The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXIV. LowellEdit
§ 1. Miscellaneous Quality of Lowell’s Work.Edit
NEITHER Lowell’s poetry nor prose has that obvious unity of effect which characterizes the work of so many nineteenth century writers. His work does not recall, even in the minds of its admirers, a group of impressions so distinct and fixed as those summoned by the poetry of Whittier, Poe, or Whitman, or by that of Swinburne, Morris, or Browning, or by the prose of Thoreau or Emerson, of Ruskin or Arnold. His work, indeed, does not have the marks of a dominant or of a peculiar personality; nor does it add to literature a new group of ideas or a new departure in workmanship. Though its volume is large, and though a number both of his poems and his essays have won a wide familiarity, there is difficulty in summarizing their qualities of form or matter in a way that will indicate with justice his importance in American literature.
This somewhat miscellaneous appeal made by his writing may be ascribed in part, no doubt, to a lack of literary power that prevented him from winning the triumphs that belong to the great conquests of the imagination, but it is also due in large measure to the variety of responses which his rich personality made to the changing movements of American life. Other writers were surer of their message or of their art, but perhaps the career of no other affords a more varied and interesting commentary on the course of American letters, or responds as constantly to the occasions and needs of the nation’s experience. It is impossible to consider him apart from his time and environment, or to judge his writing apart from its value for the United States. It has left something for posterity, but its best energy was expended in the mainfold tasks which letters must perform as a builder of national civilization. It is this service which makes him an eminent and in some ways our most representative man of letters.
§ 2. Main Facts of his Life.Edit
The briefest summary of the events of his life will indicate the variety of his interests and occupations. Born in 1819 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the colonial house where he was to spend most of his life, he went to Harvard College, studied law—and abandoned it for a career of letters. He contributed verses and sketches to the magazines, edited a few numbers of an unsuccessful literary journal, The Pioneer, brought out his first volume of poems, A Year’s Life, in 1841, a second volume in 1843, and a collection of essays, Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, in 1844.
In December of this year he was married to the poetess Maria White. The nine years of their married life until her death in 1853 mark a distinct period in Lowell’s literary work. He contributed constantly both prose and verse to various journals, at first largely for those of the anti-slavery propaganda; and the Mexican War gave the opportunity for The Biglow Papers, the first of which appeared in The Boston Courier of 17 June, 1846. In 1848 appeared a second collection of poems, the completed Biglow Papers, and The Fable for Critics. Lowell had won, in both popular and critical regard, an assured place in what was already an important national literature. The fifteen months which the family spent in Europe in 1851–52 seem to have increased his desire to widen the range of his poetry, but the ambitions that thronged with the return to America were interrupted by the death of his wife. A period of uncertainty followed his bereavement, and circumstances gave him a new occupation.
In 1855 he delivered in Boston a course of twelve lectures (unpublished) on English poetry, and as a result of their success was appointed to succeed Longfellow as Smith Professor of the French and Spanish Languages and Literatures and Professor of Belles Lettres in Harvard College. A few months were spent in Dresden in preparation for a course on German literature, and in the fall of 1856 he began twenty years work as a teacher. In the following year he was married to Frances Dunlap and resumed life in Elmwood. His professorship turned his mind to criticism and scholarship, but did not hasten that stronger poetic flight for which he had felt himself preparing. A brief-lived literary magazine, Putnam’s Monthly, in 1853–54 had given place to one or two of his best known essays, and a new literary enterprise, The Atlantic Monthly, in 1857 gave further opportunity for his prose. Lowell was editor of the new magazine for two years and a regular contributor of reviews and articles until 1863, when he joined with Charles Eliot Norton in editing The North American Review. For the next dozen years his essays both political and literary appeared mainly in this review.
During the Civil War, Lowell’s chief contributions to poetry were the new series of Biglow Papers which began in the Atlantic in 1861. It was not until the war was over that the great themes of national triumph through sacrifice called forth the four memorial odes. Miscellaneous verse of the preceding twenty years was collected in Under the Willows (1868); but the odes and longer poems, as The Cathedral (1870), Agassiz (1874), best represent both the emotional impulses that followed the war and the maturity of Lowell’s art.
The political interests which had engaged much of his prose writing before and during the war had not interrupted his increasing devotion to the study and criticism of literature. He had been directing his attention less to contemporary letters and more to the masters of English and to a few of the masters of foreign literature, notably Dante. The result of these studies was a long succession of essays which make up the volumes Among My Books (1870), My Study Windows (1871), and Among My Books, Second Series (1876). It is these books which are his main contributions to literary criticism.
