[PDF Notes] Get complete information on James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)

His work:

Lowell is essentially American as poet and cosmopolitan as a prose writer. For this reason his verse is less appreciated across the water than is the prose and in popularity he is certainly less appealing than Longfellow, Poe, Whitman or even Holmes. There is, of course, a respectable body of his verse not concerned with patriotic motives and local inspirations; but this, with one or two rare exceptions, is the least distinguished point on his inimitable Biglowpapers.

For the rest, his most considerable productions in verse are, it will be seen, American in their inspiration-to wit, the wise and witty Fable for Critics-on American poets and poetry; the stirring Commemoration Ode and other memorial poems, especially the ode Under the Old Elm-celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of Washington’s command of the Revolutionary army.

A passionate love of country animates Lowell’s best verse. When the matters with which he deals are of more universal interest-the stock-pot of poetic art-he is less fresh, less original, but his poetry is always virile and intelligent and his later work especially finished and impressive in its Art.

Turning form his verse to his prose, his criticism may first be noticed. As a versatile scholar with a gift of happy, lucid exposition and a mingling of shrewd humor and artistic feeling, he has no peer in American letters. In his purely literary criticism he is more catholic, more sane, than poi. It is when we place his critical work beside the great English critics that Lowell’s shortcomings are most clearly seen.

As pieces of writing, as expressions of the author’s interesting personality, they rarely fail to give us pleasure; but there is a lack of perspective about some, as, for instance, the Milton and critical irrelevancies about many, as, for instance, the Wordsworth, which detract from their value.

As an illustration of What I mean, take this passage from the Essay on Wordsworth, which contains so much good and admirable matter.

“The play” (e.g., The Borderers) “has fine passages but is as unreal as Jane Eyre.” What is Jane Eyre doing here? How is it possible to elucidate the qualities The Borders by a slighting reference to Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel?

Jane Eyre may be unreal in parts where the author strays out of her own experiences of life; but the unreality of these passages is quite different from the unreality of The Borders Charlotte Bronte’s unreality has in it a fundamental ignorance of the particular phase of life she is describing with such eager earnestness.

Wordsworth’s unreality lies in his deliberate avoidance of concrete actuality of any kind. Further, to refer to Jane Eyre a unreal is bad criticism. Taken as a whole, the book is alive and memorable by virtue of this very quality. The touches of unreality are overwhelmed by the vital reality of the book as a whole.

Lowell’s dictum, then, is challengeable, first because its allusion to Jane Eyre is fundamentally wrong. In the second place, because, even had the passage been so framed as to apply in a limited way to Jane Eyre, the criticism is inapposite, for the unreality of the one is a different thing from the unreality of the other. So far as Jane Eyre is unreal, it is unreal because of its over-accentuation; The Borderers because of its under-accentuation.

Neither is Lowell quite a fair critic of the Transcendental movement; he sees clearly and well enough the weaknesses and absurdities of that movement, but he badly undervalues one of its most original spokesmen-Thoreau. Lowell is, on the whole, a good taste of books, with a nice appreciation of what is fine in literature, but he is neither profound, original, nor thorough in his critical treatment. Yet of his critical essays are certainly interesting and suggestive; they exhibit a strong and agreeable personality and display a versatile culture; structurally awkward and lop-sided, irritating in their hasty generalizations they none the less stimulate because of the happy flashes of wisdom with which they abound. And he is really the most happy, the most delightful, when he is least literary and is not concerned with critical literary problems.

Looking finally at his entire output, both in prose and verse, it seems to me that his powers are fairly evenly distributed. An admirable letter-writer, a fresh and vigorous publicist, a suggestive literary critic, a cultured and virile poet; in short, perhaps the best all-round man in American letters.

Abraham Lincoln :

Nature, they say, doth dote

And cannot make a man

Save on some worn-out plan,

Repeating us by rote:

From him her Old World moulds aside she threw,

And choosing sweet clay from the breast

Of the unexhausted West,

With stuff untainted shaped a hero new,

Wise, steadfast in the strength of God and true.

How beautiful to see

Once more a shepherd of mankind indeed,

Who loved his charge, but never loved to lead;

One whose meek flock the people joked to be,

Not lured by any cheat of birth,

But by his clear-grained human worth,

And brave old wisdom of sincerity!

They knew that outward grace is dust;

They could not choose but trust

In that sure-footed mind’s unfaltering skill,

And supple tempered will

That bent like perfect steel to spring again and thrust,

His was no lonely mountain-peak of mind,

Thrusting to thin air o’er our cloudy bars,

A sea-mark now, now lost in vapors blind,

Broad prairie rather, genial, level-lined,

Fruitful and friendly for all humankind,

Yet also nigh to heaven and loved of loftiest stars.

Nothing of Europe here,

Or then, of Europe fronting moonward still,

Ere any names of Serf and Peer

Could Nature’s equal scheme deface?

Here was a type of the true elder race,

And one of Plutarch’s men talked with us face to face.

I praise him not; it was too late;

And some in native weakness there must be

In him who condescends to victory

Such as the present gives and cannot wait.

Safe in himself as in a fate,

So always firmly he;

He knew to bide his time,

And can his fame abide,

Still patient in his simple faith sublime,

Till the wise years decide.

Great captains, with their drums and guns,

Disturb our judgement for the hour,

But at last silence comes;

These all are gone and standing like tower,

Our children shall behold his fame,

The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man,

Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,

New birth of our new soil, the first American,

(from the commemoration Ode.)

