Horace Elisha Scudder.

James Russell Lowell : a biography online

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stayed a week or so. Lowell's official position not
only drew upon him a little official ceremony, but
it tinctured his reflections also, leading him to
observe and note matters which might have some
bearing upon international questions or might af-
fect in a way his own -special function as minister
to Spain.

" I have just come back from the Palace," he
writes to Mr. Norton from Athens, 31 May, 1878,
" where I was presented to the King, a fine young


Dane, good-looking and intelligent, and with whom
I cannot help feeling a great deal of sympathy-
just now. For never was man or kingdom in a
more difficult position. Greece was quite willing
to make a snatch at the chestnuts in the fire, even
at the risk of burning her own fingers, and they
would n't let her. I have seen decayed gentlemen
who lived very comfortably on the former glories
of their family, and drove about in an imaginary
coach of their grandfathers' — but with Greece, if
one can't say exactly noblesse oblige, it at least
makes her uneasy, and the laurels of Miltiades are
a wakeful bed. She has an immense claim, and
no resources to make it good — not even the docu-
ments that prove clear descent. It is curious, but
I have not seen a face of the type that statues and
medals have taught us to consider Greek. In a
regiment that marched by yesterday at least seven
eighths of the men, perhaps nine tenths, had the
nose of the dying gladiator, which I take it is Sla-
vonic. Yet continuity of language is certainly
something, and I am so stupid that I can't get over
my astonishment at seeing the street-signs, and
hearing the newspapers cried in Greek."

A sudden opportunity to go to Constantinople
shortened the stay in Athens, and Lowell had a
glimpse of the Orient. " My Eastern jDeep," he
wrote after his return to Madrid, "has been of
service in enabling me to see how Oriental Spain
still is in many ways. Without the comparison I
could n't be sure of it."

The return of the Lowells to Madrid was just


before the death of the young Queen Mercedes,
and both in his despatch to the government, dated
3 July, 1878, and in his private letters, Lowell
gave expression to more than merely official con-
cern over the sudden taking-off. His despatch, in
particular, is full of such details as would be
noticed by one genuinely alert, and not merely car-
rying out the performance of official etiquette.
Here, for example, are a couple of passages which
show the artist and the man of feeling much more
than the diplomat : —

"During the last few days of the Queen's ill-
ness, the aspect of the city had been strikingly
impressive. It was, I think, sensibly less noisy
than usual, as if it were all a chamber of death in
which the voice must be bated. Groups gathered
and talked in undertone. About the Palace there
was a silent crowd day and night, and there could
be no question that the sorrow was universal and
profound. On the last day I was at the Palace,
just when the poor girl was dying. As I crossed
the great interior courtyard, which was perfectly
empty, I was startled by a dull roar, not unlike
that of the vehicles in a great city. , It was rever-
berated and multiplied by the huge cavern of the
Palace court. At first I could see nothing that
accounted for it, but presently found that the
arched corridors all around the square were filled,
both on the ground floor and the first story, with
an anxious crowd, whose eager questions and an-
swers, though subdued to the utmost, produced the
strange thunder I had heard. It almost seemed


for a moment as if tlie Palace itself had become

" At the time of the royal marriage I told you
that the crowd in the streets was indifferent and
silent. My own impression was confirmed by that
of others. The match was certainly not popular,
nor did the bride call forth any marks of public
sympathy. The position of the young Queen was
difficult and delicate, demanding more than com-
mon tact and discretion to make it even tenable,
much more, influential. On the day of her death,
the difference was immense. Sorrow and sym-
pathy were in every heart and on every face. By
her good temper, good sense, and womanly virtue,
the girl of seventeen had not only endeared herself
to those immediately about her, but had become an
important factor in the destiny of Spain. I know
very well what divinity doth hedge royal person-
ages, and how truly legendary they become even
during their lives, but it is no exaggeration to say
that she had made herself an element of the public
welfare, and that her death is a national calamity.
Had she lived she would have given stability to
the throne of her husband, over whom her influ-
ence was wholly for good. She was not beautiful,
but the cordial simplicity of her manner, the grace
of her bearing, her fine eyes, and the youth and
purity of her face, gave her a charm that mere
beauty never attains." How the death of the
Queen affected Lowell's imagination may further
be seen in the sonnet which he then wrote, but
which was not published till he collected his final
volume of poetry.