Lowell and his wife spent two years (1872–74) in Europe, and after a brief resumption of his professorship he was appointed minister to Spain in 1877, and in 1880 was transferred to England. After his retirement in 1885 he spent a considerable part of his time in England until his death in 1891. The mission was a recognition of his distinction not merely as a man of letters but as a representative of the best American culture, and this distinction Lowell maintained in a number of addresses on both literary and political themes, represented by the volume Democracy and Other Addresses (1886). Although his poetry became infrequent there was enough for a final volume, Heartsease and Rue, in 1880.
To all these varied activities as poet, essayist, humorist, editor, teacher, scholar, and diplomat, must be added that of letter writer. For Lowell’s letters, in addition to their annals of his personal experiences and friendships, contribute something to literature and history which perhaps has ceased with the day of the typewriter—a record of the intimate association of the high-minded. His work as a man of letters may be considered most readily by the main divisions of verse and prose; but the separation is not always significant. The poetry is mostly bounded by the years 1840 and 1870, and the best of the essays by 1860 and 1890; but there is hardly a year of his half century which did not see both prose and verse. Nor can the subject matter be divided by the two forms, for both require attention from the historian of either the literary or the political progress of the half-century. Both respond to the changing events of his own life, and to the greater changes that transformed the nation of 1840 into that of 1890.
Lowell’s youth was spent among books. Before he left college he had become a wide if desultory reader, and the study of law failed to detach him from what was to become a life-long devotion to the easy chair and the library. To the inheritance of English blood, law, language, and religion that bound New England to the mother country, he added an enthusiastic appreciation for English literature. Naturally this appreciation was directed by the Romanticism which had reached its full flower in English letters, by its leaders, Wordsworth, Keats, Lamb, or by the gods of its idolatry, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Dante. His feeling was like that which Keats had experienced twenty years before, when English poetry had opened out a new world inviting to fresh beauty and new enterprise. And this world of British letters had added since then the clarion voice of Carlyle and the exquisite art of Keats himself and of Tennyson. It is easy to trace in Lowell’s early verse imitation and reminiscence of the English poets of the preceding half-century; but even more important was his acceptance of their faith in poetry. With Wordsworth he believed that it was to be the moral guide and spiritual inspirer, with Keats he saw it opening new doors to the abode of beauty. He shared the assurance of Sartor Resartus that literature was to supply the new priesthood that was to direct the new age.
There were also new ideas and impulses astir in the New England of Lowell’s youth. The narrow Puritanism had given way to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism and literature. During the first twenty years of Lowell’s life, American literature had taken a bulk and character which might risk comparison with the literature of any European nation during that period. In his teens he was reading Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, Hawthorne, and Prescott, and most of these men were his neighbours and ready to welcome and direct his first attempts at letters. There is a sense of an intellectual and imaginative dawn to be found in Lowell’s essays and verse, a dawn that is to gladden the granite and pines of his native land. With a loving admiration for the old literature, there is a loyal national pride in the new; or, rather, there is a sectional pride; for the patriotism is mainly a sectional patriotism, a fervour for the New England hills and men. Boston was then a long way from New York and Philadelphia—although Lowell’s literary adventures carried him to both cities—and the rest of the nation was separated by barriers of manners and habit. He was patriotically American because his beloved and awakened New England was expected to lead the nation.
§ 3. Early Poems.Edit
Lowell’s early poems do not show much novelty of theme or manner. They are on about the same subjects that all men were writing verse upon in the forties, and written with the same vocabulary, images, and rhythms. Love, nature, liberty, idealism, classic story, personal moods are the themes, but there is some novelty in the ingenuity of the phrases and in the new fauna and flora. If he was following the English romanticists he was transferring their worship of beauty to a New England landscape and their religious musings to the turmoil of idealism that stirred the youth of Massachusetts. He writes of the dandelion and the pine-tree, and his seasons are the riotous June or the Indian summer of Cambridge, his landscape that of Beaver Brook. All is descriptive or reflective; there is no narrative except when it is the mere text for sentiment and moral.
