Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Public Domain Books


The Lowell family of Boston crossed over from England towards the middle of the seventeenth century. One of their number afterwards founded the city of Lowell, by establishing manufactures on the Merrimac River, late in the eighteenth century; and in more recent times two members of the family have held the position of judge in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. They are a family of refined intellectual tastes, as well as of good business and professional ability, but of a retiring disposition and not often conspicuous in public life,—a family of general good qualities, nicely balanced between liberal and conservative, and with a poetic vein running through it for the past hundred years or more. In the Class of 1867 there was an Edward J. Lowell who was chosen class odist, and who wrote poetry nearly, if not quite, as good as that of his distinguished relative at the same period of life.

James Russell Lowell was born at Elmwood, as it is now called, on Washington’s birthday in 1819,—as if to make a good staunch patriot of him; and, what is even more exceptional in American life, he lived and died in the same house in which he was born. It was not such a house as the Craigie mansion, but still spacious and dignified, and denoted very fair prosperity for those times.

Elmwood itself extends for some thirty rods on Brattle Street, but the entrance to the house is on a cross-road which runs down to the marshes. Beyond Elmwood there is a stonecutter’s establishment, and next to that Mount Auburn Cemetery, which, however, was a fine piece of woodland in Lowell’s youth, called Sweet Auburn by the Harvard students, much frequented by love-sick swains and strolling parties of youths and maidens.

The Lowell residence was well into the country at that time. There were few houses near it, and Boston could only be reached by a long detour in a stage; so that an expedition to the city exhausted the better part of a day. It was practically further in the country than Concord is at present; and it was here that Lowell enjoyed that repose of mind which is essential to vigorous mental development, and could find such interests in external nature as the poet requires for the embellishment of his verse.

He went to college at the age of fifteen, two years older than Edward Everett, but sufficiently young to prove himself a precocious student. Cambridge boys of good families have always been noted at Harvard for their gentlemanly deportment. Besides this, Lowell had an immense fund of wit and good spirits, and the two together served to make him very popular—perhaps too much so for his immediate good. His father had great hopes of his promising son,—that he would prove a fine scholar and take a prominent part in the commencement exercises. He even offered the boy a reward of two hundred dollars in case this should happen; but the attractions of student and social life proved too strong for James. He was quick at languages, but slow in mathematics, and as for Butler’s analogy he cannot be blamed for the aversion with which he regarded it. He writes a letter in which he confesses to peeping over the professor’s shoulder to see what marks have been given for his recitations, so that his father’s exhortation would seem at one time to have been seriously felt by him; but the effort did not last long, and we find him repeatedly reprimanded for neglect of college duties.

He did not live the life of a roaring blade, but more like the humming- bird that darts from one plant to another, and gathers sweetness from every flower in the garden. Finally he was rusticated, just after he had been elected poet of his class, with directions not to return until commencement. We recognize the Puritanic severity of President Quincy in this sentence, which robbed young Lowell of the pleasantest term of college life, as well as the honor of appearing on the stage on Class Day. That his poem should have been read by another to the assembled families of his classmates, served to make his absence more conspicuous. Nor can we discover any sufficient reason for such hard statement.

At the same age that Longfellow was writing for the United States Literary Gazette, Lowell was scribbling verses for an undergraduates’ periodical called Harvardiana. They were not very serious productions, and might all be included under the head of bric-a-brac; but there was a-plenty of them. While Longfellow’s verse at nineteen was remarkable for its perfection of form, Lowell’s suffered chiefly from a lack of this. He had an idea that poetry ought to be an inspiration of the moment; a good foundation to begin with, but which he found afterwards it was necessary to modify.

In the preface to one of his Biglow Papers he speaks of his life in Concord as being

  “As lazy as the bream
  Which only thinks to head up stream.”