The furlough which Lowell had taken greatly-
refreshed him, and he took up his life again with
vigor and gayety, applying himself not only to the
duties of the legation, but to the better acquisition
of the Spanish language, a fuller knowledge of the
literature, and the study of those larger matters
of Spanish polity and character with which it be-
came a minister to acquaint himself. " I have come
back," he wrote to his daughter, " a new man, and
have flung my hhie spectacles into the paler Med-
iterranean. I really begin to find life at last tol-
erable here, nay, to enjoy it after a fashion."

Here is an outline of his days, as he gives it in a
letter to a friend : " Get up at 8, from 9 sometimes
till 11 my Spanish professor, at 11 breakfast, at 12
to the legation, at 3 home again and a cup of
chocolate, then read the papers and write Spanish
till a quarter to 7, at 7 dinner, and at 8 drive in an
open carriage in the Prado till 10, to bed at 12 to
1. In cooler weather we drive in the afternoon.
I am very well, — cheerful and no gout."

He set to work systematically on Spanish with a
cultivated Spaniard who could speak no English,
and with whom he read and talked every day,
besides turning French and English literature into
Spanish. " I am working now at Spanish," he
writes, 2 August, 1878, "as I used to work at Old
French — that is, all the time and with all my
might. I mean to know it better than they do
themselves — which is n't saying much. Consider-
ing how hard it has always been for me to S2)ea1c a
language — even one I knew pretty well — I am


making good progress, for I did not begin till my
return six weeks ago. Before that I had n't the
spirit for it." Of his tutor, Don Herminigildo
Gines de los Rios, he adds : *' He is a fine young
fellow who lost a professor's chair for his liberal
principles, and is now professor in the Free Uni-
versity they are trying to found here. I like him
very much."

Three months later he wrote : " I am beginning
to talk Spanish pretty well, but my previous know-
ledge of the language is a great hindrance. This
may seem a paradox, but it is n't. What I mean
is that I know too much to catch it by ear. I
understand all that is said to me, and accordingly
cannot (without a conscious effort) pay attention
to the forms of speech. They go in at one ear
and out at the other. But I can write it now with
considerable ease and correctness. I am to be
admitted to the Academy this month, I believe."

Lowell had been a year now at his post, and
could venture to write of the internal politics of
Spain with greater assurance because he had a more
exact knowledge. His despatch to the government,
No. 108, dated 26 August, 1878,^ is a studied ana-
lysis of the character of the parties and leaders that
composed the political situation. He begins by
explaining his own reticence heretofore. " I have
always been chary," he writes, " of despatches con-
cerning the domestic politics of Spain, because my
experience has taught me that political prophets
who make even an occasional hit, and that in their

^ See, for the larger paxt, Impressions of Spain, pp. 23-42.


own country, where they may be presumed to know
the character of the people, and the motives likely
to influence them, are as rare as great discoverers
in science. Such a conjunction of habitual obser-
vation with the faculty of instantaneous logic that
suddenly precipitates the long accumulation of ex-
perience in crystals whose angles may be measured
and their classification settled, can hardly be ex-
pected of an observer in a foreign country. Its
history is no longer an altogether safe guide, for
with the modern facility of intercommunication,
influences from without continually grow more and
more directly operative, and yet wherever, as in
Spain, the people is almost wholly dumb, there are
few means of judging how great the infiltration of
new ideas may have been. Where there is no well-
defined national consciousness with recognized or-
gans of expression, there can be no public opinion,
and therefore no way of divining what its attitude
is likely to be under any given circumstances."

