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Chapter 5: Lowell

of the three authors most widely associated with old Cambridge, only Holmes and Lowell were born there, although its associations became a second nature to Longfellow, who was born in Maine, while that region was still a part of Massachusetts.

Lowell felt, even more thoroughly than Holmes, the influence of his Cambridge surroundings, because Holmes went to Europe for his medical training (1833) at the age of twenty-three and never afterward lived in his native town, though always near it; while Lowell was continuously a Cantabrigian, with only occasionally a few months of absence, until his first diplomatic appointment. Fredrika Bremer told him that he was the only American she had seen whose children were born in the same House with himself; and he was also of the yet smaller number who die in [148] the House of their birth. It would be impossible to say that the Cambridge influence entered more strongly into Lowell than into Holmes, but it was in Lowell's case less concentrated upon early years and more distributed over his life. One of his most attractive traits was his passionate love of his birthplace, and although Matthew Arnold pitied him for being obliged to return to it from Londqn, he was really nowhere else so happy. This could not have been the case had not the residence been fortunate in itself.

Multitudes of persons now visit Elmwood every year, and there are few who do not feel its charm. Yet this affords no picture of what the region was in Lowell's day, when the whole Road connecting it with “the village” was merely dotted here and there with other stately colonial houses like itself. On Mt. Auburn Street, then called “the New Road,” there was no House whatever until the village was nearly reached; and even on Brattle Street the south side was houseless until the old Vassall House blocked the way. It was the region not merely, as Professor Norton says, of “pasture land or [149] mowing which afforded good roaming ground for schoolboys,” but also one where orchards bore that rather tart fruit which schoolboys most enjoy.

along Brattle Street the gallants of Revolutionary days had in Lowell's phrase “creaked up and down on red-heeled shoes, lifting the ceremonious three-cornered hat and offering the fugacious hospitalities of the snuff-box.” the Baroness Riedesel had described their delightful society in 1780; all the families were more or less connected, and most of them had slave plantations in the West Indies. She says: “never had I chanced upon such an agreeable situation. Seven families, who were connected with each other, partly by the ties of relationship and partly by affection, had here farms, gardens, and magnificent houses, and not far off plantations of fruit. The owners of these were in the habit of daily meeting each other in the afternoons,--now at the House of one, and now at another, and making themselves merry with music and the dance,--living in prosperity, united and happy, until, alas! this ruinous war severed them, and left all their [150] houses desolate, except two, the proprietors of which were also soon obliged to flee.”

these seven houses were those of General William Brattle, colonel John Vassall, Mrs. Penelope, widow of colonel Henry Vassall, Richard Lechmere (afterward Jonathan Sewall), Judge Joseph Lee, Captain George Ruggles (afterward Thomas Fayerweather), and Lieutenant Thomas Oliver. Of their homes, the Lechmere House was that occupied by Madame Riedesel; the John Vassall House was the Craigie House, afterward owned by Longfellow, and now occupied by his eldest daughter; the Oliver House was owned by Lowell, and is now occupied by his grandchildren; the Brattle House was occupied at one time by Margaret Fuller; the Ruggles House was owned by William Wells, when Lowell went to his school, and now belongs as part owner to his grandson Williams Wells Newell, founder and editor of the American Folk-Lore journal. it is now somewhat difficult for the passers-by to select these seven houses amid the multitude of more recent structures; but they all belonged distinctly to the colonial type, and six out of the seven [151] have, as has been seen, some literary associations. It would be impossible to find elsewhere in America, and hard to select anywhere, a series of houses in this respect so notable.1

it was past this row of houses that Lowell walked daily or rode on his little pony to the village post-office; and it was not possible that a child of naturally imaginative turn should escape their influence. It was too soon after the American Revolution — then only fifty years removed — for him to feel any cordial sympathy or envy for the period of hair powder and snuffboxes; but the boy who was already immersing himself in the traditions of English poetry, had the actual form of the British occupation of New England vividly before his eyes.

Lowell may have also found, in the garrets of his father's House, such memorials of the confiscation of the estate as in the following [152] account, kept at the height of the great Revolution--

the estate of Thomas Oliver, late of Cambridge, Absentee, to the Committee of correspondence of the town, for the year 1776:

For taking into possession and leasing out said estate£ 2
Also for supporting a negro man belonging to said estate£3.12
For collecting the personal estate£ 3
£ 8.12
Cr.By cash received as rent.£ 69

The circumstances which led Thomas Oliver to become an “absentee” must often have been told and retold to the boy Lowell by the evening fire. On September 2, 1774, there had been a great gathering in Cambridge from all parts of Middlesex County to protest against the assumption of power by which the Governing Council of the Colony should be appointed by the crown and not by the General Court or Legislature. Several thousand men were gathered round the court-house steps, and among them rose at last two of the newly appointed King's Councillors, Judge Danforth and Judge Lee, and announced amid applause [153] that they had declined the appointment. The mob then marched to the house of a third of these Councillors, Lieutenant-governor Oliver, who was less pliable, but at last came forth --“a dapper little man,” by contemporary testimony-and gave in his written resignation in these words, “My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their command I resign my office.” Then, and not till then, the crowd dispersed. It was in this house, nearly fifty years later, that Lowell was born (Feb. 22, 1819).

