Lowell As Poet, Essayist And Critic
( Originally Published 1916 )
HIS "COMMEMORATION ODE," "THE BIGLOW PAPERS " AND HIS LITERARY ESSAYS HIS BEST WORK.
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL'S place as poet, essayist and critic is not clearly defined. He came very near greatness as both poet and essayist, but he missed, a place in the first rank, largely through a certain frostiness of temperament. As a critic he has been assailed recently by Dr. Joseph J. Reilly, formerly of the College of the City of New York, who declares that he has no claim to the name of a scientific literary critic of the class of Sainte-Beuve or Matthew Arnold; but over against this must be placed the dictum of William Dean Howells, who says of Lowell: "In his lectures on the English poets he has proved himself easily the wisest and finest critic in our language. Certainly in the quality of literary stimulus Lowell's essays must be given a foremost place. Even about Shakespeare he has something novel and illuminating to say, and upon the lesser writers of the Elizabethan era he pours a flood of light. He makes all these old worthies very real and human, as though they were of our own time. Lowell was hurt also by the fad that he was what Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes called a New England Brahmin. He was a natural aristocrat, who believed that a long and well-defined strain of good blood was necessary for a man to accomplish much in this world. It was this strong strain of the aristocrat in him, joined to his great ability as an after-dinner speaker, that made Lowell so popular in England when he was American Minister to St. James. Another trait of Lowell's that has repelled many readers is the strong school-masterish tendency that leads him to lecture his readers frequently and to go into tedious detail on many subjects.
But with all these drawbacks Lowell has fairly held his own, and he probably has more readers today than when he was before the public as our Minister to England. His poetry fills five good-sized volumes, but all that will live may be squeezed into less than one volume. His greatest poem is the magnificent Commemoration Ode, written to celebrate the dedication of the noble Memorial Hall at Harvard, erected in memory of those of the New England university's sons who fell in the Civil War. It sounds the heights and the depths of American patriotism, and it contains in a few lines the finest portrait of Lincoln that has ever been drawn. The poems also include The Biglow Papers, which are supreme as the best version of the Yankee dialect in our literature, as well as some of the keenest satire on the pretensions of the Southern pro-slavery party that brought on the Mexican War.
Lowell as a poet seldom gave the public an imperfect line. He was a master of his craft. His wide study and reading and his command of many tongues made the technical part of the poet's work as easy for him as it was for Byron or Swinburne. Melodious is the term which best applies to all his verse, but he had something more than melody and sweetness. He had the faculty, which Emerson lacked, of making the reader see and feel the charm of the New England seasons and the beauty of the common flowers of the garden and the field.
To Lowell all nature appealed with new force and beauty every morning, as though he were born again each day, with unjaded senses, eager to savor the perfume of the flowers, keen to note the beauty of clouds and trees, of green sloping meadows and of lakes flashing in the clear sunlight. When he touches on nature you feel the poet let himself go; he warms your soul with his passionate love of the woods, the fields and the sea.
Into his essays Lowell poured out the wealth of his learning, while at the same time he indulged his strong taste for many intellectual and critical hobbies. He prefaced a new edition of The Biglow Papers with a hundred page dissertation on the New England dialed, which he proved by hundreds of examples was derived straight from the English of Cromwell's time. Scores of words which are now obsolete in England are preserved in the quaint dialed, the curious clipped speech of Hosea Biglow, Birdofredum Sawin and other characters in these famous satires in verse. Lowell shows keen enjoyment in dredging up these old, forgotten words and proving that they are far more expressive than the more decorous terms that have taken their place in the common speech.
In such essays as those on Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Lowell reveals a range of reading and a niceness of critical art that can be found in the work of no other American essayist, Hazlitt and Fronde at their best do not surpass him here on his chosen ground. And one is struck on nearly every page by some homely simile or metaphor, some homespun example, that shows how well anchored Lowell was to "the stern and rock-bound coast" that colored his genius while it chilled his temperament.
