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Chapter 6: the Cambridge group

The greater writers.

We have now to consider the development of the only purely literary group of a high class which America has as yet produced. The best summary of their work is perhaps that made by the late Horace Scudder:--

“It is too early to make a full survey of the immense importance to American letters of the work done by half a dozen great men in the middle of this century. The body of prose and verse created by them is constituting the solid foundation upon which other structures are to rise; the humanity which it holds is entering into the life of the country, and no material invention, or scientific discovery, or institutional prosperity, or accumulation of wealth will so powerfully affect the spiritual well-being of the nation for generations to come.” The highest intellectual centre of this group was to be found of course in Concord, which we shall presently have to consider; but its social centre was in Boston, or more properly [135] in Cambridge; and the house of Longfellow, always hospitable, was its headquarters.

The path from Charlestown.

The literary associations of Cambridge all cluster around a single ancient road, called in the earliest records “The path from Charlestown to Watertown.” Hunters, trappers, Indians, pioneers, farmers, had all traveled on that road, going westward; and the hastily gathered and “embattled” farmers marched down it, going eastward, from Cambridge Common to the fight at Bunker Hill. It led through what is now Kirkland Street, passing the house where Holmes was born, through Brattle Street, past Longfellow's house, through Elmwood Avenue and Mt. Auburn Street, past the house where Lowell was born and died. It then passed on beyond Mt. Auburn to the original village of Watertown, now marked by a deserted burial-ground only — on whose crumbling stones the curious schoolboy still notices such quaint inscriptions as that of Mr. John Bailey, minister of the gospel, “a pious and painfull preacher,” or of his wife described as one who “was good betimes and best at last,” “went off singing and left us weeping,” and who “walked with God until [136] translated.” It is a matter of interest to recall the fact that the three poets who have been mentioned were born, lived, or died there, and made it from the point of view of literature the most memorable highway in America.

Longfellow and Whittier.

The American traveler in England who takes pains to inquire in bookstores as to the comparative standing of his country's poets among English readers, is likely to hear Longfellow ranked at the head, with Whittier as a close second. In the same way, if he happens to attend English conventions and popular meetings, he will be pretty sure to hear these two authors quoted oftener than any other poets, British or American. This parallelism in their fame makes it the more interesting to remember that Whittier was born within five miles of the old Longfellow homestead, where the grandfather of his brother poet was born. Always friends, though never intimate, they represented through life two quite different modes of rearing and education. Longfellow was the most widely traveled author of the Boston circle, Whittier the least so; Longfellow spoke a variety of languages, Whittier [137] only his own; Longfellow had whatever the American college of his time could give him, Whittier had none of it; Longfellow had the habits of a man of the world, Whittier those of a recluse; Longfellow touched reform but lightly, Whittier was essentially imbued with it; Longfellow had children and grandchildren, while Whittier led a single life. Yet in certain gifts, apart from poetic quality, they were alike; both being modest, serene, unselfish, brave, industrious, and generous. They either shared, or made up between them, many of the most estimable qualities that mark poet or man.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made the first breach in that well-known group of poets which adorned Boston and its vicinity so long. The first to go was also the most widely famous. Emerson reached greater depths of thought; Whittier touched the problems of the nation's life more deeply; Holmes came personally more before the public; Lowell was more brilliant and varied; but, taking the English-speaking world at large, it was Longfellow whose fame overshadowed all the others; he was also better known and more [138] translated upon the continent of Europe than all the rest put together, and, indeed, than any other contemporary poet of the Englishspeaking race, at least if bibliographies afford any test. Add to this that his place of residence was so accessible and so historic, his personal demeanor so kindly, his life so open and transparent, that everything really conspired to give him the highest accessible degree of contemporary fame. There was no literary laurel that was not his, and he resolutely declined all other laurels; he had wealth and ease, children and grandchildren, health and a stainless conscience; he had also, in a peculiar degree, the blessings that belong to Shakespeare's estimate of old age, -“honor, love, obedience, troops of friends.” Except for two great domestic bereavements, his life would have been one of absolutely unbroken sunshine; in his whole career he never encountered any serious rebuff, while such were his personal modesty and kindliness that no one could long regard him with envy or antagonism. Among all the sons of song there has rarely been such an instance of unbroken and unstained success.

Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, [139] Feb. 27, 1807. Through the Wadsworths and the Bartletts, the poet could trace his descent to at least four of the Mayflower pilgrims, including Elder Brewster and Captain John Alden. His boyhood showed nothing of the unruliness which people commonly associate with the idea of genius; indeed, the quiet sanity of his whole career was a refutation of that idle theory. He was a painstaking student, and made a very creditable record at Bowdoin College, where he had Nathaniel Hawthorne for a classmate. Before his graduation, in 1825, he had quite made up his mind as. to what he wanted to do in life: it must be literature or nothing; and this not merely from a preference for the pursuit, but from an ambition, willingly acknowledged, to make a name as a writer.

He had no dream, however, of taking the world by storm. There seemed at first, indeed, to be little prospect of his making any direct step toward fitting himself for literature. There had been some question of his undertaking post-graduate work at Cambridge, but it had ended for the moment in his beginning the study of law in his father's office. Soon after his graduation, [140] however, there was a movement to establish a professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin, and he, being then scarcely nineteen, was sent to Europe to prepare himself for this chair. It is now plain enough that the young poet was really preparing himself, during the three years of travel and foreign residence which followed, for his literary as well as for his professional work. Even at the time, he was turning his experiences to a direct literary end. In 1835, some years after his return to America, appeared Outre Mer, a book of sketches which did for the Continent what Irving, somewhat too obviously his model, had done for England. In the mean time he had been appointed to the chair of Modern Languages at Harvard University. During the second journey to Europe which followed, his young wife died; and not long after Longfellow returned to take up the duties of his professorship in Cambridge, where the rest of his life was to be lived, and the best of his work was to be done.

Outre-Mer had attained moderate success, but Hyperion, Longfellow's second and final prose work of importance, was destined to [141] attract far more attention. This was due largely to the new atmosphere of German life and literature which it opened to Americans. The kingdom in which Germany ruled was not then, as now, a kingdom of material force and business enterprise, but, as Germans themselves claimed, a kingdom of the air; and into that realm Hyperion gave American readers the first glimpse. There is no doubt that under the sway of the simpler style now prevailing, much of the rhetoric of Hyperion seems turgid, some of its learning obtrusive, and a good deal of its emotion forced; it was, nevertheless, an epoch-making book.

The curious fact, however, remains, that at the very time when the author was at work upon Hyperion, his mind was undergoing a reaction toward the simpler treatment of more strictly American subjects. It must be remembered that Longfellow came forward at a time when cultivated Americans were wasting a great deal of sympathy on themselves. It was the general impression that the soil was barren, that the past offered no material, and that American authors must be European or die. Yet Longfellow's few [142] notable predecessors had already made themselves heard by disregarding this tradition and taking what they found on the spot. Charles Brockden Brown, though his style smacked of the period, found his themes among the American Indians and in the scenes of the yellow fever in Philadelphia. It was not Irving who invested the Hudson with romance, but the Hudson that inspired Irving.

Longfellow's first book of original verse, Voices of the night, containing such wellknown poems as the Hymn to the night, the Beleaguered City, and The Skeleton in armor, gave him immediate popularity as a poet. It was in later work, however, especially in Hiawatha, Evangeline, and The Courtship of iles Standish, that he best fufilled his dream of giving poetic form to material belonging peculiarly to America. But in criticising Longfellow's earlier poetry, we must not lose sight of that fine remark of Sara Coleridge, daughter of the poet, who said to Aubrey de Vere, “However inferior the bulk of a young man's poetry may be to that of the poet when mature, it generally possesses some passages with a [143] special freshness of their own and an inexplicable charm to be found in them alone.” A common ground for criticism on Longfellow's poetry lay in the simplicity which made it then, and has made it ever since, so near to the popular heart. It is possible that this simplicity was the precise contribution needed in that early and formative period of American letters. Literature in a new country naturally tends to the florid, as had been shown by the novels of Charles Brockden Brown, or even by so severe a work as Bancroft's History of the United States. In poetry, Poe was to give only too wide a prestige to the same tendency. In subsequent years Longfellow published many volumes of verse, in which his experiments with English hexameter are now, perhaps, most famous. There is no doubt that the reading public at large has confirmed the opinion of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Of the longer poems of our chief singer, I should not hesitate to select Evangeline as the masterpiece, and I think the general verdict of opinion would confirm my choice. . . . From the first line of the poem, from its first words, we read as we would float down a broad and placid river, [144] murmuring softly against its banks, heaven over it, and the glory of the unspoiled wilderness all around.”

