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Outlines of English and American Literature
James Russell Lowell
by Long, William J.


The work of Lowell is unusual and his rank or position hard to define. Though never a great or even a popular writer, he was regarded for a considerable part of his life as the most prominent man of letters in America. At the present time his reputation is still large, but historians find it somewhat easier to praise his works than to read them. As poet, critic, satirist, editor and teacher he loomed as a giant among his contemporaries, overtopping Whittier and Longfellow at one time; but he left no work comparable to Snow-Bound or Hiawatha, and one is puzzled to name any of his poems or essays that are fairly certain to give pleasure. To read his volumes is to meet a man of power and brilliant promise, but the final impression is that the promise was not fulfilled, that the masterpiece of which Lowell was capable was left unwritten.

Biographical Sketch

Lowell came from a distinguished family that had "made history" in America. His father was a cultured clergyman; he grew up in a beautiful home, "Elmwood," in the college town of Cambridge; among his first companions were the noble books that filled the shelves of the family library. From the beginning, therefore, he was inclined to letters; and though he often turned aside for other matters, his first and last love was the love of poetry.

At fifteen he entered Harvard, where he read almost everything, he said, except the books prescribed by the faculty. Then he studied law and opened an office in Boston, where he found few clients, being more interested in writing verses than in his profession. With his marriage in 1844 the first strong purpose seems to have entered his indolent life. His wife was zealous in good works, and presently Lowell, who had gayly satirized all reformers, joined in the antislavery campaign and proceeded to make as many enemies as friends by his reform poems.

Varied Tasks

Followed then a period of hard, purposeful work, during which he supported himself by editing The Pennsylvania Freeman and by writing for the magazines. In 1848, his banner year, he published his best volume of Poems, Sir Launfal, A Fable for Critics and the first series of The Biglow Papers. It was not these volumes, however, but a series of brilliant lectures on the English poets that caused Lowell to be called to the chair in Harvard which Longfellow had resigned. He prepared for this work by studying abroad, and for some twenty years thereafter he gave courses in English, Italian, Spanish and German literatures. For a part of this time he was also editor in turn of The Atlantic Monthly and The North American Review.

Life Abroad

In the simpler days of the republic, when the first question asked of a diplomat was not whether he had money enough to entertain society in a proper style, the profession of letters was honored by sending literary men to represent America in foreign courts, and Lowell's prominence was recognized by his appointment as ambassador to Spain (1877) and to England (1880). It was in this patriotic service abroad that he won his greatest honors. In London especially he made his power felt as an American who loved his country, as a democrat who believed in democracy, and as a cultured gentleman who understood Anglo-Saxon life because of his familiarity with the poetry in which that life is most clearly reflected. Next to keeping silence about his proper business, perhaps the chief requirement of an ambassador is to make speeches about everything else, and no other foreign speaker was ever listened to with more pleasure than the witty and cultured Lowell. One who summed up his diplomatic triumph said tersely that he found the Englishmen strangers and left them all cousins.

He was recalled from this service in 1885. The remainder of his life was spent teaching at Harvard, writing more poetry and editing his numerous works. His first volume of poems, A Year's Life, was published in 1841; his last volume, Heartsease and Rue, appeared almost half a century later, in 1888. That his death occurred in the same house in which he was born and in which he had spent the greater part of his life is an occurrence so rare in America that it deserves a poem of commemoration.

Lowell's Poetry

There are golden grains everywhere in Lowell's verse but never a continuous vein of metal. In other words, even his best work is notable for occasional lines rather than for sustained excellence. As a specific example study the "Commemoration Ode," one of the finest poems inspired by the Civil War. The occasion of this ode, to commemorate the college students who had given their lives for their country, was all that a poet might wish; the brilliant audience that gathered at Cambridge was most inspiring; and beyond that local audience stood a nation in mourning, a nation which had just lost a million of its sons in a mighty conflict. It was such an occasion as Lowell loved, and one who reads the story of his life knows how earnestly he strove to meet it. When the reading of his poem was finished his audience called it "a noble effort," and that is precisely the trouble with the famous ode; it is too plainly an effort. It does not sing, does not overflow from a full heart, does not speak the inevitable, satisfying word. In consequence (and perhaps this criticism applies to most ambitious odes) we are rather glad when the "effort" is at an end. Yet there are excellent passages in the poem, notably the sixth and the last stanzas, one with its fine tribute to Lincoln, the other expressive of deathless loyalty to one's native land.

Lyrics

The best of Lowell's lyrics may be grouped in two classes, the first dealing with his personal joy or grief, the second with the feelings of the nation. Typical of the former are "The First Snowfall" and a few other lyrics reflecting the poet's sorrow for the loss of a little daughter,--simple, human poems, in refreshing contrast with most others of Lowell, which strive for brilliancy. The best of the national lyrics is "The Present Crisis" (1844). This was at first a party poem, a ringing appeal issued during the turmoil occasioned by the annexation of Texas; but now, with the old party issues forgotten, we can all read it with pleasure as a splendid expression of the American heart and will in every crisis of our national history.

