James Russell Lowell: Contribution as American Poet

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      Early Years.—James Russell Lowell, the son of the Rev. Charles Lowell, was a descendant of one of the best of the old New England families. The city of Lowell and the Lowell Institute of Boston received their names from uncles of the author. His mother's name was Spence, and she used to tell her son that the Spence family, which was of Scotch origin, was descended from Sir Patrick Spens of ballad fame. She loved to sing to her boy in the gloaming:—

 "O forty miles off Aberdeen, 'Tis fifty fathoms deep,  And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,  Wi' the Scots lords at his feet."

James Russell Lowell - American Literature
James Russell Lowell

      From her Celtic blood her son inherited a tendency toward poetry. When a child, he was read to sleep with Spenser's Faerie Queene and he found amusement in retelling its stories to his playmates.

      James Russell Lowell was born in 1819, in the suburbs of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fine old historic home called "Elmwood," which was one of the few homes to witness the birth and death of a great American author and to remain his native residence for seventy-two years.

      His early opportunities were in striking contrast to those of Whittier; for Lowell, like his ancestors for three generations, went to Harvard. Because of what the Lowell side of his family called "the Spence negligence," he was suspended from college for inattention to his studies and sent to Concord to be coached by a tutor. We know, however, that a part of Lowell's negligence was due to his reading and imitating such poetry as suited his fancy. It was fortunate that he was sent to Concord, for there he had the opportunity of meeting Emerson and Thoreau and of drinking in patriotism as he walked "the rude bridge that arch'd the flood". He was elected class poet, but he was not allowed to return in time to deliver his poem before his classmates, although he received his degree with them in 1838.

      MARRIAGE AND NEW IMPULSES.—Like Irving and Bryant, Lowell studied law, and then gave up that profession for literature. In 1839 he met Miss Maria White, a transcendentalist of noble impulses. Before this he had made fun of the abolitionists, but under her influence he followed men like Whittier into the anti-slavery ranks. She was herself a poet and she wrote to Lowell after they became engaged:—

"I love thee for thyself—thyself alone;  For that great soul whose breath most full and rare  Shall to humanity a message bear,  Flooding their dreary waste with organ tone."

      Under such inspiration, "the Spence negligence" left him, and with rapid steps he entered the temple of fame. In December, 1844, the month in which he married her, he wrote the finest lines ever penned by him:—

"Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,— Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own."

      Lowell's twenty-ninth year, 1848, is called his annus mirabilis, the wonderful year of his life. He had published small volumes of poems in 1840, 1843, and 1847, but in 1848 there appeared three of his most famous works,—The Biglow Papers, First Series, A Fable for Critics, and The Vision of Sir Launfal. As Mrs. Lowell's health was delicate, Lowell took her abroad, in 1851, for a year's stay. Thackeray came over on the same ship with them, on their return in 1852, and proved a genial companion. The next year Mrs. Lowell died. When he thought of the inspiration which she had given him and of the thirteen years of her companionship, he said, "It is a million times better to have had her and lost her, than to have had and kept any other woman I ever saw."

      James Russell Lowell was a significant poet and a great man of letters. He was a critic, humorist and political satirist. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he became educated at Harvard. He became a professor of French and Spanish in the same university after Longfellow retired. He is ‘virtually’ the Matthew Arnold of modem American literature. He held his position up to 1886. Though he, as a professor, taught a very little; he published seven books of essays during the period of ten years of his tenure. During this period, he was also the editor of The Atlantic Monthly (1857-61) which he co-founded with Oliver Wendell Holmes and The North American Review (1864) with Charles Eliot Norton.