In forming his judgment Lowell seems to have
used the broad means which great ambassadors
have always had recourse to. That is, he did not
merely sift the opinions he received from Span-
iards, or put himself under the tutelage of any one
man, but he attended the debates of the Cortes,
he read the more intelligent journals, he talked
with leaders of Spanish opinion, and he availed
himself of converse with those foreigners travel-
ling in Spain, whose impressions could be valued,
and behind all lay an old acquaintance with Spanish
history and literature, constantly added to, and an


apprehension of Spanish character, reenforced by-
personal intercourse. In a word, he went about
the business of an American minister to Spain
with the same painstaking care and the same
breadth of view which, as a scholar, he would em-
ploy on the interpretation of a great piece of litera-
ture. He did not neglect the commercial side of
his business, but he properly made it subordinate,
holding that he was not merely representing the
country as an eminent consul, but was assisting at
the high court of international comity. In the
analysis w hich he attempts, he testifies to the kind
of training which he brings to the task, by fixing
his attention mainly on the leaders of parties, and
studying their characters and aims. Especially is
this true of his acute examination of the qualities
of Senor Canovas del Castillo, whom he regards as
not only the ablest politician, but capable also of
being Spain's most far-seeing statesman, and he
makes his observation more effective by the com-
parison which he draws between him and Senor

Mr. Adee, who, when Lowell went to Spain, was
charge d'affaires, in his intelligent and apprecia-
tive Introduction to " Impressions of Spain," re-
marks that " necessarily lacking the knowledge of
the true springs of national impulse deep down
in the heart of the masses, he dealt with the sur-
face indications, and analyzed the character and
motives of the men on top, whose peculiarities
most caught his attention." It is quite as much
to the point that Lowell did not assume a pro-


found knowledge of the Spanish people, and that
he wrote of the phenomena most on the field of his
own activity as a minister resident. He was, more-
over, too sound a scholar and too shrewd a man
to indulge in philosophizing on a nation from the
data furnished even by long study and some per-
sonal experience. Nevertheless, whatever he lets
fall about Spain, as well as his more studied expres-
sion, indicates that kind of insight which was one
of Lowell's gifts of nature, and stood him in good
stead as a critic of books, of men, and of nations.

It may militate against a respect for Lowell's
judgment in such matters, that after a score of
years the vaticinations which he ventured to ex-
press in this despatch have not yet found a real-
ization ; yet twenty years is a short period in a
nation's life, and these opinions carry with them
so much political faith, and are delivered with so
much moderation, that they form interesting read-
ing to-day, and may well be repeated here.

" My own conclusion," he writes, " is that sooner
or later (perhaps sooner than later) the final solu-
tion (of existing political problems) will be a con-
servative republic like that of France. Should the
experiment there go on prosperously a few years
longer, should the French Senate become sincerely
republican at the coming elections, the effect here
could not fail to be very great, perhaps decisive.
In one respect, the Spanish people are better pre-
pared for a Republic than might at first be sup-
posed. I mean that republican habits in their
intercourse with each other are and have long been


universal. Every Spaniard is a caballero, and
every Spaniard can rise from the ranks to position
and power. This also is in part from the Mahom-
etan occupation of Spain. Del rey ninguno ahajo
is an ancient Spanish proverb implying the equality
of all below the King. Manners, as in France,
are democratic, and the ancient nobility here as
a class are even more shadowy than the dwellers
in the Faubourg Saint Germain.

" In attacking Seiior Canovas the opposition
papers dwell upon the censorship of the press,
upon the reestablishment of monachism under other
names, and upon the onerous restrictions under
which the free expression of thought is impossible.
The ministerial organs reply to the first charge
that more journals were undergoing suspension at
one time during the liberal administration of Seuor
Sagasta than now, and this is true. The fact is
that no party, and no party leader, in Spain, is
capable of being penetrated with the truth, per-
haps the greatest discovery of modern times, that
freedom is good above all because it is safe. Seiior
Cdnovas is doing only what any other Spaniard
would do in his place, that is, endeavoring to sup-
press opinions which he believes to be mischievous.
But of the impolitic extreme to which the principle
is carried under his administration, though, I sus-
pect, without his previous consent, the following
fact may serve as an example. Senor Manuel
Merelo, professor in the Instituto del Cardenal
Cisneros, published in 1869 a compendium of
Spanish history for the use of schools. In speak-


ing of the Revolution of 1868, he wrote, ' It is said
that the light conduct (las leviandades) of Queen
Isabel II. was one of the causes of this catastrophe.*
After an interval of nine years, he has been expelled
from his chair and his book suppressed.

