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James Russell Lowell
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Longfellow was succeeded in his professor's chair at Harvard by James Russell Lowell (1819-1888), also a son of Cambridge, a fine New England heritage, and a Harvard student. Lowell, while not entitled to Longfellow's rank as a poet, nor perhaps any more learned than he, was a greater critic and essayist, and may today be recognized as the representative of indigenous American culture in the sense that Matthew Arnold was the representative of that of England. Lowell, who took a deep interest in American politics, was destined to be appointed by President Hayes to the Spanish Mission and to represent his country at the Court of St. James, and to receive the highest degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. In his youth he was so active in the anti-slavery and other public agitations of the time that in his rollicking and brilliant "Fable for Critics" (1848)—an imperishable landmark of American literature—he satirized himself :
"And there is Lowell, who's striving Parnassus to climb,
And in that very year he did, indeed, "make a drum of his shell," in his first series of the "Biglow Papers." These poems, prefaced by a delightful parody of old time New England pedantry and even of the new fangled Carlylese, established Lowell as the great typical Yankee wit. His creation of "Hosea Biglow," the Down East poet, full of homely humor, wit, satire, patriotism and idyllicism, is unique in literature. How well Lowell could write a Yankee idyl he showed in his little poem, "Zekle Crep' up all Unbeknown." These poems, written in true Down East dialect, with the twang of Down East character as well, were called forth in opposition and satire of the war spirit fomented by the slaveholders eager for new terri-tory. Lowell held up the contemptible buncombe politicians of the day to merciless ridicule in the figure of the Honorable John Doughface. He made Congressman Robinson a national butt of laughter in those ludicrous lines :
In the second series he tuned his Down East lyre to the new Northern patriotism, writing Yankee lyrics of the Civil War.
Lowell originally studied for and was admitted to the bar, but the only record of his practice is found in his little story entitled "My First Client." His first volume of poems inspired by his love for her who became his wife appeared in 1841 under the title of "A Year's Life." His earlier "Biglow Papers" were given to the public in the columns of the "Boston Courier" anonymously and edited with its playful learned introduction, notes, glossary, index and "notices of an independent press" by "Homer Wilbur, A. M., Pastor of the First Church in Jaalam, and prospective member of many literary, learned and scientific societies." Before this satire on the Mexican War, slavery and political cant, Lowell had written his exquisite vision of "Sir Launfal," a poem founded on the legend of the Holy Grail, and composed rapidly. Two of his most successful small poems of this time were "The Crisis" and "The First Snowfall." When the Kan-sas struggle (1856-58) enlisted his sympathies he actually contemplated sending his Hosea Biglow to that "dark and bloody ground" to report in vernacular, but Hosea had to wait for the Civil War. Of all his poems the one most praised for its loftiness and beauty is "The Cathedral." In this poem, despite one unhappy lapse from dignity, Lowell sought to catch that spirit of new-born greatness and sense of human destiny -
"Missed in the commonplace of miracle."
Equally noble is his superb "Ode recited at the Commemoration of the Living and Dead Soldiers of Harvard University, July 21, 1865." This "Commemoration Ode" not only contains a magnificent eulogy of the martyred Abraham Lincoln as the great typical American, but it seeks to give a splendid apotheosis of her whom he apostrophized in the lines -
"Who cometh over the hills,
Lowell was not as popular as Longfellow, but his best lines contain that "beauty's acme" described by him as "The wave's poise before it break and curl."
It is, however, chiefly as critic and essayist that he is best known to-day. In his three books of literary criticism and fancy, "Fireside Travels," "Among My Books," "My Study Windows," he proved himself to be America's most scholarly critic. The old English authors Chaucer, Spenser, the dramatists of Elizabeth's reign, attracted his attention particularly. But his catholicity of taste was also accompanied by a catholicity of subjects. In "My Garden Acquaintance," and "A Good Word for Winter," he displayed notable graces of style, and his paper "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners," was a capital "retort courteous" to the woes inflicted upon America by foreign critics, and continues to be a compensating solace even to this day.