Lowell's name was already familiar to me at nine years of age through the school narratives of an elder brother of mine, long since dead, whose immediate classmate he was, and all whose comrades were to me of course as gifted and eminent as the heroes of the Trojan War. My brother was large and strong, being, indeed, the “big boy” of the school, and held among the pupils the honorary title of Daddy. He protected me ,against my ruder schoolmates and against the

“town-boys,” who were sometimes combative; and I think he occasionally protected Lowell [154] also, who was small and slight. Lowell was not then a handsome boy, but he had very fine eyes and that Apollo look about the brow which lighted up a somewhat heavy face. He and I, with my brother and William Story, afterward eminent as a sculptor, had the happiness to be the only day scholars; for the school, although by no means one of the Dotheboys Hall type, was yet emphatically of the “Early English” style, the boys being ruled by a pretty strenuous birch during school hours, and at other times left herded together with little supervision. Story was already the intimate friend of Lowell, and rather took the lead of him, being then the Steerforth of the school, joyous, full of life, and variously accomplished. Many a time I have walked up and down what is now Brattle Street, listening reverently to the talk of these older boys, not always profitable, but sometimes most valuable. I remember, for instance, their talking over the plot of Spenser's “Faerie Queene” years before I had read it, and making it so interesting that we younger urchins soon named a nook with shady apple trees near [155] our bathing place on Charles River the “Bower of Blisse.”

In 1834 Lowell and Story went to college, and my brother afterward to the East Indies, so I was dropped from their circle, except as a boy in a college town watches the works and ways of the students. Both Lowell and Story were popular and socially brilliant in college, but neither gave unmixed satisfaction to the Faculty. Both were of the kind who read old English plays a good deal, and of the rarer number who get some good out of them. Lowell's reputation as a wit was established in the editorship of Harvardiana, as Holmes's had been ten years earlier in The Collegian, though Lowell's contributions were mainly in prose. After entering college myself in 1837, I began to meet him as an older man in Cambridge society, where he was again eclipsed in immediate prestige by Story, than whom there has never been a more varied Admirable Crichton, at least in that little world. Story was handsome, fearless, audacious, overflowing with spirits, good at everything,--singing, acting, sketching, caricaturing. But if he was the [156] social leader, Lowell was perhaps the class favorite. He wrote the songs for their convivial occasions, one of which, and certainly not the most dignified, has been preserved by Dr. Hale in his “Recollections.” He kept the rhymed records of the Hasty Pudding Club, but in later life requested, quite to the disapproval of the immediate members, to be permitted to cut them out of the record book, which he did. Mr. F. B. Sanborn, when he succeeded to the office of secretary of this club, read these “smooth and trivial verses,” as he calls them, “with avidity and some disappointment,” and thinks that Lowell may perhaps have printed some of them in Harvardiana. He was afterward chosen class poet, but was prevented from delivering his poem by being suspended from college at the very close of the senior year. The explanation usually given of this makes it the result of negligence in college duties, and there may very probably have been a background of this description; but the immediate cause of it, as I well remember, was an unlucky performance of his in prayer-time, perhaps more severely construed by the faculty, but doubtless simply due to that [157] overpowering exuberance of boyish spirits which lasted for many years with him, alternating with periods of depression. The best sketch of this little incident may be found in a letter, not before published, addressed to me by an eminent clergyman, lately deceased.

June 28, 1893.
... I was a sophomore, and sat half a dozen seats directly behind him. He came in as usual — it was the day he had been chosen class poet, by one or two votes (I think) over my cousin John Ware--and seemed to regard the occasion as wholly complimentary to himself. His handsome face was richly suffused with the purple glow of youth, and wreathed in smiles, as he rose,--my venerable grandfather [Rev. Henry Ware, D. D.] had with trembling voice just begun the service,--and bowed, smirking right hand and left, to the surprised congregation. It was the affair of a minute: my recollection is that he was soon persuaded to sit down, and only made one more ineffectual attempt to rise. The short service — it was evening prayer, of course-went through and ended decently and in order. Presumably, “Old Quin” [President Quincy] was in his customary seat, and had a fair view of the proceedings. We soon learned that it had been dealt with quite seriously; by what seemed a hard sentence, he had been suspended till after class day. I suppose the date must have been March or April [1838], but am not sure.


The Class Poem was afterward printed anonymously, to which fact, perhaps, may be partly due its present scarcity and high price. It will always have an interest, not merely as Lowell's first serious poetic effort, but as indicating that curious conservatism of his mind — far beyond his father's — which led him to speak with aversion both of Emerson and of the abolitionists, afterward his friends. It gave him, however, a distinct feeling of having tried his wings in song, and of being destined thenceforth to that realm. It was a year or two after this that my elder brother, having lately returned from Calcutta, and having gone promptly to spend an evening with his old friend, came home with an astounding bit of information. “Jimmie Lowell,” he said,--this being his friend's usual appellation in those days,--“thinks he is going to be a poet.” The announcement was received by my elders in the family with some disapproval. Cambridge had produced one poet in Oliver Wendell Holmes, but he was also a reputable physician, and relied at that time far more upon his medical than his literary reputation; but Lowell was [159] not yet even a lawyer; and for a poet pure and simple the world of our small academic village seemed to hold no opening. Nevertheless the announcement was heard with delight by one faithful and trusting auditor, who took the young bard at his own valuation. It never seems improbable to a boy that any one of his elder schoolmates should turn out a phoenix. That this purpose of a poetic career was then distinctly formed, I learned from Lowell himself, who told me that he planned at that time a regular study of the laws of English verse, mentioning to me several of his favorite manuals, as Sidney's “Defence of Poesie,” and Puttenham's “Art of English Poesie.” For some reason not known to me, Lowell was accredited to Boston in the Harvard catalogues during his senior year and his three years of study in the Law School, but it is probable that his father then resided in Boston, while his elder brother, Charles Russell Lowell, occupied Elmwood.