The men whom he chiefly associated with there were named Barziliai and Ebenezer, and the hoar frost of the Concord meadows would seem to have had a chilling effect on Lowell’s naturally tolerant and amiable disposition. He was not attracted by Emerson at this time, but, on the contrary, would seem to have felt an aversion to him. The following lines in his class poem could not have referred to anyone else:

  “Woe for Religion, too, when men who claim
  To place a ’Reverend’ before their name
  Ascend the Lord’s own holy place to preach
  In strains that Kneeland had been proud to reach;
  And which, if measured by Judge Thatcher’s scale,
  Had doomed their author to the county jail!
  Alas that Christian ministers should dare
  To preach the views of Gibbon and Voltaire!”

To confound the strong spiritual assertion of Emerson with the purely negative attitude of the French satirist was a common mistake in those days, and the Lowell of 1838 needs small excuse for it. He must have been in a biting humor at this time, for there is a cut all round in his class poem, although it is the most vigorous and highly-finished production of his academic years.

After college came the law, in which he succeeded as well as youthful attorneys commonly do; and at the age of twenty-five he entered into the holy bonds of matrimony.

The union of James Russell Lowell to Maria White, of Watertown, was the most poetic marriage of the nineteenth century, and can only be compared to that of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Miss White was herself a poetess, and full of poetical impulse to the brim. Maria would seem to have been born in the White family as Albinos appear in Africa,—for the sake of contrast. She shone like a single star in a cloudy sky,—a pale, slender, graceful girl, with eyes, to use Herrick’s expression, “like a crystal glasse.” A child was born where she did not belong, and Lowell was the chivalrous knight who rescued her.

It must have been Maria White who made an Emersonian of him. Margaret Fuller had stirred up the intellectual life of New England women to a degree never known before or since, and Miss White was one of those who came within the scope of her influence. [Footnote: Lowell himself speaks of her as being “considered transcendental."] She studied German, and translated poems from Uhland, who might be called the German Longfellow. Certain it is that from the time of their marriage his opinions not only changed from what they had been previously, but his ideas of poetry, philosophy, and religion became more consistent and clearly defined. The path that she pointed out to him, or perhaps which they discovered together, was the one that he followed all through life; so that in one of his later poems, he said, half seriously, that he was ready to adopt Emerson’s creed if anyone could tell him just what it was.

The life they lived together was a poem in itself, and reminds one of Goethe’s saying, that “he who is sufficiently provided for within has need of little from without.” They were poor in worldly goods, but rich in affection, in fine thoughts, and courageous endeavor. It is said that when they were married Lowell had but five hundred dollars of his own. They went to New York and Philadelphia, and soon discovering that they had spent more than half of it, they concluded to return home.

The next ten years of Lowell’s life might be called the making of the man. He worked hard and lived economically; earning what he could by the law, and what he could not by magazine writing, which paid poorly enough. Publishers had not then discovered that what the general public desires is not literature, but information on current topics, and this is the last thing which the true man of letters is able to provide. A magazine article, or a campaign biography of General Grant, could be written in a few weeks, but a solid historical biography of him, with a critical examination of his campaigns, has not yet been written, and perhaps never will be. A literary venture of Lowell and his friends in 1843, to found a first-rate literary magazine, proved a failure; and it is to be feared that he lost money by it. [Footnote: See Scudder’s Life of Lowell, iii. 109.]

However the world might use him he was sure of comfort and happiness at his own fireside, where he read Shelley, and Keats, and Lessing, while Mrs. Lowell studied upon her German translations. The sympathy of a true- hearted woman is always valuable, even when she does not quite understand the grievance in question, but the sympathy that Maria Lowell could give her husband was of a rare sort. She could sympathize with him wholly in heart and intellect. She encouraged him to fresh endeavors and continual improvement. Thus he went on year by year broadening his mind, strengthening his faculties, and improving his reputation. The days of frolicsome gaiety were over. He now lived in a more serious vein, and felt a deeper, more satisfying happiness. It was much more the ideal life of a poet than that of Thoreau, paddling up and down Concord River in search of the inspiration which only comes when we do not think of it.

