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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When the war for the Union broke out, Mr. Lowell took up the same
strain and contributed to the _Atlantic Monthly_ a second series of
_Biglow Papers_, and just before the close of the war, published the
poem that follows.]

DEAR SIR, - Your letter come to han'
Requestin' me to please be funny;
But I ain't made upon a plan
Thet knows wut's comin', gall or honey:
Ther' 's times the world does look so queer, 5
Odd fancies come afore I call 'em;
An' then agin, for half a year,
No preacher 'thout a call 's more solemn.

You're 'n want o' sunthin' light an' cute,
Rattlin' an' shrewd an' kin' o' jingleish, 10
An' wish, pervidin' it 'ould suit,
I'd take an' citify my English.
I _ken_ write long-tailed, ef I please, -
But when I'm jokin', no, I thankee;
Then, 'fore I know it, my idees 15
Run helter-skelter into Yankee.

Sence I begun to scribble rhyme,
I tell ye wut, I hain't ben foolin';
The parson's books, life, death, an' time
Hev took some trouble with my schoolin'; 20
Nor th' airth don't git put out with me,
Thet love her 'z though she wuz a woman;
Why, th' ain't a bird upon the tree
But half forgives my bein' human.

An' yit I love th' unhighschooled way 25
Ol' farmers hed when I wuz younger;
Their talk wuz meatier, an' 'ould stay,
While book-froth seems to whet your hunger;
For puttin' in a downright lick
'Twixt Humbug's eyes, ther' 's few can metch it. 30
An' then it helves my thoughts ez slick
Ez stret-grained hickory doos a hetchet.

But when I can't, I can't, thet's all,
For Natur' won't put up with gullin';
Idees you hev to shove an' haul 35
Like a druv pig ain't wuth a mullein:
Live thoughts ain't sent for; thru all rifts
O' sense they pour an' resh ye onwards,
Like rivers when south-lyin' drifts
Feel thet th' old airth's a-wheelin' sunwards. 40

Time wuz, the rhymes come crowdin' thick
Ez office-seekers arter 'lection,
An' into ary place 'ould stick
Without no bother nor objection;
But sence the war my thoughts hang back 45
Ez though I wanted to enlist 'em,
An' subs'tutes - _they_ don't never lack,
But then they'll slope afore you've mist 'em.

Nothin' don't seem like wut it wuz;
I can't see wut there is to hender, 50
An' yit my brains jes' go buzz, buzz,
Like bumblebees agin a winder;
'Fore these times come, in all airth's row,
Ther' wuz one quiet place, my head in,
Where I could hide an' think, - but now 55
It's all one teeter, hopin', dreadin'.

Where's Peace? I start, some clear-blown night,
When gaunt stone walls grow numb an' number,
An', creakin' 'cross the snow-crus' white,
Walk the col' starlight into summer; 60
Up grows the moon, an' swell by swell
Thru the pale pasturs silvers dimmer
Than the last smile thet strives to tell
O' love gone heavenward in its shimmer.

I hev ben gladder o' sech things, 65
Than cocks o' spring or bees o' clover,
They filled my heart with livin' springs,
But now they seem to freeze 'em over;
Sights innercent ez babes on knee,
Peaceful ez eyes o' pastur'd cattle, 70
Jes' coz they be so, seem to me
To rile me more with thoughts o' battle.

In-doors an' out by spells I try;
Ma'am Natur' keeps her spin-wheel goin',
But leaves my natur' stiff and dry 75
Ez fiel's o' clover arter mowin';
An' her jes' keepin' on the same,
Calmer 'n a clock, an' never carin',
An' findin' nary thing to blame,
Is wus than ef she took to swearin'. 80

Snow-flakes come whisperin' on the pane,
The charm makes blazin' logs so pleasant,
But I can't hark to wut they're say'n',
With Grant or Sherman ollers present;
The chimbleys shudder in the gale, 85
Thet lulls, then suddin takes to flappin'
Like a shot hawk, but all's ez stale
To me ez so much sperit rappin'.

Under the yaller-pines I house,
When sunshine makes 'em all sweet-scented, 90
An' hear among their furry boughs
The baskin' west-wind purr contented,
While 'way o'erhead, ez sweet an' low
Ez distant bells thet ring for meetin',
The wedged wil' geese their bugles blow, 95
Further an' further South retreatin'.

Or up the slippery knob I strain
An' see a hundred hills like islan's
Lift their blue woods in broken chain
Out o' the sea o' snowy silence; 100
The farm-smokes, sweetes' sight on airth,
Slow thru the winter air a-shrinkin'
Seem kin' o' sad, an' roun' the hearth
Of empty places set me thinkin'.