The great and even controlling influence exercised upon Lowell from this time by his betrothed, Maria White, who afterward became his wife, is well known, and the simplicity of [160] their daily life is well portrayed in the following extracts from a sort of diary communicated by Lowell about the year 1849 to his friend, Charles F. Briggs, of New York, who then edited Holden's Magazine. By a letter from Briggs to R. W. Griswold2 it would appear that he was in charge of it in January, 1850, which must have been about the time of this letter. There is not, I think, in all Mr. Norton's delightful collection of Lowell's correspondence anything quite so thoroughly local, or giving so close a glimpse of “Old Cambridge.” The editor's preface is as follows:--

A Pepysian letter.

Just as we had taken up our pen to go on with our topics, we received a letter from a Down East correspondent, so full of Pepysian anecdote, provincial gossip, and humane satire, that we cannot resist the temptation to overstep all the bounds of delicacy and give it to the world entire. Why should we selfishly wrap in our napkin such a piece of enjoyable good nature as this? By the way, we might as well give warning to our several [161] private correspondents that, if they will write us such capital letters, they must not think of falling out with us if we do put them in print. We have conscientious scruples about keeping for our own enjoyment anything which we know would give pleasure to others. We have taken the liberty to erase the names. because they are those of people who are too well known to allow of any other kind of liberties being taken with them.

Then follows the letter.

The keeper of the station near us is a Mr. S., father of a wonderful boy of whom you may have seen notices. He is an excellent specimen of the Yankee, civil, intelligent, able to write a good account of Secretary C. [Collamer] in our village newspaper, nasal enough, has his own opinions on men and books — opinions on a far higher plane than common. He is from Vermont, knows P.'s [Powers] family “wal,” and thus confuted to me one day a story he had seen translated from the Italian, to the effect that P. was born “in the little hamlet-of Woodstock, inhabited altogether by herdsmen and shepherds.” “Why,” said he, “I lived [162] within a stone's chuck oa the haouse he wuz born in. Knew his uncle Dr. P., wal. Still livina. There's five ministers oa the gospil, twelve doctors, and seventeen liars (lawyers) these I know certin, and I guess there's much's forty piano fortes there, too.” Not a bad scale of civilization, this, though new to me. What I was going to tell, though, was something that took place this morning. He is a reader of --especially quoad the--, which refresh him hugely, and always has something to say when he sees me. He is amazingly proud of his son, (a weakness you and I could pardon were it a daughter) and properly so, for the boy is not like other mathematical prodigies, but has great parts in other respects. This morning he showed me a calculation of the boy's, with regard to the orbit of some comet or other, covering many sheets of paper wafered together — about eight feet of it in all.

M. [Maria Lowell]--“ He is fifteen years old?”

S.--“ No, ma'am, he ain't but jest gut into his fourteenth year.”

M.--“When did he do this?” [163]

S.--(You see it is a matter of pride with the father to keep him young. Every year subtracts so much from his claim to prodigyship. Accordingly the “jest” in the last sentence was prolonged thus--“je-e-e-st” --to express that he had barely reached fourteen, and that somehow he ought to have kept thirteen.)

“ Wal, ma'am, he might a'finished it in his thirteenth year. But he took a notion to read a book. I told him he better finish it up the night before he come fourteen, and he might ez wal's nut. But he didn't-'twuz (answering a look of M.'s) a pity!”

You understand that his finishing it that night (though in fact it would have been but the gain of an hour or two) would have made a difference of a whole year in favor of the father when he told the story. A pretty little touch of nature, isn't it?

You write me news from the great city and I send you in return our metropolitanisms. While I am telling stories, here is another. Said my father the other day to an old widow, one of his parish poor, “God has not deserted you in your old age.” “No, sir, I have a very [164] good appetite still,” thus indicating clearly that she was one of those who made a god of their belly. Yet, if she had said “digestion,” I could have gone along with her. The Jews were always a rebellious people, yet no rebellion of theirs was ever so mischievous as that of the gastric Jews. We owe to it ill-temper and Byronic poetry-two of the greatest pests of society.

[He then proceeds to describe his habitual demeanor in Boston.]

This letter is written diary-wise. When I left off I was at the railway station. Imagine us now safely arrived in B--[Boston]. When there, I always maintain punctiliously the character of a country gentleman. We trail along the sidewalk, stopping at all the shop windows to look at prints, caricatures, rifles, silverware, muslins, books, goldfish, toys, and what not. Perhaps I go over all the shop windows again, or I walk down to the end of Long Wharf-the only part of the city that I loved when a boy -or I walk through Ann Street, (sadly changed now, and invaded by granite blocks,) or round by Copp's Hill, where the primitive pretionary [165] B--[Boston] still persists, and where old people live who think our Independence of Britain a mistake,--or I go up to look at the new Athenaeum, the library room in which is finished and is the handsomest I ever saw. Through all the varied scenes I continue to represent the country interest,--my pockets have, no doubt, been explored by the inquisitive fingers of professional gentlemen from New York over and over again. Probably they know me by this time, and look upon me as no better than a Sodom apple. Perhaps they continue their investigations from habit, as Jonathan Wild used to sound the pockets of Count La Ruse, though he knew that there was nothing in them. Then I meet M., and loading myself with her various bundles we find our way to the station again, and “so home,” as Pepys says.

So much for Wednesday. Thursday morning I went after some pear trees I had bought, and set them out. During the rest of the morning I employed myself in scraping trees. After dinner scraped more. After tea sit down to write my article for the S--[Anti-slavery standard]. Got half through a prose one, [166] when, just as the church bells are ringing nine o'clock, the idea of a poem strikes me. Go to work on that at once. Finish it next morning all but the few last stanzas. In the afternoon (Friday) go to C--[Cambridge, i.e. the village] to get one thing and another for our whist club, which meets with me to-night. Play whist till 12. J. H. [John Holmes] (who is lame) spends the night with me. Next day finish and copy my verses. Got all done just in time to prevent the mail. After dinner drove J. home. Evening, read Swift, that hog of letters, who had wit enough to know the worth of pearls, though fonder of garbage and of rooting among ordure.

