JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
James Russell Lowell is our chief poetical moralist . Not our greatest poet; for, in simplicity and range of sentiment, Longfellow excels him. He is not a melodist, like Poe; nor a politician, like Whittier; nor a somber lover of nature, like Bryant. But ethics is bred in the very bone. From early manhood, abstract right fired his imagination, took the place of divinity as a study, became the real subject of all his poetry. In two respects, Lowell made his work an important contribution to human progress: On the one hand, he added wit and humor to the forces of reform; and, on the other hand, his breadth and sanity of judgment in politics and literature gave enduring value to his criticism. Yet he was hampered by the brilliancy of his genius. He was so fertile in ideas that images ran over one another in his brain and entangled his expression of them. Only in occasional snatches do we find pure poetry. But the sincerity of the man makes all his writing impressive. To him literature was a ministry; and he could always, without rebuke, apply to himself the poet's words:
"He serves the Muses erringly and ill,
Whose aim is pleasure, light and fugitive."
Lowell was a typical man of letters; but, with all his wit and humor, he was a profoundly serious writer.
268 PARENTAGE AND BOYHOOD OF LOWELL
His ethics took the form of patriotism. There never was a more complete American. He put his literary gifts at the service of his country and of humanity. He gloried in our national greatness, while at the same time he recognized and labored to cure our national defects. His poetry greatly helped the cause of freedom and unity in the time of our Civil War. It is an interesting coincidence that he was born on the twenty-second of February, 1819, just eighty-seven years after the birth of George Washington. George William Curtis calls attention to this fact; and, as illustrations of patriotic service, he blends the names of Lowell and of Washington together.
The father of our poet was a clergyman of literary tastes, and of a benignant disposition. His mother had in her nature a tincture of romance. James was her youngest child, and her darling. Handsome and affectionate, he responded to her admiration of fields and flowers, and to her stories of heroism on land and sea. The father took the boy with him, in. his long journeys in the one-horse chaise, whenever he made his frequent exchange of pulpits with ministers of the neighboring towns. Eastern Massachusetts had then an almost unmixed native population. Then and there could be heard the genuine Yankee dialect. Lowell declared in after years that, of all languages on the face of the earth, he was most certain that he knew the Yankee; and it is probable that these clerical inroads into the country gave to the susceptible and funloving child the inimitable vocabulary and grammar which " The Biglow Papers " afterward immortalized.
The bright boy was a lover of books; but he loved
LOWELL AT COLLEGE 269
regular study and discipline much less. It was well for him that William Wells, an Englishman, "of good breeding as well as good learning," taught him his Latin. Lowell never lost the benef1t of that severe instruction. His favorite occupation, however, was his voluntary and miscellaneous foraging in fields of English literature. When he entered Harvard College at the age of fifteen, he was widely read. In his sophomore year he writes to a friend that Milton has excited his "ambition to read all the Greek and Latin classics which he "—that is, Milton himself—•" did." The same letter shows that Lowell had more than ordinary acquaintance with the Satires of Horace, as well as the Bucolics of Vergil. Butler's "Hudibras," Beattie's "Minstrel," together with. Akenside, Byron, Coleridge, Cowley, Pope, and Spenser, are casually mentioned as parts of his English acquisitions. The mathematics of the regular course, however, did not attract him. He was somewhat neglectful of college prayers. Popular with his classmates, he was not equally popular with the faculty. In fact, though chosen by his class as their poet, he was not permitted by the authorities to deliver his poem, or even to graduate. For several months he was suspended from all college exercises, and was required to absent himself from the neighborhood of the institution. Mr. Norton, however, relates that " in the autumn, having received his degree with his classmates, he returned to his home in Cambridge." Reflection upon his waywardness, and upon the sorrow it caused to his parents, was apparently the turning-point in his career. He spent his days of "rustication " in Concord, where he met Emerson, of whom
270 LOWELLS LITERARY AND ETHICAL BENT
he writes: " He is a good-natured man, in spite of his doctrines." Up to this time Lowell was neither a transcendentalist nor an abolitionist. The class-poem, which he wrote in Concord and distributed to his classmates in print after their graduation, speaks rather slightingly of both these great movements of the time. But he was gradually and unconsciously changing. He accuses himself of indolence and of dreaming. He reads Blackstone, but soon renounces the law:
They tell me I must study law.
They say that I have dreamed, and dreamed too long;
That I must rouse, and seek for fame and gold;
That I must scorn this idle gift of song,
And mingle with the vain and proud and cold.
Is then this petty strife
The end and aim of life.
All that is worth the living for below?
O God, then call me hence, for I would gladly go!
Literature is his real idol. Yet increasing maturity gives to his thoughts an ethical bent. He aims to write a poem on Cromwell, whom he admires more than he admires the dashing Cavaliers. He becomes "ultrademocratic "; calls the Church of England an "incubus "; declares that the abolitionists are the only party with which he sympathizes. He thinks seriously of going into the divinity school, as a preparation for the ministry; but he gives this up, for the reason that he has not money enough to be independent, as a minister ought to be. He records a vow to read a chapter in the Bible every night. "Only fools," he says, "despise religion." But he cares little for outward religious observances:
LOWELL S MARRIAGE DIRECTS HIS GENIUS 27I
What is religion? 'Tis to go
To church one day in seven,
And think that we, of all men, know
The only way to heaven.
But he that hath found, as the holy apostle did at Athens of the heathens, an altar to the unknown God in his heart, and who in a spirit of love and wonder offereth up acceptable offerings thereon in the Temple of Nature, doth not he, of the twain, walk with God?
This turmoil and uncertainty are signs of a vigorous mind, eager for action, and desirous of doing the best that is possible; but they also show that as yet Lowell is little acquainted with his own powers or with the needs of the world. Out of this seething caldron, however, there slowly rises the shape of a definite ambition—an ambition that masters him and compels his following through all his after-life:
Above all things should I love to be able to sit down and do something literary for the rest of my natural life. . . Before I die, your heart shall be gladdened by seeing your wayward, vain, and too often selfish friend do something that shall make his name honored. As Sheridan once said, " It's in me, and" (we'll skip the oath) "it shall come out!" I shall let my fate be governed by circumstance and influence. . . A man should regard not only what is in him, but also what is without, acting on that within.
It is doubtful whether this ambition would have been absorbingly ethical, as well as literary, if his marriage to Miss Maria White had not directed his genius to the highest aims. She had been his next-door neighbor and his playmate from their childhood; she had poetical gifts which Lowell delighted to recognize; she
272 A YEAR S LIFE"
was beautiful in person, calm and commanding in manner; above all, her moral nature ruled, and she sympathized with every righteous and suffering cause. She stimulated the moral impulses of her husband, and turned what might have been merely light literature into a mighty influence for reform.
The woman's influence in this case was so great that we may be pardoned for introducing here the dedication of Lowell's first book of poems, published in 1841, and entitled " A Year's Life." It was addressed, really though not formally, to his future bride:
The gentle Una have I loved,
The snowy maiden, pure and mild,
Since ever by her side I roved
Through ventures strange, a wondering
In fantasy a Red Cross Knight
Burning for her dear sake to fight.
If there be one who can, like her.
Make sunshine in life's shady places,
One in whose holy bosom stir
As many gentle household graces,—
And such I think there needs must be,—
Will she accept this book from me?
The little book was full of allusions to his inamorata. One of its poems was indeed an elaborate and long drawn-out description of her. "Irene," in spite of its youthful effervescence, is a production of much promise; and, as disclosing one of the great influences that shaped his mental and moral development, it deserves our special attention. I quote only its first and last stanzas:
EARLY STRAITS AND BEREAVEMENTS 273
Hers is a spirit deep, and crystal-clear;
Calmly beneath her earnest face it lies,
Free without boldness, meek without a fear,
Quicker to look than speak its sympathies;
Far down into her large and patient eyes
I gaze, deep-drinking of the infinite,
As, in the mid-watch of a clear, still night,
I look into the fathomless blue skies.
