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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry James (1843–1916)
 
THE FORMULA would not be hard to find which would best, at the outset, introduce to readers the author of the following extracts and specimens. With a certain close propriety that seems to give him, among Americans of his time, the supreme right, James Russell Lowell wears the title of a man of letters. He was a master of verse and a political disputant; he was to some extent a journalist, and in a high degree an orator; he administered learning in a great university; he was concerned, in his later years, with public affairs, and represented in two foreign countries the interests of the United States. Yet there is only one term to which, in an appreciation, we can without a sense of injustice give precedence over the others. He was the American of his time most saturated with literature and most directed to criticism; the American also whose character and endowment were such as to give this saturation and this direction—this intellectual experience, in short—most value. He added to the love of learning the love of expression; and his attachment to these things—to poetry, to history, to language, form, and style—was such as to make him, the greater part of his life, more than anything a man of study: but his temperament was proof against the dryness of the air of knowledge, and he remained to the end the least pale, the least passionless of scholars.  1
  He was born at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22d, 1819, and died in the same house on August 12th, 1891. His inheritance of every kind contributed to the easy play of his gifts and the rich uniformity of his life. He was of the best and oldest New England—of partly clerical—stock; a stock robust and supple, and which has given to its name many a fruit-bearing branch. We read him but dimly in not reading into him, as it were, everything that was present, around him, in race and place; and perhaps also in not seeing him in relation to some of the things that were absent. He is one more instance of the way in which the poet’s message is almost always, as to what it contains or omits, a testimony to personal circumstance, a communication of the savor of the mother soil. He figures to us thus—more handsomely than any competitor—as New England conscious of its powers and its standards, New England accomplished and articulate. He grew up in clerical and collegiate air, at half an hour’s walk from the cluster of homely halls that are lost to-day in the architectural parade of the modernized Harvard. He spent fifty years of his life in the shade, or the sunshine, of Alma Mater; a connection which was to give his spirit just enough of the unrest of responsibility, and his style just too much perhaps of the authority of the pedagogue. His early years unfolded with a security and a simplicity that the middle ones enriched without disturbing; and the long presence of which, with its implications of leisure, of quietude, of reflection and concentration, supplies in all his work an element of agreeable relish not lessened by the suggestion of a certain meagerness of personal experience. He took his degree in 1838; he married young, in 1844, then again in 1857; he inherited, on the death of his father in 1861, the commodious old house of Elmwood (in those days more embowered and more remote), in which his life was virtually to be spent. With a small family—a single daughter—but also a small patrimony, and a deep indifference—his abiding characteristic—to any question of profit or fortune, the material condition he had from an early time to meet was the rather blank face turned to the young American who in that age, and in the consecrated phrase, embraced literature as a profession. The embrace, on Lowell’s part as on that of most such aspirants, was at first more tender than coercive; and he was no exception to the immemorial rule of propitiating the idol with verse. This verse took in 1841 the form of his first book; a collection of poems elsewhere printed and unprinted, but not afterwards republished.  2
  His history from this time, at least for many years, would be difficult to write save as a record of stages, phases, dates too particular for a summary. The general complexion of the period is best presented in the simple statement that he was able to surrender on the spot to his talent and his taste. There is something that fairly charms, as we look at his life, in the almost complete elimination of interference or deviation: it makes a picture exempt from all shadow of the usual image of genius hindered or inclination blighted. Drama and disaster could spring as little from within as from without; and no one in the country probably led a life—certainly for so long a time—of intellectual amenity so great in proportion to its intensity. There was more intensity perhaps for such a spirit as Emerson’s: but there was, if only by that fact, more of moral ravage and upheaval; there was less of applied knowledge and successful form, less of the peace of art. Emerson’s utterance, his opinions, seem to-day to give us a series, equally full of beauty and void of order, of noble experiments and fragments. Washington Irving and Longfellow, on the other hand, if they show us the amenity, show us also, in their greater abundance and diffusion, a looseness, an exposure; they sit as it were with open doors, more or less in the social draught. Hawthorne had further to wander and longer to wait; and if he too, in the workshop of art, kept tapping his silver hammer, it was never exactly the nail of thought that he strove to hit on the head. What is true of Hawthorne is truer still of Poe; who, if he had the peace of art, had little of any other. Lowell’s evolution was all in what I have called his saturation, in the generous scale on which he was able to gather in and to store up impressions. The three terms of his life for most of the middle time were a quiet fireside, a quiet library, a singularly quiet community. The personal stillness of the world in which for the most part he lived, seems to abide in the delightful paper—originally included in ‘Fireside Travels’—on ‘Cambridge Thirty Years Ago.’ It gives the impression of conditions in which literature might well become an alternate world, and old books, old authors, old names, old stories, constitute in daily commerce the better half of one’s company. Complications and distractions were not, even so far as they occurred, appreciably his own portion; except indeed for their being—some of them, in their degree—of the general essence of the life of letters. If books have their destinies, they have also their antecedents; and in the face of the difficulty of trying for perfection with a rough instrument, it cannot of course be said that even concentration shuts the door upon pain. If Lowell had all the joys of the scholar and the poet, he was also, and in just that degree, not a stranger to the pangs and the weariness that accompany the sense of exactitude, of proportion, and of beauty, that feeling for intrinsic success, which in the long run becomes a grievous burden for shoulders that have in the rash confidence of youth accepted it,—becomes indeed in the artist’s breast the incurable, intolerable ache.  3
  But such drama as could not mainly, after all, be played out within the walls of his library, came to him, on the whole, during half a century, only in two or three other forms. I mention first the subordinate,—which were all, as well, in the day’s work: the long grind of teaching the promiscuous and preoccupied young, and those initiations of periodical editorship which, either as worries or as triumphs, may never perhaps be said to strike very deep. In 1855 he entered, at Harvard College, upon the chair just quitted by Longfellow: a comprehensive professorship in literature, that of France and that of Spain in particular. He conducted on its foundation, for four years, the Atlantic Monthly; and carried on from 1862, in conjunction with Mr. Charles Eliot Norton, the North American Review, in which his best critical essays appeared. There were published the admirable article on Lessing, that on ‘Rousseau and the Sentimentalists,’ that on Carlyle’s ‘Frederick the Great,’ the rich, replete paper on ‘Witchcraft,’ the beautiful studies (1872–1875) of Dante, Spenser, and Wordsworth; and the brilliant jeux d’esprit, as their overflow of critical wit warrants our calling them, on such subjects as (1866) sundry infirmities of the poetical temper of Swinburne, or such occasions as were offered (1865) by the collected writings of Thoreau, or (1867) by the ‘Life and Letters’ of James Gates Percival,—occasions mainly to run to earth a certain shade of the provincial spirit. Of his career from early manhood to the date of his going in 1877 as minister to Spain, the two volumes of his correspondence published in 1893 by Mr. Norton give a picture reducible to a presentment of study in happy conditions, and of opinions on “moral” questions; an image subsequently thrown somewhat into the shade, but still keeping distinctness and dignity for those who at the time had something of a near view of it. Lowell’s great good fortune was to believe for so long that opinions and study sufficed him. There came in time a day when he lent himself to more satisfactions than he literally desired; but it is difficult to imagine a case in which the literary life should have been a preparation for the life of the world. There was so much in him of the man and the citizen, as well as of the poet and the professor, that with the full reach of curiosities and sympathies, his imagination found even in narrow walls, windows of long range. It was during these years, at any rate, that his poetical and critical spirit were formed; and I speak of him as our prime man of letters precisely on account of the unhurried and unhindered process of the formation. Literature was enough, without being too much, his trade: it made of his life a reservoir never condemned, by too much tapping, to show low water. We have had critics much more frequent, but none more abundant; we have had poets more abundant, but none more acquainted with poetry. This acquaintance with poetry bore fruits of a quality to which I shall presently allude; his critical activity, meantime, was the result of the impulse given by the responsibilities of instructorship to the innermost turn of his mind. His studies could deepen and widen at their ease. The university air soothed, but never smothered; Europe was near enough to touch, but not tormentingly to overlap; the intimate friends were more excellent than numerous, the college feasts just recurrent enough to keep wit in exercise, and the country walks not so blank as to be unsweetened by a close poetic notation of every aspect and secret of nature. He absorbed and lectured and wrote, talked and edited and published; and had, the while, struck early in the day the note from which, for a long time, his main public identity was to spring.  4