It may be suspected that he read more literature than law during these years, and we notice that he did not go, like Emerson, to the great fountain-heads of poetry,—to Homer or Dante, Shakespeare or Goethe,—but courted the muse rather among such tributaries as Virgil, Moliere, Chaucer, Keats, and Lessing. It may have been better for him that he began in this manner; but a remark that Scudder attributes to him in regard to Lessing gives us an insight into the deeper mechanism of his mind. “Shelley’s poetry,” he said, “was like the transient radiance of St. Elmo’s fire, but Lessing was wholly a poet.” This is exactly the opposite of the view he held during his college life, for Lessing worked in a methodical and painstaking manner and finished what he wrote with the greatest care.

More than this, Lessing was as Lowell realized afterwards, too critical and polemical to be wholly a poet. His “Emilia Galotti” still holds a high position on the German stage and has fine poetic qualities, but it is written in prose. His “Nathan the Wise” was written in verse, but did not prove a success as a drama. In one he attacked the tyranny of the German petty princes, and in the other the intolerance of the Established Church. We may assume that is the reason why Lowell admired them; but Lowell was also too critical and polemic to be wholly a poet,—except on certain occasions. In 1847 he published the “Fable for Critics,” the keenest piece of poetical satire since Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,"—keen and even saucy, but perfectly good-humored. About the same time he commenced his “Biglow Papers,” which did not wholly cease until 1866, and were the most incisive and aggressive anti-slavery literature of that period. Soon afterwards he wrote “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” which has become the most widely known of all his poems, and which contains passages of the purest a priori verse. Goethe, who exercised so powerful an influence on Emerson, does not appear to have interested Lowell at all.

The most plaintive of Beethoven scherzos,—that in the Moonlight Sonata, —says as if it were spoken in words:

  “Once we were happy, now I am forlorn;
  Fortune has darkened, and happiness gone.”

Lowell’s poetic marriage did not last quite ten years. Maria White was always frail and delicate, and she became more so continually. Longfellow’s clear foresight noticed the danger she was in years before her death, which took place in the autumn of 1853. She left one child, Mabel Lowell, slender and pale like herself, and with poetical lines in her face, too, but fortunately endowed with her father’s good constitution. Only ten years! But such ten years, worth ten centuries of the life of a girl of fashion, who thinks she is happy because she has everything she wants. If the truth were known we might find that in the twilight of his life Lowell thought more of these ten years with Maria White than of the six years when he was Ambassador to England,—with twenty-nine dinner-parties in the month of June.

What would poets do without war? The Trojan war, or some similar conflict, served as the ground-work of Homer’s mighty epic; Virgil followed in similar lines; Dante would never have been famous but for the Guelph and Ghibeline struggle. Shakespeare’s plays are full of war and fighting; and the wars of Napoleon stimulated Byron, Schiller, and Goethe to the best efforts of their lives. In dealing with men like Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell, who were the intellectual leaders of their time, it is impossible to escape their influence in the anti-slavery movement, and its influence upon them, unpopular as that subject is at present. That was the heroic age of American history, and the truth concerning it has not yet been written. It was as heroic to the South as to the North, for, as Sumner said, the slaveholders would never have made their desperate attack on the Government of this country if they had not been themselves the slaves of their own social organization.

It was the solution of a great historical problem, like that of Constitutional Government versus the Stuarts, and it ought to be treated from a national and not a sectional stand-point.

The live men of that time became abolitionists as inevitably as their forefathers became supporters of the Declaration of Independence. If Webster and Everett had been born twenty years later, they must needs have become anti-slavery, too. Those of Lowell’s friends, like George S. Hillard and George B. Loring, who for social or political reasons took the opposite side, afterwards found themselves left in the lurch by an adverse public opinion.