[We soon come to the creation of the Town and Country Club.]

Now it is Sunday morning and here I am with you. Since I wrote to you, the “Town and country Club” has been got up. Our first regular meeting is next Wednesday, (2d May,) when E. [Emerson] is to read an address. The Club is a singular agglomeration. All persons whom other folks think crazy, and who return the compliment, belong to it. It is as if all the [167] eccentric particles which had refused to revolve in the regular routine of the world's orbit, and had flowed off in different directions, had come together to make a planet of their own. Plenty of fine luminous matter there is, though. One thing is certain, it fitly represents the extreme gauche. The discussions in regard to a name were rather droll. A. [Alcott], whose orbit never, even by chance, intersects the plane of the modern earth, proposed that we should call ourselves “Olympians.” Upon this I suggested to W. H. C. [Channing] who sat next to me, (and who seemed unconscious that I was not perfectly serious,) that, as the Club was composed chiefly of Apostles of the Newness, and as we hoped to aid in crushing some monsters, we should call ourselves (if we must be antique) the Club of Hercules. A. meanwhile, finding that his Olympian tack met with a headwind, wore ship and proposed “Pan” as perhaps simpler and more accessible to the ordinary intellect. Hereupon, I again modestly suggested that, as we were to have a cafi annexed, or to annex ourselves to a caf6, the name Coffee-pot would be apter than Pan, unless we prefixed [168] thereto the distinguishing christen-name of Patty.

E. [Emerson] has changed a good deal since his visit to England. He has becomenot at all more worldly-but more of this world. The practical sense of John Bull seems to have impressed him, and he is resolved to be practical too. His lecture on England was not good, for him. There was one thing in it that especially pleased me. He did not even allude to the people. His favorite theory (you know) is the highest culture of the individual. He would think a nation well wasted if it brought one man to perfection. Accordingly his whole view was of the upper class — their beauty, their pluck, their fine persons, their healthiness, &c. The people he clearly regarded as the dung for those fine plants. I was pleased with this, because it was natural to E., and because we have enough who profess to see nothing but the people. It was wholesome to have the other side also presented. Yet the lecture, as a whole, gave me limited satisfaction and taught me nothing. E. dwells so habitually [169] in a world of his own that when he comes down into the real and practical (everything being strange to him), he notices minutia that would escape the habituated vision, and his remarks accordingly have wonderful freshness and point. But in going to England, which was as unfamiliar to the eyes of other travellers as to his own, he has reported things which we had already heard many times. I heard the lecture at our Cambridge Lyceum, and, as his diction was somewhat peculiar, I was much amused by watching the audience. I saw one worthy joiner repeatedly and vigorously scratching the outside of his head in the hope of exciting a corresponding vivacity within — but he at last gave it up as useless. A new edition of E.'s works is to appear with a portrait. C. [Cheney] is to draw it, which I am sorry for. His heads are always graceful and spiritual, but they are wanting in that punctilious veracity which gives to a portrait its whole worth. Yet he gives the expression of the person quite wonderfully. I went to his room once, some half a dozen years ago, and saw, among other heads, one of a little [170] boy. After looking at it, and feeling myself drawn to it in a peculiar and inexplicable manner, I said to C., “I never saw the original of that drawing, but I am certain from the expression of the eyes, that that boy (whoever he is) is of my kith and kin.” It turned out to be a son (whom I had never seen,) of a cousin of mine.

L. [Longfellow] has an excellent crayon drawing of E. by a down-easter named J. [Eastman Johnson]. It is the only tolerable head of him I ever saw. I am sorry it should not be engraved. L. has also a capital head of H. [Hawthorne] by the same artist.

In regard to the proposed collection of my poems, the case stands thus. Two of my volumes are stereotyped and I own the plates. I intend to have such parts as I care to preserve stereotyped also and add them to the smaller volume, making two good-sized ones. As for my portrait, let that come hereafter when I am older and wiser or dead.

[He soon reverts to his nursery ballads, never before printed.] [171]

I copy below one of my latest poems. I have attempted to complete a fine old-ballad fragment, how successfully you must judge. It has been very popular with the small public for whom it was specially intended.

Lady Bird, lady bird, fly away home!
Your house is on fire, your children will burn!
Send for the engines, and send for the men,
Perhaps we can put it out agen;
Send for the ladders, and send for the hose,
Perhaps we can put it out, nobody knows;
Sure, nobody's case was ever sadder,
To the nursery-window clap the ladder,
If they are there, and not done brown,
They'll open the window and hopple down!

Thus far, you perceive, the material instinct gets the upper hand, but now the Lady Bird arrives at the scene of desolation, and the house-keeping qualities of mind are electrified into morbid activity. The word “hopple” is finely local, being in the Mab dialect. It means to scramble down confusedly.

Splish, splash! fizz and squirt!
All my things ruined with water and dirt,
All my new carpets torn to finders,
Trodden in with mud and cinders! [172]
My mirrors smashed, my bedsteads racked,
My company tea-set chipped and cracked!
Save my child — my carpets and chairs,
And I'll give you leave to burn my heirs,
They are little six-legged, spotted things,
If they have any sense, they'll use their wings;
If they have any sense, they'll use their legs,
Or, at worst, it is easy to lay more eggs.

This, you observe, teaches children not to value themselves too highly, to respect crockery and varnish, and to cultivate self-reliance.