  This note, the first of the ‘Biglow Papers,’ was sounded in the summer of 1846, the moment of the outbreak of the Mexican War. It presented not quite as yet so much an “American humorist” the more, as the very possibility or fact of the largest expressiveness in American humor. If he was the first of the dialectic and colloquial group in the order of time, so he was to remain, on this ground, the master and the real authority. The ‘Biglow Papers’ were an accident, begun without plan or forecast: but by the accident the author was, in a sense, determined and prompted; he himself caught from them and from their success a fuller idea of the “Yankee” character, lighted up by every advantage that wit and erudition could lend it. Lowell found himself, on the spot, committed to giving it such aid to literary existence as it could never have had without him. His conception of all the fine things of the mind—of intelligence, honesty, judgment, knowledge—was placed straight at the service of the kind of American spirit that he was conscious of in himself, and that he sought in his three or four typical figures to make ironic and racy.  5
  The ‘Biglow Papers’ are in this relation an extraordinary performance and a rare work of art: in what case, on the part of an artist, has the national consciousness, passionately acute, arrived at a form more independent, more objective? If they were a disclosure of this particular artist’s humor, and of the kind of passion that could most possess him, they represent as well the element that for years gave his life its main enlargement, and as may be said its main agitation,—the element that preserved him from dryness, from the danger of the dilettante. This safeguard was his care for public things and national questions; those to which, even in his class-rooms and his polishings of verse, all others were subordinate. He was politically an ardent liberal, and had from the first engaged with all the force of his imagination on the side that has figured at all historical moments as the cause of reform. Reform, in his younger time, meant above all resistance to the extension of slavery; then it came to mean—and by so doing, to give occasion during the Civil War to a fresh and still finer ‘Biglow’ series—resistance to the pretension of the Southern States to set up a rival republic. The two great impulses he received from without were given him by the outbreak of the war, and—after these full years and wild waves had gradually ebbed—by his being appointed minister to Spain. The latter event began a wholly new period, though serving as a channel for much, for even more perhaps, of the old current; meanwhile, at all events, no account of his most productive phases at least can afford not to touch on the large part, the supreme part, played in his life by the intensity, and perhaps I may go so far as to say the simplicity, of his patriotism. Patriotism had been the keynote of an infinite quantity of more or less felicitous behavior; but perhaps it had never been so much as in Lowell the keynote of reflection and of the moral tone, of imagination and conversation. Action, in this case, could mainly be but to feel as American as possible,—with an inevitable overflow of course into whatever was the expression of the moment. It might often have seemed to those who often—or even to those who occasionally—saw him, that his case was almost unique, and that the national consciousness had never elsewhere been so cultivated save under the stress of national frustration or servitude. It was in fact, in a manner, as if he had been aware of certain forces that made for oppression; of some league of the nations and the arts, some consensus of tradition and patronage, to treat as still in tutelage or on its trial the particular connection of which he happened most to be proud.  6
  The secret of the situation was that he could only, could actively, “cultivate” as a retort to cultivation. There were American phenomena that, as he gathered about the world, cultivation in general deemed vulgar; and on this all his genius rose within him to show what his cultivation could make of them. It enabled him to make so much that all the positive passion in his work is for the direct benefit of patriotism. That, beyond any other irritation of the lyric temperament, is what makes him ardent. In nothing, moreover, is he more interesting than in the very nature of his vision of this humorous “Yankeeism” of type. He meant something it was at that time comparatively easy, as well as perhaps a trifle more directly inspiring, to mean; for his life opened out backward into Puritan solidities and dignities. However this be, at any rate, his main care for the New England—or, as may almost be said, for the Cambridge—consciousness, as he embodied it, was that it could be fed from as many sources as any other in the world, and assimilate them with an ingenuity all its own: literature, life, poetry, art, wit, all the growing experience of human intercourse. His great honor is that in this direction he led it to high success; and if the ‘Biglow Papers’ express supremely his range of imagination about it, they render the American tone the service of placing it in the best literary company,—that of all his other affinities and echoes, his love of the older English and the older French, of all classics and romantics and originals, of Dante and Goethe, of Cervantes and the Elizabethans; his love, in particular, of the history of language and of the complex questions of poetic form. If they had no other distinction, they would have that of one of the acutest of all studies in linguistics. They are more literary, in short, than they at first appear; which is at once the strength and the weakness of his poetry in general, literary indeed as most of it is at sight. The chords of his lyre were of the precious metal, but not perhaps always of the last lyric tenuity. He struck them with a hand not idle enough for mere moods, and yet not impulsive enough for the great reverberations. He was sometimes too ingenious, as well as too reasonable and responsible; this leaves him, on occasion, too much in the grasp of a certain morally conservative humor,—a side on which he touches the authors of “society” verse,—or else mixes with his emotion an intellectual substance, a something alien, that tends to stiffen and retard it. Perhaps I only mean indeed that he had always something to say, and his sturdiness as well as his “cleverness” about the way it should be said. It is congruous, no doubt, with his poetic solidity that his highest point in verse is reached by his ‘Harvard Commemoration Ode,’ a poem for an occasion at once public and intimate; a sustained lament for young lives, in the most vividly sacrificed of which he could divide with the academic mother something of the sentiment of proud ownership. It is unfair to speak of lines so splendid as these as not warmed by the noble thought with which they are charged;—even if it be of the very nature of the English ode to show us always, at its best, something of the chill of the poetic Exercise.  7
