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nothing of this quality, but because of their stately, classical scenery, and the beauty of their composition ; but in his descriptive poetry it is noticeable that the large, solemn, or expansive scenes of nature make no such appeal to his interest as those nearer vistas which come close to human life and connect themselves with the familiar experience of home-keeping wits. His lively paper “ Cambridge Thirty Years Ago " contains many reminiscences of his early life and associations.
Lowell's school days were spent in his own neighborhood. Mr. William Wells, an Englishman and at one time a publisher, opened a classical school in one of the spacious Tory Row houses near Elmwood, and, bringing with him English public school thoroughness and severity, gave the boy a drilling in Latin which his quick appropriation of strong influences turned into a familiar possession, to judge by the ease with which he handled it afterward in mock heroics. Possibly the heavy hand of the schoolmaster, by its repression, gave greater buoyancy to the spirit of the student when the comparative freedom of college followed. Lowell was in his sixteenth year when he entered Harvard College with the class which graduated in 1838. He lived at his father's house, more than a mile away from the college yard ; but this could have been no great privation to him, for he had the freedom of his friends' rooms, and he loved the open air. The Rev. Edward Everett Hale has given a sketch of their common life in college. “He was a little older than I,” he says, “and was one class in advance of me. My older brother, with whom I lived in college, and he were most intimate friends. He had no room within the college walls (he had for a time a room close by on Church Street], and was a great deal with us. The fashion of Cambridge was then literary. Now the fashion of Cambridge runs to social problems, but then we were interested in literature. We read Byron and Shelley and Keats, and we began to read Tennyson and Browning. I first heard of Tennyson from Lowell, who had borrowed from Mr. Emerson the little first volume of Tennyson. We actually passed about Tennyson's poems in manuscript. Carlyle's essays were being printed at the time, and his French Revolution. In such a community — not two hundred and fifty students all told — literary effort was, as I say, the fashion, and literary men, among whom Lowell was recognized from the very first, were special favorites. Indeed, there was that in him which made him a favorite everywhere.”
Lowell was a reader, as so many of his fellows were, and the letters which he wrote shortly after leaving college show how intent he had been on making acquaintance with the best things in literature. He began also to scribble verse, and he wrote both poems and essays for college magazines, and literary societies. His class chose him their poet for Class Day, and he wrote his poem ; but he was careless about conforming to college regulations respecting attendance at morning prayers ; and for this was suspended from college the last term of his last year, and not allowed to come back to deliver his poem. He was sent to Concord for his rustication, and so passed a few weeks of his youth among scenes dear to every lover of American history and letters.
In “ An Indian Summer Reverie " Lowell says:
“Though lightly prized the ribboned parchments three,
Yet collegisse juvat, I am glad
That here what colleging was mine I had, -
Whether or no there had been a reaction from the discipline of school days, it is certain that the independence which characterized Lowell throughout his life found expression in his college days, not in insubordination, hut in a frank pursuit of those courses of study
and lines of reading to which he was led by his own likings and which the tolerable equipment of the college and home library put it in his power to follow.
“ Never,” says Lowell in his essay, “ A Great Public Character," when speaking of college life, “Never were we ourselves so capable of the various great things we have never done ; and however much he may have been generalizing for college youth, he recalled well his own spiritual experience; with an impulse which outwardly was wayward, he obeyed that law of his being which his growing consciousness of intellectual power disclosed to him. In his penetrating discrimination between talent and genius, he says profoundly : “ The man of talents possesses them like so many tools, does his job with them, and there an end; but the man of genius is possessed by it, and it makes him into a book or a life according to its whim. Talent takes the existing moulds and makes its castings, better or worse, of richer or baser metal, according to knack and opportunity ; but genius is always shaping new ones and runs the man in them, so that there is always that human feel in the results which give us a kindred thrill. What it will make, we can only conjecture, contented always with knowing the infinite balance of possibility against which it can draw at pleasure.” His was a singularly self-centred nature, and he was always true to those large ideals which he drew from history and literature ; but so various were his intellectual interests and so abundant his capacities, that the precise direction was uncertain in which his genius would at any time take him.
It is interesting to observe this self-centred nature in its early struggle after equipoise. After his graduation he set about the study of law, and for a short time even was a clerk in a counting-room ; but his bent was strongly toward literature. His vacillation of mind regarding his vocation, his apparent fickleness of purpose, the conflict going on between his nature craving expression and the world with its imperious demands, the stirring within him of large designs, and the happy contentment in the pleasures of the day, all seek outlet in his natural yet uneasy letters. He was finding himself in these early days, as many another young man, and there are glimpses all through Lowell's letters of this restlessness, this subtle sense of one's self which in weaker natures hardens into a mordant self-consciousness. Now and then he turns upon himself in a sort of mingled pride and shame, as if at once aware of his power and angry that he has it not wholly at his beck. But for the most part one is aware of a nature singularly at one with life, and finding its greatest satisfaction in getting at the world through the reflection of the world in literature. No one would deny that Lowell was eminently a man of books, but it would be a wholly inadequate phrase which described him as a bookish man. That he was at home in a library his early letters show ; but they show also how even then he read through his books into life, and interpreted history and literature by means of an innate spiritual faculty which was independent of intellectual authority. It is this criticism at first hand, this swift, direct penetration of the reality, which mark emphatically what I have characterized as Lowell's self-centred nature. He has told us that his brain required a long brooding time ere it could hatch anything. He was speaking of the matter of expression; but the phrase is a fit one for his habitual temper. The superficial charge of indolence could apply only to his apparent disregard of bustling activity. His nature was of the sort that knows the power of stillness, and though he upbraids himself in his letters for his unproductiveness at times, he had plainly the instinct which waits on opportunity. His faculty of observation was very strong, but it was no stronger than his power of assimilation ; and thus it was that when opportunity came he had not hurriedly to adjust himself to the situation.