Lowell differs from nearly every other American writer in his training and his life. Born of a family of Congregational preachers, he showed no fondness for religion, but early developed a strong love for poetry and general literature. Everything was made easy for him by ample means when a youth, and he lived his whole life at Elmwood, the stately home in Cambridge, where he was born. Save for temporary financial straits in his early man-hood, he always had a modest competence and he was able to select the work which he loved. Like Emerson, he entered Harvard at the early age of fifteen years, but gained no distinction in scholarship. He studied law, but soon gave this up and devoted himself to poetry.
Through his marriage he came into close contact with the antislavery leaders, and this association fired his genius. In The Biglow Papers, written to voice the sentiment of New England on the unjust Mexican War, which was carried out in the interest of the Southern slaveholders, he first put the Yankee dialect into literature. The racy humor of these sketches in prose and verse met a warm response at home and abroad, and they first made Lowell known to his countrymen. This period also witnessed the writing of many antislavery poems, among which the most notable are those on Garrison, Freedom, The Parting of the Ways and The Washers of the Shroud.
At the age of thirty-six Lowell, who had made a reputation as a critic by a series of lectures on the English poets before the Lowell Institute, accepted the chair of French and Spanish literature at Harvard, which had been occupied by Ticknor and Longfellow before him. He held this professorship for seventeen years, during which he did a large amount of work in verse and prose. In 1872 he resigned his chair at Harvard and devoted himself to literary work. He made frequent trips to Europe, and he acquired in this way an intimate knowledge of France, Spain and Italy.
Public honors came to him in 1877, when he was appointed Minister to Spain, and three years later, when he was made United States Minister to England. Lowell was the most popular American Minister to the court of St. James, his ability as an after-dinner speaker contributing largely to his success. He served five years before he was relieved by President Cleveland. Five years later he died at his old Elmwood home, full of years and honors.
Of Lowell's poems the Commemoration Ode is his best work. It is unmatched in American literature for its lofty patriotism. Here Lowell's genius seemed to move without hindrance; it reached the climax of eloquence in the famous portrait of Lincoln, of which these are noteworthy lines:
Here was a type of the true elder race, And one of Plutarch's men talked with us face to face.
Great captains, with their guns and drums,
And here is the climax of his splendid apostrophe to his country:
O Beautiful! My Country! Ours once more,
What were our lives without thee?
Other fine poems are The Vision of Sir Launfal, with its impressive lesson in genuine Christianity; The Washers of the Shroud, one of the best of the poems produced by the sweat and agony of the Civil War, and the pathetic little poems on the death of his daughter and of his wife. After the Burial is one of the finest bits of verse in the language. Of course, The Biglow Papers are full of good things, as well as A Fable for Critics, a series of brilliant pen pictures of American authors, and Under the Willows, a rhapsody on June in New England.
Lowell's best prose work may be found in My Study Windows and the three volumes of Among My Books. Above everything else, Lowell was the scholar, and his essays reveal this quality in excess. He had the nicest sense of language, and especially in discussing the old English worthies like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden, this faculty was allowed free range. The essays on these English poets are well worth reading, as Lowell brings to bear on his subject a mass of material, gathered from wide reading and critical study. His style is very brilliant, but at the same time it often seems almost colloquial, so easy was it for this master of expression to develop his thought.
Wit and humor play over all his work and make it a delight to read. The drollest conceits occur to him, and he gives them free play; his fancy invents many novel ideas, and he takes the keenest delight even in making puns. Among American critics no one has ever equaled Lowell in his capacity for making even a heavy subject as interesting as a novel. And behind all this sparkle of wit was the man who was greater as a talker than a writer. Scores of famous men have borne witness to Lowell's rare charm in conversation a charm that made men like Carlyle and Thackeray and Froude remain silent when he held forth at table. Lowell wrote much which the world may well forget, but his best verse and his best prose are worth a place even on a five-foot shelf of the world's great books.