Beaver roars hoarse with meltin' snows,[23] 105
An' rattles di'mon's from his granite;
Time wuz, he snatched away my prose,
An' into psalms or satires ran it;
But he, nor all the rest thet once
Started my blood to country-dances, 110
Can't set me goin' more 'n a dunce
Thet hain't no use for dreams an' fancies.

[Footnote 23: Beaver Brook, a tributary of the Charles.]

Rat-tat-tat-tattle thru the street
I hear the drummers makin' riot,
An' I set thinkin' o' the feet 115
Thet follered once an' now are quiet, -
White feet ez snowdrops innercent,
Thet never knowed the paths o' Satan,
Whose comin' step ther' 's ears thet won't,
No, not lifelong, leave off awaitin'. 120

Why, hain't I held 'em on my knee?
Didn't I love to see 'em growin',
Three likely lads ez wal could be,
Hahnsome an' brave an' not tu knowin'?
I set an' look into the blaze 125
Whose natur', jes' like theirn, keeps climbin',
Ez long 'z it lives, in shinin' ways,
An' half despise myself for rhymin'.

Wut's words to them whose faith an' truth
On War's red techstone rang true metal, 130
Who ventered life an' love an' youth
For the gret prize o' death in battle?
To him who, deadly hurt, agen
Flashed on afore the charge's thunder,
Tippin' with fire the bolt of men 135
Thet rived the Rebel line asunder?

'T ain't right to hev the young go fust,
All throbbin' full o' gifts an' graces,
Leavin' life's paupers dry ez dust
To try an' make b'lieve fill their places: 140
Nothin' but tells us wut we miss,
Ther' 's gaps our lives can't never fay in,
An' _thet_ world seems so fur from this
Lef' for us loafers to grow gray in!

My eyes cloud up for rain; my mouth 145
Will take to twitchin' roun' the corners;
I pity mothers, tu, down South,
For all they sot among the scorners:
I'd sooner take my chance to stan'
At Jedgment where your meanest slave is, 150
Than at God's bar hol' up a han'
Ez drippin' red ez yourn, Jeff Davis!

Come, Peace! not like a mourner bowed
For honor lost an' dear ones wasted,
But proud, to meet a people proud, 155
With eyes thet tell o' triumph tasted!
Come, with han' grippin' on the hilt,
An' step thet proves ye Victory's daughter!
Longin' for you, our sperits wilt
Like shipwrecked men's on raf's for water. 160

Come, while our country feels the lift
Of a gret instinct shoutin' forwards,
An' knows thet freedom ain't a gift
Thet tarries long in han's o' cowards!
Come, sech ez mothers prayed for, when 165
They kissed their cross with lips thet quivered,
An' bring fair wages for brave men,
A nation saved, a race delivered!


[The battles of Magenta and Solferino, in the early summer of 1859,
had given promise of a complete emancipation of Italy from the
Austrian supremacy, when Napoleon III., who was acting in alliance
with Victor Emmanuel, king of Sardinia, held a meeting with the
emperor Francis Joseph of Austria at Villa Franca, and agreed to terms
which were very far from including the unification of Italy. There was
a general distrust of Napoleon, and the war continued with the final
result of a united Italy. In the poem which follows Mr. Lowell gives
expression to his want of faith in the French emperor.]

Wait a little: do _we_ not wait?
Louis Napoleon is not Fate,
Francis Joseph is not Time;
There's One hath swifter feet than Crime;
Cannon-parliaments settle naught; 5
Venice is Austria's, - whose is Thought?
Minié is good, but, spite of change,
Gutenberg's gun has the longest range.
Spin, spin, Clotho, spin![24]
Lachesis, twist! and, Atropos, sever! 10
In the shadow, year out, year in,
The silent headsman waits forever.

[Footnote 24: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos were the three Fates of
the ancient mythology; Clotho spun the thread of human destiny,
Lachesis twisted it, and Atropos with shears severed it.]

Wait, we say; our years are long;
Men are weak, but Man is strong;
Since the stars first curved their rings, 15
We have looked on many things;
Great wars come and great wars go,
Wolf-tracks light on polar snow;
We shall see him come and gone,
This second-hand Napoleon. 20
Spin, spin, Clotho, spin!
Lachesis, twist! and, Atropos, sever!
In the shadow, year out, year in,
The silent headsman waits forever.

We saw the elder Corsican, 25
And Clotho muttered as she span,
While crownèd lackeys bore the train,
Of the pinchbeck Charlemagne:
"Sister, stint not length of thread!
Sister, stay the scissors dread! 30
On Saint Helen's granite bleak,
Hark, the vulture whets his beak!"
Spin, spin, Clotho, spin!
Lachesis, twist! and, Atropos, sever!
In the shadow, year out, year in, 35
The silent headsman waits forever.

