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The poet who can honestly say this of himself deserves all possible credit as a man with an intention which may or may not be a genuine mission. But we have to appraise him-as he himself here implies--by his available poetic equipment, and not by his aspirations; and as such we must say that Mr. Lowell, in his career as a serious poet, has only occasionally risen to the level of excellence, and has mostly to be ranked among the men of elegant, high-toned, and refined thought who compose verse adequately expressive of their aims, and marked with many of the minor—that is, of the teachable or acquirable-poetic graces. His Ode (so entitled), in its third section, and in some degree his Incident in a Railroad Car, show that he would wish the typical American poet to be something beyond this—and indeed so should we.
We now turn to Mr. Lowell as a humorous poet. In this character he takes a very different and a far higher rank. His humorous poems are chiefly the Fable for Critics and the Biglow Papers, first and second series. Of these three works the most important beyond all comparison is the first series of the Biglow Papers, which fairly attains to the heroic standard in its own wildly grotesque and irresistibly laughtermoving way. It is not an exaggeration to say that no poetic work of the same kind was ever better done. Mr. Lowell's central aim in this monumental performance (for the Comic Muse may have her monuments as well as the Tragic or Epic) is, as we have seen, exceedingly serious—to deprecate and denounce an unrighteous war, and to brand the system of slavery, of which that war was a natural outcome: but in the carrying out of his purpose he divests himself of the externals of gravity, and lashes out on all sides in the most freakish, fantastic, and boisterous humour, always at the same time preserving the coolness of his head and thecertainty of his muscle. He hits the hardest of strokes ; and knows how to plant them on that part of the hide of his adversary which shall make the latter most ludicrous in the eyes of the by-standers, and shall wring from him the wryest faces and most uncouth ejaculations. Tartness and unexpectedness of phrase are among Mr. Lowell's happiest resources of detail ; but these would not tell out as they do if it were not for the essential rightness and toughness of his feeling, and his exceeding quickness of perception and of fancy. It has been said that the Biglow Papers were the first poems in which the dialect of New England-or Yankee dialect as we call it —was used for the purposes of verse. This may perhaps not be literally correct; but certain it is that these poems distance and supersede any which may have preceded them, and cast a long shadow, as from the mountain-tops of humour, over all subsequent attempts in the same line. The three chier personages of the series-Hosea Biglow, the Reverend Homer Wilbur, and Birdofredum Sawin-are all equally good in their way, and make up an unsurpassable trine for the purposes of the satirist. Many phrases in the Biglow Papers seem destined to a perennial vitality; and some of the situations are as rich and racy as the phrases. In fact, Mr Lowell has in this work performed a solid, and in its way an unequalled, service to his nation, and has, in the same act, enrolled himself among the absolutely successful humourists of the world.
Much less is to be said in praise of the second series of the Biglow Papers, relating to the American War of Secession : this, like almost all continuations or afterthoughts, appears in comparison to be a level and uninspired performance-a prepense working out of a vein which was inexhaustille only so lang as it was thoroughly spontaneous. Not indeed but that this second series is also, on its own showing, excellent. Had it stood by itself, it would not have missed achieving a true succès d'estime, and something even beyond that: but, comin where it does, we feel that it neither reaches the standard of its precursor, nor was strictly bound to put in an appearance for its own sake.
The Fable for Critics partakes of two qualities : that of the literary exercitation, and that of the humorous invention. From either point of view it is exceptionally good; and, if no Biglow Papers had succeeded the Fable, it would have availed to give its author a very distinguished place among poetical artificers of the comic. In mastery of Hudibrastic rhyme it need shrink from no comparison, whether with the older or with the more recent adepts in this form of composition; and its critical dexterity is not the less sound for being playfully expressed. We should indeed not conclude without observing that Mr Lowell has shown in the general course of his career as a critic—as traceable in his prose works--a large amount of varied and easily-applied knowledge, and a keen and solid, though certainly not in our regard an infallible, judgment.
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.
GONE, gone from us ! and shall we see
The stars of those two gentle eyes
The tongue that scarce had learned to claim
Or hushing to a smile
How peacefully they rest,
As the airy gossamere,
He did but float a little way