It was while he was engaged with his books and his friends, professing law but prac
tising literature in the way of poetical and prose contributions to the magazines, that he was roused out of his dreams by the prick of necessity in the sudden loss by his father of much of his property, and by the impulse given to his own moral force by the coming into his life of Maria White. He became engaged to this lady in the fall of 1840, and the next twelve years of his life were profoundly affected by her influence. Herself a poet of delicate power, she brought an intelligent sympathy with his work ; it was, however, her strong moral enthusiasm, her lofty conception of purity and justice, which kindled his spirit and gave force and direction to a character which was ready to respond and yet might otherwise have delayed active expression. They were not married until 1844, but they were not far apart in their homes, and during these years Lowell was making those early ventures in literature, and first raids upon political and moral evil, which foretold the direction of his later work, and gave some hint of its abundance.
In 1841 he collected the poems which he had written and sometimes contributed to periodicals into a volume entitled A Year's Life, and inscribed in a veiled dedication to his future wife. In hopes of bettering his fortune, and in obedience to the instinct which most young men of letters have, he undertook with Robert Carter the publication of a literary journal, The Pioneer, which died under their inexperienced hands with the third number, but in those had printed contributions by Lowell, Hawthorne, Whittier, Story, Poe, and Dr. Parsons, - a group which it would be hard to match in any of the little magazines that hop across the world's path to-day. He began also to turn his studies in dramatic and early poetic literature to account, and, after printing a portion of them in Nathan Hale’s Miscellany, published, in 1844, Conversations on some of the Old Poets. He did not keep this book alive ; but it is interesting as marking the enthusiasm of a young scholar treading a way then almost wholly neglected in America, and indicating a line of thought and study in which he afterwards made most noteworthy venture. In the same year he again collected his poetic work into a volume of Poems. The difference between the two volumes of poems, though separated by three years only, is marked. Few of the verses from A Year's Life are included in the poet's final collection of his writings, few are omitted from Poems. One poem in the earlier volume, Irené, is conspicuous as a poetic portrait of the figure of peace which had come into his somewhat turbulent spiritual life ; but the volume as a whole is characterized by vague sentimentalism and restless beating of half-grown wings. Three years later, some of this same immaturity is discoverable, but along with the poems which wander in somewhat unmeaning ways are those spirited adventures like “ Rhæcus,” “The Shepherd of King Admetus,” and “ Prometheus,” which denote the growing consciousness of positive poetic power, and also those stirring Sonnets to Wendell Phillips and J. R. Giddings, and the lines entitled “ A Glance behind the Curtain," which disclose a new passion leaping up as the champion of truth and righteousness. It is noticeable, too, that in the first volume there is no trace of humor and scarcely any singular felicity of phrase ; in the second, wit and humor begin to play a little on the surface. In Conversations, where the familiar form gives freer scope, there is a gayety of speech which intimates the spontaneity of the man and anticipates the rich fruitage of later years. In all these books, however, there is good evidence of the rapid growth which was taking place in Lowell's intellectual and moral life, a coming to his own which it would take only some strong occasion to make sure.
This occasion was the Mexican War, with the greater contest which flamed up with it over the encroachments of slavery. Lowell and his wife, who brought a fervid antislavery temper as part of her marriage portion, were both contributors to the Liberty Bell,
and Lowell was a frequent contributor to the Antislavery Standard, and was indeed for a while a corresponding editor ; but in June, 1846, there appeared one day in the Boston Courier a letter purporting to be from Mr. Ezekiel Biglow of Jalaam to the Hon. Joseph T. Buckingham, editor of the Boston Courier, enclosing a poem of his son, Mr. Hosea Biglow. It was no new thing to seek to arrest the public attention with the vernacular applied to public affairs. Major Jack Downing and Sam Slick had been notable examples, and they had many imitators; but the reader who laughed over the racy narrative of the unlettered Ezekiel, and then took up Hosea's poem and caught the gust of Yankee wrath and humor blown fresh in his face, knew that he was in with the appearance of something new in American literature. A score of years afterward, when introducing the Second Series of The Biglow Papers, Lowell confessed that when he wrote this letter and poem he had no definite plan, and no intention of ever writing another. It was struck out from him by the revolt of his nature at the iniquity of slavery and the war into which slavery was dragging the nation. But he adds, “The success of my experiment soon began not only to astonish me, but to make me feel the responsibility of knowing that I held in my hand a weapon, instead of the mere fencing stick I had supposed. ... If I put on the cap and bells, and made myself of the court fools of King Demos, it was less to make his Majesty laugh than to win a passage to his royal ears for certain serious things which I had deeply at heart.”