§ 4. Union of Art and Morality.Edit
Some union of art and morality, of Keats and Carlyle, Poe and Emerson—that was the poet’s endeavour. He wrote to Briggs in 1846:
- Then I feel how great is the office of Poet, could I but even dare to hope to fill it. Then it seems as if my heart would break in pouring out one glorious song that should be the gospel of Reform, full of consolation and strength to the oppressed, yet falling gently and restoringly as dew on the withered youth-flowers of the oppressor. That way my madness lies.
It is easy to smile at this youthful fervency, as Lowell himself smiled a year or two later in The Fable for Critics.
- There is Lowell, who’s striving Parnassus to climb
- With a whole bale of isms tied together with rhyme.
- The top of the hill he will ne’er come nigh reaching
- Till he learns the distinction ’twixt singing and preaching.
But, with most nineteenth-century poets, Lowell was a preacher as well as a singer. Poverty, tyranny, doubt, industrialism, are the themes that for England distracted the attention of the Muse; in the United States, the mid-century vision of beauty was clouded by the presence of slavery. And if Lowell was conscious that the isms, even that of the anti-slavery cause, burdened his climb up Parnassus, there was never any doubt of the imperative nature of the summons of moral reform.
The American reader should indeed have a special sympathy for this avowal of high purpose; for is not this gospel of reform the better genius of our nation? The material advance which has conquered a continent has made us self-confident, disregardful of the past, and careless of reflection, but it has inspired us with a faith in our power to rebuild and move on. The evils which beset us do not daunt us, and the virtues we possess we would fain impose upon others. We believe in propaganda, we are uneasy without some cause to further, some improvement to promote. If we ever determine what the American idea is, we shall evangelize the world.
§ 5. The Biglow Papers.Edit
It was perhaps this spirit of reform which Lowell had sought to express in his Byron and which he had in mind when in another letter to Briggs he declares “I am the first who has endeavoured to express the American Idea, and I shall be popular by and by.” Popularity came first, however, when fervour was linked with wit and humour in The Biglow Papers with their racy Yankee dialect and their burning zeal against the aggressiveness of the slave-holding South.
The art of these verses has no resemblance to the art of Keats, and their gospel of reform is not a glorious song of consolation; but their rapid fire of wit and common sense was perhaps a better expression of Lowell’s temperament than any of his more studied measures. Certainly no poems have ever more distinctly revealed the New England temper. When collected they were imbedded in a paraphernalia of apparatus in which the wit is often laboured, and some of them are no more than clever journalism; but the best have become a lasting part of our popular literature. If this is due in part to their vernacular homeliness, and in part to their wit, it is also due to the moral fire of their democracy. As Horace Scudder insisted, there is a connection between them and another popular success of a different kind, The Vision of Sir Launfal. There “it is the holy zeal which attacks slavery issuing in this fable of a beautiful charity.”
In 1850 Lowell wrote to Briggs:
- I begin to feel that I must enter a new year of apprenticeship. My poems have thus far had a regular and natural sequence. First, Love and the mere happiness of existence beginning to be conscious of itself, then Freedom—both being the sides which Beauty presented to me—and now I am going to try more after Beauty herself. Next, if I live, I shall present Life as I have seen it.
But, as often, Life proved a jealous mistress who would not yield the field to Beauty. Change and bereavement followed, and his professorship and editorship gave little incentive for verse. The moral exaltation which had seemed the promise of America found itself involved with all the turmoil of emotions that accompany terrific war. For these, Hosea’s dialect was scarcely an adequate vehicle of expression, and the second series of Biglow Papers, if not inferior in skill, somehow lacks the entire sufficiency of the first; even when, as in the tenth paper, both the pathos and valour of the great conflict sound through the verse. The passions that the war aroused were too overpowering for poetry except the brief expression of dominant feeling, as in the fine stanza written in October, 1861.
- God, give us peace! not such as lulls to sleep,
- But sword on thigh, and brow with purpose knit!
- And let our Ship of State to harbor sweep,
- Her ports all up, her battle-lanterns lit,
- And her leashed thunders gathering for their leap!
§ 6. The Commemoration Ode.Edit
In the poems written in the decade after the war there is a greater depth of thought and a maturity of feeling. The cause which he served broadened into the issue of the life of a national democracy; and he was called upon to sing its victories and the sacrifice by which they were won. The odes are so noble in sentiment and so splendid in parts that one cannot forbear to regret that they do not bring an even more perfect beauty to their great theme. The far-fetched figure, the halting measure, the forced rhythm occasionally intrude on verse where the feeling demands all the majesty of poetic mastery. And yet, national anniversaries have rarely if ever aroused such pæans as these in which New England mourns her slain but passes on her heritage to the larger nation. Eloquence rises again and again to passionate melody, yet the feeling never loses the restraining guide of thought. Lowell never attains greater mastery than in the thoughtful analysis and noble beauty of the stanzas on Lincoln in the Commemoration Ode.
