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Chapter 6: Lowell's closing years in Cambridge

Mr. Smalley's recent paper in Harper's Weekly on “Mr. Lowell in England” is one so thoroughly delightful and instructive that it is, perhaps, to be ranked even above the volumes of English reminiscence by the same author-volumes which Lowell was always ready to praise, and his presentation copy of which he bequeathed expressly to the Cambridge Public Library. They show, as does this magazine paper, those especial qualities of trained style which have been familiar to Americans for so many years in the great English weeklies; the clearness, the terseness, the practised ease of execution, the level quality of excellence, as if one remarkably clever man wrote them all. This makes it the more worth while to take exception to one single point in the portrait — where Mr. Smalley is tempted to generalize just a little beyond his own knowledge, [48] in pronouncing on the whole life of a man whom he had personally known for less than half that life. It is this point and this only which I should venture to criticise.

Mr. Smalley says of Lowell: “He came to London the man he had been all his life long . . a thinker, a dreamer, a poet, almost a recluse.” But for the phrase “all his life long” this would be very true; yet he certainly was not born a recluse, nor did he begin his career like one. As for birth and inheritance, his mother had Irish blood in her, and had, by the descriptions of those who knew her, the Irish temperament-gay, warm-hearted, impulsive, social-all these being qualities which her son inherited. From his father he had a more strenuous quality; but the Rev. Dr. Lowell was a man of sufficiently mild clericalism to preach sermons only fifteen minutes long, and this in a Congregational pulpit. He had, moreover, a sense of humor, for no one without it would have finally silenced a woman made garrulous by bereavement, and steadfastly refusing all consolation-“But, after all, my dear madam, what do you expect to do about it?” Lowell did not, therefore, inherit recluse qualities. As a school-boy he was the gayest of the gay. In college he was the wit of his [49] class; and my college diary records him as coming as a senior into our freshman debating club and keeping us supplied with amusement for the whole evening. It is enough to say that he was secretary of the Hasty Pudding Club — the reverse of a recluse position-and kept its records in verse. After leaving college he and Maria White were the “King and Queen” of what was probably the most brilliant circle of young people — the “Brother and sister” club-ever brought together in the neighborhood of Boston.

After his marriage, too, Elmwood became the scene of a modest but delightful hospitality; for Mrs. Lowell had hosts of friends and loved to meet them. Eminent strangers were entertained there; Ole Bull, for instance, on his first arrival. Then followed by degrees the deaths of his older children, and the illness and death of his wife; then the sinking of Dr. Lowell into that sorrowful condition described in one of his son's most remarkable poems, “The Darkened mind.” It was the closing in of these shadows which changed for many years the life of Lowell, and made him, so far as he ever was, a recluse.

For a time it made a reaction which took him positively away from his early associations; [50] even, in a degree, from the antislavery movement, which had also helped, till then, to keep him from recluse habits. Unfortunately his second marriage, though a congenial and happy one, did not prevent this tendency; for the lady selected was not strongly social in her aptitudes, and, moreover, became herself an invalid. London life, indeed, came just in time for him. From this point Mr. Smalley's delineation is admirable, nothing could be truer or better; and even this partial modification of it would not be worth while were not the whole career of a man of genius deserving of much study, even in detail, lest it lead to mistaken generalizations. Instead of painting Lowell as a life-long recluse who was at last brought out of his shell by the delights and opportunities of London, he is rather to be regarded as one naturally social and joyous in the highest degree, but whose life in that direction had been checked and was resumed. It was not, in short, a case of tardy, but of interrupted development.

That he gained vastly in the power of self-repression and of mutual deference by going to London is unquestionable. It is the best thing taught to Americans by the admirable discipline of the dinner-tables of that city, [51] that we unlearn the habit of monologue. No one needed this more than Lowell, except perhaps Holmes; the two had sat at opposite ends of the table so long, during the early dinners of Atlantic contributors, and practically monopolized the talk. As to the quality of conversation in London, they found none better than their own; but they learned-at least, Lowell did — the value of half-rations. Perhaps Mr. Smalley presses too far the novelty that Lowell found in a circle where there were others besides men of letters; for in truth he had around him just such a circle, so far as it went, at home. Among his intimate friends and club-fellows were great capitalists, like John M. Forbes; men of the world, like Tom Appleton; lawyers and public men, like Judge Hoar; men of science, like Agassiz; physicians like his own brother-in-law, Dr. Estes Howe. The difference was not in quality so much as in quantity. Lowell could not perhaps say, like Stuart Newton the painter: “I meet in London occasionally such company as I meet in Boston all the time ;” but he could at least go so far as to say that at home he met a sufficient variety of types to know that men of letters did not monopolize the world. When it came to sheer quantity, of [52] course London was overpowering; it was like going from a small preparatory school to Oxford; but, after all, a man usually finds, in looking back, that his own schoolmates afforded him a microcosm of the world.

Lowell, fortunately, lived to refute very promptly the ignorant pity bestowed upon him in advance by Matthew Arnold, for returning home, after the intoxication of his life in England, to live in Elmwood. Mr. Arnold never in his life had one glimpse of what America is to an American; and those who best knew Lowell had no such fear as this. The first pang over, created by the return to his changed home, and he slipped into his old associations as easily as into a familiar garment. Never was he more delightful than in those later fireside years, even when the fireside had come to be a part of a sick-room. Indeed, he was more agreeable than ever before; his habit of mind was more genial; he was less imperious, more moderate in his judgments — in short, more mellow. He liked to talk of London, as he liked to go there, but without a trace of self-consciousness or conceit; he could discourse delightfully about it, but so he could of Madrid — in fact, of Philadelphia or Chicago. He rejoiced to meet old neighbors, [53] to pick up old threads; and began immediately to accumulate new anecdotes about the old Cambridge. He delighted to tell how, on the day before the last Fourth of July, an early contemporary, in somewhat humbler life, had come to him to appeal for still another comrade who had habitually drifted into evil ways and was lodged in the East Cambridge jail. “Now, Mr. Lowell, I know you wouldn't want that boy, that Cambridge boy, to spend Independence Day in jail! I know you'll just bail him out.” Lowell promptly did so, though knowing well that his beneficiary would devote the Fourth of July to qualifying himself for returning to jail again, which was precisely what happened. So, in other forms more satisfying, he took up the dropped threads of his life, receiving the Dante Club and the Modern Language Association as if each were the Royal Society. In looking back on London, too, he was able to see its limitations as well as its delights; was ready to recognize the barren fig-tree side of it, in Lord Houghton's phrase; the limitation and disappointment resulting from the very excess and hurry. It is the same side that we see in books of personal recollections, like Lady Eastlake's Diaries or Sir Frederick Pollock's Remembrances, where [54] the writer goes from one brilliant breakfast or luncheon or dinner to the next, meeting all the wits and sages, and bringing away only two or three anecdotes. Lowell himself recognized all this limitation, yet delighted in the retrospect; skimmed for you the cream of it, and then took you out on the piazza to watch the squirrels and robins. Becoming again, in some sense, a recluse, he was such a recluse as Sir Henry Wotton might have been, or as the tenant of Andrew Marvell's garden.


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