The copious letters written by Lowell to Charles F. Briggs, and printed in full by Professor Norton, recall to me the answer of the once noted New York author, Henry T. Tuckerman, when I asked him how it was that Lowell gained applause so easily, while so many had to wait for it. The explanation is very easy, said Tuckerman, “Lowell had an admirer.” This admirer was Briggs, whose preservation in the amber of the “Fable for critics” has not sufficed to keep his memory green, and who undoubtedly left no opportunity unused to celebrate Lowell's youthful genius.

Lowell's personal popularity at this time, [173] though great, was not universal. He was, as Willis said, “the best-launched poet of his time,” but this early success was not altogether beneficial. He was secretly over-sensitive, pensive, given to anxiety and despair, all of which is plainly visible in his letters; and yet he was sometimes charged with arrogance, or at least with being self-absorbed and monopolizing. As Sir Lucius O'Trigger says, there was “an air of success about him that was mighty provoking.” The influence of his wife scarcely tempered this, for she saw always his nobler side, and met his impassioned poetry with strains as ardent. She loved him, as she wrote,---

For that great soul whose breath so full and rare Doth to humanity a blessing bear,

Flooding its dreary waste with organ tone. That side was undoubtedly the true Lowell; yet it must be remembered that it was a time, in American literature, of defiant and vehement mutual criticism. Poe was disfiguring the press with the bitterness and scurrilous quality of his attacks; it was thought a fine thing to impale somebody, to make somebody [174] writhe, to get even with somebody, and it was hard for younger men to keep clear of this flattering temptation. Years before the founding of the Atlantic Monthly, Lowell once described to Thaxter and myself, at the Isles of Shoals, an imaginary magazine which he would like to edit: “We will have in it,” he said, “a department headed by a vignette representing a broom; and in that we will in each number sweep some pretender out of existence. Then, having done it, we would stand by it, and if we had made a mistake and killed a young Keats we would never acknowledge it.” This project so dwelt in his mind that he mentioned it again to Mr. Sanborn twenty years after in regard to the Atlantic Monthly. This method had already been illustrated by his treatment in the “Fable for critics” of Margaret Fuller and Professor Francis Bowen; and it naturally did not soften the friends of these victims, when, on becoming himself a member of the Harvard Faculty, he struck out the references to Bowen, but left the other untouched, even after the noble Italian career and pathetic death of Madame Ossoli. Yet [175] much of this earlier bitterness was at the very time (1845) when he wrote to his friend Briggs, “I go out sometimes with my heart so full of yearning toward my fellows that the indifferent look with which even entire strangers pass me brings tears into my eyes.” Strange that the very man who wrote thus should take pleasure in pulverizing into atoms an author so shy and secluded as Percival.

There is something curiously interesting to the student of human nature in the rapid transition, in Lowell's case, from the writer of decidedly convivial class songs to the man addressing, four years later,3 the annual meeting of the Cambridgeport Washington Total Abstinence Society. It was about this time that his father said of him, in reference to his preferring to walk up and down the piazza during family prayers, “James is not serious, as yet, but he has a good heart, and is a foe to every mortal wrong.” Ten years later yet, on my inviting him to attend the Whole World's Temperance Convention in New York, at which I was to preside, he returned the following rather guarded answer:-- [176]

August 31, 1853.
My Dear Sir,
I should not have the least notion how to address the Whole World's Convention even if I had anything to say to them. I can only declare that I sympathize heartily with any movement that shall promote temperance or shall elevate man or woman socially or morally. The How must be left to the care of individual experience.

Among the good things of the day, let me thank you for your pamphlet on the Woman question, which I read with great interest; and which is the most compact and telling statement of the case I have seen.

We have no intention whatever of going abroad again at present. The climate of Italy, I think, did Mrs. Lowell great good, but she is not well enough now to think of leaving home.

I am glad you liked Maria's poem. Two others of hers have been published in Putnam, “Necklaces,” and “The grave of Keats.” They are all beautiful, I think, and the greatest pleasure I am capable of is to hear them appreciated. With sincere regard,

I remain yours, J. R. Lowell.

This was written just two months before Maria Lowell's death, and there does not exist in literature, I think, a more exquisite expression of the possible union between two thoroughly poetic natures. It was, however, a curious influence of her death that, instead of [177] its making him a stronger reformer in the lines into which she had guided him, the effect seemed rather to lie the other way. “The natural Tory” 4 in him, as he described an innate instinct to Hughes, in 1874, seemed to come uppermost; her death made him a recluse, and he appeared to shrink from all associations that recalled her memory too keenly. For a few years he allowed his name to remain on the list of vice-presidents of the Anti-Slavery Society, but that was all. During the long period of the fugitive slave cases, the Kansas troubles, and the John Brown excitement, I can remember nothing that seemed to identify him seriously with the party of agitation, except that once, on meeting me when I was under indictment after the Anthony Burns affair, in 1854, he put his hand on my head, and said, rather approvingly, “This is a traitor's head.” Perhaps he only did it on the general principle announced by Scott in “Rob Roy,” that treason has been in all ages accounted the crime of a gentleman. I have since learned from Mr. F. B. Sanborn that Lowell thought of recalling [178] Hosea Biglow to the scene and of sending him to Kansas; and from the moment when he took the helm of the Atlantic Monthly, in 1857, he was felt to be on deck again. His early papers in that magazine helped to lead public opinion more than any others of the time, and he lavished in the cause all his treasures of wit and memory. To whom but Lowell would it have occurred to write by way of illustration, “Lord de Roos, long suspected of cheating at cards, would never have been convicted but for the resolution of an adversary, who, pinning his hand to the table with a fork, said to him, blandly, ‘My lord, if the ace of spades is not under your lordship's hand, why then I beg your pardon.’ It seems to us that a timely treatment of Governor Letcher in the same energetic way would have saved the disasters of Harper's Ferry and Norfolk.” And he was one of the first to proclaim publicly, while Mr. Seward was still trying to keep the question of slavery wholly out of the affair: “We cannot think that the war we are entering on can end without some radical change in the system of African slavery. . . . The fiery tongues of the [179] batteries in Charleston harbor accomplished in one day a conversion which the constancy of Garrison and the eloquence of Phillips had failed to bring about in thirty years.” Such words were half battles, at that day.