      His first two publications of verse - A Year’s Life (1841) and Poems (1842), Though he began his career as a poet but gradually lost his poetic ability, ending as most respected critic and educator. As editor of the Atlantic and co-editor of the North American Review, Lowell exercised an enormous influence on some of his contemporaries. His A Fable for Critics (1848) is a very funny and apt appraisal of American writers, as in his comment: “There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge/ Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.” Under his wife’s influence, Lowell became a liberal reformer, abolitionist, and supporter of women’s suffrage and laws ending the child labor. His Biglow Papers, First Series (1847-48) creates Hosea Biglow, a shrewd but uneducated village poet who argues for a reform in ‘dialect ‘poetry. He also published the second series of The Biglow Papers (1867) which criticized England’s role in the Civil War. He published a reflective poem entitled ‘The Cathedral’ (1869). Benjamin Franklin and Phillip Freneau had used the intelligent villagers as their mouthpieces for social commentary. Lowell writes in the same poetic tradition, linking the colonial “character” tradition with the new realism and regionalism based on a dialect that flowered in 1850. It came to the fruition in a great master-novelist, Mark Twain. He was the US minister in Spain (1877-80) and then, in England (1880-1885) where he was received as a cultured and charming man who did much to interpret the American aspirations and ideals to the Old World.

      LATER WORK.—After his great bereavement in 1853, Lowell became one of America's greatest prose writers. In 1855 he was appointed Longfellow's successor in the Harvard professorship of modern languages and polite literature, a position which he held, with the exception of two years spent in European travel, until 1877. The duties of his chair called for wide reading and frequent lecturing, and he turned much of his attention toward writing critical essays. The routine work of his professorship often grew irksome and the "Spence negligence" was sometimes in evidence in his failure to meet his classes. As a teacher, he was, however, frequently very stimulating.

      He was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, from its beginning in 1857 until 1861. All of the second series of the Biglow Papers appeared in this magazine. From 1864 to 1872 he was one of the editors of the North American Review.

      In 1877 he became the minister of the United States to Spain. The Spanish welcomed him to the post that Washington Irving had once filled. In 1880 Lowell was transferred to England, where he represented his country until 1885. No other American minister has ever proved a greater success in England. He was respected for his literary attainments and for his ability as a speaker. He had the reputation of being one of the very best speakers in the Kingdom, and he was in much demand to speak at banquets and on special occasions. Many of his articles and speeches were on political subjects, the greatest of these being his address on Democracy, at Birmingham, in 1884.

      Although his later years showed his great achievements in prose, he did not cease to produce poetry. The second series of the Biglow Papers was written during the Civil War. His Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration in 1865, in honor of those who fell in freeing the slave, "Who in warm life-blood wrote their nobler verse," his three memorial poems: (1) Ode Read at the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Fight at Concord Bridge (1875), (2) Under the Old Elm (1875), written in commemoration of Washington's taking command of the Continental forces under that tree, a century before, and (3) Ode for the Fourth of July, 1876, are well-known patriotic American poems.

      After returning from England and passing from the excitement of diplomatic and social life to a quiet New England home, he wrote:—

"I take my reed again and blow it free Of dusty silence, murmuring, 'Sing to me.' And, as its stops my curious touch retries, The stir of earlier instincts I surprise,— Instincts, if less imperious, yet more strong, And happy in the toil that ends with song."

      In 1888 he published a volume of poems called Heartsease and Rue. He died in 1891 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, near his "Elmwood" home, not far from the last resting place of Longfellow.

      POETRY.—Lowell wrote many short lyrical poems, which rank high. Some of them, like Our Love is not a Fading Earthly Flower, O Moonlight Deep and Tender, To the Dandelion, and The First Snow-Fall are exquisite lyrics of nature and sentiment. Others, like The Present Crisis, have for their text, "Humanity sweeps onward," and teach high moral ideals. Still others, like his poems written in commemoration of some event, are instinct with patriotism.

      He is best known for three long poems, The Biglow Papers, A Fable for Critics and The Vision of Sir Launfal. All of these, with the exception of the second series of The Biglow Papers, appeared in his wonderful poetic year, 1848.

      He will, perhaps, be longest known to posterity for that remarkable series of papers written in what he called the Yankee dialect and designed at first to stop the extension of slavery and afterwards to suppress it. These are called "Biglow Papers" because the chief author is represented to be Hosea Biglow, a typical New England farmer. The immediate occasion of the first series of these Papers was the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846. Lowell said in after years, "I believed our war with Mexico to be essentially a war of false pretences, and that it would result in widening the boundaries and so prolonging the life of slavery." The second series of these Papers, dealing with our Civil War, began to be published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. The poem lives to-day, however, not for its censure of the war or for its attack on slavery, but for its expression of the mid-nineteenth century New England ideals, hard common sense, and dry humor. Where shall we turn for a more incisive statement of the Puritan's attitude toward pleasure?

