied spirituality. When his shadow flees in the third stanza, Lowell exclaims “He left me” (50) to convey a sense of alienation, as he does in “Skunk Hour.” The editor departs, prohibits Lowell from properly synthesising his shadow into a cohesive selfhood, and plunges Lowell into a state of inner division that occasions his decapitation vision in the final lines. These lines describe Lowell reading the Biblical story of Jael and Sisera “till the page turned black” (50). He writes:

Jael hammering and hammering her nail

through Sisera’s idolatrous, nailed head.

Her folded dress lay underneath my head. (50)

The image of Jael’s nail piercing and cracking Sisera’s skull enhances the violent image of Lowell’s decapitation. According to Kohut and Wolf, psychosis involves “a fragmentation and collapse of the self” and “emerges in the context of a profoundly damaged self [and] a fragmentation between body and mind” (Ridenour 456). Lowell’s vision of his own decapitation emblematises a psychosis-induced ego death wherein his sense of self fractures and collapses. This ego death emerges in the context of a damaged, unindividuated, self and fragmentation between his severed head, upon which his mind supervenes, and his body, which constitutes matter. His sense of self—which he represents as his “ill-spirit,” a fusion of mind and matter, in “Skunk Hour”—fissions and dies in this dream scene from “The Severed Head.” This scene’s hallucinatory images of Lowell’s head, which enables his mind to exist, being severed from his body, which comprises matter, symbolise an ego death that shatters the cohesive, individuated “lyric self.” Since Lowell’s sense of self separates him (the perceiving subject) from the objective universe, this splitting of his sense of self unifies him with a reality that he felt dissociated from at the beginning of the dream, and so it assuages his suffering. The image of Jael’s “folded dress” cushioning Lowell’s severed head denotes the heavenly, nirvanic sense of comfort that ensues from this psychotic dissolution of the self, which splinters, dies, and melds into the fabric of the universe. Lowell jettisons his “self-locked” pathological states and body, dispels his feelings of estrangement, and experiences a nirvanic sense of oneness when he has this decapitation hallucination. This vision symbolises his sense of self sundering, dying, and becoming one with the cosmos. Lowell’s illness initially alienates him from his sense of self and his dream reality. Yet when he accepts his shadow as part of himself, he partially individuates and experiences mystical states of cohesion, which, after he ultimately fails to individuate properly, disintegrate into a state of inner division that induces his decapitation vision. This vision signifies an ego death that elevates Lowell beyond his body, finite world, and individual, unitary “lyric self” to a new, disembodied spirituality.

Kohut and Wolf’s theories elucidate the way the psychotic speaker’s fracturing sense of self and the universe become one cascading vision when his ego dies, thereby preventing him from attaining individual cohesiveness or individuation. Interpreting this poem through the prism of medical literature offers new insight into how Lowell not only estranges himself from reality and his sense of self but transcends his sense of self and shifts towards an enlarged version of self, which expands when it becomes one with the universe, as well. Scheepers’ theories take Perloff’s interpretation of “Skunk Hour” in a new direction by demonstrating that Lowell’s psychotic states are introspective, shatter the received concept of the “lyric self,” and enable him to perceive and portray his sense of self as a fractured fusion of mind and matter, which dissolves in “The Severed Head” when the head from which his mind originates is severed from his body. Medical theories on psychosis similarly shed light on how Lowell’s visionary states in “Skunk Hour” draw the perspective of the self outside of itself, other an element of the self (namely, his “ill-spirit”), and help Lowell attain a more impersonal, fragmented version of self. Through the lens of such medical theories, readers can comprehend the way that “Skunk Hour” and “The Severed Head” depict mystical, psychotic experiences that estrange Lowell from reality, plunge him into states of self-estrangement, and detonate the individuated “lyric self.” In being informed about the prominent psychotic symptoms that Lowell’s personae exhibit, readers can enhance their understanding of his experimental language, which he uses to portray himself as alienated from reality and his sense of self in “Skunk Hour” and the beginning of “The Severed Head.” Readers who are aware that psychotic states are often conducive to hearing sound more keenly can also heighten their understanding of the significance of sound in Lowell’s work. My reading of the estrangement of Lowell’s pathological experiences highlights the creative value of his spiritually edifying states of psychosis, which are reflected in his experimental language.


[1] Quotation taken from A.M. Klein’s “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” (1945) (Trehearne 149). [2] The very term that Socrates uses in Plato’s Ion. [3] “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus” (Luke: 23:33). [4] Liquid sounds are consonant sounds, such as [l] or [r], that are marked by their light, fluid quality, sibilant sounds are consonant sounds, including [s] and [ʃ], that can produce a soft hissing effect, and plosives are sharp, percussive consonant sounds, for example, [p], [t], [k], [b], [d], and [g].. [5] This is an allusion to Satan’s proclamation “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Lewalski 119) from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (qtd. in Lewalski 119). [6] Although Lowell’s psychotic experiences differ significantly from Buddhist spiritual ones, the minor correlations between Buddhist mysticism and Lowell’s psychosis emphasise how Lowell highlights the proximity between madness and mysticism and transcends the individual self in “Skunk Hour.” [7] See the block quotation on pages 5–6 of this paper. [8] The only phrase quoted from “Skunk Hour” in this section is “ill-spirit.” [9] Jungian archetypes are images, entities, or elements that recur in dreams, mythology, and folk stories. The shadow archetype is “the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious” (Jung 87). [10] Quotation taken from Gary Sattler’s discussion of Jung in Great Thinkers of the Western World (1992).

Works Cited

Ashton, Jennifer. The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945. Cambridge U P, 2013.

Austenfeld, Thomas, editor. Robert Lowell in a New Century: European and American Perspectives. Boydell & Brewer, 2019.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. “Sensual Drift and Ethnic Longing in Robert Lowell.” Austenfeld, pp. 25–39.

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Date submitted: February 2, 2023

Date accepted: April 18, 2023

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