After a tenure — of eighteen years, Longfellow resigned his Harvard professorship. During the next few years Hiawatha and The Courtship of miles Standish were produced, and were received with great enthusiasm in America and elsewhere. The principal works of his later years were the Dante translations and Christus: a Mystery. The Christus was the fine flowering of Longfellow's spiritual life. Yet one rarely sees the book quoted; it has not been widely read, and in all the vast list of Longfellow translations into foreign languages, there appears no version of any part of it except the comparatively modern Golden legend. It has simply afforded one of the most remarkable instances in literary history of the utter ignoring of the supposed high-water mark of a favorite author, and also perhaps of the fact that an author's early impulses are a safer guide than his maturer judgment. But, apart from any single work, Longfellow's fame was secure, and his death in March, 1882, was recognized as more than a national calamity. [145]

In looking back over his whole career, we must see that while his work would have been valuable in any time or place, its worth to a new and unformed literature was priceless. The first need of such a literature was no doubt a great original thinker like Emerson. But for him we should perhaps have been still provincial in thought and imitative in theme and illustration; our poets would have gone on writing about the skylark and the nightingale, which they might never have seen anywhere, rather than about the bobolink and the humble — bee, which they knew. It was Emerson and the so-called Transcendentalists who really set our literature free; yet Longfellow rendered a service only secondary, in enriching and refining it, and in giving it a cosmopolitan culture; leading to an unquestioned standing in the literary courts of the civilized world. It was a great advantage, too, that in his more moderate and level standard of execution there was afforded no room for reaction. The same attributes that keep Longfellow from being one of the greatest poets are likely to make him one of the most permanent.

John Greenleaf Whittier.

Whittier, like Garrison,--who first appreciated [146] his poems,--was brought up apart from what Dr. Holmes loved to call the Brahmin class in America; those, namely, who were bred to cultivation by cultivated parents. Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, were essentially of this class; all their immediate ancestors were, in French phrase, gens de robe; three of these poets being children of clergymen, and one of a lawyer who was also a member of Congress. All of them had in a degree-to borrow another phrase from Holmes — tumbled about in libraries. Whittier had, on the other hand, the early training of a spiritual aristocracy, the Society of Friends. He was bred in a class which its very oppressors had helped to ennoble; in the only meetings where silence ranked as equal with speech, and women with men; where no precedence was accorded to anything except years and saintliness; where no fear was felt but of sin. This gave him at once the companionship of the humble and a habit of deference to those whom he felt above him; he had measured men from a level and touched human nature directly in its own vigor and yet in its highest phase. [147]

Not one of this eminent circle had the keys of common life so absolutely in his hands as Whittier. Had anything been wanting in this respect, his interest in politics would have filled the gap. First thrilled by the wrongs of the slave, and serving in that cause a long apprenticeship, it was instinctive in him to be the advocate of peace, of woman suffrage, of organized labor. In such outworks of reform he had an attitude, a training, and a sympathy which his literary friends had not. He was, in the English phrase, “a poet of the people,” and proved by experience that even America supplied such a function. The more exclusive type of life he had studied in New England history, -none better,--but what real awe did it impose on him who had learned at his mother's knee to seek the wilderness with William Penn or to ride through howling mobs with Barclay of Ury? The Quaker tradition, after all, had a Brahminism of its own which Beacon Street in Boston could not rear or Harvard College teach.

John Greenleaf Whittier was born in Haverhill, Mass., on Dec. 17, 1807. His earliest American ancestor, Thomas Whittier, was of [148] Huguenot stock, and not, like his descendants, a Quaker, though a defender of Quakers. Upon the farm and in the homestead inherited from this ancestor, Whittier passed his boyhood. He was as tall as most of his family, but not so strong. He took his full share of the farm duties; he had to face the winter weather in what we should call scanty clothing: it was before the period had arrived when, in Miss Sedgwick's phrase, the New England Goddess of Health held out flannel underclothing to everybody. To a stronger constitution the life should have been simply invigorating, but Whittier, though he lived to be eighty-five, was all his life a recognized invalid.

