Almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them get treatment (Addiction Center). For Robert Lowell, poetry served as his treatment. In 1917, Lowell was born unplanned and unwanted. His life did not follow a continuous line: it was convoluted like razor wire through intervals of misery, each a discouraging echo of the last, a toilsome way to exist in time. Imagine living life in a strait jacket inside a white padded room, surrounded by the deafening silence that is depression. Lowell’s grappling fight with his manic depression and substance abuse led to his confessional poem, “The Drinker,” in which he directly criticizes what one can assume is himself. In “The Drinker” Robert Lowell uses alliteration, metaphors, and imagery to posit that when a person suffers from substance abuse, they often become victims of a brutal cycle until they ultimately fade into isolation.
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At the beginning of the poem, Lowell uses alliteration to exemplify the dangerously repetitive and abusive cycle of alcoholism. In the second stanza, the persona recounts his daily routine of being “stubbed before- breakfast cigarettes''(5). The man reflects on the status of his life. The alliteration of “stubbed before-breakfast,” may emphasize how the man had slowly faded into seclusion without his significant other, by slowing down the rhythm of the poem. The memories of her had burned with the smoke of his “breakfast cigarettes.” As the stanza continues, the persona describes the state of his nightstand. He notices that the cigarettes, “burn bull’s eyes on the bedside table” (6). The alliteration of “bull’s eyes...bedside” offers another level of complexity that may suggest that his repetitive binge drinking caused his partner to leave him. His nightstand that perhaps once held his partner’s things, was tainted by “bull’s eyes” from his cigarettes. What once housed their possessions now held his alcohol. In the seventh stanza, the persona describes the objects that his significant other left behind that constantly reminded him of his isolation. As he describes these objects, he confesses that, “her absence hisses like steam” (24). The alliteration of “hisses...steam” mimics the hissing of his partner's absence. The hissing stayed with the man despite her absence; he still felt a connection with this woman and regretted his loss. Lowell uses alliteration to relate his substance abuse to his isolation and loss of his potential wife.
Throughout the poem, Lowell employs metaphors to evince the idea that redemption is often unattainable. The first line begins with the statement, “The man is killing time.” (1). While a common phrase, in this context, it suggests a lot more. The man can actually be considered as "killing" time, in that drunkenness allows time to disappear. He suggests that drinking is not just something the man does for fun or out of habit. Instead, he wants to kill time. He wants to escape from his life. As the poem continues the persona describes, “leagues of ocean, gasping whiteness, the barbed hooks fester” (11-12). The man is drowning in “leagues of oceans” without his significant other to help pull him out of the menacing cycle, that became his addiction. He was unable to fight it, leaving him disoriented and in “gasping whiteness.” The “barbed roots” of his addiction were too deep-rooted to pull them out. The man is stuck in a life where he doesn’t have the will to pull the hooks, or the alcohol, which had been his lifeline for so long, out. In the eighth stanza, Lowell adopts an allusion in an attempt to explain his struggle. He posits that “No voice outsings the serpent’s flawed, euphoric hiss” (30-31). In the context of the stanza, the man attempts seeking redemption however, the drugs have overtaken him. Nothing he wants could “outsing” his need for and dependence on the drugs. His biblical allusion insinuates that his addiction has become a rite of passage, in that he is doomed to become isolated. Lowell’s manifestation of metaphors throughout the poem, hinted at his failure to escape his addiction.
As the poem continues, Lowell administers imagery to demonstrate how addiction often results in isolation. As the man looks for his neighbors, “their names blur in the window” (13-14). The “blurr[ing] window” suggests the man’s fogged view of the outside world. His clear view becomes tainted by the smoke of his cigarettes. The man’s figurative window closes, he can only see what could have been, through its transparent surface. He can’t see past his regret. Later in the poem, the persona describes the condition of the room he’s in and notices that “the cheese wilts in the rat-trap” (32). Without his partner, his well-being as well as his state of living “wilt[ed],” like the rat trap. His entire quality of life diminished without the help of the woman. Finally, the poem’s last stanza begins with, “out on the street two cops on horseback clop through the April rain” (37-38). The line “out on the street,” implies the man’s confinement to the wall in front of him from the outside. He’s been rejected from the world. The “April rain,” provides an image of the man standing in front of the water-speckled window. The window shapes the way he thinks and distorts all on the other side. Lowell employ’s imagery to impactfully illustrate the extent of his isolation.
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In “The Drinker,” Lowell demonstrates how a person’s history and habits can adversely affect their future. Sometimes depression can make a person feel isolated. Lowell's application of a third-person point of view describes his feeling of watching himself from the outside, an almost out of body experience. He is an unwilling witness of his descent into seclusion, “wasting time”, killing himself. Throughout his life, Lowell became further and further imprisoned in the inescapable clouds of depression and addiction. The waves of depression, pummeling his brain as his body “founders” deeper into the inky, helpless, cold depths of the ocean floor. The question: would he stay trapped, or fight to the surface and live? Ultimately, the poem concludes with the feeling that redemption is impossible. So, the ocean hisses with the echoes of the souls trapped by the perilous cycle of depression.
- “Addiction Statistics - Facts on Drug and Alcohol Use - Addiction Center.” AddictionCenter, www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/addiction-statistics/.
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