It was the Mexican war that first aroused Lowell to the seriousness of the extension of slavery, and it was meeting a recruiting officer in the streets of Boston, “covered all over with brass let alone that which nature had set on his countenance,” which inspired his writing the first of the “Biglow Papers.” They were hastily and carelessly written, and Lowell himself held them in slight estimation as literature; but they became immediately popular, as no poetry had that he had published previously. Their freshness and directness appealed to the manliness and good sense of the average New Englander, and the whole community responded to them with repeated applause. There is, after all, much poetry in the Biglow Papers, the more genuine because unintentional; but they are full of the keenest wit and a proverbial philosophy which, if less profound than Emerson’s, is more capable of a practical application.

The vernacular in which they are written must have been learned at Concord,—perhaps on the front stoop of the Middlesex Hotel,—while Lowell was listening to the pithy conversation of Yankee farmers, not only about their crops and cattle, but also discussing church affairs and politics, local and national. It was the grandfathers of these men who drove the British back from Concord bridge, and it was their sons who fought their way from the Rapidan to Richmond. With the help of country lawyers they sent Sumner and Wilson to the Senate, and knew what they were about when they did this. For wit, humor, and repartee,—and, it may be added, for decent conversation,—there is no class of men like them. Both Lowell and Emerson have testified to their intrinsic worth.

On one occasion a Concord farmer was driving a cow past Sanborn’s school- house, when an impudent boy called out, “The calf always follows the cow.” “Why aren’t you behind here, then?” retorted the man, with a look that went home like the stroke of a cane. If Lowell had been present he would have been delighted.

The Yankee dialect which he makes use of as a vehicle in these verses is not always as clear-cut as it might be. He says, for instance,

  “Pleasure doos make us Yankee kind of winch
  As if it was something paid for by the inch.”

The true New England countryman never flattens a vowel; if he changes it he always makes it sharp. He would be more likely to say: “Pleasure does make us Yankee kind er winch, as if ’twas suthin’ paid for by the inch." There are other instances of similar sort; but, nevertheless, if the primitive Yankee should become extinct, as now seems very probable, Lowell’s masterly portrait of him will remain, and future generations can reconstruct him from it, as Agassiz reconstructed an extinct species of mammal from fossil bones.

Lowell did not join the Free-soilers, who were now bearing the brunt of the anti-slavery conflict, but attached himself to the more aristocratic wing of the old abolitionists, which was led by Edmund Quincy, Maria Chapman, and L. Maria Child. Lowell was far from being a non-resistant. In fact, he might be called a fighting-man, although he disapproved of duelling; and this served to keep him at a distance from Garrison, of whom he wisely remarked that “the nearer public opinion approached to him the further he retreated into the isolation of his own private opinions." He wrote regularly for the Anti-Slavery Standard until 1851, when the death of his father-in-law supplied the long-desired means for a journey to Italy,—more desired perhaps for his wife’s health than for his own gratification. It may be the fault of his biographers, but I cannot discover that Lowell took any share in the opposition to the Fugitive Slave bill, or in the election of Sumner, which was the signal event that followed it. In his whole life Lowell never made the acquaintance of a practical statesman, while Whittier was in constant communication with prominent members of the Free-soil and Republican parties. Sumner went to hear Lowell’s lecture on Milton, and praised it as a work of genius.

I have heard the “Vision of Sir Launfal” spoken of more frequently than any other of Lowell’s poems. Some of the descriptive passages in it would seem to have flowed from his pen as readily as ink from a quill; and there are others which appear to have been evolved with much thought and ingenuity. One cannot help feeling the sudden change from a June morning at Elmwood to a mediaeval castle in Europe as somewhat abrupt; but when we think of it subjectively as a poetic vision which came to Lowell himself seated on his own door-step, this disillusion vanishes, and we sympathize heartily with the writer. There is no place in the world where June seems so beautiful as in New England, on account of the dismal, cutthroat weather in the months that precede it. Perhaps it is so in reality; for what nature makes us suffer from at one time she commonly atones for it another.

