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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And couchant under brows of massive line, 40
The eyes, like guns beneath a parapet,
Watched, charged with lightnings yet.

The voices of the hills did his obey;
The torrents flashed and tumbled in his song;
He brought our native fields from far away, 45
Or set us 'mid the innumerable throng
Of dateless woods, or where we heard the calm
Old homestead's evening psalm.

But now he sang of faith to things unseen,
Of freedom's birthright given to us in trust; 50
And words of doughty cheer he spoke between,
That made all earthly fortune seem as dust,
Matched with that duty, old as Time and new,
Of being brave and true.

We, listening, learned what makes the might of words, - 55
Manhood to back them, constant as a star;
His voice rammed home our cannon, edged our swords,
And sent our boarders shouting; shroud and spar
Heard him and stiffened; the sails heard, and wooed
The winds with loftier mood. 60

In our dark hours he manned our guns again;
Remanned ourselves from his own manhood's stores;
Pride, honor, country, throbbed through all his strain:
And shall we praise? God's praise was his before;
And on our futile laurels he looks down, 65
Himself our bravest crown.


[When Mr. Lowell wrote this poem he was living at Elmwood in
Cambridge, at that time quite remote from town influences, - Cambridge
itself being scarcely more than a village, - but now rapidly losing its
rustic surroundings. The Charles River flowed near by, then a limpid
stream, untroubled by factories or sewage. It is a tidal river and not
far from Elmwood winds through broad salt marshes. Mr. Longfellow's
old home is a short stroll nearer town, and the two poets exchanged
pleasant shots, as may be seen by Lowell's _To H.W.L._, and
Longfellow's _The Herons of Elmwood_. In _Under the Willows_ Mr.
Lowell has, as it were, indulged in another reverie at a later period
of his life, among the same familiar surroundings.]

What visionary tints the year puts on,
When falling leaves falter through motionless air
Or numbly cling and shiver to be gone!
How shimmer the low flats and pastures bare,
As with her nectar Hebe Autumn fills 5
The bowl between me and those distant hills,
And smiles and shakes abroad her misty, tremulous hair!

No more the landscape holds its wealth apart,
Making me poorer in my poverty,
But mingles with my senses and my heart; 10
My own projected spirit seems to me
In her own reverie the world to steep;
'Tis she that waves to sympathetic sleep,
Moving, as she is moved, each field and hill and tree.

How fuse and mix, with what unfelt degrees, 15
Clasped by the faint horizon's languid arms,
Each into each, the hazy distances!
The softened season all the landscape charms;
Those hills, my native village that embay,
In waves of dreamier purple roll away, 20
And floating in mirage seem all the glimmering farms.

Far distant sounds the hidden chickadee
Close at my side; far distant sound the leaves;
The fields seem fields of dream, where Memory
Wanders like gleaning Ruth; and as the sheaves 25
Of wheat and barley wavered in the eye
Of Boaz as the maiden's glow went by,
So tremble and seem remote all things the sense receives.

The cock's shrill trump that tells of scattered corn,
Passed breezily on by all his flapping mates, 30
Faint and more faint, from barn to barn is borne,
Southward, perhaps to far Magellan's Straits;
Dimly I catch the throb of distant flails;
Silently overhead the hen-hawk sails, 34
With watchful, measuring eye, and for his quarry waits.

The sobered robin, hunger-silent now,
Seeks cedar-berries blue, his autumn cheer;
The squirrel, on the shingly shagbark's bough,
Now saws, now lists with downward eye and ear,
Then drops his nut, and, with a chipping bound, 40
Whisks to his winding fastness underground;
The clouds like swans drift down the streaming atmosphere.

O'er yon bare knoll the pointed cedar shadows
Drowse on the crisp, gray moss; the ploughman's call
Creeps faint as smoke from black, fresh-furrowed meadows; 45
The single crow a single caw lets fall;
And all around me every bush and tree
Says Autumn's here, and Winter soon will be,
Who snows his soft, white sleep and silence over all.