 "Pleasure doos make us Yankees kind o' winch, Ez though't wuz sunthin' paid for by the inch; But yit we du contrive to worry thru, Ef Dooty tells us thet the thing's to du, An' kerry a hollerday, ef we set out, Ez stiddily ez though't wuz a redoubt."

      The homely New England common-sense philosophy is in evidence throughout the Papers. We frequently meet, such expressions as:— "I like the plain all wool o'common-sense, Thet warms ye now, an' will a twelve-month hence." "Now's the only bird lays eggs o' gold." "Democracy gives every man  The right to be his own oppressor."  "But Chance is like an amberill,—it don't take twice to lose it." "An' you've gut to git up airly,    Ef you want to take in God."

      In the second series of the Papers, there is one of Lowell's best lyrics, The Courtin'. It would be difficult to find another poem which gives within the compass of four lines a better characterization of many a New England maiden:— "… she was jes' the quiet kind  Whose naturs never vary,  Like streams that keep a summer mind,  Snowhid in Jenooary."  This series contains some of Lowell's best nature poetry. We catch rare glimpses of "Moonshine an' snow on field an' hill  All silence an' all glisten,"  and we actually see a belated spring "Toss the fields full o' blossoms, leaves, an' birds."

      The Vision of Sir Launfal has been the most widely read of Lowell's poems. This is the vision of a search for the Holy Grail. Lowell in a letter to a friend called the poem "a sort of story and more likely to be popular than what I write about generally." But the best part of the poem is to be found in the apotheosis of the New England June, in the Prelude to Part I.:—

"And what is so rare as a day in June?  Then, if ever, come perfect days;  Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,  And over it softly her warm ear lays."

      The poem teaches a noble lesson of sympathy with suffering:— "Not what we give, but what we share,— For the gift without the giver is bare; Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,— Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me."

      Lowell said that he "scrawled at full gallop" A Fable for Critics, which is a humorous poem of about two thousand long lines, presenting an unusually excellent criticism of his contemporary authors. In this most difficult type of criticism, Lowell was not infallible; but a comparison of his criticisms with the verdicts generally accepted to-day will show his unusual ability in this field. Not a few of these criticisms remain the best of their kind, and they serve to focus many of the characteristics of the authors of the first half of the nineteenth century. It will benefit all writers, present and prospective, to read this criticism on Bryant:—

"He is almost the one of your poets that knows
How much grace, strength, and dignity lie in Repose;
If he sometimes fall short, he is too wise to mar
His thought's modest fulness by going too far;
'Twould be well if your authors should all make a trial
Of what virtue there is in severe self-denial,
And measure their writings by Hesiod's staff,
Who teaches that all has less value than half."

      Especially humorous are those lines which give a recipe for the making of a Washington Irving and those which describe the idealistic philosophy of Emerson:—

"In whose mind all creation is duly respected
 As parts of himself—just a little projected."

      Prose.—Lowell's literary essays entitle him to rank as a great American critic. The chief of these are to be found gathered in three volumes: Among My Books (1870), My Study Windows (1871), Among My Books, Second Series (1876). These volumes as originally issued contain 1140 pages. If we should wish to persuade a group of moderately intelligent persons to read less fiction and more solid literature, it is doubtful if we could accomplish our purpose more easily than by inducing them to dip into some of these essays. Lowell had tested many of them on his college students, and he had noted what served to kindle interest and to produce results. We may recommend five of his greater literary essays, which would give a vivid idea of the development of English poetry from Chaucer to the death of Pope. These five are: Chaucer, in My Study Windows; Spenser, in Among My Books, Second Series; Shakespeare Once More, and Dryden, in Among My Books, First Series; and Pope, in My Study Windows. If we add to these the short addresses on Wordsworth and Coleridge, delivered in England, and printed in the volume Democracy and Other Addresses (1886), we shall have the incentive to continue the study of poetry into the nineteenth century.