" If any change should take place, which I con-
fess I do not expect, but which, in a country of
personal government and 'pronunciamentos^ is pos-
sible to-morrow, I think the new administration
will find that with the best intentions in the world
a country which has been misgoverned for three
centuries is not to be reformed in a day. At the
same time, I believe Spain to be making rapid ad-
vances toward the conviction that a reform is
imperative, and can only be accomplished by the
good-will and, above all, the good sense of the
entire nation. There are strong prejudices and
rooted traditions to be overcome, but with time
and patience I believe that Spain will accomplish
the establishment of free institutions under what-
ever form of government."

In the course of Lowell's incumbency. General
Grant visited Spain on his journey round the
world, and the embassy, of course, was busy in its
attention to the great American. Lowell's de-
spatch to his government is a model of orderly, dig-
nified statement of the incidents attending Grant's
visit, without the least of that free, personal note
which characterizes so many of Lowell's despatches.
His letters home on the same event naturally are
more gossipy, but they express well his admiration
of Grant's qualities.


In the spring of 1879 Lowell seems to have
been in some uncertainty about his continued stay.
There had been some talk of transferring him to
Berlin, which he did not desire, but the President
emphatically declared his wish that Lowell should
remain at Madrid. He longed to be at home, yet
since he had become adjusted to the place, he
wished to secure the advantage and increase his
acquaintance with Spain and the character of the
Spanish. He was alert and ready now to make
more confident notes regarding the peoj^le among
whom he was living. In speaking of a friend who
had been most kind to them, and who had a quar-
tering of English race in her, he says : —

" She speaks both languages equally well, but
is, I think, cleverer in Spanish, and gives it a
softness of intonation which is almost unexampled
here where the voices of the women are apt to
be harsh and clattering like those of the Irish.
Does n't Madame Daulnay say something of the
kind ? Nothing strikes me more than the rarity
of agreeable voices, and (what I never noticed in
any other country) one hears in the street the
same tones as in the salon. I am for once in-
clined to admit an influence of climate. To jump
from the physical to the moral, the Spaniards are
the most provincial people conceivable, as much so
as we were forty years ago. It is comfortable, for
they think they have the best of everything — even
of governments, for aught I know. But the every-
thing must be Spanish. Even their actors they
speak of in a way that would be extravagant even


of Rachel, and I never saw worse. Perhaps the
most oriental thing in this semi-oriental people is
the hyperbole of praise which the critics allow
themselves. It is quite beyond belief. The press,
by the way, at least that of Madrid, is remarkably
decorous, and never hints at private scandal. It
may be because the duel is still a judicial ceremony
— though hardly, for there is never any harm
done. It may be that every one is conscious of a
skylight in his own roof, through which a stone
might come. On the whole, I think it is a relic
of the old Spanish hidalguia^ of which in certain
ways I think there is a good deal left. But I
don't pretend to know the Spaniards yet — if ever
I shall. When a man at sixty does n't yet know
himself, he is apt to get startled and carried off by
the readiness with which he hears shallow men
pronounce judgment on a whole people. The only
way to do this, I suppose, would be to read all
history, to compare the action of different races
or nations under similar circumstances (if circum-
stances ever are similar), and then, eliminating all
points of likeness common to human nature, to
analyze what was left, if anything should be left."
Since it was determined that he should continue
to be minister to Spain, Lowell proposed to use
his yearly furlough by a hurried visit home in the
summer of 1879, leaving Mrs. Lowell at Tours.
" I wish Fanny could spend the summer with you
in Maiche," he writes to Mr. John W. Field who,
with his wife, had been their companions for a
while in Spain ; " but we both think the other plan


wiser, though not so agreeable. She will learn
more French in Tours, and I think we can find a
good family for her to go into through the French
pasteur or the British chaplain, for there are both
in the town. I hope to be in Paris by the 25th,
and to find you still here. Delay for a day or two,
I beseech you, for my sake. I can't stay long, for
I have to give a week to my friends in England
on my way through. I can hardly contain myself
at the thought of going home. It excites me more
than I could have conceived — at my time of life !
Were I as young as you it would n't be sur-

