James Russell Lowell.

The Vision of Sir Launfal And Other Poems by James Russell Lowell; With a Biographical Sketch and Notes, a Portrait and Other Illustrations online

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[Illustration: James Russell Lowell.]

The Riverside Literature Series







Boston: 4 Park Street; New York: 11 East Seventeenth Street
Chicago: 378-388 Wabash Avenue
The Riverside Press, Cambridge

Copyright, 1848, 1857, 1866, 1868, 1869, 1876, and 1885,

Copyright, 1887, 1894, and 1896,
































JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL(from a crayon by William
Page in 1842, owned by Mrs. Charles F. Briggs,
Brooklyn, N. Y.) _Frontispiece_








About half a mile from the Craigie House in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
on the road leading to the old town of Watertown, is Elmwood, a
spacious square house set amongst lilac and syringa bushes, and
overtopped by elms. Pleasant fields are on either side, and from the
windows one may look out on the Charles River winding its way among
the marshes. The house itself is one of a group which before the war
for independence belonged to Boston merchants and officers of the
crown who refused to take the side of the revolutionary party. Tory
Row was the name given to the broad winding road on which the houses
stood. Great farms and gardens were attached to them, and some sign of
their roomy ease still remains. The estates fell into the hands of
various persons after the war, and in process of time Longfellow came
to occupy Craigie House. Elmwood at that time was the property of the
Reverend Charles Lowell, minister of the West Church in Boston, and
when Longfellow thus became his neighbor, James Russell Lowell was a
junior in Harvard College. He was born at Elmwood, February 22, 1819.
Any one who will read _An Indian Summer Reverie_ will discover how
affectionately Lowell dwelt on the scenes of nature and life amidst
which he grew up. Indeed, it would be a pleasant task to draw from the
full storehouse of his poetry the golden phrases with which he
characterizes the trees, meadows, brooks, flowers, birds, and human
companions that were so near to him in his youth and so vivid in his
recollection. In his prose works also a lively paper, _Cambridge
Thirty Years Ago_, contains many reminiscences of his early life.

To know any one well it is needful to inquire into his ancestry, and
two or three hints may be given of the currents that met in this poet.
On his father's side he came from a succession of New England men who
for the previous three generations had been in professional life. The
Lowells traced their descent from Percival Lowell, - a name which
survives in the family, - of Bristol, England, who settled in Newbury,
Massachusetts, in 1639. The great-grandfather was a minister in
Newburyport, one of those, as Dr. Hale says, "who preached sermons
when young men went out to fight the French, and preached sermons
again in memory of their death when they had been slain in battle."
The grandfather was John Lowell, a member of the Constitutional
Convention of Massachusetts in 1780. It was he who introduced into the
Bill of Rights a phrase from the Bill of Rights of Virginia, "All men
are created free and equal," with the purpose which it effected of
setting free every man then held as a slave in Massachusetts. A son of
John Lowell and brother of the Rev. Charles Lowell was Francis Cabot
Lowell, who gave a great impetus to New England manufactures, and from
whom the city of Lowell took its name. Another son, and thus also an
uncle of the poet, was John Lowell, Jr., whose wise and far-sighted
provision gave to Boston that powerful centre of intellectual
influence, the Lowell Institute. Of the Rev. Charles Lowell, his son
said, in a letter written in 1844, "He is Doctor Primrose in the
comparative degree, the very simplest and charmingest of
sexagenarians, and not without a great deal of the truest
magnanimity." It was characteristic of Lowell thus to go to _The Vicar
of Wakefield_ for a portrait of his father. Dr. Lowell lived till
1861, when his son was forty-two.

[Illustration: Elmwood, Mr. Lowell's home in Cambridge.]

