James Russell Lowell: Wikis


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James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell circa 1855
Born February 22, 1819(1819-02-22)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Died August 12, 1891 (aged 72)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Literary movement Romanticism

James Russell Lowell (February 22, 1819 – August 12, 1891) was an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. He is associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets. These poets usually used conventional forms and meters in their poetry, making them suitable for families entertaining at their fireside.

Lowell graduated from Harvard College in 1838, despite his reputation as a troublemaker, and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard Law School. He published his first collection of poetry in 1841 and married Maria White in 1844. He and his wife had several children, though only one survived past childhood. The couple soon become involved in the slavery abolition movement, with Lowell using poetry to express his anti-slavery views and taking a job in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the editor of an abolitionist newspaper. After moving back to Cambridge, Lowell was one of the founders of a journal called The Pioneer, which lasted only three issues. He gained notoriety in 1848 with the publication of A Fable for Critics, a book-length poem satirizing contemporary critics and poets. The same year, he published The Biglow Papers, which increased his fame. He would publish several other poetry collections and essay collections throughout his literary career.

Maria White died in 1853 and Lowell accepted a professorship of languages at Harvard in 1854. He traveled to Europe before officially assuming his role in 1856; he continued to teach there for twenty years. He married his second wife, Frances Dunlap, shortly thereafter in 1857. That year Lowell also became editor of The Atlantic Monthly. It was not until 20 years later that Lowell received his first political appointment: the ambassadorship to Spain and, later, to England. He spent his last years in Cambridge, in the same estate where he was born, where he also died in 1891.

Lowell believed that the poet played an important role as a prophet and critic of society. He used poetry for reform, particularly in abolitionism. However, Lowell's commitment to the anti-slavery cause wavered over the years, as did his opinion on African-Americans. Lowell attempted to emulate the true Yankee accent in the dialogue of his characters, particularly in The Biglow Papers. This depiction of the dialect, as well as Lowell's many satires, were an inspiration to writers like Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken. Nevertheless, Lowell's poetry has been criticized by many for its lack of force, its poor quality, and for being forgettable.



Early life

Elmwood, birthplace and long-time home of James Russell Lowell, in Cambridge, Massachusetts

The first of the Lowell family ancestors to come to the United States from Britain was Percival Lowle, who settled in Newbury, Massachusetts in 1639.[1] James Russell Lowell was born February 22, 1819,[2] the son of the Rev. Charles Russell Lowell, Sr. (1782–1861), a minister at a Unitarian church in Boston who had previously studied theology at Edinburgh, and Harriett Brackett Spence Lowell.[3] By the time James Russell Lowell was born, the family owned a large estate in Cambridge called Elmwood.[4] He was the youngest of six children; his older siblings were Charles, Rebecca, Mary, William, and Robert.[5] Lowell's mother built in him an appreciation for literature at an early age, especially in poetry, ballads, and tales from her native Orkney.[3] He attended school under Sophia Dana, who would later marry George Ripley, and, later, studied at a school run by a particularly harsh disciplinarian, where one of his classmates was Richard Henry Dana, Jr.[6]

Beginning in 1834, at the age of 15, Lowell attended Harvard College, though he was not a good student and often got into trouble.[7] In his sophomore year alone, he was absent from required chapel attendance 14 times and from classes 56 times.[8] In his last year there, he wrote, "During Freshman year, I did nothing, during Sophomore year I did nothing, during Junior year I did nothing, and during Senior year I have thus far done nothing in the way of college studies".[7] In his senior year, he became one of the editors of Harvardiana literary magazine, to which he contributed prose and poetry that he admitted was of low quality. As he said later, "I was as great an ass as ever brayed & thought it singing".[9] Lowell was elected the poet of the class of 1838[10] and, as was tradition, was asked to recite an original poem on Class Day, the day before Commencement, on July 17, 1838.[8] Lowell, however, was suspended and not allowed to participate. Instead, his poem was printed and made available thanks to subscriptions paid by his classmates.[10]

Not knowing what vocation to choose after graduating, he vacillated among business, the ministry, medicine and law. Having decided to practice law, he enrolled at the Harvard Law School in 1840 and was admitted to the bar two years later.[11] While studying law, however, he contributed poems and prose articles to various magazines. During this time, Lowell was admittedly depressed and often had suicidal thoughts. He once confided to a friend that he held a cocked pistol to his forehead and considered killing himself at the age of 20.[12]

Marriage and family

In late 1839, Lowell met Maria White through her brother William, a classmate of his at Harvard.[13] The two became engaged in the autumn of 1840; her father Abijah White, a wealthy merchant from Watertown, insisted that their wedding be postponed until Lowell had gainful employment.[14] They were finally married on December 26, 1844,[15] shortly after the groom published Conversations on the Old Poets, a collection of his previously published essays.[16] A friend described their relationship as "the very picture of a True Marriage";[17] Lowell himself believed she was made up "half of earth and more than of Heaven".[14] Like Lowell, she wrote poetry and the next twelve years of Lowell's life were deeply affected by her influence. He said his first book of poetry, A Year's Life (1841), "owes all its beauty to her", though it only sold 300 copies.[14] Her character and beliefs led her to become involved in the movements directed against intemperance and slavery. White was a member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and convinced Lowell to become an abolitionist.[18] Lowell had previously expressed anti-slavery sentiments but White urged him towards more active expression and involvement.[19] His second volume of poems, Miscellaneous Poems, expressed these anti-slavery thoughts and its 1,500 copies sold well.[20]

Maria was in poor health and, thinking her lungs could heal there, the couple moved to Philadelphia shortly after their marriage.[21] In Philadelphia, he became a contributing editor for the Pennsylvania Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper.[22] In the spring of 1845, the Lowells returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts to make their home at Elmwood. They had four children, though only one survived past infancy. Their first, Blanche, was born December 31, 1845, but lived only fifteen months; Rose, born in 1849, survived only a few months as well; their only son, Walter, was born in 1850 but died in 1852.[23] Lowell was very affected by the loss of almost all of his children. His grief over the loss of his first daughter in particular was expressed in his poem "The First Snowfall" (1847).[24] Again, Lowell considered suicide, writing to a friend that he thought "of my razors and my throat and that I am a fool and a coward not to end it all at once".[23]

Literary career

Lowell's earliest poems were published without pay in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1840.[25] Lowell was inspired to new efforts towards self-support and joined with his friend Robert Carter in founding a literary journal, The Pioneer.[17] The periodical was characterized by most of its content being new rather than previously published elsewhere and by having very serious criticism which covered not only literature but also art and music.[26] Lowell wrote that it would "furnish the intelligent and reflecting portion of the Reading Public with a rational substitute for the enormous quantity of thrice-diluted trash, in the shape of namby-pamby love tales and sketches, which is monthly poured out to them by many of our popular Magazines".[17] William Wetmore Story noted the journal's higher taste, writing that, "it took some stand & appealled to a higher intellectual Standard than our puerile milk o watery namby-pamby Mags with which we are overrun".[27] The first issue of the journal included the first appearance of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe.[28] Lowell, shortly after the first issue, was treated for an eye disease in New York and, in his absence, Carter did a poor job managing the journal.[20] After three monthly numbers, beginning in January 1843, the magazine ceased publication, leaving Lowell $1,800 in debt.[28] Poe mourned the journal's demise, calling it "a most severe blow to the cause—the cause of a Pure Taste".[27]

Despite the failure of The Pioneer, Lowell continued his interest in the literary world. He wrote a series on "Anti-Slavery in the United States" for the London Daily News, though it was discontinued by the editors after four articles in May 1846.[29] Lowell had published these articles anonymously, believing they would have more impact if they were not known to be the work of a committed abolitionist.[30] In the spring of 1848 he formed a connection with the National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York, agreeing to contribute weekly either a poem or a prose article. After only one year, he was asked to contribute half as often to the Standard to make room for contributions from another writer and reformer named Edmund Quincy.[31]

James Russell Lowell, Library of Congress image from Brady-Handy Collection

A Fable for Critics, one of Lowell's most popular works, was published in 1848. A satire, it was published anonymously; in it, Lowell took good-natured jabs at his contemporary poets and critics. It proved popular, and the first three thousand copies sold out quickly.[32] Not all the subjects included were pleased, however. Edgar Allan Poe, who had been referred to as part genius and "two-fifths sheer fudge", reviewed the work in the Southern Literary Messenger and called it "'loose'—ill-conceived and feebly executed, as well in detail as in general... we confess some surprise at his putting forth so unpolished a performance".[33] Lowell offered the profits from the book's success, which proved relatively small, to his New York friend Charles Frederick Briggs, despite his own financial needs.[32]

In 1848, Lowell also published The Biglow Papers, later named by the Grolier Club as the most influential book of 1848.[34] The first 1,500 copies sold out within a week and a second edition was soon issued, though Lowell made no profit having had to absorb the cost of stereotyping the book himself.[35] The book presented three main characters, each representing different aspects of American life and using authentic American dialects in their dialogue.[36] Under the surface, The Biglow Papers was also a denunciation of the Mexican–American War and war in general.[21]

First trip to Europe

In 1850, Lowell's mother died unexpectedly, as did his third daughter, Rose. Her death left Lowell depressed and reclusive for six months, despite the birth of his son Walter by the end of the year. He wrote to a friend that death "is a private tutor. We have no fellow-scholars, and must lay our lessons to heart alone".[37] These personal troubles as well as the Compromise of 1850 inspired Lowell to accept an offer from William Wetmore Story to spend a winter in Italy.[38] To pay for the trip, Lowell sold land around Elmwood, intending to sell off further acres of the estate over time to supplement his income, ultimately selling off 25 of the original 30 acres (120,000 m2).[39] Walter died suddenly in Rome of cholera, and Lowell and his wife, with their daughter Mabel, returned to the United States in October 1852.[40] Lowell published recollections of his journey in several magazines, many of which would be collected years later as Fireside Travels (1867). He also edited volumes with biographical sketches for a series on British Poets.[41]

His wife Maria, who had been suffering from poor health for many years, became very ill in the spring of 1853 and died on October 27[42] of tuberculosis.[23] Just before her burial, her coffin was opened so that her daughter Mabel could see her face while Lowell "leaned for a long while against a tree weeping", according to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife, who were in attendance.[43] In 1855, Lowell oversaw the publication of a memorial volume of his wife's poetry, with only fifty copies for private circulation.[41] Despite his self-described "naturally joyous" nature,[44] life for Lowell at Elmwood was further complicated by his father becoming deaf in his old age, and the deteriorating mental state of his sister Rebecca, who sometimes went a week without speaking.[45] He again cut himself off from others, becoming reclusive at Elmwood, and his private diaries from this time period are riddled with the initials of his wife.[46] On March 10, 1854, for example, he wrote: "Dark without & within. M.L. M.L. M.L."[47] His friend and neighbor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow referred to him as "lonely and desolate".[48]

Professorship and second marriage

At the invitation of his cousin John Amory Lowell, James Russell Lowell was asked to deliver a lecture at the prestigious Lowell Institute.[49] Some speculated the opportunity was because of the family connection, offered as an attempt to bring him out of his depression.[50] Lowell chose to speak on "The English Poets", telling his friend Briggs that he would take revenge on dead poets "for the injuries received by one whom the public won't allow among the living".[49] The first of the twelve-part lecture series was to be on January 9, 1855, though by December, Lowell had only completed writing five of them, hoping for last-minute inspiration.[51] His first lecture was on John Milton and the auditorium was oversold; Lowell had to give a repeat performance the next afternoon.[52] Lowell, who had never spoken in public before, was praised for these lectures. Francis James Child said that Lowell, who he deemed was typically "perverse", was able to "persist in being serious contrary to his impulses and his talents".[51] While his series was still in progress, Lowell was offered the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages at Harvard, a post vacated by Longfellow, at an annual salary of $1,200, though he never applied for it.[53] The job description was changing after Longfellow; instead of teaching languages directly, Lowell would supervise the department's delivery of two lecture courses per year on topics of his own choosing.[54] Lowell accepted the appointment, with the proviso that he should have a year of study abroad. He set sail on June 4 of that year,[55] leaving his daughter Mabel in the care of a governess named Frances Dunlap.[53] Abroad, he visited Le Havre, Paris, and London, spending time with friends including Story, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Leigh Hunt. Primarily, however, Lowell spent his time abroad studying languages, particularly German, which he found difficult. He complained: "The confounding genders! If I die I shall have engraved on my tombstone that I died of der, die, das, not because I caught them but because I couldn't."[55]

He returned to the United States in the summer of 1856 and began his college duties.[56] Towards the end of his professorship, then-president of Harvard Charles Eliot Norton noted that Lowell seemed to have "no natural inclination" to teach; Lowell agreed, but retained his position for twenty years.[57] He focused on teaching literature, rather than etymology, hoping that his students would learn to enjoy the sound, rhythm, and flow of poetry rather than the technique of words.[58] He summed up his method: "True scholarship consists in knowing not what things exists, but what they mean; it is not memory but judgment".[59] Still grieving the loss of his wife, during this time Lowell avoided Elmwood and instead lived on Kirkland Street in Cambridge, an area known as Professors' Row. He stayed there, along with his daughter Mabel and her governess Frances Dunlap, until January 1861.[60]

Lowell had intended never to remarry after the death of his wife Maria White. However, in 1857, surprising his friends, he became engaged to Frances Dunlap, who many described as simple and unattractive.[61] Dunlap, daughter of the former governor of Maine Robert P. Dunlap,[62] was a friend of Lowell's first wife and formerly wealthy, though she and her family had fallen into reduced circumstances.[53] Lowell and Dunlap married on September 16, 1857, in a ceremony performed by his brother.[63] Lowell wrote, "My second marriage was the wisest act of my life, & as long as I am sure of it, I can afford to wait till my friends agree with me".[56]

The war years and beyond

In the autumn of 1857, The Atlantic Monthly was established, and Lowell was its first editor. With its first issue in November of that year, he at once gave the magazine the stamp of high literature and of bold speech on public affairs.[64] In January 1861, Lowell's father died of a heart attack, inspiring Lowell to move his family back to Elmwood. As he wrote to his friend Briggs, "I am back again to the place I love best. I am sitting in my old garret, at my old desk, smoking my old pipe... I begin to feel more like my old self than I have these ten years".[65] Shortly thereafter, in May, he left The Atlantic Monthly when James Thomas Fields took over as editor; the magazine had been purchased by Ticknor and Fields for $10,000 two years before.[66] Lowell returned to Elmwood by January 1861 but maintained an amicable relationship with the new owners of the journal, continuing to submit his poetry and prose for the rest of his life.[65] His prose, however, was more abundantly presented in the pages of the North American Review during the years 1862–1872. For the Review, he served as a coeditor along with Charles Eliot Norton.[67] Lowell's reviews for the journal covered a wide variety of literary releases of the day, though he was writing fewer poems.[68]

As early as 1845, Lowell had predicted the debate over slavery would lead to war[69] and, as the American Civil War broke out in the 1860s, Lowell used his role at the Review to praise Abraham Lincoln and his attempts to maintain the Union.[67] Lowell lost three nephews during the war, including Charles Russell Lowell, Jr, who became a Brigadier General and fell at the battle of Cedar Creek. Lowell himself was generally a pacifist. Even so, he wrote, "If the destruction of slavery is to be a consequence of the war, shall we regret it? If it be needful to the successful prosecution of the war, shall anyone oppose it?"[70] His interest in the Civil War inspired him to write a second series of The Biglow Papers,[65] including one specifically dedicated to the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation called "Sunthin' in the Pastoral Line" in 1862.[71]

Shortly after Lincoln's assassination, Lowell was asked to present a poem at Harvard in memory of graduates killed in the war. His poem, "Commemoration Ode", cost him sleep and his appetite, but was delivered on July 21, 1865,[72] after a 48-hour writing binge.[73] Lowell had high hopes for his performance but was overshadowed by the other notables presenting works that day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. "I did not make the hit I expected", he wrote, "and am ashamed at having been tempted again to think I could write poetry, a delusion from which I have been tolerably free these dozen years".[74] Despite his personal assessment, friends and other poets sent many letters to Lowell congratulating him. Emerson referred to his poem's "high thought & sentiment" and James Freeman Clarke noted its "grandeur of tone".[75] Lowell later expanded it with a strophe to Lincoln.[73]

In the 1860s, Lowell's friend Longfellow spent several years translating Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and regularly invited others to help him on Wednesday evenings.[76] Lowell was one of the main members of the so-called "Dante Club", along with William Dean Howells, Charles Eliot Norton and other occasional guests.[77] Shortly after serving as a pallbearer at the funeral of friend and publisher Nathaniel Parker Willis, on January 24, 1867,[78] Lowell decided to produce another collection of his poetry. Under the Willows and Other Poems was released in 1869,[68] though Lowell originally wanted to title it The Voyage to the Vinland and Other Poems. The book, dedicated to Norton, collected poems Lowell had written within the previous twenty years and was his first poetry collection since 1848.[79]

Lowell intended to take another trip to Europe. To finance it, he sold off more of Elmwood's acres and rented the house to Thomas Bailey Aldrich; Lowell's daughter Mabel, by this time, had moved into a new home with her husband Edward Burnett, the son of a successful businessman-farmer from Southboro, Massachusetts.[80] Lowell and his wife set sail on July 8, 1872,[81] after he took a leave of absence from Harvard. They visited England, Paris, Switzerland, and Italy. While overseas, he received an honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Oxford and another from Cambridge University. They returned to the United States in the summer of 1874.[80]

Political appointments

James Russell Lowell in his later years

Lowell resigned from his Harvard professorship in 1874, though he was convinced to continue teaching through 1877.[57] It was in 1876 that Lowell first stepped into the field of politics. That year, he served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, speaking on behalf of presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes.[82] Hayes won the nomination and, eventually, the presidency. In May 1877, President Hayes, an admirer of The Biglow Papers, sent William Dean Howells to Lowell with a handwritten note proffering an ambassadorship to either Austria or Russia; Lowell declined, but noted his interest in Spanish literature.[83] Lowell was then offered and accepted the role of Minister to the court of Spain at an annual salary of $12,000.[83] Lowell sailed from Boston on July 14, 1877, and, though he expected he would be away for a year or two, he would not return to the United States until 1885, with the violinist Ole Bull renting Elmwood for a portion of that time.[84] The Spanish media referred to him as "José Bighlow".[85] Lowell was well-prepared for his political role, having been trained in law, as well as being able to read in multiple languages. He had trouble socializing while in Spain, however, and amused himself by sending humorous dispatches to his political bosses in the United States, many of which were later collected and published posthumously in 1899 as Impressions of Spain.[86] Lowell's social life improved when the Spanish Academy elected him a corresponding member in late 1878, allowing him input in preparing a new dictionary.[87]

In January 1880, Lowell was informed he was appointed Minister to England, his nomination made without his knowledge as far back as June 1879. He was granted a salary of $17,500 with about $3,500 for expenses.[88] While serving in this capacity, he addressed an importation of allegedly diseased cattle and made recommendations that predated the Pure Food and Drug Act.[89] Queen Victoria commented that she had never seen an ambassador who "created so much interest and won so much regard as Mr. Lowell".[90] Lowell held this role until the close of Chester A. Arthur's presidency in the spring of 1885, despite his wife's failing health. Lowell was already well known in England for his writing and, during his time there, he befriended fellow author Henry James, who referred to him as "conspicuously American".[90] Lowell also befriended Leslie Stephen during this time and became the godfather to his daughter, future writer Virginia Woolf.[91] Lowell was popular enough that he was offered a professorship at Oxford after his recall by president Grover Cleveland, though the offer was declined.[92]

His second wife, Frances, died on February 19, 1885, while still in England.[93]

Later years and death

Grave of James Russell Lowell at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

He returned to the United States by June 1885, living with his daughter and her husband in Southboro, Massachusetts.[94] He then spent time in Boston with his sister before returning to Elmwood in November 1889.[95] By this time, most of his friends were dead, including Quincy, Longfellow, Dana, and Emerson, leaving him depressed and contemplating suicide again.[96] Lowell spent part of the 1880s delivering various speeches[97] and his last published works were mostly collections of essays, including Political Essays, and a collection of his poems Heartsease and Rue in 1888.[95] His last few years he traveled back to England periodically[98] and when he returned to the United States in the fall of 1889, he moved back to Elmwood[99] with Mabel, while her husband worked for clients in New York and New Jersey.[100] That year, Lowell gave an address at the centenary of George Washington's inauguration. Also that year, the Boston Critic dedicated a special issue to Lowell on his seventieth birthday to recollections and reminiscences by his friends, including former presidents Hayes and Benjamin Harrison and British Prime Minister William Gladstone as well as Alfred Tennyson and Francis Parkman.[99]

In the last few months of his life, Lowell struggled with gout, sciatica in his left leg, and chronic nausea; by the summer of 1891, doctors believed that Lowell had cancer in his kidneys, liver, and lungs. His last few months, he was administered opium for the pain and was rarely fully conscious.[101] He died on August 12, 1891, at Elmwood[102] and, after services in the Harvard chapel, was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.[103] After his death, Norton served as his literary executor and published several collections of Lowell's works and his letters.[104]

Writing style and literary theory

Portrait of Lowell by Théobald Chartran, 1880

Early in his career, James Russell Lowell's writing was influenced by Swedenborgianism, a Spiritualism-infused form of Christianity founded by Emanuel Swedenborg, causing Frances Longfellow (wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) to mention that "he has been long in the habit of seeing spirits".[105] He composed his poetry rapidly when inspired by an "inner light" but could not write to order.[106] He subscribed to the common nineteenth-century belief that the poet was a prophet but went further, linking religion, nature, and poetry, as well as social reform.[105] Evert Augustus Duyckinck and others welcomed Lowell as part of Young America, a New York-based movement. Though not officially affiliated with them, he shared some of their ideals, including the belief that writers have an inherent insight into the moral nature of humanity and have an obligation for literary action in addition to their aesthetic function.[107] Unlike many of his contemporaries, including members of Young America, Lowell did not advocate for the creation of a new national literature. Instead, he called for a natural literature, regardless of country, caste, or race, and warned against provincialism which might "put farther off the hope of one great brotherhood".[26] He agreed with his neighbor Longfellow that "whoever is most universal, is also most national".[107] As Lowell said:

I believe that no poet in this age can write much that is good unless he gives himself up to [the radical] tendency ... The proof of poetry is, in my mind, that it reduces to the essence of a single line the vague philosophy which is floating in all men's minds, and so render it portable and useful, and ready to the hand ... At least, no poem ever makes me respect is author which does not in some way convey a truth of philosophy.[108]

A scholar of linguistics, Lowell was one of the founders of the American Dialect Society.[109] He used this interest in his writing, particularly in The Biglow Papers, presenting a heavily ungrammatical phonetic spelling of the Yankee dialect.[23] In using this vernacular, Lowell intended to get closer to the common man's experience and was rebelling against more formal and, as he thought, unnatural representations of Americans in literature. As he wrote in his introduction to The Biglow Papers, "few American writers or speakers wield their native language with the directness, precision, and force that are common as the day in the mother country".[110] Though intentionally humorous, this accurate presentation of the dialect was pioneering work in American literature.[111] For example, Lowell's character Hosea Biglow says in verse:

Ef you take a sword an' dror it,
An go stick a feller thru,
Guv'ment aint to answer to it,
God'll send the bill to you.[112]

Lowell is considered one of the Fireside Poets, a group of writers from New England in the 1840s who all had a substantial national following and whose work was often read aloud by the family fireplace. Besides Lowell, the main figures from this group were Longfellow, Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant.[113]


Although he was an abolitionist, Lowell's opinions on African-Americans wavered. Though Lowell advocated suffrage for blacks, he noted that their ability to vote could be troublesome. Even so, he wrote, "We believe the white race, by their intellectual and traditional superiority, will retain sufficient ascendancy to prevent any serious mischief from the new order of things".[114] Freed slaves, he wrote, were "dirty, lazy & lying".[115] Even before his marriage to the abolitionist Maria White, Lowell wrote: "The abolitionists are the only ones with whom I sympathize of the present extant parties."[116] After his marriage, Lowell at first did not share White's enthusiasm for the cause but was eventually pulled in.[117] The couple often gave money to fugitive slaves, even when their own financial situation was not strong, especially if they were asked to free a spouse or child.[118] Even so, he did not always fully agree with the followers of the movement. The majority of these people, he said, "treat ideas as ignorant persons do cherries. They think them unwholesome unless they are swallowed, stones and all."[24] Lowell depicted Southerners very unfavorably in his second collection of The Biglow Papers but, by 1865, admitted that Southerners were "guilty only of weakness" and, by 1868, said that he sympathized with Southerners and their viewpoint on slavery.[119] Enemies and friends of Lowell alike questioned his vacillating interest in the question of slavery. Abolitionist Samuel Joseph May accused Lowell of trying to quit the movement because of his association with Harvard and the Boston Brahmin culture: "Having got into the smooth, dignified, self-complacent, and change-hating society of the college and its Boston circles, Lowell has gone over to the world, and to 'respectability'."[120]

Lowell was also involved in other reform movements. He urged for better conditions for factory workings, opposed capital punishment, and supported the temperance movement. His friend Longfellow was especially concerned about his fanaticism for temperance, worrying that Lowell would ask him to destroy his wine cellar.[20] There are many references to Lowell's drinking during his college years and part of his reputation in school was based on it. His friend Edward Everett Hale denied these allegations and, even then, Lowell considered joining the "Anti-Wine" club and later became a teetotaler during the early years of his first marriage.[121] However, as Lowell gained notoriety, he also was popular in social circles and clubs and, away from his wife, he would drink rather heavily. When he drank, he had wild mood swings, ranging from euphoria to frenzy.[122]

Criticism and legacy

In 1849, Lowell said of himself, "I am the first poet who has endeavored to express the American Idea, and I shall be popular by and by".[123] Poet Walt Whitman said: "Lowell was not a grower—he was a builder. He built poems: he didn't put in the seed, and water the seed, and send down his sun—letting the rest take care of itself: he measured his poems—kept them within formula."[124] Fellow Fireside Poet John Greenleaf Whittier praised Lowell by writing two poems in his honor and calling him "our new Theocritus" and "one of the strongest and manliest of our writers–a republican poet who dares to speak brave words of unpopular truth".[125] British author Thomas Hughes referred to Lowell as one of the most important writers in the United States: "Greece had her Aristophanes; Rome her Juvenal; Spain has had her Cervantes; France her Rabelais, her Molière, her Voltaire; Germany her Jean Paul, her Heine; England her Swift, her Thackeray; and America has her Lowell."[113] Lowell's satires and use of dialect were an inspiration for writers like Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, H. L. Mencken, and Ring Lardner.[126]

Contemporary critic and editor Margaret Fuller wrote, "his verse is stereotyped; his thought sounds no depth, and posterity will not remember him".[127] Duyckinck thought Lowell was too similar to other poets like William Shakespeare and John Milton.[128] Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that, though Lowell had significant technical skill, his poetry "rather expresses his wish, his ambition, than the uncontrollable interior impulse which is the authentic mark of a new poem... and which is felt in the pervading tone, rather than in brilliant parts or lines".[129] Even his friend Richard Henry Dana, Jr. questioned Lowell's abilities, calling him "very clever, entertaining & good humored... but he is rather a trifler, after all."[130] In the twentieth century, poet Richard Armour questioned Lowell's ability, writing: "As a Harvard graduate and an editor for the Atlantic Monthly, it must have been difficult for Lowell to write like an illiterate oaf, but he succeeded."[131] The poet Amy Lowell featured her ancestor James Russell Lowell in her poem A Critical Fable (1922), the title mocking A Fable for Critics. Here, a fictional version of Lowell says he does not believe that women will ever be equal to men in the arts and "the two sexes cannot be ranked counterparts".[132] Modern literary critic Van Wyck Brooks wrote that Lowell's poetry was forgettable: "one read them five times over and still forgot them, as if this excellent verse had been written in water".[129] Nonetheless, in 1969 the Modern Language Association established a prize named after Lowell, awarded annually for "an outstanding literary or linguistic study, a critical edition of an important work, or a critical biography".[133]

Lowell's poem "The Present Crisis", an early work that addressed the national crisis over slavery leading up to the Civil War, has had an impact in the modern civil rights movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People named its newsletter The Crisis after the poem, and Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently quoted the poem in his speeches and sermons.[134] The poem was also the source of the hymn Once to Every Man and Nation.[135]

Selected list of works

My Study Windows (1871)

Poetry collections

  • A Year's Life (1841)
  • Miscellaneous Poems (1843)
  • The Biglow Papers (1848)[21]
  • A Fable for Critics (1848)[21]
  • Poems (1848)[21]
  • The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848)[21]
  • Under the Willows (1869)[68]
  • The Cathedral (1870)[136]
  • Heartsease and Rue (1888)[95]

Essay collections

  • Conversations on the Old Poets (1844)
  • Fireside Travels (1864)[136]
  • Among My Books (1870)[136]
  • My Study Windows (1871)[136]
  • Among My Books (second collection, 1876)[136]
  • Democracy and Other Addresses (1886)[95]
  • Political Essays (1888)[95]

See also

Further reading

  • Greenslet, Ferris. James Russell Lowell, His Life and Work. Boston: 1905.
  • Hale, Edward Everett. James Russell Lowell and His Friends. Boston: 1899.
  • Scudder, Horace Elisha. James Russell Lowell: A Biography. Volume 1, Volume 2. Published 1901.


  1. ^ Sullivan, 204
  2. ^ Nelson, 39
  3. ^ a b Sullivan, 205
  4. ^ Heymann, 55
  5. ^ Wagenknecht, 11
  6. ^ Duberman, 14–15
  7. ^ a b Duberman, 17
  8. ^ a b Sullivan, 208
  9. ^ Duberman, 20
  10. ^ a b Duberman, 26
  11. ^ Sullivan, 209
  12. ^ Wagenknecht, 50
  13. ^ Wagenknecht, 135
  14. ^ a b c Sullivan, 210
  15. ^ Wagenknecht, 136
  16. ^ Heymann, 73
  17. ^ a b c Sullivan, 211
  18. ^ Yellin, Jean Fagan. "Hawthorne and the Slavery Question", A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Larry J. Reynolds, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 45. ISBN 0195124146
  19. ^ Duberman, 71
  20. ^ a b c Sullivan, 212
  21. ^ a b c d e f Wagenknecht, 16
  22. ^ Heymann, 72
  23. ^ a b c d Sullivan, 213
  24. ^ a b Heymann, 77
  25. ^ Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607-1900. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1954: 373–374.
  26. ^ a b Duberman, 47
  27. ^ a b Duberman, 53
  28. ^ a b Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991: 201. ISBN 0060923318
  29. ^ Duberman, 410
  30. ^ Heymann, 76
  31. ^ Duberman, 113
  32. ^ a b Duberman, 101
  33. ^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 141–142. ISBN 081604161X.
  34. ^ Nelson, 19
  35. ^ Duberman, 112
  36. ^ Heymann, 85
  37. ^ Duberman, 116
  38. ^ Duberman, 117
  39. ^ Wagenknecht, 36
  40. ^ Heymann, 98
  41. ^ a b Duberman, 139
  42. ^ Duberman, 134
  43. ^ Wagenknecht, 139
  44. ^ Heymann, 101
  45. ^ Duberman, 136
  46. ^ Heymann, 101–102
  47. ^ Duberman, 138
  48. ^ Heymann, 102
  49. ^ a b Duberman, 133
  50. ^ Heymann, 103
  51. ^ a b Duberman, 140
  52. ^ Heymann, 104–105
  53. ^ a b c Sullivan, 215
  54. ^ Duberman, 141
  55. ^ a b Heymann, 105
  56. ^ a b Sullivan, 216
  57. ^ a b Wagenknecht, 74
  58. ^ Heymann, 107
  59. ^ Duberman, 161
  60. ^ Heymann, 106
  61. ^ Duberman, 155
  62. ^ Duberman, 154
  63. ^ Duberman, 154–155
  64. ^ Heymann, 108
  65. ^ a b c Heymann, 119
  66. ^ Duberman, 180
  67. ^ a b Sullivan, 218
  68. ^ a b c Heymann, 132
  69. ^ Wagenknecht, 183
  70. ^ Wagenknecht, 186
  71. ^ Heymann, 121
  72. ^ Duberman, 224
  73. ^ a b Heymann, 123
  74. ^ Sullivan, 201
  75. ^ Duberman, 224–225
  76. ^ Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963: 140.
  77. ^ Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004: 236. ISBN 0807070262
  78. ^ Baker, Thomas N. Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001: 187. ISBN 0-19-512073-6
  79. ^ Duberman, 243
  80. ^ a b Heymann, 134
  81. ^ Duberman, 258
  82. ^ Heymann, 136
  83. ^ a b Duberman, 282
  84. ^ Duberman, 282–283
  85. ^ Heymann, 137
  86. ^ Heymann, 136–138
  87. ^ Duberman, 294
  88. ^ Duberman, 298–299
  89. ^ Wagenknecht, 168
  90. ^ a b Sullivan, 219
  91. ^ Duberman, 447
  92. ^ Sullivan, 218–219
  93. ^ Heymann, 143
  94. ^ Heymann, 145
  95. ^ a b c d e Wagenknecht, 18
  96. ^ Duberman, 339
  97. ^ Duberman, 352
  98. ^ Duberman, 351
  99. ^ a b Heymann, 150
  100. ^ Duberman, 364–365
  101. ^ Duberman, 370
  102. ^ Duberman, 371
  103. ^ Sullivan, 223
  104. ^ Heymann, 152
  105. ^ a b Duberman, 62
  106. ^ Wagenknecht, 105–106
  107. ^ a b Duberman, 50
  108. ^ Duberman, 50–51
  109. ^ Wagenknecht, 70
  110. ^ Heymann, 86
  111. ^ Wagenknecht, 71
  112. ^ Heymann, 87
  113. ^ a b Heymann, 91
  114. ^ Wagenknecht, 175
  115. ^ Duberman, 229
  116. ^ Heymann, 63
  117. ^ Heymann, 64
  118. ^ Duberman, 112–113
  119. ^ Wagenknecht, 187
  120. ^ Heymann, 122
  121. ^ Wagenknecht, 29
  122. ^ Heymann, 117
  123. ^ Sullivan, 203
  124. ^ Nelson, 171
  125. ^ Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967: 113.
  126. ^ Heymann, 90
  127. ^ Blanchard, Paula. Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1987: 294. ISBN 0-201-10458-X
  128. ^ Duberman, 55
  129. ^ a b Sullivan, 220
  130. ^ Sullivan, 219–220
  131. ^ Nelson, 146
  132. ^ Watts, Emily Stipes. The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945. Austin, Texas: University of Austin Press, 1978: 159–160. ISBN 0-292-76540-2
  133. ^ ""James Russell Lowell Prize". Modern Language Association. Retrieved on October 1, 2008.
  134. ^ The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, by Martin Luther King, Clayborne Carson, Peter Holloran, Ralph Luker, Penny A. Russell, vol. 1 at 417 n.2
  135. ^ Peterson, William J. and Ardythe Peterson. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006: 185. ISBN 9781414309330
  136. ^ a b c d e Wagenknecht, 17


  • Duberman, Martin. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966.
  • Heymann, C. David. American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980. ISBN 0396076084
  • Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981. ISBN 086576008X
  • Sullivan, Wilson. New England Men of Letters. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972. ISBN 0027886808
  • Wagenknecht, Edward. James Russell Lowell: Portrait of a Many-Sided Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

External links

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Caleb Cushing
U.S. Minister to Spain
Succeeded by
Lucius Fairchild
Preceded by
John Welsh
U.S. Minister to Great Britain
Succeeded by
Edward J. Phelps


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Who speaks the truth stabs Falsehood to the heart.

James Russell Lowell (22 February 181912 August 1891) was an American Romantic poet, critic, satirist, writer, diplomat, and abolitionist.



  • Earth’s noblest thing,—a woman perfected.
    • Irené
  • Who speaks the truth stabs Falsehood to the heart.
    • L’ Envoi
  • His words were simple words enough,
    And yet he used them so,
    That what in other mouths was rough
    In his seemed musical and low.
  • All thoughts that mould the age begin
    Deep down within the primitive soul.
    • An Incident in a Railroad Car
  • It may be glorious to write
    Thoughts that shall glad the two or three
    High souls, like those far stars that come in sight
    Once in a century.
    • An Incident in a Railroad Car
  • Dear common flower, that grow'st beside the way,
    Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,
    First pledge of blithesome May,
    Which children pluck, and, full of pride uphold.
  • The thing we long for, that we are
    For one transcendent moment.
    • Longing
  • From lower to the higher next,
    Not to the top, is Nature’s text;
    And embryo Good, to reach full stature,
    Absorbs the Evil in its nature.
    • Festina Lente, Moral
  • No man is born into the world whose work
    Is not born with him. There is always work,
    And tools to work withal, for those who will;
    And blessed are the horny hands of toil.
    • A Glance Behind the Curtain (1843)
  • 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.
  • The nurse of full-grown souls is solitude.
    • Columbus (1844)
  • I first drew in New England's air, and from her hardy breast
    Sucked in the tyrant-hating milk that will not let me rest.
    • On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves Near Washington, st. 2 (1845)
  • Before man made us citizens, great Nature made us men.
    • On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves Near Washington
  • The birch, most shy and lady-like of trees,
    Her poverty, as best she may, retrieves,
    And hints at her foregone gentilities
    With some saved relics of her wealth of leaves.
  • They came three thousand miles, and died,
    To keep the Past upon its throne;
    Unheard, beyond the ocean tide,
    Their English mother made her moan.
    • Graves of Two English Soldiers on Concord Battleground, st. 3 (1849)
  • The snow had begun in the gloaming,
    And busily all the night
    Had been heaping field and highway
    With a silence deep and white.
  • Along A River-Side, I Know Not Where,
    I walked one night in mystery of dream;
    A chill creeps curdling yet beneath my hair,
    To think what chanced me by the pallid gleam
    Of a moon-wraith that waned through haunted air.
  • God, give us Peace! not such as lulls to sleep,
    But sword on thigh and brow with purpose knit!
    And let our Ship of State to harbor sweep,
    Her ports all up, her battle lanterns lit,
    And her leashed thunders gathering for their leap.
    • The Washers of the Shroud, st. 20
  • There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates.
    • Fireside Travels, At Sea (1864)
  • It is by presence of mind in untried emergencies that the native metal of a man is tested.
  • When I was a beggarly boy,
    And lived in a cellar damp,
    I had not a friend nor a toy,
    But I had Aladdin's lamp.
    • Aladdin, st. 1 (1868)
  • Not failure, but low aim, is crime.
    • For an Autograph, st. 5 (1868)
  • Though old the thought and oft expressed,
    'Tis his at last who says it best.
    • For an Autograph
  • 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.
    • The Cathedral, st. 9 (1869)
  • How little inventiveness there is in man,
    Grave copier of copies, I give thanks
    For a new relish, careless to inquire
    My pleasure's pedigree, if so it please,
    Nobly, I mean, nor renegade to art.
    The Grecian gluts me with its perfectness,
    Unanswerable as Euclid, self-contained,
    The one thing finished in this hasty world,
    Forever finished, though the barbarous pit,
    Fanatical on hearsay, stamp and shout
    As if a miracle could be encored.
    • The Cathedral, st. 9
  • The wisest man could ask no more of Fate
    Than to be simple, modest, manly, true,
    Safe from the Many—honored by the Few;
    To count as naught in World or Church or State;
    But inwardly in secret to be great.
    • Sonnet, Jeffries Wyman (1874)
  • But life is sweet, though all that makes it sweet
    Lessen like sound of friends’ departing feet;
    And Death is beautiful as feet of friend
    Coming with welcome at our journey’s end.
    For me Fate gave, whate’er she else denied,
    A nature sloping to the southern side;
    I thank her for it, though when clouds arise
    Such natures double-darken gloomy skies.
    • Epistle to George William Curtis (1874)
  • The Maple puts her corals on in May,
    While loitering frosts about the lowlands cling,
    To be in tune with what the robins sing.
  • The child is not mine as the first was,
    I cannot sing it to rest,
    I cannot lift it up fatherly
    And bliss it upon my breast;
    Yet it lies in my little one's cradle
    And sits in my little one's chair,
    And the light of the heaven she's gone to
    Transfigures its golden hair.
  • The soil out of which such men as he are made is good to be born on, good to live on, good to die for and to be buried in.
    • Garfield (September 24, 1881)
  • 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.
    • International Copyright (November 20, 1885)
  • If I were asked what book is better than a cheap book, I should answer that there is one book better than a cheap book,—and that is a book honestly come by.
    • Before the U. S. Senate Committee on Patents (January 29, 1886)
  • These pearls of thought in Persian gulfs were bred,
    Each softly lucent as a rounded moon;
    The diver Omar plucked them from their bed,
    Fitzgerald strung them on an English thread.
  • As life runs on, the road grows strange
    With faces new, and near the end
    The milestones into headstones change,
    'Neath every one a friend.
    • Sixty-eighth Birthday (1889)

Sonnets (1844)

  • Be noble! and the nobleness that lies
    In other men, sleeping but never dead,
    Will rise in majesty to meet thine own.
    • Sonnet IV
  • Great truths are portions of the soul of man;
    Great souls are portions of eternity.
    • Sonnet VI
  • To win the secret of a weed’s plain heart.
    • Sonnet XXV
  • Two meanings have our lightest fantasies,—
    One of the flesh, and of the spirit one.
    • Sonnet XXXIV

The Present Crisis (1844)

  • Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
    In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.
    • St. 5
  • 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.
    • St. 8
  • Count me o'er earth's chosen heroes,-they were souls that stood alone,
    While the men they agonized for hurled the contumelious stone,
    Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden beam incline
    To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their faith divine,
    By one man's plain truth to manhood and to God's supreme design.
    • St. 12
  • 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.
    • St. 18

The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848)

  • Not only around our infancy
    Doth heaven with all its splendors lie;
    Daily, with souls that cringe and plot,
    We Sinais climb and know it not.
    • Prelude to Pt. I, st. 2
  • For a cap and bells our lives we pay,
    Bubbles we earn with a whole soul's tasking:
    'Tis heaven alone that is given away,
    'Tis only God may be had for the asking.
    • Prelude to Pt. I, st. 4
  • And what is so rare as a day in June?
    Then, if ever, come perfect days;
    Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
    And over it softly her warm ear lays:
    Whether we look, or whether we listen,
    We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
    Every clod feels a stir of might,
    An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
    And, grasping blindly above it for light,
    Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers.
    • Prelude to Pt. I, st. 5
  • Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it;
    We are happy now because God wills it.
    • Prelude to Pt. I, st. 6
  • Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
    Everything is happy now,
    Everything is upward striving;
    'Tis as easy now for the heart to be true
    As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,—
    'Tis the natural way of living:
    Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
    In the unscarred heaven they leave no wake;
    And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
    The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
    The soul partakes the season's youth,
    And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
    Lie deep 'neath a silence pure and smooth,
    Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.
    • Prelude to Pt. I, st. 7
  • The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
    In whatso we share with another's need,—
    Not that which we give, but what we share,—
    For the gift without the giver is bare;
    Who bestows himself with his alms feeds three,—
    Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.
    • Pt. II, st. 8

A Fable for Critics (1848)

  • In creating, the only hard thing's to begin;
    A grass-blade's no easier to make than an oak,
    If you've once found the way you've achieved the grand stroke.
    • Pt. I - Emerson, st. 1
  • And I honor the man who is willing to sink
    Half his present repute for the freedom to think,
    And, when he has thought, be his cause strong or weak,
    Will risk t'other half for the freedom to speak.
    • Pt. V - Cooper, st. 3
  • There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
    Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.
    • Pt. VI - Poe and Longfellow, st. 1
  • For though he builds glorious temples, 'tis odd
    He leaves never a doorway to get in a god.
  • Nature fits all her children with something to do,
    He who would write and can't write, can surely review.

The Biglow Papers (1848-1866)

Series I (1848)

  • Ez fer war, I call it murder—
    There you hev it plain an' flat;
    I don't want to go no furder
    Than my Testyment fer that.
    • No. 1, st. 5
  • You've gut to git up airly
    Ef you want to take in God.
    • No. 1, st. 5
  • This goin' ware glory waits ye haint one agreeable feetur.
    • No. 2, st. 6
  • 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.
    • No. 2
  • A marciful Providunce fashioned us holler
    O' purpose thet we might our principles swaller.
    • No. 4, st. 2
  • I du believe with all my soul
    In the gret Press's freedom,
    To pint the people to the goal
    An' in the traces lead 'em.
    • No. 6, st. 7
  • I don't believe in princerple,
    But oh I du in interest.
    • No. 6, st. 9
  • It ain't by princerples nor men
    My preudunt course is steadied—
    I scent wich pays the best, an' then
    Go into it baldheaded.
    • No. 6, st. 10

Series II (1866)

  • God makes sech nights, all white an' still,
    Fur'z you can look or listen,
    Moonshine an' snow on field an' hill,
    All silence an' all glisten.
    • The Courtin' , st. 1
  • My gran'ther's rule was safer 'n 'tis to crow:
    Don't never prophesy—onless ye know.
    • No. 2
  • It's 'most enough to make a deacon swear.
    • No. 2
  • Folks never understand the folks they hate.
    • No. 2
  • Ef you want peace, the thing you've gut tu du
    Is jes' to show you're up to fightin', tu.
    • No. 2
  • Bad work follers ye ez long's ye live.
    • No. 2
  • The surest plan to make a Man
    Is, think him so.
    • No. 2
  • Our papers don't purtend to print on'y wut Guv'ment choose,
    An' thet insures us all to git the very best o' noose.
    • No. 3
  • No, never say nothin' without you're compelled tu,
    An' then don't say nothin' thet you can be held tu.
    • No. 5

Literary Essays, vol. I (1864-1890)

  • Things always seem fairer when we look back at them, and it is out of that inaccessible tower of the past that Longing leans and beckons.
    • A Few Bits of Roman Mosaic
  • Mishaps are like knives, that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.
    • Cambridge Thirty Years Ago
  • What a sense of security in an old book which Time has criticized for us!
    • A Library of Old Authors
  • It is curious how tyrannical the habit of reading is, and what shifts we make to escape thinking. There is no bore we dread being left alone with so much as our own minds.
    • A Moosehead Journal

Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration (July 21, 1865)

  • Our slender life runs rippling by, and glides
    Into the silent hollow of the past;
    What is there that abides
    To make the next age better for the last?
    • St. 3
  • The little that we do
    Is but half-nobly true;
    With our laborious hiving
    What men call treasure, and the gods call dross,
    Life seems a jest of Fate's contriving,
    Only secure in every one's conniving,
    A long account of nothings paid with loss.
    • St. 3
  • Nature, they say, doth dote,
    And cannot make a man
    Save on some worn-out plan,
    Repeating us by rote.
    • St. 5
  • They come transfigured back,
    Secure from change in their high-hearted ways,
    Beautiful evermore, and with the rays
    Of morn on their white Shields of Expectation!
    • St. 8

Literary Essays, vol. II (1870-1890)

  • There is no better ballast for keeping the mind steady on its keel, and saving it from all risk of crankiness, than business.
    • New England Two Centuries Ago
  • Puritanism, believing itself quick with the seed of religious liberty, laid, without knowing it, the egg of democracy.
    • New England Two Centuries Ago
  • It was in making education not only common to all, but in some sense compulsory on all, that the destiny of the free republics of America was practically settled.
    • New England Two Centuries Ago
  • Talent is that which is in a man's power; genius is that in whose power a man is.
    • Rousseau and the Sentimentalists
  • Every man feels instinctively that all the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.
    • Rousseau and the Sentimentalists
  • There is no work of genius which has not been the delight of mankind, no word of genius to which the human heart and soul have not sooner or later responded.
    • Rousseau and the Sentimentalists
  • Sentiment is intellectualized emotion,—emotion precipitated, as it were, in pretty crystals by the fancy.
    • Rousseau and the Sentimentalists
  • No man can produce great things who is not thoroughly sincere in dealing with himself.
    • Rousseau and the Sentimentalists

Literary Essays, vol. III (1870-1890)

  • An umbrella is of no avail against a Scotch mist.
    • On a Certain Condesceneion in Foreigners
  • Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character.
    • Dryden
  • A wise skepticism is the first attribute of a good critic.
    • Shakespeare Once More

On Democracy (October 6, 1884)

  • He must be a born leader or misleader of men, or must have been sent into the world unfurnished with that modulating and restraining balance - wheel which we call a sense of humor, who, in old age, has as strong a confidence in his opinions and in the necessity of bringing the universe into conformity with them as he had in youth. In a world the very condition of whose being is that it should be in perpetual flux, where all seems mirage, and the one abiding thing is the effort to distinguish realities from appearances, the elderly man must be indeed of a singularly tough and valid fibre who is certain that he has any clarified residuum of experience, any assured verdict of reflection, that deserves to be called an opinion, or who, even if he had, feels that he is justified in holding mankind by the button while he is expounding it.
  • I hear America sometimes playfully accused of sending you all your storms, and am in the habit of parrying the charge by alleging that we are enabled to do this because, in virtue of our protective system, we can afford to make better bad weather than anybody else. And what wiser use could we make of it than to export it in return for the paupers which some European countries are good enough to send over to us who have not attained to the same skill in the manufacture of them?
  • There is no good in arguing with the inevitable. The only argument available with an east wind is to put on your overcoat. And in this case, also, the prudent will prepare themselves to encounter what they cannot prevent. Some people advise us to put on the brakes, as if the movement of which we are conscious were that of a railway train running down an incline. But a metaphor is no argument, though it be sometimes the gunpowder to drive one home and imbed it in the memory.
  • I have hinted that what people are afraid of in democracy is less the thing itself than what they conceive to be its necessary adjuncts and consequences. It is supposed to reduce all mankind to a dead level of mediocrity in character and culture, to vulgarize men's conceptions of life, and therefore their code of morals, manners, and conduct - to endanger the rights of property and possession. But I believe that the real gravamen of the charges lies in the habit it has of making itself generally disagreeable by asking the Powers that Be at the most inconvenient moment whether they are the powers that ought to be. If the powers that be are in a condition to give a satisfactory answer to this inevitable question, they need feel in no way discomfited by it.
  • Few people take the trouble of trying to find out what democracy really is. Yet this would be a great help, for it is our lawless and uncertain thoughts, it is the indefiniteness of our impressions, that fill darkness, whether mental or physical, with spectres and hobgoblins. Democracy is nothing more than an experiment in government, more likely to succeed in a new soil, but likely to be tried in all soils, which must stand or fall on its own merits as others have done before it. For there is no trick of perpetual motion in politics any more than in mechanics.
  • The framers of the American Constitution were far from wishing or intending to found a democracy in the strict sense of the word, though, as was inevitable, every expansion of the scheme of government they elaborated has been in a democratical direction. But this has been generally the slow result of growth, and not the sudden innovation of theory; in fact, they had a profound disbelief in theory, and knew better than to commit the folly of breaking with the past. They were not seduced by the French fallacy that a new system of government could be ordered like a new suit of clothes. They would as soon have thought of ordering a new suit of flesh and skin. It is only on the roaring loom of time that the stuff is woven for such a vesture of their thought and experience as they were meditating. They recognized fully the value of tradition and habit as the great allies of permanence and stability. They all had that distaste for innovation which belonged to their race, and many of them a distrust of human nature derived from their creed.
  • Their problem was how to adapt English principles and precedents to the new conditions of American life, and they solved it with singular discretion. They put as many obstacles as they could contrive, not in the way of the people's will, but of their whim.
  • Their children learned the lesson of compromise only too well, and it was the application of it to a question of fundamental morals that cost us our civil war. We learned once for all that compromise makes a good umbrella but a poor roof; that it is a temporary expedient, often wise in party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship.
  • Truth, after all, wears a different face to everybody, and it would be too tedious to wait till all were agreed. She is said to lie at the bottom of a well, for the very reason, perhaps, that whoever looks down in search of her sees his own image at the bottom, and is persuaded not only that he has seen the goddess, but that she is far better looking than he had imagined.
  • The democratic theory is that those Constitutions are likely to prove steadiest which have the broadest base, that the right to vote makes a safety - valve of every voter, and that the best way of teaching a man how to vote is to give him the chance of practice. For the question is no longer the academic one, "Is it wise to give every man the ballot?" but rather the practical one, "Is it prudent to deprive whole classes of it any longer?" It may be conjectured that it is cheaper in the long run to lift men up than to hold them down, and that the ballot in their hands is less dangerous to society than a sense of wrong in their heads.
  • An appeal to the reason of the people has never been known to fail in the long run.
  • I do not believe in violent changes, nor do I expect them. Things in possession have a very firm grip. One of the strongest cements of society is the conviction of mankind that the state of things into which they are born is a part of the order of the universe, as natural, let us say, as that the sun should go round the earth. It is a conviction that they will not surrender except on compulsion, and a wise society should look to it that this compulsion be not put upon them. For the individual man there is no radical cure, outside of human nature itself, for the evils to which human nature is heir.
  • In the scales of the destinies brawn will never weigh so much as brain. Our healing is not in the storm or in the whirlwind, it is not in monarchies, or aristocracies, or democracies, but will be revealed by the still small voice that speaks to the conscience and the heart, prompting us to a wider and wiser humanity.

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Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

James Russell Lowell
by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Written for James Russell Lowell, 1819–1891

Thou shouldst have sun the swan-song for the choir
  That filled our groves with music till the day
Lit the last hilltop with its reddening fire,
  And evening listened for thy lingering lay.

But thou hast found thy voice in realms afar
  Where strains celestial blend their notes with thine;
Some cloudless sphere beneath a happier star
  Welcomes the bright-winged spirit we resign.

How Nature mourns thee in the still retreat
  Where passed in peace thy love-enchanted hours!
Where shall she find an eye like thing to greet
  Spring's earliest footprints on her opening flowers?

Have the pale wayside weeds no fond regret
  For him who read the secrets they enfold?
Shall the proud spangles of the field forget
  The verse that lent new glory to their gold?

And ye whose carols wooed his infant ear,
  Whose chants with answering woodnotes he repaid,
Have ye no song his spirit still may hear
  From Elmwood's vaults of overarching shade?

Friends of his studious hours, who thronged to teach
  The deep-read scholar all your varied lore,
Shall he no longer seek your shelves to reach
  The treasures missing from his worldwide store?

This singer whom we long have held so dear
  Was Nature's darling, shapely, strong, and fair;
Of keenest wit, of judgment crystal-clear,
  Easy of converse, courteous, debonair,

Fit for the loftiest or the lowliest lot,
  Self-poised, imperial, yet of simplest ways;
At home alike in castle or in cot,
  True to his aim, let others blame or praise.

Freedom be found an heirloom from his sires;
  Song, letters, statecraft, shared his years in turn;
All went to feed the nation's altar-fires
  Whose mourning children wreathe his funeral urn.

He loved New England,—people, language, soil,
  Unweaned by exile from her arid breast.
Farewell awhile, white-handed son of toil,
  Go with her brown-armed laborers to thy rest.

Peace to thy slumber in the forest shade!
  Poet and patriot, every gift was thine;
Thy name shall live while summers bloom and fade,
  And grateful Memory guard thy leafy shrine!

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL (1819-1891), American author and diplomatist, was born at Elmwood, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the 22nd of February 1819, the son of Charles Lowell (1.782-1861)J On his mother's side he was descended from the Spences and Traills, who made their home in the Orkney Islands, his great-grandfather, Robert Traill, returning to England on the breaking out of hostilities in 1775. He was brought up in a neighbourhood bordering on the open country, and from his earliest years he found a companion in nature; he was also early initiated into the reading of poetry and romance, hearing Spenser and Scott in childhood, and introduced to old ballads by his mother. He had for schoolmaster an Englishman who held by the traditions of English schools, so that before he entered Harvard College he had a more familiar acquaintance with Latin verse than most of his fellows - a familiarity which showed itself later in his mock-pedantic accompaniment to The Biglow Papers and his macaronic poetry. He was a wide reader, but a somewhat indifferent student, graduating at Harvard without special honours in 1838. During his college course he wrote a number of trivial pieces for a college magazine, and shortly after graduating printed for private circulation the poem which his class asked him to write for their graduation festivities.

He was uncertain at first what vocation to choose, and vacillated between business, the ministry, medicine and law. He decided at last to practise law, and after a course at the Harvard law school, was admitted to the bar. While studying for his profession, however, he contributed poems and prose articles to various magazines. He cared little for the law, regarding it simply as a distasteful means of livelihood, yet his experiments in writing did not encourage him to trust to this for support. An unhappy adventure in love deepened his sense of failure, but he became betrothed to Maria White in the autumn of 1840, and the next twelve years of his life were deeply affected by her influence. She was a poet of delicate power, but also possessed a lofty enthusiasm, a high conception of purity and justice, and a practical temper which led her to concern herself 1 See under Lowell, John.

in the movements directed against the evils of intemperance and slavery. Lowell was already looked upon by his companions as a man marked by wit and poetic sentiment; Miss White was admired for her beauty, her character and her intellectual gifts, and the two became thus the hero and heroine among a group of ardent young men and women. The first-fruits of this passion was a volume of poems, published in 1841, entitled A Year's Life, which was inscribed by Lowell in a veiled dedication to his future wife, and was a record of his new emotions with a backward glance at the preceding period of depression and irresolution. The betrothal, moreover, stimulated Lowell to new efforts towards self-support, and though nominally maintaining his law office, he threw his energy into the establishment, in company with a friend, Robert Carter, of a literary journal, to which the young men gave the name of The Pioneer. It was to open the way to new ideals in literature and art, and the writers to whom Lowell turned for assistance - Hawthorne, Emerson, Whittier, Poe, Story and Parsons, none of them yet possessed of a wide reputation - indicate the acumen of the editor. Lowell himself had already turned his studies in dramatic and early poetic literature to account in another magazine, and continued the series in The Pioneer, besides contributing poems; but after the issue of three monthly numbers, beginning in January 1843, the magazine came to an end, partly because of a sudden disaster which befell Lowell's eyes, partly through the inexperience of the conductors and unfortunate business connexions.

The venture confirmed Lowell in his bent towards literature. At the close of 1843 he published a collection of his poems, and a year later he gathered up certain material which he had printed, sifted and added to it, and produced Conversations on some of the Old Poets. The dialogue form was used merely to secure an undress manner of approach to his subject; there was no attempt at the dramatic. The book reflects curiously Lowell's mind at this time, for the conversations relate only partly to the poets and dramatists of the. Elizabethan period; a slight suggestion sends the interlocutors off on the discussion of current reforms in church and state and society. Literature and reform were dividing the author's mind, and continued to do so for the next decade. Just as this book appeared Lowell and Miss White were married, and spent the winter and early spring of 1845 in Philadelphia. Here, besides continuing his literary contributions to magazines, Lowell had a regular engagement as an editorial writer on The Pennsylvania Freeman, a fortnightly journal devoted to the Anti-Slavery cause. In the spring of 1845 the Lowells returned to Cambridge and made their home at Elmwood. On the last day of the year their first child, Blanche, was born, but she lived only fifteen months. A second daughter, Mabel, was born six months after Blanche's death, and lived to survive her father; a third, Rose, died an infant. Lowell's mother meanwhile was living, sometimes at home, sometimes at a neighbouring hospital, with clouded mind, and his wife was in frail health. These troubles and a narrow income conspired to make Lowell almost a recluse in these days, but from the retirement of Elmwood he sent forth writings which show how large an interest he took in affairs. He contributed poems to the daily press, called out by the Slavery question; he was, early in 1846, a correspondent of the London Daily News, and in the spring of 1848 he formed a connexion with the National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York, by which he agreed to furnish weekly either a poem or a prose article. The poems were most frequently works of art, occasionally they were tracts; but the prose was almost exclusively concerned with the public men and questions of the day, and forms a series of incisive, witty and sometimes prophetic diatribes. It was a period with him of great mental activity, and is represented by four of his books which stand as admirable witnesses to the Lowell of 1848, namely, the second series of Poems, containing among others "Columbus," "An Indian Summer Reverie," "To the Dandelion," "The Changeling"; A Fable for Critics, in which, after the manner of Leigh Hunt's The Feast of the Poets, he characterizes in witty verse and with good-natured satire American contemporary writers, and in which, the publication being anonymous, he included himself; The Vision of Sir Launfal, a romantic story suggested by the Arthurian legends - one of his most popular poems; and finally The Biglow Papers. Lowell had acquired a reputation among men of letters and a cultivated class of readers, but this satire at once brought him a wider fame. The book was not premeditated; a single poem, called out by the recruiting for the abhorred Mexican war, couched in rustic phrase and sent to the Boston Courier, had the inspiriting dash and electrifying rat-tat-tat of this new recruiting sergeant in the little army of Anti-Slavery reformers. Lowell himself discovered what he had done at the same time that the public did, and he followed the poem with eight others either in the Courier or the Anti-Slavery Standard. He developed four well-defined characters in the process - a country farmer, Ezekiel Biglow, and his son Hosea; the Rev. Homer Wilbur, a shrewd old-fashioned country minister; and Birdofredum Sawin, a Northern renegade who enters the army, together with one or two subordinate characters; and his stinging satire and sly humour are so set forth in the vernacular of New England as to give at once a historic dignity to this form of speech. (Later he wrote an elaborate paper to show the survival in New England of the English of the early 17th century.) He embroidered his verse with an entertaining apparatus of notes and mock criticism. Even his index was spiced with wit. The book, a caustic arraignment of the course taken in connexion with the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, made a strong impression, and the political philosophy secreted in its lines became a part of household literature. It is curious to observe how repeatedly this arsenal was drawn upon in the discussions in America about the "Imperialistic" developments of Igloo. The death of Lowell's mother, and the fragility of his wife's health, led Lowell, with his wife, their daughter Mabel and their infant son Walter, to go to Europe in 1851, and they went direct to Italy. The early months of their stay were saddened by the death of Walter in Rome, and by the news of the illness of Lowell's father, who had a slight shock of paralysis. They returned in November 1852, and Lowell published some recollections of his journey in the magazines, collecting the sketches later in a prose volume, Fireside Travels. He took some part also in the editing of an American edition of the British Poets, but the low state of his wife's health kept him in an uneasy condition, and when her death (27th October 1853) released him from the strain of anxiety, there came with the grief a readjustment of his nature and a new intellectual activity. At the invitation of his cousin, he delivered a course of lectures on English poets before the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1855. This first formal appearance as a critic and historian of literature at once gave him a new standing in the community, and was the occasion of his election to the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages in Harvard College, then vacant by the retirement of Longfellow. Lowell accepted the appointment, with the proviso that he should have a year of study abroad. He spent his time mainly in Germany, visiting Italy, and increasing his acquaintance with the French, German, Italian and Spanish tongues. He returned to America in the summer of 1856, and entered upon his college duties, retaining his position for twenty years. As a teacher he proved himself a quickener of thought amongst students, rather than a close and special instructor. His power lay in the interpretation of literature rather than in linguistic study, and his influence over his pupils was exercised by his own fireside as well as in the relation, always friendly and familiar, which he held to them in the classroom. In 1856 he married Miss Frances Dunlap, a lady who had since his wife's death had charge of his daughter Mabel.

In the autumn of 1857 The Atlantic Monthly was established, and Lowell was its first editor. He at once gave the magazine the stamp of high literature and of bold speech on public affairs. He held this position only till the spring of 1861, but he continued to make the magazine the vehicle of his poetry and of some prose for the rest of his life; his prose, however, was more abundantly presented in the pages of The North American Review during the years 1862-1872, when he was associated with Mr Charles Eliot Norton in its conduct. This magazine especially gave him the opportunity of expression of political views during the eventful years of the War of the Union. It was in The Atlantic during the same period that he published a second series of The Biglow Papers. Both his collegiate and editorial duties stimulated his critical powers, and the publication in the two magazines, followed by republication in book form, of a series of studies of great authors, gave him an important place as a critic. Shakespeare, Dryden, Lessing, Rousseau, Dante, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton, Keats, Carlyle, Thoreau, Swinburne, Chaucer, Emerson, Pope, Gray - these are the principal subjects of his prose, and the range of topics indicates the catholicity of his taste. He wrote also a number of essays, such as "My Garden Acquaintance," "A Good Word for Winter," "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners," which were incursions into the field of nature and society. Although the great bulk of his writing was now in prose, he made after this date some of his most notable ventures in poetry. In 1868 he issued the next collection in Under the Willows and other Poems, but in 1865 he had delivered his "Ode recited at the Harvard Commemoration," and the successive centennial historical anniversaries drew from him a series of stately odes.

In 1877 Lowell, who had mingled so little in party politics that the sole public office he had held was the nominal one of elector in the Presidential election of 1876, was appointed by President Hayes minister resident at the court of Spain. He had a good knowledge of Spanish language and literature, and his long-continued studies in history and his quick judgment enabled him speedily to adjust himself to these new relations. Some of his despatches to the home government were published in a posthumous volume - Impressions of Spain. In 1880 he was transferred to London as American minister, and remained there till the close of President Arthur's administration in the spring of 1885. As a man of letters he was already well known in England, and he was in much demand as an orator on public occasions, especially of a literary nature; but he also proved himself a sagacious publicist, and made himself a wise interpreter of each country to the other. Shortly after his retirement from public life he published Democracy and other Addresses, all of which had been delivered in England. The title address was an epigrammatic confession of political faith as hopeful as it was wise and keen. The close of his stay in England was saddened by the death of his second wife in 1885. After his return to America he made several visits to England. His public life had made him more of a figure in the world; he was decorated with the highest honours Harvard could pay officially, and with degrees of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Bologna. He issued another collection of his poems, Heartsease and Rue, in 1888, and occupied himself with revising and rearranging his works, which were published in ten volumes in 1890. The last months of his life were attended by illness, and he died at Elmwood on the 12th of August 1891. After his death his literary executor, Charles Eliot Norton, published a brief collection of his poems, and two volumes of added prose, besides editing his letters.

The spontaneity of Lowell's nature is delightfully disclosed in his personal letters. They are often brilliant, and sometimes very penetrating in their judgment of men and books; but the most constant element is a pervasive humour, and this humour, by turns playful and sentimental, is largely characteristic of his poetry, which sprang from a genial temper, quick in its sympathy with nature and humanity. The literary refinement which marks his essays in prose is not conspicuous in his verse, which is of a more simple character. There was an apparent conflict in him of the critic and the creator, but the conflict was superficial. The man behind both critical and creative work was so genuine, that through his writings and speech and action he impressed himself deeply upon his generation in America, especially upon the thoughtful and scholarly class who looked upon him as especially their representative. This is not to say that he was a man of narrow sympathies. On the contrary, he was democratic in his thought, and outspoken in his rebuke of whatever seemed to him antagonistic to the highest freedom. Thus, without taking a very active part in political life, he was recognized as one of the leaders of independent political thought. He found expression in so many ways, and was apparently so inexhaustible in his resources, that his very versatility and the ease with which he gave expression to his thought sometimes stood in the way of a recognition of his large, simple political ideality and the singleness of his moral sight.


The Works of James Russell Lowell, in ten volumes (Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1890); edition de luxe, 61 vols. (1904); Latest Literary Essays and Addresses (1891); The Old English Dramatists (1892); Conversations on some of the Old Poets (Philadelphia, David M`Kay; reprint of the volume published in 1843 and subsequently abandoned by its author, 18 93); The Power of Sound: a Rhymed Lecture (New York, privately printed, 1896); Lectures on English Poets (Cleveland, The Rowfant Club, 1899).


Letters of James Russell Lowell, edited by Charles Eliot Norton, in two volumes (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1899); Life of James Russell Lowell (2 vols.), by Horace E. Scudder (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1901); James Russell Lowell and his Friends (Boston, 1899), by Edward Everett Hale. (H. E. S.*)

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