The Biglow Papers not only gave Lowell to himself and opened the flood gates of his patriotism and his noble indignation ; they gave him a public, and thus furnished the complement which every author demands. Very far," he says, in the same Introduction, “ from being a popular author under my own name, so far, indeed, as to be almost unread, I found the verses of my pseudonym copied everywhere ; I saw them pinned up in workshops ; I heard them quoted and their authorship debated.” The force which he displayed in these satires made his book at once a powerful ally of a sentiment which heretofore had been ridiculed ; it turned the tables and put Antislavery, which had been
; fighting sturdily on foot with pikes, into the saddle, and gave it a flashing sabre. For Lowell himself it won an accolade from King Demos. He rose up a knight, and thenceforth possessed a freedom which was a freedom of nature, not a simple badge of service in a single cause. His patriotism and moral fervor found other vents in later life, and he never laid down the sword which he then took up, but it is significant of the stability of his genius that he was not misled by the sudden distinction which came to him into a limitation of his powers. It was shortly after this that he wrote, in one of those poetic absences from his every-day life, which were to overtake him more than once afterward, his Vision of Sir Launfal; and the exuberance of his nature, together with his keen power of criticism, found expression about the same time in his witty Fable for Critics, in which he hit off, with a rough and ready wit, the characteristics of the writers of the day, not forgetting himself in these lines :
There is Lowell, who 's striving Parnassus to climb
This, of course, is but a half serious portrait of himself, and it touches but a single feature. A third volume of Poems appeared in the same year, 1848, as the last named. A
year in Europe, 1851-52, with his wife, whose health was then precarious, stimulated his scholarly interests, and gave substance to his study of Dante and Italian literature. In October, 1853, his wife died; she had borne him four children : the first-born, Blanche, died in infancy, as did the second, Rose; the third, Walter, also died young; the fourth, a daughter, Mrs. Burnett, survived her parents. In 1855 he was chosen successor to Mr. Longfellow as Smith Professor of the French and Spanish Languages and Literatures, and Professor of Belles Lettres in Harvard College. He spent two years in Europe in further preparation for the duties of his office, and in 1857 was again established in Cambridge and installed in his academic chair. He married also at this time his second wife, Miss Frances Dunlap, of Portland, Maine.
Lowell was now in his thirty-ninth year. As a scholar, in his professional work, he had acquired a knowledge of the Romance languages and was an adept in Old French and Provençal poetry ; he had given a course of twelve lectures on English Poetry before the Lowell Institute in Boston which had made a strong impression on the community ; and his work on the series of British Poets in connection with Professor Child, especially his biographical sketch of Keats, had been recognized as of a bigh order. In poetry he had published the volumes already mentioned. In general literature he had printed in magazines the papers which he afterward collected into his volume Fireside Travels. Not long after he entered on his college duties The Atlantic Monthly was started, and the editorship given to him. For the details of the office he had little aptitude, although he looked keenly after nice points of literary finish in the proof-reading; he was relieved of much of the detail by his active assistant, Mr. F. H. Underwood, to whom the inception of the magazine was largely due. But the Atlantic afforded a good outlet for his literary production, and though he held the editorship but a little more than two years he stamped the magazine with the impress of his high ideals in literature and criticism ; his selection of articles was judicious, his own contributions and criticism were full of life, and he was most generous in his critical aid to contributors. In 1862 he was associated with Mr. Charles Eliot Norton in the conduct of The North American Review, and continued in this charge for ten years. Much of his prose was contributed to this periodical.
These twenty years, from 1857 to 1877, were the most productive period of Lowell's literary activity. He was in the maturity of his mental power, he held a convenient position in University life, his home relations were congenial and stimulating, and his collegiate work, as well as his editorial charge successively of the Atlantic and North American, gave him a needed impulse to literary effort. During this period appeared the most of that body of literary history and criticism which marks him as the most distinguished of American critics. Any one reading the titles of the papers which comprise the volumes of his prose writings will readily see how much literature, and especially poetic literature, occupied his attention. Shakespeare, Dryden, Lessing, Rousseau, Dante, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton, Keats, Carlyle, Percival, Thoreau, Swinburne, Chaucer, Emerson, Pope, Gray,— these are the principal subjects of his prose, and the range of topics indicates the catholicity of his taste. These papers are the rich deposit of a mind at once sympathetic and discriminating, capable of enjoying to the full the varied manifestations of life in literature, and combining judicial fairness with keen eritical insight.
While this broad stream of literary criticism was flowing, there was another expression