The birch, most shy and ladylike of trees, 50
Her poverty, as best she may, retrieves,
And hints at her foregone gentilities
With some saved relics of her wealth of leaves;
The swamp-oak, with his royal purple on,
Glares red as blood across the sinking sun, 55
As one who proudlier to a falling fortune cleaves.

He looks a sachem, in red blanket wrapt,
Who, 'mid some council of the sad-garbed whites,
Erect and stern, in his own memories lapt,
With distant eye broods over other sights, 60
Sees the hushed wood the city's flare replace,
The wounded turf heal o'er the railway's trace,
And roams the savage Past of his undwindled rights.

The red-oak, softer-grained, yields all for lost,
And, with his crumpled foliage stiff and dry, 65
After the first betrayal of the frost,
Rebuffs the kiss of the relenting sky;
The chestnuts, lavish of their long-hid gold,
To the faint Summer, beggared now and old, 69
Pour back the sunshine hoarded 'neath her favoring eye.

The ash her purple drops forgivingly
And sadly, breaking not the general hush;
The maple-swamps glow like a sunset sea,
Each leaf a ripple with its separate flush;
All round the wood's edge creeps the skirting blaze 75
Of bushes low, as when, on cloudy days,
Ere the rain falls, the cautious farmer burns his brush.

O'er yon low wall, which guards one unkempt zone,
Where vines and weeds and scrub-oaks intertwine
Safe from the plough, whose rough, discordant stone 80
Is massed to one soft gray by lichens fine,
The tangled blackberry, crossed and recrossed, weaves
A prickly network of ensanguined leaves;
Hard by, with coral beads, the prim black-alders shine.

Pillaring with flame this crumbling boundary, 85
Whose loose blocks topple 'neath the ploughboy's foot,
Who, with each sense shut fast except the eye,
Creeps close and scares the jay he hoped to shoot,
The woodbine up the elm's straight stem aspires,
Coiling it, harmless, with autumnal fires; 90
In the ivy's paler blaze the martyr oak stands mute.

Below, the Charles - a stripe of nether sky,
Now hid by rounded apple-trees between,
Whose gaps the misplaced sail sweeps bellying by,
Now flickering golden through a woodland screen, 95
Then spreading out, at his next turn beyond,
A silver circle like an inland pond -
Slips seaward silently through marshes purple and green.

Dear marshes! vain to him the gift of sight
Who cannot in their various incomes share, 100
From every season drawn, of shade and light,
Who sees in them but levels brown and bare;
Each change of storm or sunshine scatters free
On them its largess of variety, 104
For Nature with cheap means still works her wonders rare.

In Spring they lie one broad expanse of green,
O'er which the light winds run with glimmering feet:
Here, yellower stripes track out the creek unseen,
There, darker growths o'er hidden ditches meet;
And purpler stains show where the blossoms crowd, 110
As if the silent shadow of a cloud
Hung there becalmed, with the next breath to fleet.

All round, upon the river's slippery edge,
Witching to deeper calm the drowsy tide,
Whispers and leans the breeze-entangling sedge; 115
Through emerald glooms the lingering waters slide,
Or, sometimes wavering, throw back the sun,
And the stiff banks in eddies melt and run
Of dimpling light, and with the current seem to glide.

In Summer 'tis a blithesome sight to see, 120
As, step by step, with measured swing, they pass,
The wide-ranked mowers wading to the knee,
Their sharp scythes panting through the thick-set grass;
Then, stretched beneath a rick's shade in a ring,
Their nooning take, while one begins to sing 125
A stave that droops and dies 'neath the close sky of brass.

Meanwhile that devil-may-care, the bobolink,
Remembering duty, in mid-quaver stops
Just ere he sweeps o'er rapture's tremulous brink,
And 'twixt the winrows most demurely drops, 130
A decorous bird of business, who provides
For his brown mate and fledglings six besides,
And looks from right to left, a farmer 'mid his crops.