There were few books in this Quaker household, but the boy's instinct toward versifying asserted itself very early. His father did not encourage his attempts, but at the age of eighteen a piece of his verse sent by his sister to a Haverhill newspaper attracted the attention of its editor, William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was himself only twentyone, but his lively interest in Whittier's work was of great value to the young poet, and laid the foundation of a lifelong friendship. [149] Garrison urged the elder Whittier to give his son better schooling, but poverty stood in the way. A chance came a little later to take a few terms in a newly established “academy” at Haverhill; and that was all the formal education Whittier ever had. “I have renounced college,” he wrote in 1828, “for the good reason that I have no disposition to humble myself to meanness for an education — crowding myself through college at the expense of others, and leaving it with a debt or an obligation to weigh down my spirit like an incubus, and paralyze every exertion. The professions are already crowded full to overflowing; and I, forsooth, because I have a miserable knack of rhyming, must swell the already enormous number, struggle awhile with debt and difficulties, and then, weary of life, go down to my original insignificance, where the tinsel of classical honors will but aggravate my misfortune.” He was not, however, to return to farm life. Through Garrison he was offered the editorship of a weekly temperance paper called the Philanthropist, in Boston. In the letter from which we have just quoted, he said of this possibility: “Seriously-the [150] situation of editor of the Philanthropist is not only respectable, but it is peculiarly pleasant to one who takes so deep an interest, as I really do, in the great cause it is laboring to promote. ... I would rather have the memory of a Howard, a Wilberforce, and a Clarkson than the undying fame of a Byron.” The final sentence is especially noteworthy, as giving the keynote of Whittier's subsequent career. His life from this time was that of a journalist and a reformer, rather than that of a man of letters.

It would be easy, however, to lay too much stress upon his lack of academic training. His formal schooling, says Mr. Pickard,1 “was only the beginning of his student life; by wide and well-chosen reading he was constantly adding to his stores of information; while reveling in the fields of English literature, he became familiar through translations with ancient and current literature of other nations.” As a poet Whittier was not only slow in reaching maturity, but, in spite of his fondness for rhyming, very slow in producing anything of real promise. He himself was so fully aware of this that in the [151] final collected edition of his works he preserved only two or three of the hundred or more experiments in verse which he made before the age of twenty-five. From journalism he seemed likely to slip into politics till, once again under the leadership of Garrison, he became identified with the anti-slavery movement, a connection which effectually debarred him from political success.

Personally, my first interview with Whittier was in my student days, soon after my graduation from college, when I was dining in Boston at an economical restaurant known as Campbell's, then a haunt for two classes of patrons, Harvard students and abolitionists. When I was nearly through my modest repast, a man near me exclaimed impetuously, “There is Whittier!” I had lately become an ardent reader of his poems, and looking eagerly in the direction indicated, I saw a man just rising from table,--looking thirtyfive years old or thereabouts,--slender, erect, in the straight-cut Quaker coat, a man with rich olive complexion, black hair and eyebrows, brilliant eyes, and a certain Oriental look. I felt that then or never was the time to make his acquaintance, and rising from [152] my seat I shyly made my way across the room to him, and said, when I had reached him, “I should like to shake hands with the author of Massachusetts to Virginia.” As I made the remark, he turned with a startled look upon me. “Thy name, friend,” he briefly said. I gave it, and then and there began a lasting friendship.

If Whittier's bent was toward the active service of his fellow men rather than toward the literary life, it is none the less true that he is now known best not as a philanthropist but as a poet. His distinction is to have been more than any other American the poet of familiar life. What Lowell said dramatically, he could say from experience: “We draw our lineage from the oppressed.” Compared with him Longfellow, Holmes, even Lowell, were poets of a class. Burns was his favorite poet, and, in later years, he attained, in the naturalness and flow of his song, to something like the lyric power of his master. A few of Longfellow's poems possess this quality, but it pervades the mature work of Whittier. Consequently, though not a little of his poetry lacks compactness and finish, very little of it lacks power. “His rudest [153] shafts of song,” as Mr. Stedman has said, “were shot true and far and tipped with flame.” It is only in this respect that Whittier resembles Burns. His character was as firm, and his life as well ordered, as Longfellow's. It has, indeed, been the fashion among those who remember the famous phrase, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied,” to condemn all these poets as too respectable, too orderly. How could such steady and respectable members of society be expected to produce really great poetry? The theory upon which this question is based cannot be discussed here. Let us admit that, for better or worse, the literature of New England has been the wholesome product of a simple and healthy way of living. Longfellow and Whittier — who died Sept. 4, 1892 undeniably lacked the flexibility of mind and the buoyancy of spirit which belonged to several of their contemporaries, notably Holmes and Lowell. To Holmes, especially, with his sunny temperament and friendly voice, his ripeness of humor and nicety of phrase, our literature is greatly indebted; he is likely to stand, moreover, as one of the few great humorists of the world.


Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, Aug. 29, 1809. His father was an Orthodox Congregational clergyman, who stuck to his Calvinistic colors throughout the period which saw Unitarianism firmly established in Cambridge and Boston. The Unitarian movement is interesting to the student of literature, as one of the signs of the intellectual ripening which made it possible for a powerful literature to spring from the hitherto unpromising soil of Puritan New England. Dr. Holmes himself early became a Unitarian, in the same spirit of fidelity to his belief which had held his father to the older faith. On his graduation from Harvard in 1829, Holmes, like so many other men of literary tastes at that time, turned first toward the bar. After studying for a year and a half, however, he decided that the law was not for him. As the ministry was uncongenial, only one of the three learned professions then considered respectable remained open to him. He studied medicine in Europe for two years and a half, took his degree at the Harvard Medical School in 1836, became Professor at Dartmouth in 1838, and Professor at the Harvard [155] Medical School in 1847. He was thus away from Cambridge during most of my boyhood, and my memory first depicts him vividly when he came back to give his Phi Beta Kappa poem in 1836. He was at this time a young physician of great promise, which was thought to be rather impaired by his amusing himself with poetry. So, at least, he always thought; and he cautioned in later years a younger physician, Dr. Weir Mitchell, to avoid the fault which he had admitted, advising him to be known exclusively as a physician until his reputation in that line should be made. The effect of levity conveyed by this poem — which was in the main a serious, not to say a ponderous one--was due largely to certain passages which he described as “wanting in dignity.” Especially criticised was one passage in which he gallantly enumerated the probable names of the various young ladies in the gallery, mentioning, for instance,

A hundred Marys, and that only one
Whose smile awaits me when my song is done.

These statistics of admiration were not thought altogether suitable to an academic poem, and the claim itself with regard to the [156] young lady may have proved a little premature, inasmuch as she subsequently married Holmes's friend Motley, the historian.

At the Phi Beta Kappa dinner which followed, he appeared under circumstances which gave his humor free play. Presently there was a cry for Dr. Holmes, and a little man was drawn forward not unwillingly and compelled to stand in a chair where he could be seen and sing his song; and he sang in a voice high and thin, yet well modulated, this touching lay:--

Where, oh where are the visions of morning,
Fresh as the dews of our prime?
Gone, like tenants that flit without warning,
Down the back entry of Time.

Where, oh where are life's lilies and roses,
Nursed in the golden dawn's smile?
Dead as the bulrushes round little Moses,
On the old banks of the Nile.

Where are the Marys, and Anns, and Elizas,
Loving and lovely of yore?
Look in the columns of old Advertisers,--
Married and dead by the score.

Where the gray colts and the ten-year-old fillies,
Saturday's triumph and joy?
Gone, like our friend πόδας ὠκὺς Achilles,
Homer's ferocious old boy. [157]

Yet, though the ebbing of Time's mighty river
Leave our young blossoms to die,
Let him roll smooth in his current forever,
Till the last pebble is dry.

I had read Noctes Ambrosiance of Blackwood's magazine, with Christopher North and all the rest of it, but now I felt that I too had at last been admitted to the “nights and suppers of the gods.”

Holmes's singularly boyish appearance was at first against his success in the practice of medicine, and he probably had no very great liking for the incessant duties of the “general practitioner.” That he held his chair of Anatomy at Harvard for many years is sufficient proof of his usefulness in his chosen profession; though its principal value to the world may now seem to have been that it provided him with a scientific arsenal from which to draw literary weapons not accessible to others.