Mrs. Harriet Spence Lowell, the poet's mother, was of Scotch origin, a
native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She is described as having "a
great memory, an extraordinary aptitude for language, and a passionate
fondness for ancient songs and ballads." It pleased her to fancy
herself descended from the hero of one of the most famous ballads, Sir
Patrick Spens, and at any rate she made a genuine link in the Poetic
Succession. In a letter to his mother, written in 1837, Lowell says:
"I am engaged in several poetical effusions, one of which I have
dedicated to you, who have always been the patron and encourager of my
youthful muse." The Russell in his name seems to intimate a strain of
Jewish ancestry; at any rate Lowell took pride in the name on this
account, for he was not slow to recognize the intellectual power of
the Hebrew race. He was the youngest of a family of five, two
daughters and three sons. An older brother who outlived him a short
time, was the Rev. Robert Traill Spence Lowell, who wrote besides a
novel, _The New Priest in Conception Bay_, which contains a delightful
study of a Yankee, some poems, and a story of school-boy life.

Not long before his death, Lowell wrote to an English friend a
description of Elmwood, and as he was very fond of the house in which
he lived and died, it is agreeable to read words which strove to set
it before the eyes of one who had never seen it. "'Tis a pleasant old
house, just about twice as old as I am, four miles from Boston, in
what was once the country and is now a populous suburb. But it still
has some ten acres of open about it, and some fine old trees. When the
worst comes to the worst (if I live so long) I shall still have four
and a half acres left with the house, the rest belonging to my
brothers and sisters or their heirs. It is a square house, with four
rooms on a floor, like some houses of the Georgian era I have seen in
English provincial towns, only they are of brick, and this is of wood.
But it is solid with its heavy oaken beams, the spaces between which
in the four outer walls are filled in with brick, though you mustn't
fancy a brick-and-timber house, for outwardly it is sheathed with
wood. Inside there is much wainscot (of deal) painted white in the
fashion of the time when it was built. It is very sunny, the sun
rising so as to shine (at an acute angle to be sure) through the
northern windows, and going round the other three sides in the course
of the day. There is a pretty staircase with the quaint old twisted
banisters, - which they call balusters now; but mine are banisters. My
library occupies two rooms opening into each other by arches at the
sides of the ample chimneys. The trees I look out on are the earliest
things I remember. There you have me in my new-old quarters. But you
must not fancy a large house - rooms sixteen feet square, and on the
ground floor, nine high. It was large, as things went here, when it
was built, and has a certain air of amplitude about it as from some
inward sense of dignity." In an earlier letter he wrote: "Here I am in
my garret. I slept here when I was a little curly-headed boy, and used
to see visions between me and the ceiling, and dream the so often
recurring dream of having the earth put into my hand like an orange.
In it I used to be shut up without a lamp, - my mother saying that none
of her children should be afraid of the dark, - to hide my head under
the pillow, and then not be able to shut out the shapeless monsters
that thronged around me, minted in my brain.... In winter my view is a
wide one, taking in a part of Boston. I can see one long curve of the
Charles and the wide fields between me and Cambridge, and the flat
marshes beyond the river, smooth and silent with glittering snow. As
the spring advances and one after another of our trees puts forth, the
landscape is cut off from me piece by piece, till, by the end of May,
I am closeted in a cool and rustling privacy of leaves." In two of his
papers especially, _My Garden Acquaintance_ and _A Good Word for
Winter_, has Lowell given glimpses of the out-door life in the midst
of which he grew up.