The “Fable for Critics” is written in an easy, nonchalant manner, which helps to mitigate its severity. Thoreau could not have liked very well being called an imitator of Emerson; but the wit of it is inimitable. “T. never purloins the apples from Emerson’s trees; it is only the windfalls that he carries off and passes for his own fruit.” Emerson remarked on this, that Thoreau was sufficiently original in his own way; and he always spoke of Lowell in a friendly and appreciative manner. The whole poem is filled with such homely comparisons, which hit the nail exactly on the head. The most subtle piece of analysis, however, is Lowell’s comparison between Emerson and Carlyle:

  “There are persons, mole-blind to the soul’s make and style,
  Who insist on a likeness ’twixt him and Carlyle;
  To compare him with Plato would be vastly fairer,
  Carlyle’s the more burly, but E. is the rarer;
  He sees fewer objects, but clearlier, truelier,
  If C.’s as original, E.’s more peculiar;
  That he’s more of a man you might say of the one,
  Of the other he’s more of an Emerson;
  C.’s the Titan, as shaggy of mind as of limb,—
  E. the clear-eyed Olympian, rapid and slim;
  The one’s two-thirds Norseman, the other half Greek,
  Where the one’s most abounding, the other’s to seek.”

It was the fashion in England at that time to disparage Emerson as an imitator of Carlyle; and this was Lowell’s reply to it.

He told Professor Hedge an amusing incident that happened during his first visit to Rome. Lowell and his wife took lodgings with a respectable elderly Italian woman whose husband was in a sickly condition. One morning she met him in the passageway with tearful eyes and said: “Un gran’ disgrazie happened last night,—my poor husband went to heaven.” Lowell wondered why there was a pope in Rome if going to heaven was considered a disgrace there.

Longfellow’s resignation of his professorship at Harvard was a rare piece of good fortune for Lowell; for it was the only position of the kind that he could have obtained there or anywhere else. In fact, it was a question whether the appointment would be confirmed on account of his transcendental tendencies, and his connection with the Anti-slavery Standard; but Longfellow threw the whole weight of his influence in Lowell’s favor, and this would seem to have decided it. From this time till 1873 Lowell was more of a prose-writer than a poet, and his essays on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and other English poets are the best of their kind,—not brilliant, but appreciative, penetrating, and well- considered. Wasson said of him that no other critic in the English tongue came so near to expressing the inexpressible as Lowell.

One could wish that his studies in Shakespeare had been more extended. He treats the subject as if he felt it was too great for him; but he was the first to take notice that the play of Richard III. indicated in its main extent a different hand, and it is now generally admitted to have been the work of Fletcher. With the keenest insight he noticed that the magician Prospero was an impersonation of Shakespeare himself; and George Brandes, the most thoroughgoing of Shakespearean scholars, afterwards came to the same conclusion.

Lowell was the gentlemanly instructor. He appealed to the gentleman in the students who sat before him, and he rarely appealed in vain. Like Longfellow he carried an atmosphere of politeness about him, which was sufficient to protect him from everything rude and common. He would say to his class in Italian: “I shall not mark you if you are tardy, but I hope you will all be here on time.” This was a safer procedure with a small division of Juniors than it would have been with a large division of Freshmen or Sophomores. Neither did he take much personal interest in his classes. He always invited them to an entertainment at Elmwood in June, but two or three years later he could not remember their faces unless they remained in or about Cambridge. In regard to his efficiency as an instructor and lecturer there was a difference of opinion.

He attended the meetings of the college faculty quite regularly considering the distance of Elmwood from the college grounds; and he was once heard to say that there seemed to be more bad weather on Monday nights than at any other time in the week. His presence might have been dispensed with for the most part. He rarely spoke in conclave, and when the question came up in regard to the suspension of students he often declined to vote. His decorum was perfect, but now and then a humorous look could be observed in his eyes, and it may be suspected that he had a quiet laugh all to himself on the way homeward. On one occasion, before the meeting had been called to order, Professor Cutler said to him: “Do you not dread B.’s forthcoming translation of the Iliad?” But Lowell, seeing that he was watched, replied: “Oh, no, not at all,” at the same time nodding to Cutler with his brows.