A Good Word for winter:

If one would know what snow is, I should advise him not to hunt up what the poets have said about it, but to look at the sweet miracle itself.

The precluding of winter is as beautiful as those of spring. In a grey December day, when, as the farmers say, it is too cold to snow, his numbed fingers will let fall doubtfully a few star-shaped flakes, the snowdrops and anemones that harbinger his more assured reign. Now and now only, may be seen, heaped on the horizon’s eastern edge, those “blue clouds” from forth which Shakespeare says that Mars “doth pluck the masoned turret.”

Sometimes also, when the sun is low, you will see single cloud trailing a flurry of snow along the southern hills in a wavering fringe of purple. And when at last the real snowstorm comes, it leaves the earth with a virginal look on it that no other of the seasons can rival, compared with which, indeed, they seem soiled and vulgar.

And what is there in nature so beautiful as the next morning after such confusion of the element? Night has no silence like this of busy day. All the batteries of noise are spiked. We see the movement of life as deaf man sees it, a mere wrath of the clamorous existence that inflicts on our ears when he ground is bare. The earth is clothed in innocence as a garment. Every wound of the landscape healed; whatever was stiff has been sweetly rounded as the breasts of Aphrodite; what was unsightly has been covered gently with a soft splendour, as if, Cowley would have said, Nature had cleverly left fall her handkerchief to hide it. If he virgin (Notre Dame de la Neige) were to come back, here is an earth that would not bruise her foot nor stain it. It is

“The fanned snow

That’s bolted by the northern blasts twice o’er,”-

“Soffiata e stretta dai venti schiavi

(Winnowed and packed by the Sclavonian winds),” –

Packed so hard sometimes on hill-slopes that it will bear your weight. What grace is in all the curves, as if every one of them had been swept by that inspired thumb of Phidias journeyman…

The snow that falls damp comes commonly in larger flakes from windless skies and is the pretties of all to watch from under cover. This is the kind Homer had in mind; and Dante, who had never read him, compares the dilatate falde, the flaring flakes, of his fiery rain, to those of snow among the mountains without wind.

This sort of snowfall has no fight in it and does not challenge you to a wrestle like that which drives well from the northward, with all moisture thoroughly winnowed out of it by the frosty wind. Burns, who was more out of doors than most poets and whose bare-foot Muse got the colour in her cheeks by vigorous exercise in all weathers, was thinking of this drier deluge when he speaks of the “whirling drift” and tells how-


Shook off the pouthery snaw.”

But the damper and more deliberate falls have a choice knack at draping the trees; and about eaves of stone walls-wherever, indeed, the evaporation is rapid and it finds a chance to cling-it will build itself out in curves of wonderful beauty.

I have seen one of these dumb waves, thus caught in the act of breaking, curl four feet beyond the edge of my roof and hang there for days, as if Nature were too well pleased with her work to let it crtumble from its exquisite pause.

After such a storm, if you are lucky enough to have even a sluggish ditch for a neighbour, be sure to pay it a visit. You will find its banks corniced with what seems to be precipitated light and the dark current down motion as it is, you never saw water that seemed alive before. It has brightness like that of the eyes of some smaller animals, which gives assurance of life, but of a life foreign and unintelligible.

Other Non-British Literatures:

Meanwhile, during the time that Whitman was sounding a new note in literature; a number of lesser writers were continuing the elder tradition of verse. Among these may be mentioned NATHANIEL PARKER WILLIS (1806-1867) a facile writer whose sentimental verse, now almost forgotten, was nonce as popular as the verse of Tom Moore; CHARLES FENNO HOFFMAN (1806-1884), less popular and singularly unequal, but a sweet singer at his best; and Dr. THOMAS WILLIAM PARSON of Boston (1819-1892), who belongs to the considerable school of scholarly verse-writers; he was strongly affected
by the Dante Revival and no poem that he wrote is happier in its dignity and grace than the Line on a Bust of Dante.

Two figures of greater literary importance are BAYARD TAYLOR (1825-1878) and SIDNEY LANIER (1842-1881). Taylor was illustrious traveller, who lives abroad for two years, seeing a good deal of the democratic life both of Germany and Italy. His first success was made in travel-letters and he always excelled in these, but he was an effective ballad-writer; h is poem of the Orient (1834) being among his best. His life was one of tragic and varied interest; he essayed much, but perhaps he will best be remembered for his fine translation of Goethe’s Faust (unfinished) and his delightful Travel Chat.

Lanier-musician, solder, poet and critic-fought for the South in the American War. And emerged form his harrowing experiences broken in health. His skill as a musician is exhibited in his verse, notably The Marshes of Glynn, Sunrise and Corn. He died of consumption in North Carolina, after a vain search for climes to restore his health. A less considerable figure in American letters than Taylor, he is, if not a more accomplished, a more original poet.

Among the ballads evoked by the Civil War, there is none better than the familiar Maryland, My Maryland, by JAMES RIDER RANDALL.

It is not practicable to discuss here the later development of American verse. All that need be said is that democratic ideals have entered more and more intimately into the poetry of the age and although no poets of commanding power haversian, Yet such names as THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH (1836- 1896) and RICHARD WATSON GILDER (1844-1909) are sufficient indication of the sound technical accomplishment and imaginative fervour to be found among a large number of latter-day poets.

A Canadian verse-writer of originality and power appears in WILLIAM BLISS CARMAN (1861). His first work, Low Tide on Grand Pre, was published in 1893 and at once made its mark. He is especially happy as a song-writer, Behind the Arras, Ballads of Lost Haven.

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