The Bonapartes, we know their bees
That wade in honey red to the knees:
Their patent reaper, its sheaves sleep sound
In dreamless garners underground: 40
We know false glory's spendthrift race
Pawning nations for feathers and lace;
It may be short, it may be long,
"'Tis reckoning-day!" sneers unpaid Wrong.
Spin, spin, Clotho, spin! 45
Lachesis, twist! and, Atropos, sever!
In the shadow, year out, year in,
The silent headsman waits forever.

The Cock that wears the Eagle's skin
Can promise what he ne'er could win; 50
Slavery reaped for fine words sown,
System for all, and rights for none,
Despots atop, a wild clan below,
Such is the Gaul from long ago;
Wash the black from the Ethiop's face, 55
Wash the past out of man or race!
Spin, spin, Clotho, spin!
Lachesis, twist! and, Atropos, sever!
In the shadow, year out, year in,
The silent headsman waits forever. 60

'Neath Gregory's throne a spider swings,[25]
And snares the people for the kings;
"Luther is dead; old quarrels pass;
The stake's black scars are healed with grass;"
So dreamers prate; did man e'er live 65
Saw priest or woman yet forgive;
But Luther's broom is left, and eyes
Peep o'er their creeds to where it lies.
Spin, spin, Clotho, spin!
Lachesis, twist! and, Atropos, sever! 70
In the shadow, year out, year in,
The silent headsman waits forever.

[Footnote 25: There was more than one Pope Gregory, but Gregory VII in
the eleventh century brought the papacy to its supreme power, when
kings humbled themselves before the Pope.]

Smooth sails the ship of either realm,
Kaiser and Jesuit at the helm;
We look down the depths, and mark 75
Silent workers in the dark
Building slow the sharp-tusked reefs,
Old instincts hardening to new beliefs;
Patience a little; learn to wait;
Hours are long on the clock of Fate. 80
Spin, spin, Clotho, spin!
Lachesis, twist! and, Atropos, sever!
Darkness is strong, and so is Sin,
But only God endures forever!


"Come forth!" my catbird calls to me,
"And hear me sing a cavatina
That, in this old familiar tree,
Shall hang a garden of Alcina.

"These buttercups shall brim with wine 5
Beyond all Lesbian juice or Massic;
May not New England be divine?
My ode to ripening summer classic?

"Or, if to me you will not hark,
By Beaver Brook a thrush is ringing 10
Till all the alder-coverts dark
Seem sunshine-dappled with his singing.

"Come out beneath the unmastered sky,
With its emancipating spaces,
And learn to sing as well as I, 15
Without premeditated graces.

"What boot your many-volumed gains,
Those withered leaves forever turning,
To win, at best, for all your pains,
A nature mummy-wrapt in learning? 20

"The leaves wherein true wisdom lies
On living trees the sun are drinking;
Those white clouds, drowsing through the skies,
Grew not so beautiful by thinking.

"Come out! with me the oriole cries, 25
Escape the demon that pursues you!
And, hark, the cuckoo weatherwise,
Still hiding, farther onward wooes you."

"Alas, dear friend, that, all my days,
Has poured from thy syringa thicket 30
The quaintly discontinuous lays
To which I hold a season-ticket, -

"A season-ticket cheaply bought
With a dessert of pilfered berries,
And who so oft my soul has caught 35
With morn and evening voluntaries, -

"Deem me not faithless, if all day
Among my dusty books I linger,
No pipe, like thee, for June to play
With fancy-led, half-conscious finger. 40

"A bird is singing in my brain
And bubbling o'er with mingled fancies,
Gay, tragic, rapt, right heart of Spain
Fed with the sap of old romances.

"I ask no ampler skies than those 45
His magic music rears above me,
No falser friends, no truer foes, -
And does not Doña Clara love me?

"Cloaked shapes, a twanging of guitars,
A rush of feet, and rapiers clashing, 50
Then silence deep with breathless stars,
And overhead a white hand flashing.

"O music of all moods and climes,
Vengeful, forgiving, sensuous, saintly,
Where still, between the Christian chimes, 55
The moorish cymbal tinkles faintly!

"O life borne lightly in the hand,
For friend or foe with grace Castilian!
O valley safe in Fancy's land,
Not tramped to mud yet by the million! 60

"Bird of to-day, thy songs are stale
To his, my singer of all weathers,
My Calderon, my nightingale,
My Arab soul in Spanish feathers.

"Ah, friend, these singers dead so long, 65
And still, God knows, in purgatory,
Give its best sweetness to all song,
To Nature's self her better glory."


When I was a beggarly boy,
And lived in a cellar damp,
I had not a friend nor a toy,
But I had Aladdin's lamp;
When I could not sleep for cold, 5
I had fire enough in my brain,
And builded with roofs of gold
My beautiful castles in Spain!