      Lowell's criticism provokes thought. It will not submit to a passive reading. It expresses truth in unique and striking ways. Speaking of the French and Italian sources on which Chaucer drew, Lowell says:—

 "Should a man discover the art of transmuting metals, and present us with   a lump of gold as large as an ostrich egg, would it be in human nature to inquire too nicely whether he had stolen the lead?.…" Chaucer, like Shakespeare, invented almost nothing. Wherever he found   anything directed to Geoffrey Chaucer, he took it and made the most of it…. "Sometimes he describes amply by the merest hint, as where the Friar, before setting himself softly down, drives away the cat. We know without need of more words that he has chosen the snuggest corner."

      Lowell usually makes the laziest readers do a little pleasant thinking. It is common for even inert students to investigate his meaning; for instance, in his statements that in the age of Pope "everybody ceremoniously took a bushel basket to bring a wren's egg to market in," and that everybody "called everything something else."

      The high ideals and sterling common sense of Lowell's political prose deserve special mention. In Democracy (1886), which should be read by every citizen, Lowell shows that old age had not shattered his faith in ideals. "I believe," he said, "that the real will never find an irremovable basis until it rests on the ideal." Voters and lawmakers are to-day beginning to realize that they will go far to find in the same compass a greater amount of common sense than is contained in these words:—

 "It is only when the reasonable and the practicable are denied that men demand the unreasonable and impracticable; only when the possible is made difficult that they fancy the impossible to be easy. Fairy tales are made out of the dreams of the poor." [Footnote: Democracy and Other Addresses,]

      General Characteristics.—Lowell has written verse which shows sympathetic treatment of nature. His lines To the Dandelion:—

      "Dear common flower, that grow'st beside the way,  Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,  First pledge of blithesome May  Which children pluck, and full of pride uphold .… thou art more dear to me  Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be,"  show rare genuineness of feeling. No one not enthusiastic about nature would ever have heard her calling to him:— "To mix his blood with sunshine, and to take, The winds into his pulses."  He invites us in March to watch:— "The bluebird, shifting his light load of song    From post to post along the cheerless fence,"  and in June to lie under the willows and rejoice with "The thin-winged swallow, skating on the air." Another pronounced characteristic which he has in common with the New England group is nobility of ideals. His poem entitled For an Autograph, voices in one line the settled conviction of his life:— "Not failure, but low aim, is crime." He is America's greatest humorist in verse. The Biglow Papers and A Fable for Critics are ample justification for such an estimate.  As Lowell grew older, his poetry, dominated too much by his acute intellect, became more and more abstract. In Under the Old Elm, for example, he speaks of Washington as:— "The equestrian shape with unimpassioned brow   That paces silent on through vistas of acclaim."

      It is possible to read fifty consecutive lines of his Commemoration Ode without finding any but abstract or general terms, which are rarely the warp and woof out of which the best poetry is spun. This criticism explains why repeated readings of some of his poems leave so little impression on the mind. Some of the poetry of his later life is, however, concrete and sensuous, as the following lines from his poem Agassiz (1874) show:—

 "To lie in buttercups and clover-bloom,  Tenants in common with the bees,  And watch the white clouds drift through gulfs of trees,  Is better than long waiting in the tomb."

      In prose literary criticism, he keeps his place with Poe at the head of American writers. Lowell's sentences are usually simple in form and easily understood; they are frequently enlivened by illuminating figures of rhetoric and by humor, or rendered impressive by the striking way in which they express thought, e.g. "The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinion." A pun, digression, or out-of-the-way allusion may occasionally provoke readers, but onlookers have frequently noticed that few wrinkle their brows while reading his critical essays, and that a pleased expression, such as photographers like, is almost certain to appear. He has the rare faculty of making his readers think hard enough for agreeable exercise, and yet he spares them undue fatigue and rarely takes them among miry bogs or through sandy deserts.

      Lowell's versatility is a striking characteristic. He was a poet, reformer, college professor, editor, literary critic, diplomatist, speaker, and writer on political subjects. We feel that he sometimes narrowly escaped being a genius, and that he might have crossed the boundary line into genius-land, if he had confined his attention to one department of literature and had been willing to write at less breakneck speed, taking time and thought to prune, revise, and suppress more of his productions. Not a few, however, think that Lowell, in spite of his defects, has left the impress of genius on some of his work. When his sonnet, Our Love is not a Fading Earthly Flower, was read to a cultured group, some who did not recognize the authorship of the verses thought that they were Shakespeare's.

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