The war and its aftermath left Lowell’s poetic faculty somewhat spent. Now and then a theme would arouse his imagination to its earlier spontaneity. Chartres revisited summoned back the recollections of its first impressions and stirred him to search again the mysteries and confusions of faith. The death of Agassiz recalled the Cambridge of old and its brave spirits. But the visits of the Muse grew rarer, and Lowell came to find his most characteristic expression in the prose essay. As the close of the war relieved him from the pressing necessity of political writing, he naturally returned to literature.
§ 7. Lowell as Critic.Edit
Mrs. Browning, in one of her letters to her husband, complains of the Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, which she has just been reading, that Lowell is saying over again the same things that every one knows. There is, no doubt, a certain truth in the charge, even when applied to his maturer essays. Lowell introduces no new principle or methods into literary criticism and he makes no search after novelties. In these respects and in the part that his essays have played in changing the direction of literary criticism, they may be regarded as less important than those which Matthew Arnold was writing during the same decade. But this is mainly due to the fact that Arnold’s literary criticism was a part of a definite propaganda. When he gave up poetry and turned to prose, it was with the pronounced intention of getting at the British public, of entering on controversy, of preaching a new gospel, that of Culture, which was to have its main ally in criticism. Lowell’s increasing use of prose was made from no such incentive. The great cause to which he had been devoted had been won. It was in part as a relief from controversy and propaganda that he turned from political subjects to the leisurely appreciation of his favourite authors. The essays have no reforms to propose. They are the summing up of many hours spent in his library and his class-room.
The influence of the college makes itself felt in various ways. Agassiz in science and Child in letters were among Lowell’s colleagues, and his years as a professor had given him both an opportunity for wide reading and an acquaintance with the sterner exactions of scholarship. In some cases, as in the careful review of Richard Grant White’s edition of Shakespeare, the criticism is precise and textual. In all cases the reflections about the great masters formed through years of intimacy have undergone the seasoning discipline of a broad and adequate scholarship. Lowell did not write on a subject unless he knew a good deal about it, nor did he fail to avail himself of the best that scholarship had accumulated; and such habits have not been matters of course among literary critics. Not only Lowell’s thoroughness and accuracy, but his very freedom from the bias of propaganda and from the desire for novelty give his criticism an enduring sanity, a sanity which is happily united with a rich and discriminating sympathy.
Lowell’s essays indeed may be warmly defended from any charge of ineffectuality. If he did not proclaim a definite evangel, yet scarcely less potently than Arnold he preached the gospel of culture. To a nation torn by war and largely engaged in the indispensable work of economic reconstruction, he taught by both precept and example the value of criticism. In the renewed task of making a nation, he turned confidently to literature as the record of human activity that contains most that is vital for the spirit. The cause of culture, indeed, called for a different service in the two countries. For Arnold in England, literature was to be given a renewed allegiance in the face of industrialism and science, and literature itself was to be directed away from the dangers of romanticism into a wiser and better poised criticism of conduct. For Lowell in the United States, the nation was to be reminded of the value for it of the great traditions of the old world and the need of linking both conduct and letters to the best that the past could offer.
One example may further suggest the different tasks of literary criticism in the two countries. It was unnecessary for Arnold to preach the value of medieval art. The Middle Ages were still very much present in England, and they had been summoned for various purposes by Scott, Carlyle, Tennyson, Ruskin, and Morris. In the United States, the Middle Ages are as remote as Persia or Egypt, and their significance for us discernible mainly through literature. Lowell took occasion later to defend his land against the implication in Ruskin’s remark that he could not live in a country that had neither castles nor cathedrals. But for “our past well-nigh desolate of æsthetic stimulus” his essays were supplying the past of Milton and Spenser, of Chaucer and Dante. The essays on the two medieval poets are among his best and have done their part in stimulating among thoughtful Americans a study and appreciation of the great centuries of human progress that preceded Columbus’s discovery.