Since then I have toiled day and night,
I have money and power good store, 10
But, I'd give all my lamps of silver bright
For the one that is mine no more;
Take, Fortune, whatever you choose,
You gave, and may snatch again;
I have nothing 't would pain me to lose, 15
For I own no more castles in Spain!


Hushed with broad sunlight lies the hill,
And, minuting the long day's loss,
The cedar's shadow, slow and still,
Creeps o'er its dial of gray moss.

Warm noon brims full the valley's cup, 5
The aspen's leaves are scarce astir;
Only the little mill sends up
Its busy, never-ceasing burr.

Climbing the loose-piled wall that hems
The road along the mill-pond's brink, 10
From 'neath the arching barberry-stems,
My footstep scares the shy chewink.

Beneath a bony buttonwood
The mill's red door lets forth the din;
The whitened miller, dust-imbued, 15
Flits past the square of dark within.

No mountain torrent's strength is here;
Sweet Beaver, child of forest still,[26]
Heaps its small pitcher to the ear,
And gently waits the miller's will. 20

Swift slips Undine along the race
Unheard, and then, with flashing bound,
Floods the dull wheel with light and grace,
And, laughing, hunts the loath drudge round.

The miller dreams not at what cost 25
The quivering millstones hum and whirl,
Nor how for every turn are tost
Armfuls of diamond and of pearl.

But Summer cleared my happier eyes
With drops of some celestial juice, 30
To see how Beauty underlies,
Forevermore each form of use.

And more; methought I saw that flood,
Which now so dull and darkling steals,
Thick, here and there, with human blood, 35
To turn the world's laborious wheels.

[Footnote 26: Beaver Brook was within walking distance of the poet's
home. See _The Nightingale in the Study_.]

No more than doth the miller there,
Shut in our several cells, do we
Know with what waste of beauty rare
Moves every day's machinery. 40

Surely the wiser time shall come
When this fine overplus of might,
No longer sullen, slow, and dumb,
Shall leap to music and to light.

In that new childhood of the Earth 45
Life of itself shall dance and play,
Fresh blood in Time's shrunk veins make mirth,
And labor meet delight half way.


There came a youth upon the earth,
Some thousand years ago,
Whose slender hands were nothing worth,
Whether to plough, or reap, or sow.

Upon an empty tortoise-shell 5
He stretched some chords, and drew
Music that made men's bosoms swell
Fearless, or brimmed their eyes with dew.

Then King Admetus, one who had
Pure taste by right divine, 10
Decreed his singing not too bad
To hear between the cups of wine:

And so, well pleased with being soothed
Into a sweet half-sleep,
Three times his kingly beard he smoothed, 15
And made him viceroy o'er his sheep.

His words were simple words enough,
And yet he used them so,
That what in other mouths was rough
In his seemed musical and low. 20

Men called him but a shiftless youth,
In whom no good they saw;
And yet, unwittingly, in truth,
They made his careless words their law.

They knew not how he learned at all, 25
For idly, hour by hour,
He sat and watched the dead leaves fall,
Or mused upon a common flower.

It seemed the loveliness of things
Did teach him all their use, 30
For, in mere weeds, and stones, and springs,
He found a healing power profuse.

Men granted that his speech was wise,
But, when a glance they caught
Of his slim grace and woman's eyes, 35
They laughed, and called him good-for-naught.

Yet after he was dead and gone,
And e'en his memory dim,
Earth seemed more sweet to live upon,
More full of love, because of him. 40

And day by day more holy grew
Each spot where he had trod,
Till after-poets only knew
Their first-born brother as a god.


[In the year 1844, which is the date of the following poem, the
question of the annexation of Texas was pending, and it was made an
issue of the presidential campaign then taking place. The anti-slavery
party feared and opposed annexation, on account of the added strength
which it would give to slavery, and the South desired it for the same

When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth's aching breast
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,
And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time. 5

Through the walls of hut and palace shoots the instantaneous throe,
When the travail of the Ages wrings earth's systems to and fro;
At the birth of each new Era, with a recognizing start,
Nation wildly looks at nation, standing with mute lips apart,
And glad Truth's yet mightier man-child leaps beneath the Future's heart. 10

So the Evil's triumph sendeth, with a terror and a chill,
Under continent to continent, the sense of coming ill,
And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels his sympathies with God
In hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk up by the sod,
Till a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in the nobler clod. 15

For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along,
Round the earth's electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;[27]
Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity's vast frame
Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame; -
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim. 20

[Footnote 27: This figure has special force from the fact that Morse's
telegraph was first put in operation a few months before the writing
of this poem.]

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light. 25

Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shall stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet 'tis Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng[28]

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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 6 of 7)