This was written 15 June, 1879. On the 20th
he wrote a line to the same friend to say that they
could not start that day, as they had intended, and
he could not say when they should, since Mrs.
Lowell was not well enough to travel. " Nothing
serious," he adds, but as the days passed his tone
changed. Serious indeed her illness proved to be.
On the 9th of July he wrote : " Twice yesterday
the doctors thought all was over. No motion of
the heart could be detected — the hands and feet
and nose became cold — and the dear face had all
the look of death — the eyes altogether leaden and
fixed. She had been without speech for twelve
hours. What speech she had had for several days
had been mere delirium. Suddenly at about six
in the afternoon she revived as by a miracle, said
she wished to be changed to another bed, was will-
injr to take stimulants in order to strenf]:then her
for it, and insisted that she could move herself


from one bed to the other. This, of course, was
out of the question. After being changed she was
perfectly tranquil, though excessively weak. Dur-
ing the operation she spoke French to the Soeur
who is nursing her, English to me, and Spanish to
her maid, all coherently. Both doctors declared
they had never seen such a case, or heard of it,
and that according to all experience she ought to
have died ten times over and days before. I have
had two, one to relay the other, so that one could
be at her bedside all the time. One has slept in
the house — when he could sleep. The question
now is of building up strength. It has been typhus
of the most malignant kind. That has run its
course. All danger is not yet over, but hope has
good grounds. The chances are now in her favor,
especially as she wishes to live. I will tell you
more hereafter. God be praised ! "

But the recovery was very slow, with many re-
lapses and with periods of mental disorder. The
original purpose was held to as long as it seemed
possible, but at last, as summer passed into autumn
and autumn into winter, it was plain that all plans
of travel must be abandoned. Mr. Field made them
a flying visit, then both Mr. and Mrs. Field came
to Madrid to be with them and §ive them help
and comfort. Their friends Senor and Senora de
Riano were most attentive, and Mr. D wight Reed,
Lowell's secretary, had been almost indispensable.
" I should have gone quite desperate without him,"
Lowell writes ; and again, 18 October : " Reed has
been a great help. He comes every day to dinner


and distracts me a little with rumors from the
outer world. He is a thoroughly kind-hearted and
affectionate fellow. But I can't tell you what the
loneliness of my night has sometimes been, when I
have heard the clock strike every hour and every
quarter till daylight came again to bring the cer-
tainty that she was no better."

It was not till the end of December that Lowell
could speak and write of his wife with anything
like relief from the burden of anxiety. During
this time he took long walks with his friend Mr.
Field, and attended to his necessary work at the
legation. His spirits began to rise, but the strain
he had been undergoing had been intense. Later,
when the critical condition was over, though re-
lapses still occurred, he could rehearse something
of his experience : " I have had a very long and
very terrible trial, which the strange country and
alien tongue have made worse, and these ups
and downs almost desperate. And yet without the
intervals of reason and hopeful convalescence from
time to time, I know not how I could have endured
it. Indeed I cannot now comprehend how I pulled
through. Friendship has helped us, it is true.
During the first weeks Doiia Emilia de Riaiio
(Gayangos's dfiughter) came every night to watch
with Fanny, and her husband, Don Juan, came to
see me every day. And my secretary, a most true-
hearted, affectionate fellow, sat up with me night
after night when I could not sleep, and kept me
from eating into mj^self all the time. Otherwise I
was without even an acquaintance, for everybody


leaves Madrid during the summer. Lately the
dear Fields have been a great prop.

" If I could only get her away ! But that is out
of the question at present. And all the while I
have had to write cool little bulletins to Mabel,
turning the fair side outward when my heart was

Online LibraryHorace Elisha ScudderJames Russell Lowell : a biography → online text (page 16 of 33)