The personal essay as a literary form seems to require maturity of mind, breadth of experience and reading, a responsive humour, and intensity and discrimination in taste. These qualities Lowell brought to his essay writing, whether the subject be drawn from nature or society or the world of books. Nowhere else, unless in his letters, is his personality more fully and charmingly revealed. The essays are full of good things. Allusion and quotation, epigram and description, whimsical epithet and graphic phrase crowd one another along the page, but all move in the train of Wit and Wisdom, our constant companions along the way.
§ 8. The New England Village.Edit
The glimpses of New England village life that one receives in the essays will appeal to some readers with a charm like that of personality. The village has often been celebrated in literature from Sweet Auburn to Spoon River, but full justice has scarcely been done to the individuality and distinction of the New England village of the mid-nineteenth century. Cambridge was one of the best representatives of the type, but there were many of them. Each was likely to have a college, or at least an academy, one orthodox and one Unitarian church, a few pleasant colonial houses, and many elms. Everyone who lived in the village had been born there, was proud of that accident, loved whatever natural beauty its trees and meadows afforded, and enjoyed a conscious satisfaction that it was not like other places. Among the residents there might be a great personage, or even a poet, and there were certain to be enough teachers, ministers, doctors, judges, and writers to make up a coterie where ideas circulated. During the long winters, in fact, every one did considerable reading and thinking.
It was for the cultivated men and women of these villages that Lowell wrote. They of all persons delighted in his essay On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners, with its urbane reproof of criticism of our lack of urbanity; for the village cherished some dignity of manners and would accept a predestined hell easier than condescension from anybody. The old villages have faded, but their June gardens and winter nights, their serious talk and eager reading, their self-reliance, mitigated by a sense of humour, live again in Lowell’s prose.
§ 9. Later Doctrines.Edit
Wit becomes less exuberant and sagacity is the leading spirit in Lowell’s later writing. Village society is disappearing, Cambridge is becoming a large city and Harvard a university, and Lowell is in Europe. Both as a poet and an essayist, he had appeared in part as a mediator or ambassador between the culture of the old world and the new, between the ideals of England and of the United States. In continuing this function as a foreign minister, he did not escape some censure that he was losing his faith in American democracy. To the reader today of his later addresses, that criticism must seem groundless. To be sure, his long residence abroad increased his liking for England and Englishmen; and the course of American politics was a rather dismal sequel to the Gettysburg Address and the Commemoration Ode. After vanquishing slavery, the nation found itself facing still more dangerous evils, and was somewhat loth to gird its loins for the struggle. Lowell had greeted the dawn that was brightening the New England of his youth, and had seen the noonday of heroic effort in the Civil War. Now, as his own days were lengthening, he could be excused if he saw only a dubious twilight in the America of the eighties.
As a matter of fact there is little doubt and no indifference in these later writings. The maturing years had widened Lowell’s perspective without vanquishing the idealism of his youth. He could look back on the course of the industrial revolution which had transformed his New England as well as older lands; and he could foresee the impending revolution that science had already begun in men’s standards and processes. The effect of these movements on his own thought are manifest in his poetry and essays mainly by implication and suggestion; but in the utterances of the last decade of his life he often looks upon both his own career and the American purpose directly from this more modern point of view.
In his address at Manchester, in 1884, on Democracy, he declared:
- By temperament and education of a conservative turn, I saw the last years of that quaint Arcadia which French travellers saw with delighted amazement a century ago, and have watched the change (to me a sad one) from an agricultural to a proletary population.
Nevertheless, though opposing the single tax and State Socialism, he could see with hopefulness the portents in the air and even believe that democracy was to be the fulcrum for a Socialism possessing “the secret of an orderly and benign construction.” He is willing to rebuild his house and believes that it can be builded better. The forward call is to be found in those speeches as well as in the ardent verse of youth, the call of “the radiant image of something better and nobler and more enduring than we are.”
This moral earnestness, this desire for perfection, this zeal to reform a changing but evil world, characterizes English literature of the years 1830–1880, and American literature of the same epoch. Literature in those years has preached many creeds and many reforms, and it has lost something in simplicity and certainty because it has been so much in earnest. So Lowell’s writing loses in certainty of art and unity of effect from its very responsiveness to the shifting opportunities for usefulness. But its contribution to civilization is not lessened, for it has done its best to teach a new people to guide their steps by the great men and great ideas of the past.
In the address on Democracy, Lowell held forth as arguments in favour of our national institutions two of their products, Lincoln and Emerson. We surely need not despair of our democracy so long as it can produce men of letters like Lowell and utilize them in the service of the common weal.