His success in literature was to be won in an extraordinary way. It is a rare thing for a man nearly fifty years old to strike out a new career, such as in the case of Holmes followed the publication of the Autocrat of the breakfast-table. He had, to be sure, begun [158] a similar venture long before. Two articles under the same title had appeared twenty-five years earlier in the New England magazine. They had not attracted much attention, and were, as a whole, rather crude, but the general method employed, with its pleasant conversational flavor, and easy discursive style, was the method which best expressed the nature of the author in his maturity. When in 1857 the Atlantic monthly was founded, and Lowell became its editor, he stipulated that Dr. Holmes should be the first contributor engaged; and the first instalment of the Autocrat appeared in the opening number. Upon this series of papers Holmes's fame may stand; they represent the fine flowering of his genius for intimate discourse, and include, besides, much of the best of his verse. His later work in the same vein, however, is less delightful only because it is, in a sense, the “second growth” of an extraordinarily fertile mind.

In poetry his taste was conservative. He disliked modern experiments in irregular versification, and held to the somewhat rigid “correctness” of the school of Pope. His own verses were consequently of uniform [159] smoothness and elegance; and as the best of them are marked by fineness rather than depth of feeling, it is not likely that a freer treatment would have increased their power.

Once or twice, in poems like The Chambered Nautilus and The last leaf, the poet seems to have risen above the grade of the kindly urbanity which made him one of the best of “occasional” verse-writers. Of his novels, it need only be said here that they are likely to hold their own for some time as interesting by-products of powers which found their main expression elsewhere.

Holmes is important to American literature not only as a singularly approachable and effective personality, but as in every way the product of his time and place. His favorite character, Little Boston, was a fanciful exaggeration of his own innocent cockneyism. In his day Beacon Street was still precisely what he called it, “The sunny street that holds the sifted few.” More than for America, perhaps, he stood for Boston, and for New England “Brahminism.” That was not the final type of Americanism, but it was one of the most important nineteenth-century types, and to represent it fitly in literature [160] constituted a valuable service to the country. Holmes died Oct. 7, 1894.

James Russell Lowell.

James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Feb. 22, 1819. His father was a Unitarian minister of old Massachusetts stock. As a schoolboy Lowell showed little regular industry, but a great deal of cleverness and an insatiable hunger for good reading.

The first letter from Lowell which I have in my collection, written somewhere about the age of fourteen, shows how early the quality of humor set in. It was written on the occasion of returning to my brother Thacher a volume of Sallust, an author then required for examination by those entering college.

Copy. [ Verbatim ac Literatim.]

My Dear Thach,
In the course of human events when the mind becomes indued with active spirit with powerfull imagin ation, with extensive enter prise with noble design ty — Then My boy. Then is the time to return to you this — Sallust

Yrs J. R. L.


In this cheery announcement there is a curious foreshadowing of the “imaginings,” “enterprises,” and “designties” of his own life, and we can see whence he derived that gay and elastic spirit which made his later lectures delightful to his students at the University when he “opened a new world to them” in Professor Barrett Wendell's phrase; or, in the phrase of Mr. Henry James, made a “romance of the hour” for them. “It was,” the latter continues, “an unforgettable initiation. He was so steeped in history and literature that to some yearning young persons, he made the taste of knowledge sweeter, almost, than it was ever to be again.”

Like Irving and Longfellow and Holmes, he first turned to the law for support, and went so far as to be admitted to the bar; but he had less heart, even, for the actual practice of law than Holmes for the practice of medicine. He had also a firmer purpose of gaining success in literature, and sedulously trained himself to be a writer. In 1844 he married Maria White, a gifted and cultivated woman, whose criticism and sympathy were of great value to her husband's work, and whose reformatory feeling called [162] forth much of that quality in him. Their income was small, but by dint of lecturing and writing for the magazines — which then offered a very limited field even for a Lowell -they made shift to live. Mrs. Lowell died in 1853, and only one of her four children survived her.

In the meantime Lowell's reputation as a man of letters had become secure, and in 1855 he was appointed Longfellow's successor in the chair of Modern Languages and Belles-Lettres at Harvard. The rest of his career is too well known to be enlarged upon in this narrative. He was one of the founders and the first editor of the Atlantic monthly; Minister to Spain, and, later, to England; and he died, Aug. 12, 1891, the recognized premier of American letters, and not the least of American men of affairs.