The biographers of Lowell all agree that he was a good editor. This is of course true as to taste, judgment, and a steadily widening sympathy. On the business side of editorship, however, it was a great relief when Fields took the helm; and the following two letters will indicate the point where Lowell was deficient. Theodore Parker had died on May Io, 1860, and I had taken pains to write promptly a sketch of him, based on intimate knowledge, for early publication in the Atlantic. Then followed a delay which I could not understand, but which the second letter explains.

Cambridge, June 28, 1860.
My dear Higginson,
I supposed you would understand as going without saying that I am always glad of an article from you. I can't use it however before September. I have to make it a rule not to acknowledge articles sent to me — or I should have time for nothing else. You can conceive. Celia Thaxter's poem I like and will print. I think we ought to notice Parker and [180] should like to have your article. I think that folks have confounded (as they commonly do) force with power in estimating him and so have overrated him.

Cordially yours, J. R. L.

Cambridge, August 27, 1860.
My dear Higginson,
Your article on Parker is by this time in type for the October number. I should have printed it before had I known that it was in my possession. As ill-luck would have it, it was the bottom one of a bundle of Mss. which I was working down through with no notion that it contained anything but anonymous matter. I wondered you had not sent it, . . .

I like your Parker very much — though I question the epithet “noble frankness” which you apply to his treatment of the dead — who couldn't answer. But I think you have treated the subject with great judgment and discretion. Your twenty languages is a good many.

Cordially yours, J. R. Lowell.

It is a curious fact that while the delineation of Parker in the “Fable for critics” is perhaps the best ever given, yet he and Lowell never quite sympathized. What I called “noble” frankness in Parker's series of obituary sermons, was based upon the general habit which had prevailed up to that time of making such things absolutely colorless except for flattery; so that Parker's fine address on John Quincy [181] Adams came as an absolute surprise, which his “Historic Americans” continued. My phrase “twenty languages” was an understatement of those in which Parker had at least dabbled. On the other hand, Parker always maintained that Lowell was not thoroughly in earnest and “had no enemies,” which seemed to me equally one-sided with Lowell's criticisms upon himself.

I had always supposed that the two appointments of Lowell as foreign minister proceeded from the influence of his classmate and fellowtownsman, Charles Devens, who was a member of President Hayes's cabinet; but General Devens himself assured me, long after, that the original suggestion came from the President himself and grew out of his liking for the “Biglow papers.” Lowell wrote me on June 16, 1877, after his appointment: “I am much obliged to you for your congratulation, though I myself am very doubtful about accepting. However, Spain will be of some use to me in the way of my studies, and doubtless I shall enjoy myself when I get there.” How greatly he clung to the thoughts of home, even in his English position, will be plain from the [182] following sweet and simple letter, written to acknowledge the report of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the city of Cambridge which I had sent him. There is something peculiarly noteworthy in the abrupt transition from the thought of English life to that of his five grandchildren. The “meeting” to which he refers was that on the death of President Garfield.

Legation of the United States, London, October 8, 1881.
Dear Higginson,
Thanks for your excellent address and many thanks for your friendly letter. These views out of the past grow sweeter (not because they are distant) as we grow older. I am glad that you are well and happy.

I read every word of the 200th celebration and thought it all exceedingly well done and in good taste. I have not time to say more, for I am just starting for the Continent on a leave of absence which I sorely need. Wish me joy, I am going to Italy! Whether I may not find somebody else in my chair at the Legation when I come back is one of those problems that I cannot solve and care little about, though now that I have made friendships here I should like to stay on a little longer. Did you know that I have five grandchildren?

I shall order a copy of the proceedings of our meeting here to be sent you.

Faithfully and hastily yours, J. R. Lowell.


The following letter was written when I was editing “Harvard memorial biographies” and had asked him to write of his nephew, General Charles Russell Lowell. The latter part refers to a paper I had written for the North American Review on “Children's books of the year.” Few letters, I think, were so scintillating as Lowell's; everything that he touched gave out its little electric spark.

Elmwood, January to, 1866.
My Dear Higginson,
I think the best man to write a sketch of Charley for the Libro D'Oro would be John Bancroft. It should be somebody that knew him from a much nearer level of age than I did. A boy don't tell his dreams to his uncle of another generation. Moreover, his father does not wish me to do it, lest it should interfere with something more at length which we propose. The obstacle has been, as you know, the paucity of letters that can properly be provided so soon. James left much ampler materials, and Child will do a portrait of him for you which will be as good as love can make it.

I am very glad you have undertaken the editorship of the volumes, because it insures a good tone. If others should fail you, I will do Charley, but for other reasons than those I mentioned I think it better not.

I read your article in the Review with much satisfaction. A light touch is so rare! I growled a little over what you say of Abbott [author of the Rollo Books], who is [184] my Ogre, whose business it is to eat fairy-children. I was surprised that you did not speak of Hawthorne's childrenbooks. To me they are full of charm.

I hear you [are] to come hither a lecturing. If so, there is a bed here which will welcome you warmly.

Yours truly always, J. R. Lowelle.