Like a lone star through riven storm-clouds seen
By sailors, tempest-tost upon the sea,
Telling of rest and peaceful heavens nigh,
Unto my soul her star-like soul hath been,
Her sight as full of hope and calm to me;—
For she unto herself hath builded high
A home serene, wherein to lay her head,
Earth's noblest thing, a Woman perfected.
The poet had need of a patient and strong companion, for his father's loss of property made marriage impracticable for three whole years, and threw him after his graduation from college entirely upon his own resources. He lived on the meager returns of hack-work for newspapers and magazines; and, since these gave him no more than four hundred dollars yearly, he was often in real straits for money. When at last, in December, 1844, he married, the pair lived for a twelvemonth on less than one thousand dollars, although from the first the wife was frail in health. Their married life was not free from sorrow. In 1847 death took from them their little daughter Blanche, and in 1850 their daughter Rose. In this latter year they were made happy by the birth of a beautiful son, Walter; but he too died during their tour in Italy in 1852. Mrs. Lowell never recovered from these dreadful blows, and she followed her children in 1853.
274 LOWELLS BRILLIANCY AND VERSATILITY
Lowell's financial circumstances had so improve that he could go abroad with his family. But sorroi did its work; his writing gained in depth and sympathy; he braced himself, not only to meet whateve might come to him individually, but to stand for truth and right in public affairs. The spirit of his wile influenced him, not only while she lived, but long after her departure. What has been well called " the stead; and relentless progress of the slave-power" challengehis abhorrence and his opposition. As early as 1840 he engaged to write for " The Anti-slaverv Stan''"'' a weekly contribution in prose or verse, - ... ,1
pitiful five hundred dollars a year. T! . connection lasted for four years. His work was not exclusively reformatory. Some of his poems, like "Eurydice and " The Parting of the Ways," were revelations of his inner life. In " The Boston Miscellany " he wrote on "The Old English Dramatists "—and began a series of prose essays which has put him in the forefront of English stylists and critics. But it was only in 1848 that he scored his greatest triumph and won universal applause, by his publication of the first series of " The Biglow Papers." That this remarkable production should have appeared in the same year with his "Fable for Critics" and "Sir Launfal," is proof of Lowell's astonishing brilliancy and versatility.
The earlier poems merit consideration, since they show signs of genuine human feeling and flashes of poetic inspiration. But in them the poet is struggling with his material, and, like Milton's beasts at the creation, is not yet free from his earthly mold. In "The Vision of Sir Launfal " he reaches his greatest
LOWELLS GENIUS ETHICAL AND PATRIOTIC 275
height in pure poetry. That poem, indeed, has been called the finest idyl ever written by an American. Lowell's forte, however, was not pure poetry. It was not till he printed his " Biglow Papers" that he revealed his true nature, and gave full rein to his genius. That genius was ethical and patriotic. It was statesmanlike in its breadth and sanity. In his "Commemoration Ode" it appears at its best. But the poetry of this "Ode" is involved and obscure; and that of "The Cathedral" is even more so. In both ,1 '-»«•>„ poems there is an air of overelaborateness. '-, .. ;£ end of his days did Lowell achieve real
simplicity. . Dnly in "The Biglow Papers" does he write with abandon. In them his whole nature finds expression, as nowhere else. Wit and humor are his true weapons; when he uses them, his appeal is irresistible. In "The Biglow Papers" he reached the culmination of his powers, and exerted his largest influence. But, before we analyze these most characteristic of his productions, let us glance at the poems which preceded them, and which represent Lowell in the realm of pure poetry.
Let us begin with the poems suggested by domestic sorrow. His second daughter, Rose, died after a week's illness. "Dear little child"" he writes, "she had never spoken, only smiled." "After the Burial" is Lowell's answer to a letter of condolence:
Immortal? I feel it and know it,
Who doubts it of such as she?
But that is the pang's very secret,—
Immortal away from me.
276 POEMS OF DOMESTIC SORROW
It is pagan; but wait till you feel it,—
That jar of our earth, that dull shock
When the ploughshare of deeper passion
Tears down to our primitive rock.
Communion in spirit! Forgive me,
But I, who am earthly and weak,
Would give all my incomes from dreamland
For a touch of her hand on my cheek.
That little shoe in the corner,
So worn and wrinkled and brown,
With its emptiness confutes you,
And argues your wisdom down.
The frail health of his wife makes her presence more precious, and he offers this tribute to her ennobling influence:
I cannot think that thou shouldst pass away,
Whose life to mine is an eternal law,
A piece of nature that can have no flaw,
A new and certain sunrise every day;
But, if thou art to be another ray
About the Sun of Life, and art to live
Free from what part of thee was fugitive,
The debt of Love I will more fully pay,
Not downcast with the thought of thee so high,
But rather raised to be a nobler man,
And more divine in my humanity,
As knowing that the waiting eyes which scan
My life are lighted by a purer being,
And ask high, calm-browed deeds, with it agreeing.
The "Ode," written in 1841, reveals the ambition of Lowell's youth. He aims to be nothing less than a new voice of Almighty God to suffering and sorrowing men:
GROWTH OF LOWELL S ETHICAL PRINCIPLE 277
In the old days of awe and keen-eyed wonder,
The Poet's song with blood-warm truth was rife;
He saw the mysteries which circle under
The outward shell and skin of daily life.
But now the Poet is an empty rhymer
Who lies with idle elbow on the grass,
And fits his singing, like a cunning timer,
To all men's prides and fancies as they pass.
Among the toil-worn poor my soul is seeking
For who shall bring the Maker's name to light,
To be the voice of that almighty speaking
Which every age demands to do it right.
"The Parting of the Ways " shows the growth of the ethical principle in the poet's mind, and his own decision to follow Duty:
Who hath not been a poet? Who hath not,
With life's new quiver full of winged years,
Shot at a venture, and then, following on,
Stood doubtful at the Parting of the Ways?
There once I stood in dream, and as I paused,
Looking this way and that, came forth to me
The figure of a woman veiled, that said,
"My name is Duty, turn and follow me."
There was a chill in that voice, and for a time the poet was attracted by the meretricious form of Pleasure, who proposed Beauty, instead of Duty, as his guide. But Death laid hold of Beauty, and buried her under a heap of ashes. Duty at last removed her veil, and the poet perceived that she alone was fair. It is an allegory of Lowell's life, and it indicates his final choice.
278 "THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL"
Virtue seems to have been its own reward, for this choice was followed by his greatest success in poetry. "The Vision of Sir Launfal" is the first fruit of his new consecration to the cause of humanity, and it is also the most perfect of all his poems. More of its lines than of any other work of his have become parts of our common speech, and are quoted by those who know nothing of their author. Indeed, when we have once heard them, how impossible it is to banish them from memory! I can mention only two or three; and these I take the liberty of putting together in a new order, so as to connect what otherwise would be only scattered fragments:
What is so rare as a day in June?
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
No price is set on the lavish summer;
June may be had by the poorest comer.
At the devil's booth are all things sold,
Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold;
For a cap and bells our lives we pay,
Bubbles we buy with a whole soul's tasking:
'Tis heaven alone that is given away,
'Tis only God may be had for the asking.
Sir Launfal flashed forth in his maiden mail,
To seek in all climes for the Holy Grail.
As Sir Launfal made morn through the darksome
He was 'ware of a leper, crouched by the same,
Who begged with his hand and moaned as he sate;
And seemed the one blot on the summer morn,—
So he tossed him a piece of gold in scorn.
The leper raised not the gold from the dust:
"Better to me the poor man's crust,
Better the blessing of the poor,
Though I turn me empty from his door."
A FABLE FOR CRITICS 279
An old, bent man, worn out and frail,
He came back from seeking the Holy Grail;
But deep in his soul the sign he wore,
The badge of the suffering and the poor.
The leper once more confronts him, and asks an alms:
And Sir Launfal said, " I behold in thee
An image of Him who died on the tree;
Mild Mary's Son, acknowledge me;
Behold, through him, I give to thee!"
The leper no longer crouched at his side,
But stood before him glorified,
Himself the Gate whereby men can
Enter the temple of God in Man.
And he hears the voice of Christ, saying:
"The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another's need;
Not what we give, but what we share,
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me."
