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XX. - JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.
LIFE AND WORKS.
Among the literary men of this generation, James Russell Lowell presents perhaps the most rounded example of American training and culture. He is at the same time distinguished as a scholar, and as a man of public affairs. While he has profited by the literatures of all nations, he has been the disciple of no one literary master, but has brought an art of his own to the creation of works that strikingly bear the impress of the national spirit and genius.
The subject of this sketch is descended from a line of Puritan ancestors running back to the early days of Massachusetts history. In every generation the Lowell family has produced men of solid, high-minded character; and the father of our poet was Dr. Charles Lowell, a distinguished divine. His mother, Harriet Spencer, belonged to a Scotch family settled in New Hampshire, and it is from her that James Russell inherits his poetic gift. We are told that her memory was a storehouse of minstrelsy and romance, which “she sung over the cradles of her children, and repeated in their early school-days, until poetic lore and feeling were as natural to them as the bodily senses."
James Russell Lowell was born Feb. 22, 1819, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a spacious three-story wooden house known as Elmwood. It is surrounded by ample grounds, one boundary of which touches on the beautiful Mount Auburn Cemetery, while a stone thrown from a sling would reach the home of Longfellow. A noble grove in which are many fine English elms gives the name to the residence. It may be noted as an interesting fact, and an uncommon one in this country, that except during his visits abroad the poet has always lived in the house in which he was born.
After the ordinary years of schooling the lad entered Harvard College in his sixteenth year, and was graduated in 1838. It is said that he did not take high rank in scholarship; and he has himself confessed that he read almost every thing — except the prescribed textbooks. However, his multifarious reading of travels, plays, and poems stored his mind, and fed his imagination; and “learning, in its higher sense, came later." After leaving college, Lowell went through the Law School, and in 1840 opened an office in Boston; but it does not appear that he ever seriously engaged in the practice of law.
Our poet's first literary venture was a small volume of poems entitled “A Year's Life," published a little before his twenty-second birthday. Though most of the pieces have been set aside by Lowell's severer judgment, some of them show intimations of the genius that was to shine out clearly in after-days. About three years later appeared another volume of poems that showed a much higher order of power. It contained such poems as “The Legends of Brittany,” “ The Heritage,” “A Parable," and other pieces which indicated that Lowell's mind was laboring with large and fundamental problems. It was at this time also that he began to take a warm interest in the various reform
movements, and especially in the cause of anti-slavery, to which he brought the support of the keen wit and telling satire of the Biglow Papers.
Mr. Lowell was married in 1844 to Miss Maria White of Watertown, a lovely and accomplished woman, and a writer of sweet and beautiful verse; but the lady was of a delicate constitution, and died in 1853.
Lowell's success in the comic vein, so richly opened up in the Biglow Papers, did not divert him from serious composition; and his next effort, The Vision of Sir Launfal, was an outburst of high, impassioned song. The same lofty strain was continued in the noble poem entitled The Present Crisis.
Mr. Lowell's next venture was again in the field of satire,-"A Fable for the Critics,"
“A Glance at a Few of our Literary Progenies,
Though the author may not always do full justice to his contemporaries, the Fable is on the whole remarkable for its discriminating estimates of the literary men passed under review.
In the summer of 1854, Professor Longfellow resigned the chair of modern languages and belles-lettres in Harvard College; and Lowell was appointed in his place, with leave of absence for two years. These years he passed in Europe, pursuing his studies, and in the spring of 1857 returned, and began his lectures. It is said that he was extremely popular with his classes, and his old students always speak of him in terms of affection and admiration.
1 Mrs. Malaprop is a character in Sheridan's comedy of The Rivals, noted for her blunders in the use of words. In the above couplet the mala propriateness is of course the blundering use of "progenies" for prodigies.
In this same year 1857 occurred two other important events in the life of our author, - his second marriage, and his assumption of the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly, started in November of that year. Under his editorship, which was continued till 1862, the Atlantic gave a marked stimulus to the literary taste and culture of the country. Lowell also wrote frequently for Putnam's Monthly, and for a time was editor of the North American Review. His essays in these periodicals have been collected in three volumes.
The outbreak of the civil war again drew Lowell into political poetry. Recurring to the form of the Biglow Papers, in which he had ridiculed the Mexican war, he made use of the same characters, the same dialect, and the same stinging satire, to deliver himself in regard to secession. His chief works since the war are the collection of poems entitled “ Under the Willows," published in 1869; and a noble poem in blank-verse, called The Cathedral, published in the same year.
During several years (1873–1885) Mr. Lowell was in the diplomatic service of the United States, — first as minister to Spain, and afterwards as minister to England. From the latter mission he was recalled in 1885, during which year Mrs. Lowell died in London.
Lowell has written in many moods," from grave to gay, from lively to severe," and in all with equal excellence. His astonishing versatility is in fact his
most obvious characteristic, - a characteristic aptly delineated by his friend and biographer Underwood:
"It is common, in speaking of authors who have excelled in various styles of writing, to call them versatile. But what adjective will convey an idea of the many-sidedness of Lowell? When we read the tender story of The First Snoufall, the wise lessons of Ambrose, the prophetic. strains of The Present Crisis and of Villa Franca, the wit and shrewdness of Hosea Biglow, the delicious humor of the garrulous Parson, the delicate beauty of Sir Launfal, the grandeur of the Commemoration Ode, the solemn splendor of The Cathedral, what can we do but wonder at the imaginative power that takes on these various shapes, and moves in such diverse ways to touch our souls in every part? When, in addition, we consider his vigorous, learned, and glowing prose essays, full of color like fresh studies from the fields, full of wit that not only sparkles in epigram but pervades and lightens the whole, and full of an elastic spirit such as belongs to immortal youth, we find enough to give him an enduring fame if he had never written a line of verse.
In person Lowell is of medium height, but sinewy and active. His movements indicate what athletes call “staying power,” and he is a sturdy and enthusiastic pedestrian. His eyes, mottled gray and brown, are strongly indicative of his moods: “when fixed upon study, or while listening to serious discourse, they are grave and penetrating; in ordinary conversation they are bright and cheery; in moments of excitement they have wonderful luster.” Nothing could be finer than his facial expression while telling a story or