In Lowell’s Madonna of the Evening Flowers, one of the most prominent techniques used is that of “the thing.” The imagery of physical objects takes priority; both used as a substitute for the subject “you” of the poem, and as a reference point by which to describe them. The most subversive feature of this imagery is the contrast between living and non-living objects in the poem.
In the first stanza, the subject “you” of the poem is absent. The speaker repeatedly asks, “Where are you?” (3, 10). Instead, the poem focuses on objects connected with this person, such as “your books… your scissors and thimble just put down” (6-7). These objects therefore create a sense of proximity with the implied audience, even though they are not present themselves. The imagery here is predominantly of non-living objects—the only living thing in this stanza is “the oak tree” (4), and this is referred to only in terms of distance from the other person, as it is the implied, inadequate response to the speaker’s search. As such, the non-living objects are given greater significance in relation to the other living person.
This is epitomised in the second stanza, in which the person themselves is repeatedly compared to “silver” (15, 22, 23). This imagery of a precious metal stands out particularly in a stanza that seems to focus far more on living flowers—specifying “larkspur” (13, 24), “roses” (14), “peonies” (18), “columbines” (19), and “pyrus japonica” (20). This prevalence of living things, despite the speaker’s persistent description of the person in the poem is disturbingly ironic—the “heart,” arguably the image that should be most connected to life, is instead compared twice to cold silver (23, 24).
This imagery is typical of modernist poetry, effectively subverting the reader’s expectations and the poetic norm.
- Lowell, Amy. (1919). Madonna of the Evening Flowers. In Louis Untermeyer (Eds.), Modern American Poetry: An Introduction (58). New York, Harcourt, Brace and Howe.