His acquaintance with books and his schooling began early. He learned
his letters at a dame school. Mr. William Wells, an Englishman, opened
a classical school in one of the spacious Tory Row houses near
Elmwood, and, bringing with him English public school thoroughness and
severity, gave the boy a drilling in Latin, which he must have made
almost a native speech to judge by the ease with which he handled it
afterward in mock heroics. Of course he went to Harvard College. He
lived at his father's house, more than a mile away from the college
yard; but this could have been no great privation to him, for he had
the freedom of his friends' rooms, and he loved the open air. The Rev.
Edward Everett Hale has given a sketch of their common life in
college. "He was a little older than I," he says, "and was one class
in advance of me. My older brother, with whom I lived in college, and
he were most intimate friends. He had no room within the college
walls, and was a great deal with us. The fashion of Cambridge was then
literary. Now the fashion of Cambridge runs to social problems, but
then we were interested in literature. We read Byron and Shelley and
Keats, and we began to read Tennyson and Browning. I first heard of
Tennyson from Lowell, who had borrowed from Mr. Emerson the little
first volume of Tennyson. We actually passed about Tennyson's poems in
manuscript. Carlyle's essays were being printed at the time, and his
_French Revolution_. In such a community - not two hundred and fifty
students all told, - literary effort was, as I say, the fashion, and
literary men, among whom Lowell was recognized from the very first,
were special favorites. Indeed, there was that in him which made him a
favorite everywhere."

Lowell was but fifteen years old when he entered college in the class
which graduated in 1838. He was a reader, as so many of his fellows
were, and the letters which he wrote shortly after leaving college
show how intent he had been on making acquaintance with the best
things in literature. He began also to scribble verse, and he wrote
both poems and essays for college magazines. His class chose him
their poet for Class Day, and he wrote his poem; but he was careless
about conforming to college regulations respecting attendance at
morning prayers; and for this was suspended from college the last term
of his last year, and not allowed to come back to read his poem. "I
have heard in later years," says Dr. Hale, "what I did not know then,
that he rode down from Concord in a canvas-covered wagon, and peeped
out through the chinks of the wagon to see the dancing around the
tree. I fancy he received one or two visits from his friends in the
wagon; but in those times it would have been treason to speak of
this." He was sent to Concord for his rustication, and so passed a few
weeks of his youth amongst scenes dear to every lover of American



After his graduation he set about the study of law, and for a short
time even was a clerk in a counting-room; but his bent was strongly
toward literature. There was at that time no magazine of commanding
importance in America, and young men were given to starting magazines
with enthusiasm and very little other capital. Such a one was the
_Boston Miscellany_, launched by Nathan Hale, Lowell's college friend,
and for this Lowell wrote gaily. It lived a year, and shortly after
Lowell himself, with Robert Carter, essayed _The Pioneer_ in 1843. It
lived just three months; but in that time printed contributions by
Lowell, Hawthorne, Whittier, Story, Poe, and Dr. Parsons, - a group
which it would be hard to match in any of the little magazines that
hop across the world's path to-day. Lowell had already collected, in
1841, the poems which he had written and sometimes contributed to
periodicals into a volume entitled _A Year's Life_; but he retained
very little of the contents in later editions of his poems. The book
has a special interest, however, from its dedication in veiled phrase
to Maria White. He became engaged to this lady in the fall of 1840,
and the next twelve years of his life were profoundly affected by her
influence. Herself a poet of delicate power, she brought into his life
an intelligent sympathy with his work; it was, however, her strong
moral enthusiasm, her lofty conception of purity and justice, which
kindled his spirit and gave force and direction to a character which
was ready to respond, and yet might otherwise have delayed active
expression. They were not married until 1844; but they were not far
apart in their homes, and during these years Lowell was making those
early ventures in literature, and first raids upon political and moral
evil, which foretold the direction of his later work, and gave some
hint of its abundance.

About the time of his marriage, he published two books which, by their
character, show pretty well the divided interest of his life. His bent
from the beginning was more decidedly literary than that of any
contemporary American poet. That is to say, the history and art of
literature divided his interest with the production of literature, and
he carried the unusual gift of a rare critical power, joined to hearty
spontaneous creation. It may indeed be guessed that the keenness of
judgment and incisiveness of wit which characterize his examination of
literature sometimes interfered with his poetic power, and made him
liable to question his art when he would rather have expressed it
unchecked. One of the two books was a volume of poems; the other was a
prose work, _Conversations on Some of the Old Poets_. He did not keep
this book alive; but it is interesting as marking the enthusiasm of a
young scholar treading a way then almost wholly neglected in America,
and intimating a line of thought and study in which he afterward made
most noteworthy venture. Another series of poems followed in 1848, and
in the same year _The Vision of Sir Launfal_. Perhaps it was in
reaction from the marked sentiment of his poetry that he issued now a
_jeu d'esprit, A Fable for Critics_, in which he hit off, with a rough
and ready wit, the characteristics of the writers of the day, not
forgetting himself in these lines:

There is Lowell, who's striving Parnassus to climb
With a whole bale of _isms_ tied together with rhyme;
He might get on alone, spite of brambles and boulders,
But he can't with that bundle he has on his shoulders;
The top of the hill he will ne'er come nigh reaching
Till he learns the distinction 'twixt singing and preaching;
His lyre has some chords that would ring pretty well,
But he'd rather by half make a drum of the shell,
And rattle away till he's old as Methusalem,
At the head of a march to the last new Jerusalem.

This, of course, is but a half serious portrait of himself, and it
touches but a single feature; others can say better that Lowell's
ardent nature showed itself in the series of satirical poems which
made him famous, _The Biglow Papers_, written in a spirit of
indignation and fine scorn, when the Mexican War was causing many
Americans to blush with shame at the use of the country by a class for
its own ignoble ends. Lowell and his wife, who brought a fervid
anti-slavery temper as part of her marriage portion, were both
contributors to the _Liberty Bell_; and Lowell was a frequent
contributor to the _Anti-Slavery Standard_, and was, indeed, for a
while a corresponding editor. In June, 1846, there appeared one day in
the _Boston Courier_ a letter from Mr. Ezekiel Biglow of Jaalam to the
editor, Hon. Joseph T. Buckingham, inclosing a poem of his son, Mr.
Hosea Biglow. It was no new thing to seek to arrest the public
attention with the vernacular applied to public affairs. Major Jack
Downing and Sam Slick had been notable examples, and they had many
imitators; but the reader who laughed over the racy narrative of the
unlettered Ezekiel, and then took up Hosea's poem and caught the gust
of Yankee wrath and humor blown fresh in his face, knew that he was in
at the appearance of something new in American literature. The force
which Lowell displayed in these satires made his book at once a
powerful ally of an anti-slavery sentiment, which heretofore had been



A year in Europe, 1851-1852, with his wife, whose health was then
precarious, stimulated his scholarly interests, and gave substance to
his study of Dante and Italian literature. In October, 1853, his wife
died; she had borne him three children: the first-born, Blanche, died
in infancy; the second, Walter, also died young; the third, a
daughter, Mrs. Burnett, survived her parents. In 1855 he was chosen
successor to Longfellow as Smith Professor of the French and Spanish
Languages and Literature, and Professor of Belles Lettres in Harvard
College. He spent two years in Europe in further preparation for the
duties of his office, and in 1857 was again established in Cambridge,
and installed in his academic chair. He married, also, at this time
Miss Frances Dunlap, of Portland, Maine.

Lowell was now in his thirty-ninth year. As a scholar, in his
professional work, he had acquired a versatile knowledge of the
Romance languages, and was an adept in old French and Proven√Іal
poetry; he had given a course of twelve lectures on English poetry
before the Lowell Institute in Boston, which had made a strong
impression on the community, and his work on the series of _British
Poets_ in connection with Professor Child, especially his biographical
sketch of Keats, had been recognized as of a high order. In poetry he
had published the volumes already mentioned. In general literature he
had printed in magazines the papers which he afterward collected into
his volume, _Fireside Travels_. Not long after he entered on his
college duties, _The Atlantic Monthly_ was started, and the editorship
given to him. He held the office for a year or two only; but he
continued to write for the magazine, and in 1862 he was associated
with Mr. Charles Eliot Norton in the conduct of _The North American
Review_, and continued in this charge for ten years. Much of his prose
was contributed to this periodical. Any one reading the titles of the
papers which comprise the volumes of his prose writings will readily
see how much literature, and especially poetic literature, occupied
his attention. Shakespeare, Dryden, Lessing, Rousseau, Dante, Spenser,
Wordsworth, Milton, Keats, Carlyle, Percival, Thoreau, Swinburne,
Chaucer, Emerson, Pope, Gray, - these are the principal subjects of his
prose, and the range of topics indicates the catholicity of his