He was always well-dressed, and pretty close to the conventional in his ways,—noted specially for the nicety of his gloves. This was a kind of safeguard to him. Insidious persons suggested that he perfumed his beard, but I do not believe it. He does not appear to have been fond of walking, for we never met him in any part of Cambridge except on the direct road from Elmwood to the college gate. He had a characteristic gait of his own—walking slowly in rather a dreamy manner, and keeping time to the movement of his feet with his arms and shoulders. He was not, however, lost in contemplation, for he often scrutinized those who passed him as closely as a portrait painter might.

If one could meet Lowell in a fairly empty horse-car, he would be quite sociable and entertaining; but if the horse-car filled up, he would become reticent again. He clung to his old friends, his classmates, and others with whom he had grown up, and did not easily make new ones. The modesty of his ambition is conspicuous in the fact that he was quite satisfied with the small salary paid him by the college,—at first only twelve hundred dollars. He evidently did not care for luxury.

Lowell’s second marriage was as simple and inevitable as the first. Miss Dunlap was not an ordinary housekeeper, but the sister of one of Maria Lowell’s most intimate friends, and she was such a pleasant, attractive lady that the wonder is rather he should have waited four years before concluding to offer himself. She was compared to the Greek bust called Clyte, because her hair grew so low down upon her forehead, and this was considered an additional charm.

Louisa Alcott had a story that at first she refused Lowell’s offer on account of what people might say; and that then he composed a poem answering her objections in the form of an allegory, and that this finally convinced her. If he had considered material interests he would have married differently.

In November, 1857, the firm of Phillips & Sampson issued the first number of the Atlantic Monthly in the cause of high-minded literature,—a cause which ultimately proved to be their ruin. Lowell accepted the position of editor, and such a periodical as it proved to be under his guidance could not have been found in England, and perhaps not in the whole of Europe; but it could not be made to pay, and two years later Phillips & Sampson failed,—partly on that account, and partially the victims of a piratical opposition.

Lowell published Emerson’s “Brahma” in spite of the shallow ridicule with which he foresaw it would be greeted; but when Emerson sent him his “Song of Nature” he returned it on account of the single stanza:

  “One in a Judaean manger,
  And one by Avon stream,
  One over against the mouths of Nile,
  And one in the Academe.”

which he declared was more than the Atlantic could be held responsible for. Emerson, who really knew little as to what the public thought of him, was for once indignant. He said: “I did not know who had constituted Mr. Lowell my censor, and I carried the verses to Miss Caroline Hoar, who read them and said, that she considered those four lines the best in the piece.” He permitted Lowell, however, to publish the poem without them, as may be seen by examining the pages of the Atlantic, and afterwards published the original copy in his “May Day.”

Lowell’s editorship of the North American Review, which followed after this, was not so successful. It was chiefly a political magazine at that time, and to understand politics in a large way—that is, sufficiently to write on the subject—one must not only be a close observer of public affairs, but also a profound student of history; and Lowell was neither. He was not acquainted with prominent men in public life, and depended too much on information derived at dinner-parties, or similar occasions. During the war period Sumner, Wilson, and Andrew were almost omnipotent in Massachusetts, for the three worked together in a common cause; but power always engenders envy and so an inside opposition grew up within the Republican party to which Lowell lent his assistance without being aware of its true character. His articles in the North American on public affairs were severely criticised by Andrew and Wilson, while Frank W. Bird frankly called them “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” It was certainly a doubtful course to pursue at such a critical juncture—when all patriots should have been united—and it offended a good many Republicans without conciliating the opposition. Lowell’s successor in this editorial chair was an old Webster Whig who had become a Democrat.

