Open main menu
This page needs to be proofread.
75
LOWELL, J. R.

contemporary writers, and in which, the publication being anonymous, he included himself; The Vision of Sir Launfal, a romantic story suggested by the Arthurian legends-one of his most popular poems; and finally The Biglow Papers. Lowell had acquired a reputation among men of letters and a cultivated class of readers, but this satire at once brought him a wider fame. The book was not premeditated; a single poem, called out by the recruiting for the abhorred Mexican war, couched in rustic phrase and sent to the Boston Courier, had the inspiriting dash and electrifying rat-tat-tat of this new recruiting sergeant in the little army of Anti-Slavery reformers. Lowell himself 'discovered what he had done at the same time that the public did, and he followed the poem with eight others either in the Courier or the Anti-Slavery Standard. He developed four well-defined characters in the process-a country farmer, Ezekiel Biglow, and his son Hosea; the Rev. Homer Wilbur, a shrewd old-fashioned country minister; and Birdofredum Sawin, a Northern renegade who enters the army, together with one or two subordinate characters; and his stinging satire and sly humour are so set forth in the vernacular of New England as to give at once a historic dignity to this form of speech. (Later he wrote an elaborate paper to show the survival in New England of the English of the early 17th century.) He embroidered his verse with an entertaining apparatus of notes and mock criticism. Even his index was spiced with wit. The book, a caustic arraignment of the course taken in Connexion with the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, made a strong impression, and the political philosophy secreted in its lines became a part of household literature. It is curious to observe how repeatedly this arsenal was drawn upon in the discussions in America about the “ Imperialistic” developments of 1000. The death of Lowell's mother, and the fragility of his wife's health, led Lowell, with his wife, their daughter Mabel and their infant son Walter, to go to Europe in 1851, and they went direct to Italy. The early months of their stay were saddened by the death of Walter in Rome, and by the news of the illness of Lowell's father, who had a slight shock of paralysis. They returned in November 1852, and Lowell published some recollections of his journey in the magazines, collecting the sketches later in aprose volume, Fireside Travels. He took some part also in the editing of an American edition of the British Poets, but the low state of his wife's health kept him in an uneasy condition, and when her death (27th October 18 53) released him from the strain of anxiety, there came with the grief a readjustment of his nature and a new intellectual activity. At the invitation of his cousin, he delivered a course of lectures on English poets before the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1855. This first formal appearance as a critic and historian of literature at once gave him a new standing in the community, and was the occasion of his election to the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages in Harvard College, then vacant by the retirement of Longfellow. Lowell accepted the appointment, with the proviso that he should have a year of study abroad. He spent his time mainly in Germany, visiting Italy, and increasing his acquaintance with the French, German, Italian and Spanish tongues. He returned to America in the summer of 1856, and entered upon his college duties, retaining his position for twenty years. As a teacher he proved himself a quicken er of thought amongst students, rather than a close and special instructor. His power lay in the interpretation of literature rather than in linguistic study, and his influence over his pupils was exercised by his own iireside as well as in the relation, always friendly and familiar, which he held to them in the classroom. In 1856 he married Miss Frances Dunlap, a lady who had since his wife's death had charge of his daughter Mabel.

In the autumn of 1857 The Atlantic Monthly was established, and Lowell was its first editor. He at once gave the magazine the stamp of high literature and of bold speech on public affairs. He held this position only till the spring of 1861, but he continued to make the magazine the vehicle of his poetry and of some prose for the rest of his life; his prose, however, was more i

abundantly presented, in the pages of The North American Review during the years 1862-1872, when he was associated with Mr Charles Eliot Norton in its conduct. This magazine especially gave him the opportunity of expression of political views during the eventful years of the War of the Union. It was in The Atlantic during the same period that he published a second series of The Biglow Papers. Both his collegiate and editorial duties stimulated his critical powers, and the publication in the two magazines, followed by republication in book form, of a series of studies of great authors, gave him an important place as a critic. Shakespeare, Dryden, Lessing, Rousseau, Dante, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton, Keats, Carlyle, Thoreau, Swinburne, Chaucer, Emerson, Pope, Gray-these are the principal subjects of his prose, and the range of topics indicates the catholicity of his taste. He wrote also a number of essays, such as “ My Garden Acquaintance, " “ A Good Word for Winter, ” “ On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners, ” which were incursions into the field of nature and society. Although the great bulk of his writing was now in prose, he made after this date some of his most notable ventures in poetry. In 1868 he issued the next collection in Under the Willows and other Poems, but in 1865 he had delivered his “ Ode recited at the Harvard Commemoration, ” and the successive centennial historical anniversaries drew from him a series of stately odes.

In 1877 Lowell, who had mingled so little in party politics that the sole public office he had held was the nominal one of elector in the Presidential election of 1876, was appointed by President Hayes minister resident at the court of Spain. He had a good knowledge of Spanish language and literature, and his long-continued studies in history and his quick judgment enabled him speedily to adjust himself to these new relations. Some of his dispatches to the home government were published in a posthumous volume-Impressions of Spain. In 1880 he was transferred to London as American minister, and remained there till the close of President Arthur's administration in the spring of 188 5. As a man of letters he was already well known in England, and he was in much demand as an orator on public occasions, especially of a literary nature; but he also proved himself a sagacious publicist, and made himself a wise interpreter of each country to the other. Shortly after his retirement from public life he published Democracy and other Addresses, all of which had been delivered in England. The title address was an epigrammatic confession of political faith as hopeful as it was wise and keen. -The close of his stay in England was saddened by the death of his second wife in* 1885. After his return to America he made several visits to England. His public life had made him more of a figure in the world; he was decorated with the highest honours Harvard could pay officially, and with degrees of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Bologna. He issued another collection of his poems, H eartsease and Rue, in 1888, and occupied himself with revising and rearranging his works, which were published in ten volumes in 1890. The last months of his life were attended by illness, and he died at Elmwood on the 12th of August 1891. After his death his literary executor, Charles Eliot Norton, published a brief collection of his poems, and two volumes of added prose, besides editing his letters. .

The spontaneity of Lowell's nature is delightfully disclosed in his personal letters. They are often brilliant, and sometimes very penetrating in their judgment of men and books; but the most constant element is a pervasive humour, and this humour, by turns playful and sentimental, is largely characteristic of his poetry, which sprang from a genial temper, quick in its sympathy with nature and humanity. The literary refinement which marks his essays in prose is not conspicuous in his verse, which is of a more simple character. There was an apparent conflict in him of the critic and the creator, but the conflict was superficial. The man behind both critical and creative work was so genuine, that through his writings and speech and action he impressed himself deeply upon his generation in America, especially upon the thoughtful and scholarly class who looked upon him as especially their representative. This is not toe say that he was