Another change subdues them in the Fall,
But saddens not; they still show merrier tints, 135
Though sober russet seems to cover all;
When the first sunshine through their dewdrops glints.
Look how the yellow clearness, streamed across,
Redeems with rarer hues the season's loss, 139
As Dawn's feet there had touched and left their rosy prints.

Or come when sunset gives its freshened zest,
Lean o'er the bridge and let the ruddy thrill,
While the shorn sun swells down the hazy west,
Glow opposite; - the marshes drink their fill
And swoon with purple veins, then slowly fade 145
Through pink to brown, as eastward moves the shade,
Lengthening with stealthy creep, of Simond's darkening hill.

Later, and yet ere Winter wholly shuts,
Ere through the first dry snow the runner grates,
And the loath cart-wheel screams in slippery ruts, 150
While firmer ice the eager boy awaits,
Trying each buckle and strap beside the fire,
And until bedtime plays with his desire,
Twenty times putting on and off his new-bought skates; -

Then, every morn, the river's banks shine bright 155
With smooth plate-armor, treacherous and frail,
By the frost's clinking hammers forged at night,
'Gainst which the lances of the sun prevail,
Giving a pretty emblem of the day
When guiltier arms in light shall melt away, 160
And states shall move free-limbed, loosed from war's cramping mail.

And now those waterfalls the ebbing river
Twice every day creates on either side
Tinkle, as through their fresh-sparred grots they shiver
In grass-arched channels to the sun denied; 165
High flaps in sparkling blue the far-heard crow,
The silvered flats gleam frostily below,
Suddenly drops the gull and breaks the glassy tide.

But crowned in turn by vying seasons three,
Their winter halo hath a fuller ring; 170
This glory seems to rest immovably, -
The others were too fleet and vanishing;
When the hid tide is at its highest flow,
O'er marsh and stream one breathless trance of snow 174
With brooding fulness awes and hushes everything.

The sunshine seems blown off by the bleak wind,
As pale as formal candles lit by day;
Gropes to the sea the river dumb and blind;
The brown ricks, snow-thatched by the storm in play,
Show pearly breakers combing o'er their lee, 180
White crests as of some just enchanted sea,
Checked in their maddest leap and hanging poised midway.

But when the eastern blow, with rain aslant,
From mid-sea's prairies green and rolling plains
Drives in his wallowing herds of billows gaunt, 185
And the roused Charles remembers in his veins
Old Ocean's blood and snaps his gyves of frost,
That tyrannous silence on the shores is tost
In dreary wreck, and crumbling desolation reigns.

Edgewise or flat, in Druid-like device, 190
With leaden pools between or gullies bare,
The blocks lie strewn, a bleak Stonehenge of ice;
No life, no sound, to break the grim despair,
Save sullen plunge, as through the sedges stiff
Down crackles riverward some thaw-sapped cliff, 195
Or when the close-wedged fields of ice crunch here and there.

But let me turn from fancy-pictured scenes
To that whose pastoral calm before me lies:
Here nothing harsh or rugged intervenes;
The early evening with her misty dyes 200
Smooths off the ravelled edges of the nigh,
Relieves the distant with her cooler sky,
And tones the landscape down, and soothes the wearied eyes.

There gleams my native village, dear to me,
Though higher change's waves each day are seen, 205
Whelming fields famed in boyhood's history,
Sanding with houses the diminished green;
There, in red brick, which softening time defies,
Stand square and stiff the Muses' factories; - 209
How with my life knit up is every well-known scene!

Flow on, dear river! not alone you flow
To outward sight, and through your marshes wind;
Fed from the mystic springs of long-ago,
Your twin flows silent through my world of mind;
Grow dim, dear marshes, in the evening's gray! 215
Before my inner sight ye stretch away,
And will forever, though these fleshly eyes grow blind.