  I may refer, however, as little to the detail of his verse as to that of the robust body of his prose. The latter consists of richly accomplished literary criticism, and of a small group of public addresses; and would obviously be much more abundant were we in possession of all the wrought material of Harvard lectures and professorial talks. If we are not, it is because Lowell recognized no material as wrought till it had passed often through the mill. He embarked on no magnum opus, historical, biographical, critical; he contented himself with uttering thought that had great works in its blood. It was for the great works and the great figures he cared; he was a critic of a pattern mainly among ourselves superseded—superseded so completely that he seems already to have receded into time, and to belong to an age of vulgarity less blatant. If he was in educated appreciation the most distinct voice that the United States had produced, this is partly, no doubt, because the chatter of the day and the triumph of the trivial could even then still permit him to be audible, permit him to show his office as supported on knowledge and on a view of the subject. He represented so well the use of a view of the subject that he may be said to have represented best what at present strikes us as most urgent; the circumstance, namely, that so far from being a chamber surrendering itself from the threshold to the ignorant young of either sex, criticism is positively and miraculously not the simplest and most immediate, but the most postponed and complicated of the arts, the last qualified for and arrived at, the one requiring behind it most maturity, most power to understand and compare.  8
  One is disposed to say of him, in spite of his limited production, that he belonged to the massive race, and even has for the present the air of one of the last of it. The two volumes of his ‘Letters’ help, in default of a biography, the rest of his work in testifying to this; and would do so still more if the collection had comprised more letters of the time of his last period in Europe. His diplomatic years—he was appointed in 1880 minister to England—form a chapter by themselves; they gave a new turn to his career, and made a different thing of what was to remain of it. They checked, save here and there for an irrepressible poem, his literary production; but they opened a new field—in the mother-land of “occasional” oratory—for his beautiful command of the spoken word. He spoke often from this moment, and always with his admirable mixture of breadth and wit; with so happy a surrender indeed to this gift that his two finest addresses, that on ‘Democracy’ (Birmingham, 1884) and that on the Harvard Anniversary of 1886, connect themselves with the reconsecration, late in life, of his eloquence. It was a singular fortune, and possible for an American alone, that such a want of peculiarly professional, of technical training, should have been consistent with a degree of success that appeared to reduce training to unimportance. Nothing was more striking, in fact, than that what Lowell had most in England to show was simply all the air and all the effect of preparedness. If I have alluded to the best name we can give him and the best niche we can make for him, let this be partly because letters exactly met in him a more distinguished recognition than usually falls to their lot. It was they that had prepared him really; prepared him—such is the subtlety of their operation—even for the things from which they are most divorced. He reached thus the phase in which he took from them as much as he had given; represented them in a new, insidious way. It was of course in his various speeches that his preparedness came out most; most enjoyed the superlative chance of becoming, by the very fact of its exercise, one of the safeguards of an international relation that he would have blushed not to have done his utmost to keep inviolable. He had the immense advantage that the very voice in which he could speak—so much at once that of his masculine, pugnacious intellect, and that of the best side of the race—was a plea for everything the millions of English stock have in common. This voice, as I may call it, that sounds equally in every form of his utterance, was his great gift to his time. In poetry, in satire, in prose, and on his lips, it was from beginning to end the manliest, the most ringing, to be heard. He was essentially a fighter: he could always begin the attack; could always, in criticism as in talk, sound the charge and open the fire. The old Puritan conscience was deep in him, with its strong and simple vision, even in æsthetic things, of evil and of good, of wrong and of right; and his magnificent wit was all at its special service. He armed it, for vindication and persuasion, with all the amenities, the “humanities”—with weapons as sharp and bright as it has ever carried.  9
 
 
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