His standing in literature is probably less easily determinable than that of Holmes; and this for a reason which at first seems strange. As to fertility of mind, abundance of resources, variety of knowledge, there was scarcely any difference in the two persons; the head of water was the same, and why was it that in the case of Holmes the stream [163] flowed so much more smoothly? It was Lowell who had accepted literature as his sphere, while Holmes regarded it as a mere avocation; yet it was Lowell who never quite attained smoothness or finish of utterance, while Holmes easily developed it. Lowell was always liable to entanglement in his own wealth of thought and fancy. His style is rich and often delightful; yet it must be said both of his prose and his verse, that his immense fertility of mind constantly led him into confused rhetoric and mixed metaphors. He lacked, in short, the pure taste and tireless “capacity for taking pains” which belong to the literary artist.

The permanence of his verse is especially imperiled by this defect. Brilliant and spontaneous as it is, very little of it possesses the absolute quality of good poetry. His form does not grow inevitably out of his theme, and consequently his style is what a great style never is, the “dress” of his thought. While, therefore, he composed more impulsively and rapidly than Holmes, he never produced a strain quite so pure and perfect and certain of a place in the treasury of English poetry as The Chambered Nautilus. He [164] was, for better and worse, more a poet of his own day than Holmes. Even in The vision of Sir Launfal, he could not, as Holmes noted, forget his American landscape or his modern point of view; and his greater successes, from The Bigelow papers to the Commemoration Ode, were essentially poems of occasion.

It was immensely to the advantage of Lowell as a direct human force that he was so frankly a man of the hour. Longfellow in his quiet scholastic life and Holmes in his office of urbane spectator seem a little remote, by comparison, from the more eager questions of their day. Yet Lowell's best work was done in a field of pure letters toward the cultivation of which America had before his time done very little. His criticism of contemporaries cannot, for the most part, be greatly praised. In the period of Lowell's literary bringing — up the traditions of the English Christopher North had reached over to America, and men had learned to measure merit by stings. The Edinburgh Review had set the example, and the Quarterly and Blackwood's magazine had followed it. The recognized way to deal with a literary heretic was to crush [165] him. Among authors, too, it was a time of defiant and vehement mutual criticism; it was thought a fine thing to impale somebody, to make somebody writhe, to get even with somebody, and it was hard for the younger men to keep clear of the flattering temptation. Poe in New York proceeded cheerfully with these tactics, and Lowell in Cambridge was only too ready to follow his example. In Lowell's Fable for critics you find the beginning of all this: in his prose you will find an essay on “Percival” which is essentially in the line of these English examples, and that on “Thoreau” is little better; and worse than either, perhaps, is his article on “Miltpn,” nine tenths of which is vehement and almost personal in its denunciation of Professor Masson, a man of the highest character and the most generous nature, though sometimes too generous of his words. What makes the matter worse is that Lowell charges the sin of “wearisomeness” upon both Masson and Milton himself, and yet the keen Fitz-Gerald selects one sentence of Lowell's in this very essay as an illustration of that same sin. Lowell says of Milton's prose tracts:--

Yet it must be confessed that, with the single exception of the Areopagitica, Milton's tracts are wearisome [166] reading, and going through them is like a long sea voyage whose monotony is more than compensated for the moment by a stripe of phosphorescence leaping before you in a drift of star-sown snow, coiling away behind in winking disks of silver, as if the conscious element were giving out all the moonlight it had garnered in its loyal depths since first it gazed upon its pallid regent.

The criticism on Lowell comes with force from FitzGerald, who always cultivated condensation, and it also recalls the remark of Walter Pater, that “the true artist may be best recognized by his skill in omission.”

Apart from his bent for personalities, however, and from the question of his ability to practice what he preached, there is in the substance of his best prose work a sound body of criticism such as no other American has yet produced. For scholarship, incisiveness, and suggestiveness, such papers as the essays on Dryden, Pope, and Dante have been surpassed by very little criticism written in English.

The special service of the New England literature of the middle of the nineteenth century was to achieve an enlargement of the national horizon. In Cambridge, as we have seen, the expansion was primarily mental and aesthetic; in Concord, as we are about to see, it was mainly speculative and spiritual.

1 Life and letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, i. p. 72.

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