In these papers, when studying poetry, he was very alive to the
personality of the poets, and it was the strong interest in humanity
which led Lowell, when he was most diligent in the pursuit of
literature, to apply himself also to history and politics. Several of
his essays bear witness to this, such as _Witchcraft, New England Two
Centuries Ago, A Great Public Character_ (Josiah Quincy), _Abraham
Lincoln_, and his great _Political Essays_. But the most remarkable of
his writings of this order was the second series of _The Biglow
Papers_, published during the war for the Union. In these, with the
wit and fun of the earlier series, there was mingled a deeper strain
of feeling and a larger tone of patriotism. The limitations of his
style in these satires forbade the fullest expression of his thought
and emotion; but afterward in a succession of poems, occasioned by the
honors paid to student soldiers in Cambridge, the death of Agassiz,
and the celebration of national anniversaries during the years 1875
and 1876, he sang in loftier, more ardent strains. The most famous of
these poems was his noble Commemoration Ode.



It was at the close of this period, when he had done incalculable
service to the Republic, that Lowell was called on to represent the
country, first in Madrid, where he was sent in 1877, and then in
London, to which he was transferred in 1880. Eight years were thus
spent by him in the foreign service of the country. He had a good
knowledge of the Spanish language and literature when he went to
Spain; but he at once took pains to make his knowledge fuller and his
accent more perfect, so that he could have intimate relations with the
best Spanish men of the time. In England he was at once a most welcome
guest, and was in great demand as a public speaker. No one can read
his dispatches from Madrid and London without being struck by his
sagacity, his readiness in emergencies, his interest in and quick
perception of the political situation in the country where he was
resident, and his unerring knowledge as a man of the world. Above all,
he was through and through an American, true to the principles which
underlie American institutions. His address on _Democracy_, which he
delivered in England, is one of the great statements of human liberty.
A few years later, after his return to America, he gave another
address to his own countrymen on _The Place of the Independent in
Politics_. It was a noble defense of his own position, not without a
trace of discouragement at the apparently sluggish movement in
American self-government of recent years, but with that faith in the
substance of his countrymen which gave him the right to use words of
honest warning.

The public life of Mr. Lowell made him more of a figure before the
world. He received honors from societies and universities; he was
decorated by the highest honors which Harvard could pay officially;
and Oxford and Cambridge, St. Andrews and Edinburgh and Bologna, gave
gowns. He established warm personal relations with Englishmen, and,
after his release from public office, he made several visits to
England. There, too, was buried his wife, who died in 1885. The
closing years of his life in his own country, though touched with
domestic loneliness and diminished by growing physical infirmities
that predicted his death, were rich also with the continued expression
of his large personality. He delivered the public address in
commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Harvard
University; he gave a course of lectures on the Old English Dramatists
before the Lowell Institute; he collected a volume of his poems; he
wrote and spoke on public affairs; and, the year before his death,
revised, rearranged, and carefully edited a definitive series of his
writings in ten volumes. He died at Elmwood, August 12, 1891. Since
his death three small volumes have been added to his collected
writings, and Mr. Norton has published _Letters of James Russell
Lowell_, in two volumes.



Lowell was in his thirtieth year when he wrote and published _The

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Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe Vision of Sir Launfal And Other Poems by James Russell Lowell; With a Biographical Sketch and Notes, a Portrait and Other Illustrations → online text (page 1 of 7)