He could have certainly written nothing more charming in reference to his three lost nephews than when he described, at the beginning of his essay “On a certain Condescension in foreigners,” his walks from Elmwood to Harvard Square about 1870: “The war was ended. I might walk townward without that aching dread of bulletins that had darkened the July sunshine and twice made the scarlet leaves of October seem stained with blood. I remember with a pang half proud, half painful, how, so many years ago, I had walked over the same path and felt round my finger the soft pressure of a little hand that was one day to harden with faithful grip of sabre. On how many paths, leading to how many homes where proud memory does all she can to fill up the fireside gaps with shining shapes, must not men be walking in just such pensive moods as I? Ah, young heroes, [185] safe in immortal youth as those of Homer, you at least carried your ideal hence untarnished! It is locked for you beyond moth or rust in the treasure chamber of death.”

In comparing Holmes and Lowell, we are at once struck by the smaller number of personal antagonisms inspired by the former; and also by a singular intellectual divergence between them. As to fertility of mind, abundance of resources, variety of knowledge, there was scarcely any difference; the head of water was the same, and why was it that in the case of Holmes the stream flowed so much more smoothly? Of the two, moreover, it was Lowell who had sedulously trained himself to be a writer; he accepted this as his sphere, while Holmes regarded literature as a mere avocation, not as his vocation; yet it was Lowell who never quite attained smoothness or finish in utterance, while Holmes easily attained it. Lowell was always liable to be entangled by his own wealth of thought; his prose and verse alike are full of involved periods, conundrums within conundrums. He begins his Moosehead journal with this abstruse and craggy sentence: “Thursday, 11th [186] August.--I knew as little yesterday of the interior of Maine as the least penetrating person knows of the inside of that great social millstone which, driven by the river Time, set imperatively a-going the several wheels of our individual activities.” He goes on with his rich and delightful gossip, but there is never a moment when some bit of reminiscence, some good pun, some remembered phrase from Sir Thomas Browne, may not interrupt the flow of the sentence. From this Holmes is far more free; he takes almost as many and as varied flights, but his art is better. Sometimes, even in “Elsie Venner,” he tires you with the details of scientific speculation; but the literary part is always well done. The defect in this direction began to show itself very early in Lowell, and I remember that when he began to write in the London Daily News in 1846, there was a general complaint, both at home and abroad, over the longwindedness of his prose style. This he overcame, but the tumultuous inequality lasted and was, indeed, a part of his charm. The London Spectator said well of him, “Mr. Lowell's forte is profusion and his foible prodigality.” [187]

It is curious that English critics, while jealously disputing Lowell's claim to rank in the highest class of poets, yet often concede to him the precise merit which does not belong to himthat of uniform and accurate execution. It may be said, on the contrary, both of his prose and verse, that his immense fertility of mind constantly led him into confused rhetoric and mixed metaphors; one bright thought or image treading on the heels of another, and either displacing or entangling it. Take, for instance, this verse from the “Ode to Happiness” :--

Wing-footed! thou abid'st with him
Who asks it not; but he who hath
Watched o'er the waves thy waning path,
Shall nevermore behold returning
Thy high-heaped canvas shoreward yearning!
Thou first reveal'st to us thy face
Turned o'er the shoulder's parting grace,
A moment glimpsed, then seen no more,--
Thou whose swift footsteps we can trace
Away from every mortal door!

Here Happiness is first invoked as “wingfooted” ; then her “path” is watched; then she has “high-heaped canvas” ; then she has a “face” ; then she leaves “footsteps” at every [188] “door.” Between the land-dweller with footsteps and the sea-rover with canvas there is absolute irreconcilableness, and yet the two are interwoven through the whole verse. Such incongruities as the “drippingly hurried adieu,” in “An Ember picture,” are of the same quality, and in “The Cathedral,” regarded by many as his most important poem, there occurred a pun which called forth general protest. It will always remain a curious fact that Lowell, while far more regularly trained to literature than Holmes, and not surpassing him in exuberant fertility of mind, had yet far less of artistic selfcontrol, and has left behind him much more that is ragged and imperfectly wrought out. Yet Lowell had undoubtedly the finer nature of the two, and would have recognized keenly in others the very defect he himself manifested. Possibly the solution may be in this, that indirect preparation has its merits as well as direct; and that Holmes may have learned something for literary uses in his own microscopic work and in his constant anatomical demonstrations, just as Agassiz found that his scientific skill had already made him a [189] good rifle-shot before he had touched the weapon.

The Saturday Review once pointed out as the two faults of Lowell's prose writings “an overconfident tone and a grotesqueness of illustration.” It must, undoubtedly, be conceded by his admirers that, though he is never coarse, yet his taste is not always to be trusted. The Saturday Review quoted this sentence from his “Shakespeare once more,” “Hamlet and the Novum Organum were at the risk of teething and the measles at the same time;” and from the paper on Italy, “Milton is the only man who has got much poetry out of a cataract, and that was a cataract in his eye.” Of such passages the Saturday Review remarked, with some reason, that they “are relics of the hobbledehoy stage of literary production,” and “are serious blemishes in a style making just pretensions to maturity.” Akin to this is the remark of one of Lowell's few severe critics in his own country, Professor W. C. Wilkinson, in his “A Free Lance in life and letters,” who makes the “want of firm and harmonious tone” to be “the leading vice of his style,” [190] and produces many instances of this. But it is to be noticed that such defects as these grew less and less as he matured, and that his address on Democracy, for instance, is entirely free from them.

The most serious attack ever made upon the literary work of Lowell was a really able one, called “Professor Lowell as a critic,” in Lippincott's (June, 1871), which appeared anonymously, but was understood to have been written by Mr. John Foster Kirk-a paper which pronounces him to be “a writer whose merits are many and striking, but wholly on the surface,” and which says of Lowell's admirers: “The qualities they ascribe to their idol are precisely those in which he is most deficient. He is acute, versatile, occasionally brilliant; but he is narrow, shallow, and hard, destitute of the insight, the comprehension, the sympathy, by which the true critic, the true poet, searches the domain of thought and the recesses of the mind, illumines the emotions and kindles them.” It is impossible not to read between the lines of this verdict what the writer himself admits, in so many words, to [191] be “a sense of grievance.” He permits himself to deal with Lowell as the latter himself has dealt with Petrarch, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Percival, and Thoreau. From the point of view of strict justice, neither Lowell nor his critic can be quite vindicated; although each of these two writers is amply furnished both with knowledge and acuteness.