"A Fable for Critics " is amazingly sprightly. It is the first gush of Lowell's wit. Its novel rhymes would do credit to Byron. Yet, in spite of its constant hilarity, imagination and learning go hand in hand. It is a serious review of American literature, and it did excellent service in correcting the faults of our writing. We mistake, if we regard it as mere satire. There are, it is true, occasional touches of sarcasm, as in the mention of Bryant's chilly " iceolation." But in general the tone is kindly, as became a young man's criticism of his elders. Lowell makes Apollo the real
280 "STANZAS ON FREEDOM"
speaker, and before him pass in review all the main writers of the day:
"There comes Emerson first, whose rich words, every one, Are like gold nails in temples to hang trophies on, Whose prose is grand verse, while his verse, the Lord knows. Is some of it pr No, 'tis not even prose."
The comparison of Emerson with Carlyle is both sane and instructive:
"C. labors to get at the centre, and then
Take a reckoning from there of his actions and men;
E. calmly assumes the said centre as granted
And, given himself, has whatever is wanted."
Alcott, Brownson, Willis, Parker, Whittier, Dana, Neal, Hawthorne, Cooper, Halleck, Franco, Poe, Margaret Fuller, Holmes, all pass under this rollicking and spicy review. Their little peculiarities and shortcomings are so gently and amusingly indicated, that the honor of mention far outweighs the pain of criticism, and the sufferers must themselves acknowledge that "faithful are the wounds of a friend."
Lowell's interest, however, was gradually turning from literature to politics. In public affairs he saw the greatest wrongs to be righted, and recognized his most natural field of action. His first remonstrance against slavery is found in his " Stanzas on Freedom ":
Men! whose boast it is that ye
Come of fathers brave and free,
If there breathe on earth a slave,
Are ye truly free and brave?
If ye do not feel the chain,
INDIGNATION AT POLITICAL WRONGS 281
When it works a brother's pain,
Are ye not base slaves indeed,
Slaves unworthy to be freed?
They are slaves who fear to speak
For the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.
"Prometheus" is a like appeal for justice to the oppressed:
Tyrants are but the spawn of Ignorance,
Begotten by the slaves they trample on,
Who, could they win a glimmer of the light,
And see that Tyranny is always weakness,
Or Fear with its own bosom ill at ease,
Would laugh away in scorn the sand-wove chain
Which their own blindness feigned for adamant.
Wrong ever builds on quicksands, but the Right
To the firm centre lays its moveless base.
And his indignation culminates in "The Present Crisis," in which he urges the sons of the Pilgrims to war against the curse that then desolated our land:
Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old systems and the
Word; * .
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,— Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, \ Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
282 "THE BIGLOW PAPERS"
Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched
crust, Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be
just; Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands
aside, Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified, And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr
stands, On the morrow crouches Judas with the silver in his hands; Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots
burn, While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return To glean up the scattered ashes into History's golden urn.
New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's blood-rusted key.
When Wendell Phillips quoted this last stanza in his Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, it thrilled his audience, and it has ever since been a veritable battlecry of freedom.
All this leads us up to what we must consider the greatest achievement of Lowell's life—I mean the publication of " The Biglow Papers." I call these his greatest work, for several reasons: their subject was great; their occasion was great; and both subject and
LOWELL AND MRS. STOWE 283
occasion engaged his greatest powers, and all his powers. Let us consider for a moment the situation of affairs a decade before our great Civil War. Slavery had ceased to be passive and remorseful, and had become aggressive and triumphant. Although Washington, in his will, had provided for the emancipation of his own slaves, and Jefferson had said, " I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just," the acquisition of Louisiana had opened so vast an area for slave labor, and the cotton crop had made that labor so profitable, that slavery was now justified as a divine institution, and all opposition to its extension was resented as an invasion of the rights of the South. Northern manufacturers and merchants who cultivated Southern trade were required to abstain from criticism of the peculiar institution. Even preachers in the churches saw new light with regard to God's decree of servitude for the black race, and the old freedom-loving spirit of the North was slowly but surely undermined. But there was slowly but surely rising a moral indignation before which slavery was ultimately destined to succumb, and Mrs. Stowe's " Uncle Tom's Cabin " and Lowell's " Biglow Papers " were both effects and promoters of that indignation.
Lowell had the advantage of Mrs. Stowe, not only in being the earlier, but also in being the more amusing writer. Mrs. Stowe drew upon men's sympathy; Lowell drew upon their conscience. Mrs. Stowe had more of humor; Lowell had more of wit. And wit played a part in this controversy that humor never could. Wit gave a sword-thrust, which showed that the author could fight, as well as write. It was 284 "The B1glow Papers"
needed to convince the Soutl1 that the North could not always be cajoled or intimidated. Southern leaders were sons of the early Cavaliers who settled Virginia, and whose conception of freedom was feudalistic. The king was free, they thought, and his lords were free, but not the king's subjects, or the lord's retainers. In our Southern States, the few slaveholders who managed the affairs of a whole county looked down upon the voters of a Northern town meeting very much as the Cavaliers of old England had looked down upon the Roundheads. Southern freedom was theoretical, but not real. Yet these slaveholders were convinced of their own superiority, and declared that one Southerner could whip five Yankees. Nothing but ridicule could pierce their pachydermatous sides. Lowell brought ridicule to bear upon them; but. in this very ridicule, he showed the true greatness of the Yankee stock, the thoroughness of its education, the soundness of its morality, and the fighting force of its theory of government. In this demonstration of Northern principle and efficiency, the dialect poem was a mere instrument, invented for a purpose; and that purpose, to prove that the despised Yankee, however humble he might be, towered far above the defenders of slavery, in every true attribute of manhood. While "The Biglow Papers" were Yankee in form, they were universal in spirit. They were products of the American soil, and they breathed the American independence, while at the same time they were nobly and profoundly human. They have no predecessors or rivals in literature, unless it be in the Scottish, yet human, poems of Robert Burns. They ran like wild
"THE BIGLOW PAPERS" 285
fire through the country. They were copied with applause in every newspaper at the North, and with objurgation in every newspaper that dared print them at the South. Lowell might have published poems by the hundred, of the ordinary sort, and might have found no great number of readers. But when these papers were issued in 1846, he woke one morning and found himself famous. I can quote only a stanza here and there, to show how perfectly they combine wit and sense, ethics and amusement. Let me begin with the utterances of Birdofredum Sawin, who represents the claims of the South, stripped to nakedness and reduced to language which the humblest can understand. They expose to everlasting contempt the flamboyant patriotism that can praise freedom in the abstract, while it grinds the slave under its heel. Mr. Sawin has enlisted as a soldier in the Mexican war, and is intent upon justifying that effort to extend the bounds of slavery:
Thet our nation's bigger'n theirn an' so its rights air bigger,
An' thet it's all to make 'em free thet we air pullin' trigger,
Thet Anglo Saxondom's idee's abreakin' 'em to pieces,
An' thet idee's thet every man doos jest wut he damn pleases;
Ef I don't make his meanin' clear, perhaps in some respex I
I know thet "every man" don't mean a nigger or a Mexican;
An' there's another thing I know, an' thet is, ef these creeturs
Thet stick an Anglosaxon mask onto Stateprison feeturs,
Should come to Jaalam Centre fer to argify an' spout on't,
The gals 'ould count the silver spoons the minnit they cleared
But Hosea Biglow refuses to enlist, and scorns the enticements of the recruiting sergeant in the following vigorous language:
286 "THE BIGLOW PAPERS"
Thrash away, you'll hev to rattle
On them kittle-drums o' yourn,—
'Taint a knowin' kind o' cattle
Thet is ketched with mouldy corn;
Put in stiff, you fifer feller,
Let folks see how spry you be,—
Guess you'll toot till you are yeller
'Fore you'll git a hold o' me I
'Taint your eppyletts an' feathers
Make the thing a grain more right;
'Taint afollerin' your bell-wethers
Will excuse ye in His sight;
Ef you take a sword an' dror it,
And go stick a feller thru,
Guv'ment aint to at swer for it,
God'll send the bill to you.
Aint it cute to see a Yankee
Take sech everlastin' pains,
All to get the Devil's thankee
Helpin' on 'em weld their chains?