In 1873 he resigned his professorship and went to Italy for a holiday. He said to some friends whom he met in Florence: “I am tired of being called Professor Lowell, and I want to be plain Mr. Lowell again. Eliot wanted to keep my name on the catalogue for the honor of the university, but I did not like the idea.” This was true republicanism and worthy of a poet.

Lowell was little known on the continent, and he travelled in a quiet, unostentatious manner. He went to dine with his old friends, but avoided introductions, and remained at Florence nearly two months after other Americans had departed for Rome. The reason he alleged for this was that Rome was a mouldy place and the ruins made him feel melancholy; also, because he preferred oil paintings to frescos. He had just come from Venice, and spoke with enthusiasm of the mighty works of Tintoretto,— especially his small painting of the Visitation, above the landing of the staircase in the Scuola of San Rocco. He did not like the easel-paintings of Raphael on account of their hard outlines; those in the Vatican did him better justice. This idea he may have derived from William Morris Hunt, the Boston portrait-painter. He considered the action of the Niobe group too strenuous to be represented in marble.

Miss Mary Felton liked the Niobe statues; so Lowell said, “Now come back with me, and I will sit on you.” Accordingly we all returned to the Niobe hall, where Lowell lectured us on the statues without, however, entirely convincing Miss Felton. Then we went to the hall in the Uffizi Palace, which is called the Tribune. Mrs. Lowell had never been in the Tribune, where the Venus de’ Medici is enshrined; so her husband opened the door wide and said, “Now go in"—as if he were opening the gates of Paradise.

At Bologna he wished to make an excursion into the mountains, but the 100 veturino charged about twice the usual price, and though the man afterwards reduced his demand to a reasonable figure Lowell would not go with him at all, and told him that such practices made Americans dislike the Italian people. It is to be feared that a strange Italian might fare just as badly in America.

Readers of Lowell’s “Fireside Travels” will have noticed that the first of them is addressed to the “Edelmann Storg” in Rome. The true translation of this expression is “Nobleman Story;” that is, William W. Story, the sculptor, who modelled the statue of Edward Everett in the Boston public garden. Lowell’s biographer, however, does not appear to have been aware of the full significance of this paraphrase of Story’s name.

When King Bomba II. was expelled from Naples by Garibaldi he retired to Rome with his private possessions, including a large number of oil paintings. Wishing to dispose of some of these, and being aware that Americans paid good prices, he applied to William Story to transact the business for him. This the sculptor did in a satisfactory manner; whereupon King Bomba, instead of rewarding Story with a cheque, conferred on him a patent of nobility. It seems equally strange that Story should have accepted such a dubious honor, and that Lowell should recognize it.

On his return to Cambridge the following year, Lowell found himself a grandfather, his daughter having married a gentleman farmer in Worcester county. He was greatly delighted, and wrote to E. L. Godkin, editor of The Nation:

“If you wish to taste the real bouquet of life, I advise you to procure yourself a grandson, whether by adoption or theft.... Get one, and the Nation will no longer offend anybody.” [Footnote: Scudder’s biography, ii., 186.]

This was a pretty broad hint, but E. L. Godkin was not the man to pay much attention to the advice of Lowell or anybody. In fact, he seems to have won Lowell over after this to his own way of thinking.

Lowell certainly became more conservative with age. He did not support the movement for negro citizenship, and had separated himself in a manner from the other New England poets. After 1872 Longfellow saw little of him, except on state occasions. In 1876 he made a political address that showed that if he had not already gone over to the Democratic party he was very close upon the line. Charles Francis Adams had already gone over to Tilden, and had carried the North American Review with him. It would not do to lose Lowell also, so the Republican leaders hit upon the shrewd device of nominating him as a presidential elector, an honor which he could not very well decline. When the disputed election of Hayes and Tilden came, Godkin proposed that, in order to prevent “Mexicanizing the government,” one of the Hayes electors should cast his vote for General Bristow, which would throw the election of President into the House of Representatives; and he endeavored to persuade Lowell to do this. Lowell went so far as to take legal advice on the subject, but his counsellor informed him that since the election of John Quincy Adams it had been virtually decided that an elector must cast his vote according to the ticket on which he was chosen. When the electors met at the Parker House in January, 1877, Lowell deposited his ballot for Hayes and Wheeler, and the slight applause that followed showed that his colleagues were conscious of the position he had assumed.