Mr. Lowell had won in London that cordial reception and subsequent popularity in both literary and aristocratic circles which had, indeed, been accorded in some degree to other Americans before him. This truth is sufficiently established by a slight examination of the correspondence of Ticknor or Sumner or Motley or Dana. What is most remarkable is that he combined this with diplomatic duties at a difficult time, and bore also the test of repeated invitations to pronounce his estimate, in the most public way, of the classic names of England. American genius and scholarship had received English recognition before him, but American criticism never. The Queen herself said of him when he left, that no ambassador had ever excited more interest [192] or won more general regard in England. On the other hand, Mr. Smalley tells us that “never before his time had a departing minister been honored by addresses and meetings and resolutions of great bodies of English workingmen .... His Americanism was the dominant passion of his life; that and not poetry nor letters nor even those friendships and affections which were to him as the air he breathed.” Yet it is quite certain that this attitude was not quite understood in America, for various reasons not now worth analyzing, chief of which was the difficult position in which he was placed on account of Fenianism and from the difficulty of dealing with Irishmen who had been naturalized as Americans and then had gone back to dwell as agitators in Ireland. Even with American visitors in London he was at one time not wholly popular, though undoubtedly most of the attacks made on him were unjust and foolish. He was, for instance, censured for beginning a note to Lord Granville as “My dear Granville,” the censure proceeding from those who did not know how much more [193] common is this familiar form of address, among social equals, in England than in America. In the same way the ordinary diplomatic courtesies such as “He was good enough to say,” or “I am bound to take for granted,” or, “My friend, if I may be permitted to call him so,” were censured as “circumlocutionary and apologetic,” and it was said that he used to talk “in a straightforward, honest, American fashion.” All this class of criticism was instantly swept away by his lecture on Democracy, which at once silenced these unreasonable voices; and which must be regarded, on the whole, as his best and most characteristic prose work,--the frankest, the maturest, the clearest and simplest in literary style.

Lowell had perhaps never seemed so attractive as during the last year or two of his life, when restored again to the house where he was born. The revision of his books for a definitive edition gave him the occupation most appropriate to the old age of a literary man, who thus watches moving before his eyes from day to day, as in a magic mirror, the [194] joys and griefs, hopes and fears, of an honored and useful career. Softened and mellowed by time, as well as enriched by it, he was bearing bravely the trials of a hopeless disease and awaiting cheerfully the end. He was broader in experience, serener in judgment, sweeter in temper, than ever before; and was a source of happiness, rather than of care, to all around him.

I have found among my papers some hasty notes of a talk with him in this Indian summer of his life, and print them just as they stand, only wishing that there were more of them :

December 28, 1888.
Lowell looked far better and younger than last winter, and seemed bright, alert, cleareyed and strong, though he complained of gout. He talked most agreeably about his life abroad — said that his life in England was much easier than in Spain, where the consuls were incompetent and referred all to him, so that he wrote three quarto volumes of correspondence, all unnecessary. Also his secretary knew neither Spanish nor French. He said the Spaniards were easy to get on with [195] after they found he would not take money and was to be regarded as a gentleman. They suspected-- of this and so did he.

He thought Phelps could have settled the fishery question and the Sackville questionin the latter he thought Cleveland acted hastily. In England they could not understand his action, because it was not considered that disrespect to a President meant the same as to a Queen-which he (L.) had urged upon them.

Thought Phelps far better fitted than himself, as being a business man, which he hated.

Is revising Fable for critics; had not read it for years and did not wonder it gave dissatisfaction. Means to put a preface explaining that he did not really write it for publication, but as a jeu d'esprit; and sent it to Briggs, who took responsibility of publishing.

Said that Browning had a good deal of jealousy of Tennyson, whereas Tennyson was too absorbed in himself to be jealous of Browning. B. has Jewish blood, but will not admit it. [I asked his reasons for thinking B. Jewish.] No one who has studied his face can doubt it. He used in one case a Hebrew line, then cancelled [196] it in a later edition. Besides, if you dine with a Jew in London, you are sure to meet Browning.

[These arguments seemed to me quite insufficient.]

His death (Aug. 12, 1891) took from us a man rich beyond all other Americans in poetic impulses, in width of training, in varied experience, and in readiness of wit; sometimes entangled and hampered by his own wealth; unequal in expression, yet rising on the greatest occasions to the highest art; blossoming early, yet maturing late; with a certain indolence of temperament, yet accomplishing all the results of strenuous labor; not always judicial in criticism, especially in early years, yet steadily expanding and deepening; retaining in age the hopes and sympathies of his youth; and dying, with singular good fortune, just after he had gathered into final shape the literary harvest of his life. [197] [198] [199]

1Mrs. Oliver was sister to Vassall, and Mrs. Vassall was sister to Oliver. The deceased father of Vassall and Mrs. Oliver was brother to Mrs. Ruggles and to the deceased husband of the widow Vassall, and the deceased mother of Vassall and Mrs. Oliver was sister to Mrs. Lechmere and Mrs. Lee. The widow Vassall was also aunt to Mr. Oliver and to John Vassall's wife.” Paige's History of Cambridge, p. 168, note.

2 “ Letters of R. W, Griswold,” p. 257.

3 Lowell's “Letters,” I. p. 68.

4 Lowell's “Letters,” I. p. 136.

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