Wy, it's jest ez clear ez Aggers,
Clear ez one an' one make two,
Chaps thet make black slaves o' niggers
Want to make wite slaves o' you.
"I'll return ye good fer evil
Much ez we frail mortils can,
But I wun't go help the Devil
Makin' man the cus o' man;
Call me coward, call me traiter,
Jest ez suits your mean idees,—
Here I stand a tyrant-hater,
An' the friend o' God an' Peace!"
"What Mr. Robinson Thinks" is a telling satire upon the slippery and mercenary policy of many Northern statesmen. It angered them, and for many years
"THE BIGLOW PAPERS" 287
Lowell was shut out from all places of honor to which they had the key:
Gineral C. is a dreffle smart man:
He's ben on all sides thet give places or pelf;
But consistency still wuz a part of his plan,—
He's ben true to one party,—an' thet is himself;—
So John P.
Sez he shall vote fer Gineral C.
Parson Wilbur sez he never heerd in his life
Thet th'Apostles rigged out in their swaller-tail coats,
An' marched round in front of a drum and a fife,
To git some on 'em office, an' some on 'em votes;
But John P.
Sez they didn't know everythin' down in Judee.
Wal, it's a marcy we've gut folks to tell us
The rights and the wrongs o' these matters, I vow,—
God sends country lawyers, an' other wise fellers,
To start the world's team wen it gits in a slough;
Fer John P.
Sez the world'll go right, ef he hollers out Gee!
And Increase D. O'Phace, Esquire, undoubtedly uttered the sentiments of many such, when he averred:
A marciful Providunce fashioned us holler
O' purpose thet we might our princerples swaller.
But Peace comes at last, and Mr. Hosea Biglow salutes it, with sorrow for those who have gone to the war never to return, and yet with joy in the great future that now opens before our country:
288 "THE BIGLOW PAPERS"
Rat-tat-tat-tattle thru the street
I hear the drummers makin' riot,
An' I set thinktn' o' the feet
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'.
Come, Peace! not like a mourner bowed
For honor lost an' dear ones wasted,
But proud, to meet a people proud,
With eyes thet tell o' triumph tasted 1
Come, with han' grippin' on the hilt,
An' step thet proves ye Victory's daughter!
Longin' fer you, our sperits wilt
Like shipwrecked men's on raf's for water.
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
They kissed their cross with lips thet quivered,
An' bring fair wages for brave men,
A nation saved, a race delivered!
His lines on " International Copyright" might almost be thought a summing up of the whole doctrine of "The Biglow Papers," and they well describe his own work and influence as a poetical moralist:
In vain we call old notions fudge,
And bend our conscience to our dealing;
The Ten Commandments will not budge,
And stealing will continue stealing.
It would not be fair to Lowell, as we take our leave of his work in dialect, if we omitted mention of a little
"THE COURTIN'" 289
poem which was originally composed merely to fill in a vacant page of " The Biglow Papers." "The Courtin' " is a New England idyl, deserving of a place side by side with "The Vision of Sir Launfal," though written in an entirely different vein. Nothing can surpass the description of the Yankee lover's trembling and embarrassment, as he entered the house of his beloved:
Zekle crep' up quite unbeknown
An' peeked in thru' the winder,
An' there sot Huldy all alone,
'ith no one nigh to hender.
He kin' o' l'itered on the mat,
Some doubtfle o' the sekle;
His heart kep' goin' pity-pat,
But hern went pity Zekle.
He stood a spell on one foot fust,
Then stood a spell on t'other,
An' on which one he felt the wust
He couldn't ha' told ye nuther.
Says he, " I'd better call again;"
Says she, " Think likely, Mister:"
Thet last word pricked him like a pin,
An' . . . Wal, he up an' kist her.
Then her red come back like the tide
Down to the Bay o' Fundy,
An' all I know is they was cried
In meetin' come nex' Sunday.
In January, 1855, Lowell was appointed " Professor of French and Spanish Languages and Literatures, and of Belles Lettres " in Harvard College, thus succeeding
29O PROSE WORKS OF LOWELL
Ticknor and Longfellow. He had written much for "The North American Review," and he had given a series of Lowell Lectures. "The Old Dramatists" had been followed by prose essays on many of the great names of literature, and he had won the reputation of our chief American critic. From this time, indeed, his main literary work was in prose. While its tone was more and more ethical and statesmanlike, there was an affluence of learning and a brilliafncy of wit which made all his writings entertaining- and memorable. Its defect was an overabundance of these very qualities. Wit is a very good servant, but a very poor master. Constant coruscations in the trolley car show that the electric current is not under complete control. Lowell is too much dominated by his wit and learning. Some of his articles remind one of Macaulay's earliest essay—the essay on Milton—which fairly bristled with antithesis and eloquence. The real thought is hidden beneath the analogies that are suggested by it. And yet Lowell is vastly interesting. "My Study Windows" look out upon a wide prospect, and one cannot read these papers without admiration and instruction.
On two great occasions Lowell was chosen to deliver poems, though his time of youthful spontaneity had passed. Harvard College sought to celebrate the valor and devotion of her sons who had fallen in defense of our American Union, and no one so fit as Lowell was found to deliver the Commemoration Ode. He spent upon it the labor of weeks, as he thought, in vain. At last a mighty impulse seized him. and in two days he produced an elaborate and noble
THE HARVARD COMMEMORATION ODE 29I
poem. Yet it lacked simplicity. Lowell's real vein had been exhausted. There was no place here for wit. Not all his powers could enter into the result. The poem won applause; but the applause was qualified. He was more statesman than poet, and more moralist than statesman. Yet the opening lines were worthy of the occasion, and worthy of him who uttered them:
Weak-winged is song,
Nor aims at that clear-ethered height
Whither the brave deed climbs for light:
We seem to do them wrong,
Bringing our robin's-leaf to deck their hearse
Who in warm life-blood wrote their nobler verse,
Our trivial song to honor those who come
With ears attuned to strenuous trump and drum,
And shaped in squadron-strophes their desire,
Live battle-odes whose lines were steel and fire:
Yet sometimes feathered words are strong,
A gracious memory to buoy up and save
From Lethe's dreamless ooze, the common grave
Of the unventurous throng.
His description of Abraham Lincoln may be put side by side with Walt Whitman's "My Captain," as expressing the grief and reverence of the North:
Great captains, with their guns and drums,
Disturb our judgment fpr the hour,
But at last silence comes;
These all are gone, and, standing like a tower,
Our children shall behold his fame.
The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man,
Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,
New birth of our new soil, the first American.
And the closing lines of the " Ode" attribute to God the victory over our great national curse:
2<)2 LOWELL S MOST PRODUCTIVE YEARS
Bow down, dear Land, for thou hast found release!
Thy God, in these distempered days,
Hath taught thee the sure wisdom of His ways,
And through thine enemies hath wrought thy peace!
Bow down in prayer and praise!
No poorest in thy borders but may now
Lift to the juster skies a man's enfranchised brow.
The second important occasion for the recitation of a poem was the hundredth anniversary of the fight at Concord Bridge. This too was an improvisation, written only two days before the celebration. It ends with a lofty appeal to the Spirit that nerved the men of Seventy-six:
Freedom, not won by the vain,
Not to be courted in play,
Not to be kept without pain.
Stay with us! Yes, thou wilt stay,
Handmaid and mistress of all,
Kindler of deed and of thought,
Thou that to hut and to hall
Equal deliverance brought!
Souls of her martyrs, draw near,
Touch our dull lips with your fire,
That we may praise without fear
Her our delight, our desire,
Our faith's inextinguishable star,
Our hope, our remembrance, our trust,
Our present, our past, our to be,
Who will mingle her life with our dust
And makes us deserve to be free!
