• Writing Ideas
    1. The poem’s title means, of course, a garden seen by moonlight; but it also weirdly resonates as though this portrait of the garden had been made by moonlight. What might the garden made by daylight, dawn, a thunderstorm, hail storm, or some other natural phenomenon look like? Try writing a line-by-line parody or imitation of Lowell’s poem.
    2. Taking inspiration from Lowell’s invented compound words such as “moon-shimmer” and “moon-spikes,” try bringing unexpected words together. Choose one word (such as “moon”) and create a word bank of various compounds. Try creating a poem that strings as many of these compounds together as possible.
    3. D.A. Powell’s guide notes that in the poem, “feminine eros is invoked through the topoi of cat, moonlight, folded poppies, ladies’ delight ... the garden is a metonym of the female body.” Choose another natural landscape and “map” a human body or a physical encounter through it. Try to be as coy and elusive as Lowell, whose poem isn’t obviously “about” sex on the first read.
  • Discussion Questions
    1. Circle all the verbs in the poem. How does Lowell’s poem work as a series of sentences and fragments? It is only in the fourth line, for example, that a verb appears. What is the effect of the build-up of phrases and clauses of description? Why delay the use of verbs in this poem?
    2. In what ways is Lowell’s poem itself “very still”? How might stillness get created through sound patterning or structures (perhaps like those grammatical structures discussed above)? In what ways does the poem push against stillness through kinds of movement? Think not just about images in the poem but line breaks, aural effects, and punctuation—what is the effect of having almost every line ends in either a comma or a period?
    3. In his poem guide, D.A. Powell reads this poem as an allegory of a lesbian sexual encounter. How does the poem move through different registers of suggestiveness? Where does the poem feel most obviously sexy and where is it least that way? How does the poem build a landscape in which individual words—such as “delight”—might connote sex?
  • Teaching Tips
    1. A neglected force in American modernism, Amy Lowell was accused by Ezra Pound of “ruining” imagism. Nevertheless, Lowell published prolifically and was popular in her day. Have your class stage an Amy Lowell revival: one group of students might read more poems by Lowell; another read and prepare a discussion of her “Preface to Some Imagist Poets; and perhaps another can explore her biography. Have each group prepare their findings; remind them that they are attempting to argue for Lowell’s importance to American poetry.
    2. Lowell’s poem takes its place in a long history of garden and flower poems, stretching back to Andrew Marvell’s “The Picture of T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers” and “The Garden” to the work of Louise Glück. As in Lowell’s poem, many of these poets use gardens and flowers metaphorically or, as Powell points out, metonymically. Generate a discussion (perhaps from discussion questions above) about the uses Lowell puts her garden to: while the flowers might also be metaphors for sex, or metonyms for the female body, she observes them carefully. What is the tension between observation or description and metaphor or metonymy? Have your students practice such distinctions for themselves. Take them to an outdoor garden-like space and have them first of all simply describe what they see. Then ask that they describe what they see as a metaphor for something else. How does language respond to different intentions? What separates or connects observation, description, and metaphor making?
The Garden by Moonlight

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A black cat among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock.
The garden is very still,   
It is dazed with moonlight,
Contented with perfume,
Dreaming the opium dreams of its folded poppies.
Firefly lights open and vanish   
High as the tip buds of the golden glow
Low as the sweet alyssum flowers at my feet.
Moon-shimmer on leaves and trellises,
Moon-spikes shafting through the snow ball bush.   
Only the little faces of the ladies’ delight are alert and staring,
Only the cat, padding between the roses,
Shakes a branch and breaks the chequered pattern
As water is broken by the falling of a leaf.
Then you come,
And you are quiet like the garden,
And white like the alyssum flowers,   
And beautiful as the silent sparks of the fireflies.
Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?
They knew my mother,
But who belonging to me will they know
When I am gone.

Source: Pictures of the Floating World (1919)
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Amy Lowell: “The Garden by Moonlight”

Poem Guide

Ezra Pound thought she ruined imagism, but her erotic lyricism turned it into a style all her own.

When I first began reading the modernists, Amy Lowell had already become little more than a footnote to the work of Ezra Pound. His insistence that she had ruined his early movement, imagism, seemed entirely justified by that one Amy Lowell poem that was repeatedly anthologized, the awful “Patterns.” But when I read her transgressively erotic poem “Venus Transiens” in the newly published Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, I began to suspect that Pound had been wrong. It seemed plausible to me, knowing what I knew of E. P. by then, that he was perhaps jealous of Lowell’s work and Lowell’s seemingly larger audience. Perhaps his dismissal had more to do with ego than with craft.

Indeed, as I read more and more of Amy Lowell’s brand of imagism, I began to see that in fact she was an artful practitioner of modernist tendencies, drawing upon the same deft strokes in Chinese and Japanese poetries that Pound had mined. Moreover, Lowell was creating an eroticized world in which her relationship with Ada Russell was central, pushing the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and social mores. Whereas Stein employed code words for her lesbianism in writing about her relationship with Alice Toklas, Lowell was drawing upon the natural world—in the way that Whitman had done in his homoerotic “Calamus” poems—to write lyrical, openly sexual love poems to Russell.

Oddly, Pound’s dismissal of Lowell has remained canonical, without anyone really challenging the heterosexism and misogyny that might have been behind it. Too bad, because I think contemporary readers would find great pleasure in Lowell’s work, particularly the later poems. This is why I’ve chosen “The Garden by Moonlight” from Lowell’s oeuvre, to showcase her deft use of image and the freshness of tone and diction that shape her work. In this poem, the feminine eros is invoked through the topoi of cat, moonlight, folded poppies, ladies’ delight . . . the garden is a metonym of the female body, reminiscent at times of The Song of Songs. The yonic energy of the poem culminates in orgasm, described as the sparks of fireflies. And in a moment deeply contemporary, the poet turns at the end to the subject of childlessness, just as the language itself changes from dense, rich texture to a kind of barren tone.

Robert Lowell, writing to Elizabeth Bishop in the 1950s, reports a conversation with Robert Frost, in which the latter Robert said of the former Robert’s distant cousin, “somebody really ought to unbury Amy.” Since the time I first proposed to include Amy in Dark Horses, a new Selected Poems of Amy Lowell has appeared, lovingly edited by Melissa Bradshaw and Adrienne Munich. Munich writes that Lowell’s “brand of imagism swept away self-consciously poetic diction in favor of a clean, unadorned, musical line.” And now Honor Moore has produced a graceful Selected Poems of Lowell for the American Poets Project. In the end, Amy Lowell did indeed fulfill Pound’s vision, whether Pound approved of it or not. And Lowell has finally made it into that most hallowed of texts, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry in English.

Perhaps this is but the beginning of a resurgence of interest in Lowell, as we’ve had with Mina Loy and Lorine Niedecker. I hope that more of Lowell’s “brand of imagism” will surface, and that the poems will be taught alongside those of her male counterparts. I find in Lowell a grace and daring beyond measure. The pared-down rhythms and the rich imagery of her work are exquisite.

D.A. Powell on Amy Lowell’s “The Garden by Moonlight” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.

The Garden by Moonlight

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