Beyond the hillock's house-bespotted swell,
Where Gothic chapels house the horse and chaise,
Where quiet cits in Grecian temples dwell, 220
Where Coptic tombs resound with prayer and praise,
Where dust and mud the equal year divide,
There gentle Allston lived, and wrought, and died,[11]
Transfiguring street and shop with his illumined gaze.

[Footnote 11: In _Cambridge Thirty Years Ago_, which treats in prose
of much the same period as this poem reproduces, Mr. Lowell has given
more in detail his recollections of Washington Allston, the painter.
The whole paper may be read as a prose counterpart to this poem. It is
published in _Fireside Travels_.]

_Virgilium vidi tantum_, - I have seen[12] 225
But as a boy, who looks alike on all,
That misty hair, that fine Undine-like mien,[13]
Tremulous as down to feeling's faintest call; -
Ah, dear old homestead! count it to thy fame
That thither many times the Painter came; - 230
One elm yet bears his name, a feathery tree and tall.

Swiftly the present fades in memory's glow, -
Our only sure possession is the past;
The village blacksmith died a month ago,[14]
And dim to me the forge's roaring blast; 235
Soon fire-new mediævals we shall see
Oust the black smithy from its chestnut-tree,
And that hewn down, perhaps, the bee-hive green and vast.

How many times, prouder than king on throne,
Loosed from the village school-dame's A's and B's, 240
Panting have I the creaky bellows blown,
And watched the pent volcano's red increase,
Then paused to see the ponderous sledge, brought down
By that hard arm voluminous and brown, 224
From the white iron swarm its golden vanishing bees.

[Footnote 12: _Virgilium vidi tantum_, I barely saw Virgil, a Latin
phrase applied to one who has merely had a glimpse of a great man.]

[Footnote 13: Undine is the heroine of a romantic tale by Baron De la
Motte Fouqué. She is represented as a water-nymph who wins a human
soul only by a union with mortality which brings pain and sorrow.]

[Footnote 14: The village blacksmith of Longfellow's well-known poem.
The prophecy came true as regards the hewing-down of the chestnut-tree
which was cut down in 1876.]

Dear native town! whose choking elms each year
With eddying dust before their time turn gray,
Pining for rain, - to me thy dust is dear;
It glorifies the eve of summer day,
And when the westering sun half sunken burns, 250
The mote-thick air to deepest orange turns,
The westward horseman rides through clouds of gold away,

So palpable, I've seen those unshorn few,
The six old willows at the causey's end
(Such trees Paul Potter never dreamed nor drew), 255
Through this dry mist their checkering shadows send,
Striped, here and there, with many a long-drawn thread,
Where streamed through leafy chinks the trembling red,
Past which, in one bright trail, the hangbird's flashes blend.

Yes, dearer for thy dust than all that e'er, 260
Beneath the awarded crown of victory,
Gilded the blown Olympic charioteer;
Though lightly prized the ribboned parchments three,
Yet _collegisse juvat_, I am glad[15]
That here what colleging was mine I had, - 265
It linked another tie, dear native town, with thee!

[Footnote 15: _Collegisse juvat._ Horace in his first ode says,
_Curriculo pulverem Olympicum Collegisse juvat_; that is: _It's a
pleasure to have collected_ the dust of Olympus on your
carriage-wheels. Mr. Lowell, helping himself to the words, says, "It's
a pleasure to have been at college;" for college in its first meaning
is a _collection_ of men, as in the phrase "The college of

Nearer art thou than simply native earth,
My dust with thine concedes a deeper tie;
A closer claim thy soil may well put forth,
Something of kindred more than sympathy; 270
For in thy bounds I reverently laid away
That blinding anguish of forsaken clay,
That title I seemed to have in earth and sea and sky,

That portion of my life more choice to me
(Though brief, yet in itself so round and whole)[16] 275
Than all the imperfect residue can be; -
The Artist saw his statue of the soul
Was perfect; so, with one regretful stroke,
The earthen model into fragments broke, 279
And without her the impoverished seasons roll.