The years between 1857 and 1877 were the most productive of Lowell's life. His circumstances were favorable. He had contracted a second marriage with Miss Frances Dunlap, of Portland, in Maine. Elmwood, near Cambridge, was his commodious and beau
LOWELL AS EDITOR, DIPLOMAT, AND WIT 293
tiful home. He was for two years the editor of " The Atlantic Monthly," and for ten years afterward was, with Charles Eliot Norton, the editor of " The North American Review." To this Review he contributed most of his essays. They were political as well as literary. They attracted attention by their breadth of historical outlook, as well as by their soundness of political judgment. In fact, the country had come to look upon him as its chief representative in literature; and when, in 1877, President Hayes made him minister to Madrid, and when, in 1880, he was transferred to London, the appointments were received with universal applause. Our country was never more nobly represented abroad. Lowell's wit and learning, his tact and sense, made him a favorite in society, the chosen speaker at public dinners, and at the same time the careful conductor of diplomatic negotiations. The British universities paid him their highest honors. His wife died in 1885, and he returned to this country, to spend his remaining years in comparative retirement, though he was still engaged in literary work. His death occurred in 1891, and his loss was mourned as that of our foremost man of letters.
Lowell's wit was so large a part of his endowment, that specific mention needs to be made of it. Its spontaneity was refreshing. It irradiated his speeches, his letters, and all his private intercourse. What can be more charming than the description of his trials in learning the German language!
What a language it is, to be sure! with nominatives sending out as many roots as that witch-grass which is the pest of all child-gardens, and sentences in which one sets sail like an 294 "THE CATHEDRAL"
admiral with scaled orders, not knowing where the devil he is going to, till he gets out into mid-ocean! After tea, we sit and talk German—or what some of us take to be such— and which I speak already like a native—of some other country. . . The confounded genders! If I die, I will have engraved on my tombstone that I died of der, die, das, not because I caught 'em, but because I couldn't. . . The next day I was up before sunrise, and got into a habit of early rising that lasted me all that day. . . I have joined an Alpine Club, the members of which ascend the highest peaks by proxy, using an achromatic telescope to sec others do it.
When Lord John Russell, with some fear that he might decline, invited him as "the most engaged man in London," he accepted the invitation as coming from "the most engaging man in London." Nothing could surpass his poise and mastery of a social occasion, so that his friends, on both sides of the Atlantic, were numberless. And yet his nature, lavish as it was, had depth as well as richness. At bottom there was a serious view of life, which qualified him to be one of the moralists of his generation. It was this gift which was most conspicuous in his address on " Democracy" at Birmingham, in England, and in his address in commemoration of the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Harvard University.
"The Cathedral," originally called " A Day at Chartres," is Lowell's last notable contribution to poetry. It is full of thought and feeling, but the verse is intricate, and the meaning sometimes as obscure as Browning's " Sordello." The poet sees in the centurygrowth of the cathedral the type of all historic progress. That progress is rooted in the faith of the past; it witnesses to the need of such faith in these times which boast advance but may mistake the key:
LOWELL S CONFESSION OF FAITH 295
I stood before the triple northern port,
Where dedicated shapes of saints and kings,
Stern faces bleared with immemorial watch,
Looked down benignly grave and seemed to say,
Ye come and go incessant; we remain
Safe in the hallowed quiets of the past;
Be reverent, ye who flit and are forgot,
Of faith so nobly realized as this.
And its later lines recognize the indwelling God as the source of such faith, imparting it to every child, and helping every man in its expression:
O Power, more near my life than life itself
(Or what seems life to us in sense immured),
Even as the roots, shut in the darksome earth,
Share in the tree-top's joyance, and conceive
Of sunshine and wide air and winged things
By sympathy of nature, so do I
Have evidence of Thee so far above,
Yet in and of me! Rather Thou the root
Invisibly sustaining, hid in light,
Not darkness, or in darkness made by us.
This poem forms the natural transition to a consideration of Lowell's theology. It was printed in 1869, before his public life began. He himself called it "a kind of religious poem." It is indeed a confession of faith, noble in many respects, yet lacking some of the best elements of Christian belief. "The Cathedral" will furnish us with material both for praise and for criticism. We may begin by pointing out that Lowell, while recognizing an immanent God, has no faith in a God who is transcendent, and therefore can believe in no miracle or special revelation. The closing lines of the poem make this plain:
296 Lovvell's Error As To God
If sometimes I must hear good men debate
Of other witness of Thyself than Thou,
As if there needed any help of ours
To nurse Thy flickering life, that else must cease,
Blown out, as 't were a candle, by men's breath,
My soul shall not be taken in their snare.
To change her inward surety for their doubt
Muffled from sight in formal robes of proof:
While she can only feel herself through Thee,
I fear not Thy withdrawal; more I fear,
Seeing, to know Thee not, hoodwinked with dreams
Of signs and wonders, while, unnoticed, Thou,
Walking Thy garden still, commun'st with men,
Missed in the commonplace of miracle.
Truth and error are so interwoven here that some insight is needed to disentangle them. The great truth that God is in all, and through all, is made to imply that this is his only being, and his only method of manifestation, and so to involve what Scripture would call a limitation of the Holy One of Israel. The apostle Paul avoids this error, when he declares that God is not only " in all," and "through all," but also "above all." "But a whisper is heard of Him," says the book of Job; " the thunder of his power who can understand!" To limit God to mere Nature is virtually to deny his omnipotence, and even his personality. But if God is above Nature, and not simply one with Nature, he can act upon Nature and apart from Nature, whenever there is need; and miracle and special revelation are possible.
The real question, then, is the question of need. Is there a moral need, which it is becoming that God should supply? Is the enlightenment, which the universal presence of God in nature gives, a sufficient en
LOWELL IGNORES SIN 297
lightenment in man's actual moral condition? The answer to this question is given to us in John's Gospel, When the apostle asserts that before Christ came in the flesh "the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness apprehended it not." In other words, man's sin prevented God's light from having its normal and proper effect . Lowell's error with regard to miracle and revelation, then, is an error with regard to man's moral condition. He ignores man's, sin and perversity, which "hinder the truth in unrighteousness," and which necessitate special revelation to awaken conscience and to draw forth repentant love. Such a revelation must make plain God's personality, his holiness, his self-sacrificing desire to save; and such a revelation is actually given us in Christ's atoning death and in his offer to deliver the sinner from %the bondage of his sins. But Lowell seems to have no personal experience of his need as a sinner. He has no proper conception of God as the hater and punisher of sin, nor of Christ as the divine Saviour from its guilt and defilement. He rather prefers the pagan way of salvation, and trusts that man,
To the influence sweet of Athens and of Rome,
And old Jud;ea's gift of secret fire,
Spite of himself shall surely learn to know
And worship some ideal of himself,
Some divine thing, large-hearted, brotherly,
Not nice in trifles, a soft creditor,
Pleased with his world, and hating only cant.
In other words, Lowell's God will be a God of infinite good nature, who makes no moral distinctions. Such a God will be no terror to the ungodly, and no Mediator
298 LOWELL MAKES THE CROSS AN EXAMPLE
will be needed to make propitiation for men's sins. Christ is not " the fulness of the Godhead bodily," bu*. only one of many guides and saviors, whose life and example have made the path of duty easier for our feet; and his Cross becomes only a model of patience in suffering the ills that afflict us all:
The form of building or the creed professed.
The Cross, bold type of shame to homage turned,
Of an unfinished life that sways the world,
Shall tower as sovereign emblem over all.
With no inner experience of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, it is no wonder that the beliefs of the fathers should seem only the useful incidents of an historic past, and quite inapplicable to the improved conditions of the present day:
'Tis irrecoverable, that ancient faith,
Homely and wholesome, suited to the time,
With rod or candy for child-minded men.
Nothing that keeps thought out is safe from thought.
And Truth defensive hath lost hold on God.
Each age must worship its own thought of God,
More or less earthy, clarifying still
With subsidence continuous of the dregs.
But each man has within him the infinite Source, from whom have proceeded all the revelations of the past, and who is ready to give to us new evidences of his presence:
LOWELL S VIEW OF PRAYER 299
This life were brutish did we not sometimes
Have intimations clear of wider scope,
Hints of occasion infinite, to keep
The soul alert with noble discontent
And onward yearnings of unstilled desire;
Fruitless, except we now and then divined
A mystery of Purpose, gleaming through
The secular confusions of the world,
Whose will we darkly accomplish, doing ours.
And he does not deem himself recreant to his fathers'
Its forms to me are weariness, and most
That drony vacuum of compulsory prayer,
Still pumping phrases for the Ineffable,
Though all the valves of memory gasp and wheeze.
