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Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue” comes at “the end of a long sequence,” as he said to an audience in December 1976 during one of his last recorded readings before his death in 1977. His final book of poems, Day by Day, was published in the same month, and “Epilogue” concludes the title group of poems, written in free verse “in the blue period after sickness,” as he explained apologetically to Elizabeth Bishop, “when I felt I could [write] nothing else well.”

As so often with Lowell’s poems, “Epilogue” belies its plainspoken manner while also being true to it—not simply constructed, either in form (he mostly adheres to a four-beat line, with variations, and despite protestations is assisted by plot and rhyme) or in thought; and yet not dissembling either. The poem speaks of the limitations of his art. But the poem also recalls the classical recusatio (refusal), in which the speaker claims he is unable to write the kind of poem the occasion calls for. Something else is offered instead, in its modesty. In the Renaissance, poets made use of the topos for poems that they wanted to be direct and unornamented in style, and many modern poets, from Housman to Stevens to Milosz, have made use of its vocal resource and cunning. In Lowell’s poem, the tradition clothes him in his moment of exposure. If the “imagined” would enable the poet to withdraw from the scene, or at least to silence his own “noise,” he comes to acknowledge that memory is the deeper responsibility. The recusatio allows Lowell to make his gesture of helplessness, of paralysis before the facts, to find the warning that is also a kind of pardon.

That the first draft was underlined throughout, to indicate italicization, suggests moreover that Lowell thought of the poem as a spoken epilogue, not a written one—as at the end of a play, a Prospero-like soliciting of the audience—“Let your indulgence set me free.” The draft also enables us to see the workings of a more level or at least deadpan modesty, sotto voce rather than projected, without the self-insertions or stage-directions—“I hear the noise of my own voice”; “Yet why not say what happened”—reminiscent of his earlier poems in Dolphin in a poem that after all aches for selflessness.

Specifically, the two italicized lines (six and seven) in the final version replace the more limpid “The painter’s eye is not a lens” (and vision replaces eye, introducing both an abstraction and an extra syllable to the line, perhaps to avoid repetition of eye in line nine. In the draft, the placing of this explanatory gloss comes after rather than before the Vermeer instance that it adumbrates, with less volume but more argumentative force:

     Not the grace of accuracy 
     Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
     stealing like the tide across a map
     to his girl solid with yearning.
     The painter’s eye is not a lens…

The concluding lines of the draft change its tone, with their allusion to the epilogue of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H.,  to the one far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves—and from whose reality we are all mutually excluded (as always, Lowell sides with the animals). The lines speak in a heightened sense of the mortality to which we and all the rest of created nature are portioned:

     the fact we must with all creation share
     and cannot share with God.

It is a kind of companionship—God stands outside of this truth, and together we are alone. But the Tennysonian allusion is too large-scale for the poem and was wisely replaced with “We are poor passing facts” in the final version.

“Epilogue” closes the “Day by Day” sequence, but, given its subject, it may be read as the concluding part of a life’s work in which “memory is genius, really” (as he remarked at the same 1976 reading). Memory as mother of the muses, and genius in the old sense, the tutelary spirit “allotted to every person at birth, to govern his fortune and determine his character, and finally to conduct him out of the world” (Oxford English Dictionary).

This essay originally appeared in the fall-winter 2013 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2013 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poetsbecome a member online.