The snow had begun in the gloaming,
And busily all the night
Had been heaping field and highway
With a silence deep and white.

Every pine and fir and hemlock 5
Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
And the poorest twig on the elm-tree
Was ridged inch-deep with pearl.

[Footnote 16: The volume containing this poem was reverently dedicated
"To the ever fresh and happy memory of our little Blanche."]

From sheds new-roofed with Carrara[17]
Came Chanticleer's muffled crow, 10
The stiff rails were softened to swan's-down,
And still fluttered down the snow.

I stood and watched by the window
The noiseless work of the sky,
And the sudden flurries of snow-birds, 15
Like brown leaves whirling by.

I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
Where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently,
As did robins the babes in the wood. 20

Up spoke our own little Mabel,
Saying, "Father, who makes it snow?"
And I told of the good All-father
Who cares for us here below.

Again I looked at the snow-fall, 25
And thought of the leaden sky
That arched o'er our first great sorrow,
When that mound was heaped so high.

I remembered the gradual patience
That fell from that cloud like snow, 30
Flake by flake, healing and hiding
The scar of our deep-plunged woe.

And again to the child I whispered,
"The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father 35
Alone can make it fall!"

[Footnote 17: The marble of Carrara, Italy, is noted for its purity.]

Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her;
And she, kissing back, could not know
That _my_ kiss was given to her sister,
Folded close under deepening snow. 40


What gnarlèd stretch, what depth of shade, is his!
There needs no crown to mark the forest's king;
How in his leaves outshines full summer's bliss!
Sun, storm, rain, dew, to him their tribute bring,
Which he with such benignant royalty 5
Accepts, as overpayeth what is lent;
All nature seems his vassal proud to be,
And cunning only for his ornament.

How towers he, too, amid the billowed snows,
An unquelled exile from the summer's throne, 10
Whose plain, uncinctured front more kingly shows,
Now that the obscuring courtier leaves are flown.
His boughs make music of the winter air,
Jewelled with sleet, like some cathedral front
Where clinging snow-flakes with quaint art repair 15
The dints and furrows of time's envious brunt.

How doth his patient strength the rude March wind
Persuade to seem glad breaths of summer breeze,
And win the soil that fain would be unkind,
To swell his revenues with proud increase! 20
He is the gem; and all the landscape wide
(So doth his grandeur isolate the sense)
Seems but the setting, worthless all beside,
An empty socket, were he fallen thence.

So, from oft converse with life's wintry gales, 25
Should man learn how to clasp with tougher roots
The inspiring earth; how otherwise avails
The leaf-creating sap that sunward shoots?
So every year that falls with noiseless flake
Should fill old scars up on the stormward side, 30
And make hoar age revered for age's sake,
Not for traditions of youth's leafy pride.

So, from the pinched soil of a churlish fate,
True hearts compel the sap of sturdier growth,
So between earth and heaven stand simply great, 35
That these shall seem but their attendants both;
For nature's forces with obedient zeal
Wait on the rooted faith and oaken will;
As quickly the pretender's cheat they feel,
And turn mad Pucks to flout and mock him still.[18] 40

Lord! all Thy works are lessons; each contains
Some emblem of man's all-containing soul;
Shall he make fruitless all Thy glorious pains,
Delving within Thy grace an eyeless mole?
Make me the least of thy Dodona-grove,[19] 45
Cause me some message of thy truth to bring,
Speak but a word to me, nor let thy love
Among my boughs disdain to perch and sing.

[Footnote 18: See Shakspeare's _A Midsummer Night's Dream_.]

[Footnote 19: A grove of oaks at Dodona, in ancient Greece, was 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 4 of 7)