I, that still pray at morning and at eve,
Loving those roots that feed us from the past,
And prizing more than Plato things I learned
At that best academe, a mother's knee,
Thrice in my life perhaps have truly prayed,
Thrice, stirred below my conscious self, have felt
That perfect disenthralment which is God.
But never has he prayed in sole dependence upon
Christ, or other than as one who comes directly into
the presence and favor of his Father. "Every man's
his own Melchisedek "—his own priest and his own
I think man's soul dwells nearer to the east,
Nearer to morning's fountains than the sun;
Herself the source whence all tradition sprang,
Herself at once both labyrinth and clue.
The miracle fades out of history,
But faith and wonder and the primal earth
Are born into the world with every child.
300 LOWELL IN CONTRAST WITH BROWNING
This may be theism, but it is not Christianity. The vagueness of its conception of God, its ignorance of God's holiness and of man's sin, the absence of faith in God's appointed way of salvation through Christ, show it to be a man-made scheme, incapable of giving relief to a burdened conscience, or of comforting a weak and afflicted soul. Man needs to see his own nature in God, or rather, needs to see God in human form. Heroworship, emperor-worship, Mithras-worship, are all of them efforts of mankind to find a human heart in the Godhead. This universal instinct is satisfied only by Christianity, which shows us the eternal Word made flesh, yet exalted to be King of kings and Lord of lords. With James Russell Lowell's " Cathedral" I would contrast Robert Browning's "Saul "; and would maintain that this latter poem furnishes a far better basis for communion with a personal God, for comfort amid the struggles of our earthly life, and for courage in the performance of social and civic duty, than does the poem we have been considering. Listen to David's heartening appeal to Saul:
"Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me,
Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever: a Hand like this
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the
What help did Lowell's religion give him in time of bereavement, and when he drew near to the gates of death? We have already seen that after the loss of his
LOWELL ON IMMORTALITY 3OI
child he confessed himself a pagan. He derived no comfort from the thought of a present Christ, into whose loving arms he could commit his loved one, with the assurance that she should be restored to him, when life's short day was past, but cleansed from the dishonors of the tomb and clad with immortality. When his wife dies, he can only write:
I can only hope and pray that the sweet influences of thirteen years spent with one like her may be seen and felt in my daily life henceforth. At present I only feel that there is a chamber whose name is Peace, and which opens towards the sun-rising, and that I am not in it.
He seems to have no definite expectation of seeing her again. His poem, "She Came and Went," expresses thankfulness for the past, but no joy in the present, and no hope for the future:
An angel stood and met my gaze,
Through the low doorway of my tent;
The tent is struck, the vision stays;—
I only know she came and went.
Oh, when the room grows slowly dim,
And life's last oil is nearly spent,
One gush of light these eyes will brim,
Only to think she came and went.
Christ has brought life and immortality to light in his glorious gospel. When Jonathan Edwards died, his wife, that saintly woman, was so filled with the joy of her Lord, that she had to hide herself from visitors, lest they should fancy that her submission to God's will, and her certainty of future reunion, indicated gladness at her husband's death. Thousands of
302 'EPISTLE TO GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS
Christians have rejoiced that not only life, but also death, was theirs, and have been able to sing:
"Do we count the star lost that is hidden
In the great light of morn?
Or fashion a shroud for the young child
In the day it is born?
"Yet behold! that were wise, to their sorrow
Who mourn, sore distressed,
When a soul, that is summoned believing,
Enters into its rest."
But the best utterance of Lowell's hope for the future is found in his "Epistle to George William Curtis." An indefinite "Otherwhere" is his conception of the future life, and it has in it no connection with Christ, and no hint that there is "none other name under heaven among men, wherein we must be saved ":
I muse upon the margin of the sea,
Our common pathway to the new To Be,
Watching the sails, that lessen more and more.
Of good and beautiful embarked before;
With bits of wreck I patch the boat shall bear
Me to that unexhausted Otherwhere,
Whose friendly-peopled shore I sometimes see,
By soft mirage uplifted, beckon me,
Nor sadly hear, as lower sinks the sun,
My moorings to the past snap one by one.
Lowell was a moralist, and not a theologian; a theist. and not a Christian. It is an interesting question how far his conceptions of God affected his ideas of duty. What is the normal relation of morality to religion? I reply that religion is morality toward God, as morality is religion toward men. The two are meant to be
MORALITY AND RELIGION 303
obverse sides of one and the same great fact of life. But human perversity has separated them; the one seems at times to exist without the other; we see religion without morality, and morality without religion. When thus separated, neither one is of real or permanent value. Religion without morality is a tree without fruits; morality without religion is a tree without roots. Human progress consists in the everincreasing union of the two; human perfection will be attained only when love to God is the source of love to man, and love to man is the constant result and proof of love to God.
The moralist builds securely, only when the foundation of his system is laid upon the Rock of Ages. In just the proportion that he constructs his edifice without this foundation, he builds upon the sand, and time undoes his work. Or, to change the simile, ethics without God, by which I mean ethics which ignores the Christian revelation, is an orchid-growth, that lives, on air; while Christian ethics is like the rose, which has deep root in virgin soil. The orchid has its beauty; but that beauty fades, and the light wind of passion sweeps it away; while the rose has a permanent loveliness, and a fragrance which the orchid never possesses. To apply my illustrations to the present case, I would say that Lowell, with all his moral earnestness, has missed the true theory of morals, and so has given us only detached maxims, truths which are the proper fruit of Christianity alone, and which, without connection with their source, lack both motive and life.
The ethics of the mere moralist are like the fruits seen on the Christmas tree. Apples and oranges, pears
304 LOWELL S VIRTUES FRUITS OF CALVINISM
and lemons, bananas and peaches are there. But they never grew there; they are only tacked on; when they disappear, no others will ever take their places. Lowell's social and civic virtues never grew upon the theologic stock which he cultivated. They were grown upon the old Calvinistic tree. When New England broke away from evangelical doctrine and swung off into Unitarianism, many of the fruits of the old religion still survived, and our poet made good use of them. It was not his theology that conquered in our Civil War; it was the old faith in a personal God, and in his ordinance of civil government, that nerved the hearts of our people. It was Bible preaching, and not moralistic poetry, that carried our country through the struggle for freedom of the slave and union of the States. And when faith in the Scriptures, and in Christ as our divine Lord and Redeemer, dies out of American hearts, no poetry of Lowell's will save us from national collapse and ruin.
I say these things with all proper admiration for Lowell's gifts and services. But let the moralist know his place. He is second, not first; the echoer of a tradition, not an original authority; and whatever of good is in him is due to the modicum of religious faith, which, consciously or unconsciously, expresses itself in his ethics. Something of that early faith still lingers in the verse of our poet; though lack of faith causes much of his work to come short of its proper depth and value. In what follows of this essay, I desire to point out the merit, and yet the demerit, of certain of Lowell's poems, resulting from the mixture of truth and error in his theology.
LOWELL DENIES SPECIAL INSPIRATION 305
Take the matter of inspiration. In his early days, the poet had no faith in any impact of a superior Power upon the minds of men. All knowledge must come from within. In 1839 he wrote:
I have wondered whether you believed in the divine inspiration of the Hebrew prophets. Do you? I don't. I once thought it an argument in their favor that, in all the world, there has not, before or since, been any writing that compared with theirs in poetic sublimity. Now that I am older, this very thing seems to me against them. I think that if you compare it with that of our Saviour (whose inspiration I would be more willing to admit), you will perceive my meaning. His, you will notice, is prose; theirs poetic sublimity— and herein lies the difference between inspiration, or perception of real truth, and enthusiasm, or longing after ideal truth.
Yet, not long after, he himself had a revelation, and get a clue to a whole system of spiritual philosophy:
The whole system rose up before me like a vague Destiny looming from the abyss. I never before so clearly felt the spirit of God in me and around me. The whole room seemed to me full of God. The air seemed to waver to and fro with the presence of Something, I knew not what. I spoke with the calmness and clearness of a prophet.
As is often the case, from one extreme he went to another; from denial of all inspiration, he came to believe in the inspiration of all men, at least in favored| moments of their existence. In "The Cathedral," Lowell declares his confidence that God manifests himself to all:
Man cannot be God's outlaw if he would,
Nor so abscond him in the caves of sense
But Nature still shall search some crevice out
With messages of splendor from that Source
Which, dive he, soar he, baffles still and lures.
306 LOWELL IDENTIFIES GOD WITH NATURE
In that noble poem, "A Winter-Evening Hymn to my Fire," he shows how God's gifts in the past may be utilized in the present, and may be made our own. Addressing his Fire, as if it were a living person, he tells of the wisdom which men divinely stirred have given to us:
Therefore with thee I love to read
Our brave old poets: at thy touch how stirs
Life in the withered words! how swift recede
Time's shadows! and how glows again
Through its dead mass the incandescent verse,
As when upon the anvils of the brain
It glittering lay, cyclopically wrought
By the fast-throbbing hammers of the poet's thought!
How plain it is that Lowell's objection to inspiration is due to his identification of God with Nature! If God is only another name for Nature, he is immanent, but not transcendent, and he can manifest himself only within us, and in the way of natural cause and effect. We can deny the special inspiration of any, or we can affirm the inspiration of all. But if God is not confined to Nature, he can produce effects for which Nature is herself incompetent. Nature is not God, but only the partial expression of God. God is not confined to Nature; he can "cut short his work in righteousness "; with him " one day is as a thousand years." Lowell is right in affirming that God manifests himself inwardly; for there is a " Light that lighteth evenman," and even conscience is an echo of his voice. But Lowell is wrong when he affirms that this is the only method of divine revelation. In every man there is a capacity for greater insight than he now possesses;
LOWELL FATALLY INDIFFERENT TO SIN T>°7
we all have occasional flashes of genius; telepathy and premonition show that there are hidden powers which are now unused. Inspiration is only the intensification of natural faculties, under the special influence of the divine Spirit; even prophetic inspiration is only the lifting of man up to heights of prescience and prediction which belong to him by nature, but which he has lost by his sin. Inspiration then is both natural and supernatural. The universal presence of God in humanity does not prevent, but rather makes possible, a special influence of God's enlightening Spirit in times of need. Again the question presents itself: Is there need? It is Lowell's insufficient understanding of man's blindness and sin that prevents him from seeing the possibility and the reality of special divine revelation. And what is true of inspiration is also true of miracle. The God of Nature can work apart from Nature, and can condense into a single act of incarnation or of atonement the whole meaning of the universe and the whole manifestation of his mind and heart and will.
Emerson has very properly been criticized for his "fatal indifference to moral considerations." It may seem harsh to accuse Lowell, our moralistic poet, of similar error. But his ignorance of sin and his misunderstanding of the character of God have sad effects in practical morals as well as in abstract theology. The moralist should, above all else, believe in the supremacy of the Right. Fiat justitia, mat coelum, should be his motto. The demand of conscience that penalty should follow wrong-doing should never be ignored or explained away. Love should always be the servant of righteousness, and never its servant or master. God
308 LOWELL AND WORDSWORTH CONTRASTED
has made death to be the sign of his estimate of sin. Physical death, or the separation of the soul from the body, is the outward symbol of spiritual death, or the separation of the soul from God. To abolish the penalty of death, in the case of the murderer, is to break down God's instruction of the race both in nature and in Scripture, to weaken the sense of mutual obligation, and to give free rein to human passion and hatred. Yet this is what Lowell does, when he condemns the poet Wordsworth for his defense of capital punishment. I need only quote a sonnet from each of these, to show how superior in moral earnestness is the poem of Wordsworth. Let me, however, begin with Lowell:
The love of all things springs from love of one;
Wider the soul's horizon hourly grows,
And over it with fuller glory flows
The sky-like spirit of God; a hope'begun
In doubt and darkness 'neath a fairer sun
Cometh to fruitage, if it be of Truth;
And to the law of meekness, faith, and ruth,
By inward sympathy, shall all be won:
This thou shouldst know, who, from the painted
Of shifting Fashion, couldst thy brethren turn
Unto the love of ever-youthful Nature,
And of a beauty fadeless and eterne;
And always 't is the saddest sight to see
An old man faithless in Humanity.
The "old man" was wiser than his youthful critic. He believed in Deity even more than he believed in humanity. And so Wordsworth has condensed into a single one of his " Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death" more of truth than can be found in all of Lowell's poetry:
THE CROSS IN LOWELLS THEOLOGY 309
"Is Death, when evil against good has fought
With such fell mastery that a man may dare
By deeds the blackest purpose to lay bare?
Is Death, for one to that condition brought
For him or any one, the thing that ought
To be most dreaded? Lawgivers, beware,
Lest, capital pains remitting till ye spare
The murderer, ye, by sanction to that thought
Seemingly given, debase the general mind;
Tempt the vague will tried standards to disown,
Nor only palpable restraints unbind,
But upon Honour's head disturb the crown,
Whose absolute rule permits not to withstand
In the weak love of life his least command."
Lowell's theology appears most defective when he alludes to the doctrine of the atonement. He cannot understand that doctrine, because he has no proper faith in the holiness of God, or in the necessity of God's nature which makes suffering to follow sin. A holy God, who, for the sake of creaturely freedom and virtue, permits the existence of sin, must not only visit that sin with penalty, but must himself suffer with and for the sinner. Only love leads the divine Being to undertake this suffering; only holiness makes that suffering necessary. The Cross of Christ is the exhibition in space and time of this eternal suffering of the divine nature. The atonement is a substitution of God's suffering for ours, only as it is a sharing of our guilt and penalty by One who is the very life of humanity. Lowell's wit was never so misapplied as when, in "A Fable for Critics," he put in the pillory of his derision what he conceived to be the doctrine of the atonement as preached by an orthodox divine.
3IO A MISPLACING OF LOWELLS WIT
[Doctor] Cheever has proved that the Bible and Altar
Were let down from Heaven at the end of a halter;
And that vital religion would dull and grow callous,
Unrefreshed, now and then, with a sniff of the gallows.
Yes, the Cross was the Roman gallows! It was the deepest ignominy that man could suffer; and, because it was the very acme of earthly penalty, divine holiness bore it in our nature and in our stead, that we might go free. That Cross has moved human hearts to penitence, as no maxims of the sages ever could. It is the central fact of Christianity. Paul will know nothing but Christ, and him crucified; God forbid that he should glory, save in the Cross of Jesus, his Lord! When Lowell travesties the suffering love of a holy God, he not only goes beyond the bounds of rational criticism, but he discredits the only effective appeal to sinful hearts. How infinitely superior to this ridicule, as a merely ethical instrument for man's betterment, is the Christian hymn:
"Weary of earth, and laden with my sin,
I look at heav'n and long to enter in;
But there no evil thing may find a home;
And yet I hear a voice that bids me ' Come.'
"It is the voice of Jesus that I hear;
His are the hands stretched out to draw me near,
And his the blood that can for all atone,
And set me faultless there before the throne.
"Yes, thou wilt answer for me, Righteous Lord!
Thine all the merits, mine the great reward!
Thine the sharp thorns, but mine the golden crown;
Mine the life won, but thine the life laid down!"
ARE RELIGION AND POETRY ANTITHETICAL? 3II
It is fortunate that, in spite of these defects, we can praise so large a portion of Lowell's work. Though evangelical theology had lost its hold upon him, its ethics still survived. He felt their pull, and fancied that they drew him away from poetry. In 1865 he writes:
I shall never be a poet till I get out of the pulpit; and New England was all meeting-house when I was growing up. But I assure you I am never dull, but in spite of myself. . . Believe me, I was lively once, and may recover it; but I fear me I have suffered a professor-change that has gone too deep for healing I am perfectly conscious of it, and cannot yet help it.
All this suggests the question whether ethics and poetry, or religion and poetry, are antithetical to each other. Can a great poet have a moral purpose in his writing? Is the greatest poetry free from all intent to benefit mankind and to honor God? Was the "Paradise Lost" less of a poem, because it treated
"Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat?"