In the nature lyrics we have a double reflection, one of the external world, the other of a poet who could not be single-minded, and who was always confusing his own impressions of nature or humanity with those other impressions which he found reflected in poetry. Read the charming "To a Dandelion," for example, and note how Lowell cannot be content with his

  Dear common flower that grow'st beside the way,
  Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,


but must bring in Eldorado and twenty other poetic allusions to glorify a flower which has no need of external glory. Then for comparison read Bryant's "Fringed Gentian" and see how the elder poet, content with the flower itself, tells you very simply how its beauty appeals to him. Or read "An Indian-Summer Reverie" with its scattered lines of gold, and note how Lowell cannot say what he feels in his own heart but must search everywhere for poetic images; and then, because he cannot find exactly what he seeks or, more likely, because he finds a dozen tempting allusions where one is plenty, he goes on and on in a vain quest that ends by leaving himself and his reader unsatisfied.

Sir Launfal

The most popular of Lowell's works is The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848), in which he invents an Arthurian kind of legend of the search for the Holy Grail. Most of his long poems are labored, but this seems to have been written in a moment of inspiration. The "Prelude" begins almost spontaneously, and when it reaches the charming passage "And what is so rare as a day in June?" the verse fairly begins to sing,--a rare occurrence with Lowell. Critical readers may reasonably object to the poet's moralizing, to his imperfect lines and to his setting of an Old World legend of knights and castles in a New World landscape; but uncritical readers rejoice in a moral feeling that is fine and true, and are content with a good story and a good landscape without inquiring whether the two belong together. Moreover, Sir Launfal certainly serves the first purpose of poetry in that it gives pleasure and so deserves its continued popularity among young readers.

Satires

Two satiric poems that were highly prized when they were first published, and that are still formally praised by historians who do not read them, are A Fable for Critics and The Biglow Papers. The former is a series of doggerel verses filled with grotesque puns and quips aimed at American authors who were prominent in 1848. The latter, written in a tortured, "Yankee" dialect, is made up of political satires and conceits occasioned by the Mexican and Civil wars. Both works contain occasional fine lines and a few excellent criticisms of literature or politics, but few young readers will have patience to sift out the good passages from the mass of glittering rubbish in which they are hidden.

Much more worthy of the reader's attention are certain neglected works, such as Lowell's sonnets, his "Prometheus," "Columbus," "Agassiz," "Portrait of Dante," "Washers of the Shroud," "Under the Old Elm" (with its noble tribute to Washington) and "Stanzas on Freedom," It is a pity that such poems, all of which contain memorable lines, should be kept from the wide audience they deserve, and largely because of the author's digressiveness. To examine them is to conclude that, like most of Lowell's works, they are not simple enough in feeling to win ordinary readers, like the poetry of Longfellow, and not perfect enough in form to excite the admiration of critics, like the best of Poe's melodies.

Lowell's Prose

In brilliancy at least Lowell has no peer among American essayists, though others excel him in the better qualities of originality or charm or vigor. The best of his prose works are the scintillating essays collected in My Study Window and Among My Books. In his political essays he looked at humanity with his own eyes, but the titles of the volumes just named indicate his chief interest as a prose writer, which was to interpret the world's books rather than the world's throbbing life. For younger readers the most pleasing of the prose works are the comparatively simple sketches, "My Garden Acquaintance," "Cambridge Thirty Years Ago" and "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners." In these sketches we meet the author at his best, alert, witty and so widely read that he cannot help giving literary flavor to whatever he writes. Among the best of his essays on literary subjects are those on Chaucer, Dante Keats, Walton and Emerson.

Quality of the Essays

One who reads a typical collection of Lowell's essays is apt to be divided between open admiration and something akin to resentment. On the one hand they are brilliant, stimulating, filled with "good things"; on the other they are always digressive, sometimes fantastic and too often self-conscious; that is, they call our attention to the author rather than to his proper subject. When he writes of Dante he is concerned to reveal the soul of the Italian master; but when he writes of Milton he seems chiefly intent on showing how much more he knows than the English editor of Milton's works. When he presents Emerson he tries to make us know and admire the Concord sage; but when he falls foul of Emerson's friends, Thoreau and Carlyle, his personal prejudices are more in evidence than his impersonal judgment. In consequence, some of the literary essays are a better reflection of Lowell himself than of the men he wrote about.

An author must be finally measured, however, by his finest work, by his constant purpose rather than by his changing mood; and the finest work of Lowell, his critical studies of the elder poets and dramatists, are perhaps the most solid and the most penetrating that our country has to show. He certainly kept "the great tradition" in criticism, a tradition which enjoins us, in simple language, to seek only the best and to reverence it when we find it. As he wrote:

  Great truths are portions of the soul of man;
  Great souls are portions of eternity;
  Each drop of blood that e'er through true heart ran
  With lofty message, ran for thee and me.


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