Amy Lowell's "A Fixed Idea"
A Fixed Idea
What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant; and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.
Amy Lowell's poem "A Fixed Idea" consists of an octave and a sestet, which signals the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet form. In the octave, the speaker of this sonnet is decrying the "torture" of consistency, more particularly, the consistency of a recurring thought.
Then in the sestets, she is dramatizing her wish that her beloved not continue to burden and restrict her life any further. The two ideas seem somewhat disparate at first.
But then they meld as the reader realizes the true relationship between the ideas and between the two subjects of the sonnet.
The octave of this sonnet features two movements, focusing on the nature of a torturous content thought that will not leave the brain, and that no matter if the thought contain some delightful elements, just its continuation becomes dull and unsatisfying.
Octave's First Movement: "What torture lurks within a single thought"
In the octave, the speaker makes the bold statement: "What torture lurks within a single thought / When grown too constant." The reader can readily identify with such a claim; some thought gets itself stuck in the brain, and it may take days or months to dislodge it.
And it does not seem to matter if the thought itself is a pleasant one or a nasty one; just having it lodged there seemingly permanently gives the bearer's brain the "torture."
Octave's Second Movement: "Dull remembrance taught"
"Dull remembrance taught / Remembers on unceasingly," the speaker says. Even if the thought is hardly noticed at first, it might keep presenting itself like endless drudgery.
Despite "old delight" that we once felt in the thought, once it becomes habitually situated and consistently intrusive, one begins to "struggle, caught." The human mind sucks up joy and grief equally, and the constant presence of either is an annoyance, a bother—actually, the speaker in the first line called it "torture," which seals its fate as disastrous to the poor brain.
As is the tradition in the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet, the problem is posed and somewhat explained. So Lowell's speaker has posed the problem of the torturous thought that has lodged itself in her mind.
Furthermore, the speaker alerts the reader that it matters little whether that thought be positive or negative; it is still a torture, making the poor soul feel trapped. And what's a poor soul to do? How will it free itself? And from what must it free itself? Obviously, the way it would seek liberation from the thought depends entirely upon what the thought is.
The sestet brings the focus of the octave in to clear relief in its two movements. The speaker reveals unequivocally that her love relationship has run its course, and she wishes for the departure of that relationship that is weighing so heavenly on her mind and heart.
Sestet's First Movement: "You lie upon my heart as on a nest"
In the sestet, the reader listens as the speaker addresses seemingly another person; although, the speaker could be addressing that pesky "fixed idea," which she has complained about so thoroughly and repeatedly in the octave.
The reader, however, learns that the speaker's problem with the "fixed idea" is not so much a mental or intellectual problem as one of a difference sort.
The speaker says, "You lie upon my heart as on a nest." After complaining about some pesky thought depressing the mind, now she informs her readers that the real complaint is about "my heart" or feeling.
Apparently, her addressee is like a bird who had nested in her heart, and the burden of having that bird there is too much for the speaker: "you can never know / How crushed I am with having you at rest / Heavy upon my life."
Sestet's Second Movement: "I love you so"
The speaker continues and quite literally makes an odd confession: "I love you so / You bind my freedom from its rightful quest." The speaker has no room in her life any longer for this beloved, even though she claims to love this person.
The speaker has places to go, people to see, other fish to fry, so to speak. She cannot be tied down any longer with this beloved.
So she simply asks the little bird to buzz off: "In mercy lift your drooping wings and go." The fixed idea? Those words leave little room for interpretation.
The speaker is commanding that the fixed little bird pick up what stamina is has left and leave her "nest"—leave her heart, life, and above all, her mind.
A recitation of Lowell's "A Fixed Idea"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes