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[248]

To all these varied activities as poet, essayist, humorist, editor, teacher, scholar, and diplomat, must be added that of letter writer. For Lowell's letters, in addition to their annals of his personal experiences and friendships, contribute something to literature and history which perhaps has ceased with the day of the typewriter—a record of the intimate association of the high-minded. His work as a man of letters may be considered most readily by the main divisions of verse and prose; but the separation is not always significant. The poetry is mostly bounded by the years 1840 and 1870, and the best of the essays by 1860 and 1890; but there is hardly a year of his half century which did not see both prose and verse. Nor can the subject matter be divided by the two forms, for both require attention from the historian of either the literary or the political progress of the half-century. Both respond to the changing events of his own life, and to the greater changes that transformed the nation of 1840 into that of 1890.

Lowell's youth was spent among books. Before he left college he had become a wide if desultory reader, and the study of law failed to detach him from what was to become a life-long devotion to the easy chair and the library. To the inheritance of English blood, law, language, and religion that bound New England to the mother country, he added an enthusiastic appreciation for English literature. Naturally this appreciation was directed by the Romanticism which had reached its full flower in English letters, by its leaders, Wordsworth, Keats, Lamb, or by the gods of its idolatry, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Dante. His feeling was like that which Keats had experienced twenty years before, when English poetry had opened out a new world inviting to fresh beauty and new enterprise. And this world of British letters had added since then the clarion voice of Carlyle and the exquisite art of Keats himself and of Tennyson. It is easy to trace in Lowell's early verse imitation and reminiscence of the English poets of the preceding half-century; but even more important was his acceptance of their faith in poetry. With Wordsworth he believed that it was to be the moral guide and spiritual inspirer, with Keats he saw it opening new doors to the abode of beauty. He shared the assurance of Sartor Resartus that literature was to supply the new priesthood that was to direct the new age.

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