When President Hayes appointed Lowell to be Minister to Spain, Lowell remarked that he did not see why it should have come to him. It really came to him through his friend E. E. Hoar, of Concord, who was brother- in-law to Secretary Evarts. His friends wondered that he should accept the position, but the truth was that Lowell at this time was comparatively poor. His taxes had increased, and his income had diminished. He complained to C. P. Cranch that the whole profit from the sale of his books during the preceding year was less than a hundred dollars, and he thought there ought to be a law for the protection of authors. The real trouble was hard times.

He did not like Madrid, and at the end of a year wrote that it seemed impossible for him to endure the life there any longer. Evarts gave him a vacation, and at the end of the second year Hayes promoted him to the Court of St. James.

Such an appointment would have been dangerous enough in 1861, but at the time it was made the relations between the United States and Great Britain were sufficiently peaceable to warrant it. Lowell represented his country in a highly creditable manner. The only difficulty he experienced was with the Fenian agitation, and he managed that with such diplomatic tact that no one has yet been able to discover whether he was in favor of home rule for Ireland or not.

He made a number of excellent addresses in England, besides a multitude of after-dinner speeches. Perhaps the best of them was his address at the Coleridge celebration, in which he levelled an attack on the English canonization of what they call “common sense,” but which is really a new name for dogmatism. Lowell, if not a transcendentalist, was always an idealist, and he knew that ideality was as necessary to Cromwell and Canning as it was to Shakespeare and Scott.

He was certainly more popular in England than he had ever been in America, and he openly admitted that he disliked to resign his position. Professor Child said, in 1882: “Lowell’s conversation is witty, with a basis of literary cramming; and that seems to be what the English like. He went to twenty-nine dinner parties in the month of June, and made a speech at each one of them.”

In the last years of his life he was greatly infested with imitators who, as he said of Emerson in the “Fable for Critics,” stole his fruit and then brought it back to him on their own dishes. Some of them were too influential to be easily disposed of, and others did not know when they were rebuffed. An old man, failing in strength and vigor, he had to endure them as best he could.

The story of Lowell’s visions rests on a single authority, and if there was any truth in it, it seems probable that he would have confided the fact to more intimate friends. There are well-authenticated instances of visions seen by persons in a waking condition—this always happens, for instance, in delirium tremens—but they are sure to indicate nervous derangement, and are commonly followed by death. If there was ever a poet with a sound mind and a sound body, it was James Russell Lowell.

Edwin Arnold considered him the best of American poets, while Matthew Arnold did not like him at all. Emerson, in his last years, preferred him to Longfellow, but it is doubtful if he always did so. The strong point of his poetry is its intelligent manliness,—the absence of affectation and all sentimentality; but it lacks the musical element. He composed neither songs nor ballads,—nothing to match Hiawatha, or Gray’s famous Elegy. America still awaits a poet who shall combine the savoir faire of Lowell with the force of Emerson and the grace and purity of Longfellow.

Emerson had an advantage over his literary contemporaries in the vigorous life he lived. You feel in his writing the energy of necessity. The academic shade is not favorable to the cultivation of genius, and Lowell reclined under it too much. His best work was already performed before he became a professor. What he lacks as a poet, however, he compensates for as a wit. He is the best of American humorists—there are few who will be inclined to dispute that—even though we regret occasional cynicisms, like his jest on Milton’s blindness in “Fireside Travels.”


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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Cambridge Sketches
By Frank Preston Stearns
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