Was " The Divine Comedy " less worthy of praise because it professed to show the way from hell to heaven? Is Hebrew poetry less, or more, poetical, because it is full of the divine Spirit, and aims at bringing man into communion with God? It really is the old question of "Art for Art's sake," or "Art for God's sake." I think we can make but one answer: Poetry is great, just in proportion as it reflects the innermost reality;
312 LOWELL A GREATER POET IF A GREATER MAN
and no poetry is great that does not bring the finite mind into contact and communication with the infinite Intelligence. Poetry indeed is the vision of the ideal which lies at the basis of the real, and the expression of that ideal in answering forms of melody and number. Poetry demands for its organ a complete manhood, and an atrophied religious nature is shorn of its proper insight and power. Only a coal from off the altar of sacrifice can touch the lips with heavenly fire. Lowell would have been a greater poet if he had been a greater theologian and a greater man. His influence will be fleeting, just in proportion as he lacked knowledge of himself and of God.
The essence of religion is humility—a humility that confesses its sinfulness and its dependence upon the divine mercy, and that submissively accepts pardon and renewal in God's appointed -way. Such penitence and faith, in- Jew or Gentile, whether conscious or unconscious, are really faith in Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and they make the soul receptive to the divine Spirit. Self-righteousness and self-dependence, on the other hand, while they may attract the praise and even the loyalty of men, are a bar to the entrance of the divine Spirit. Receptivity ceases, when a Stoic pride vaunts its own sufficiency. The great poets have always courted the Muses—the pseudonym for God— and have attributed their best work to a higher Power than themselves. Yet human faculties still work on, when this connection with God is broken; a sort of mental inertia keeps the machinery in motion; and we have poetry written by ungodly men. Let us be thankful that so much of it is helpful, though it comes short
LOWELLS SERVICE FROM INHERITED FAITH 313
of the highest excellence. I make no doubt that Lowell's stand for American democracy is a valuable contribution to literature and to politics. We are more independent of foreign opinion, and more ready to fight for our principles, by reason of his appeals. That the United States has come to be a world-power, and is conscious of its rights and dignity in the family of nations, is in some measure due to Lowell. This sense of civic dignity, like that of old when to be a Roman was to be greater than a king, rests, in Lowell's case, in spite of some theological aberrations, upon his ancestral and inherited theistic faith. In his "Ode for the Fourth of July, 1876," the concluding verses make this plain:
God of our fathers, Thou who wast,
Art, and shalt be when those eye-wise who flout
Thy secret presence shall be lost
In the great light that dazzles them to doubt,
We, sprung from loins of stalwart men
Whose strength was in their trust
That Thou wouldst make thy dwelling in their dust
And walk with those a fellow-citizen
Who build a city of the just,
We, who believe Life's bases rest
Beyond the probe of chemic test,
Still, like our fathers, feel Thee near,
Sure that, while lasts the immutable decree,
The land to Human Nature dear
Shall not be unbeloved of Thee.
I have been dealing with Lowell simply as a poet, and have endeavored to show how his training and his religious beliefs influenced his verse. We must remember that his later life was not that of the poet, but rather that of the student of politics and the man of w
314 "TO JOHN GORHAM PALFREY
public affairs. He was greater as an essayist than as a poet. The instincts of the poet, however, never deserted him. The warmth of his affection was almost ideal, and it best expressed itself in memorial verses in honor of his friends. These verses show how greatly he valued courage and faithfulness in defense of the right, and they have a distinctly ethical character. The first of these poems is addressed " To John Gorham Palfrey," who had bolted from his party rather than support a candidate submissive to the encroachments of slavery:
There are who triumph in a losing cause,
Who can put on defeat, as 't were a wreath
Unwithering in the adverse popular breath,
Safe from the blasting demagogue's applause;
'T is they who stand for freedom and God's laws.
And so stands Palfrey now, as Marvell stood,
Loyal to Truth dethroned, nor could be wooed
To trust the playful tiger's velvet paws.
Oh for a whiff of Naseby, that would sweep,
With its stern Puritan besom, all this chaff
From the Lord's threshing-floor! Yet more than
The victory is attained, when one or two,
Through the fool's laughter and the traitor's
Beside thy sepulchre can bide the morn,
Crucified Truth, when thou shalt rise anew!
Lowell sided with the weak who seemed to have no helper. His verses "To W. L. Garrison" depict the pitiful resources, but the indomitable will, of the first anti-slavery reformers:
LOWELLS TRIBUTES TO HIS FRIENDS 315
In a small chamber, friendless and unseen,
Toiled o'er his types one poor, unlearned young
The place was dark, unfurnitured, and mean;
Yet there the freedom of a race began.
• • • • t • »
O small beginnings, ye are great and strong,
Based on a faithful heart and weariless brain!
Ye build the future fair, ye conquer wrong,
Ye earn the crown, and wear it not in vain.
There is a sonnet which must not be omitted, if we are to give any proper account of Lowell's friends. It is addressed to " Wendell Phillips ":
He stood upon the world's broad threshold; wide
The din of battle and of slaughter rose;
He saw God stand upon the weaker side,
That sank in seeming loss before its foes:
Many there were who made great haste and sold
Unto the cunning enemy their swords,
He scorned their gifts of fame, and power, and gold,
And, underneath their soft and flowery words,
Heard the cold serpent hiss; therefore he went
And humbly joined him to the weaker part,
Fanatic named, and fool, yet well content
So he could be the nearer to God's heart,
And feel its solemn pulses sending blood
Through all the widespread veins of endless good.
And I must also, in all fairness, quote parts of the poem which he wrote to his best friend, his lifelong companion and colleague, and the editor of his "Life and Letters "—I refer of course to Charles Eliot Norton, from whom much of my material has been taken, and whose dominating intelligence and friendly criticism had greater influence with Lowell than those of
3l6 THE MODESTY OF LOWELL
any other. This poem is the poet's humble confession of his own shortcoming at the age of forty-nine, when poetry began to seem a thing of the past, and his more strenuous public life was opening before him:
The wind is roistering out of doors,
My windows shake and my chimney roars;
My Elmwood chimneys seem crooning to me,
As of old, in their moody, minor key,
And out of the past the hoarse wind blows,
As I sit in my arm-chair, and toast my toes.
"O dream-ship-builder! where are they all,
Your grand three-deckers, deep-chested and tall,
That should crush the waves under canvas piles,
And anchor at last by the Fortunate Isles?
There's gray in your beard, the years turn foes,
While you muse in your arm-chair, and toast your
I sit and dream that I hear, as of yore,
My Elmwood chimneys' deep-throated roar;
If much be gone, there is much remains;
By the embers of loss I count my gains,
You and yours with the best, till the old hope glows
In the fanciful flame, as I toast my toes.
Instead of a fleet of broad-browed ships,
To send a child's armada of chips!
Instead of the great guns, tier on tier,
A freight of pebbles and grass-blades sere!
"Well, maybe more love with the less gift goes,"
I growl, as, half moody, I toast my toes.
It is the natural modesty of the man which sees, in what has been accomplished, only the suggestion of the greater work that might have been. One of the most pleasing indications, indeed, of Lowell's real character is to be found in his criticism of himself. It was in
THE SHORTCOMINGS OF LOWELL 317
eluded in "A Fable for Critics," in order to prevent the public from suspecting him as its author. I have already pointed out the elements of truth and of error which it represents, and with it my essay may close:
"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
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 Mcthusalem,
At the head of a march to the last new Jerusalem."
This is a modest estimate of himself. But he does not understand the reason for his shortcomings. It was not his preaching that spoiled his poetry, but rather the fact that he had so little truth to preach. He was a moralist and a patriot, but his morality and patriotism were not sufficiently grounded in religious faith. God was to him too much of a Nature-God, and too little the God of the Christian revelation. The result was narrowness of range and deficiency in depth. He saw that "the powers that be are ordained of God "; but he did not see in Christ's sacrifice the motive for obedience, or the power to make men loyal. His appeals to good men are stirring, but when they fall upon unwilling ears they are drowned by the outcries of selfishness. His poetry would be more impressive and more lasting, if there were in it that vision of the Holy One which he lacked, and that inspiration of the Hebrew prophets which he denied.