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James Russell Lowell by By Henry James


After a man's long work is over and the sound of his voice is still, those in whose regard he has held a high place find his image strangely simplified and summarized. The hand of death, in passing over it, has smoothed the folds, has made it more typical and general. The figure retained by the memory is compressed and intensified; accidents have dropped away from it and shades have ceased to count; it stands, sharply, for a few estimated and cherished things, rather than, nebulously, for a swarm of possibilities. We cut the silhouette, in a word, out of the confusion of life, we save and fix the outline, and it is with his eye on this profiled distinction that the critic speaks. It is his function to speak with assurance, when once his impression has become final; and it is in noting this circumstance that I perceive how slenderly prompted I am to deliver myself on such an occasion as a critic. It is not that due conviction is absent; it is only that the function is a cold one. It is not that the final impression is dim; it is only that it is made on a softer part of the spirit than the critical sense. The process is more mystical, the deposited image is insistently personal, the generalizing principle is that of loyalty. I can therefore not pretend to write of James Russell Lowell in the tone of detachment and classification; I can only offer a few anticipatory touches for a portrait that asks for a steadier hand.

It may be professional prejudice, but as the whole colour of his life was literary, so it seems to me that we may see in his high and happy fortune the most substantial honour gathered by the practice of letters from a world preoccupied with other things. It was in looking at him as a man of letters that one got closest to him, and some of his more fanatical friends are not to be deterred from regarding his career as in the last analysis a tribute to the dominion of style. This is the idea that his name most promptly evokes, to my sense; and though it was not by any means the only idea he cherished, the unity of his career is surely to be found in it. He carried style—-the style of literature—-into regions in which we rarely look for it: into politics, of all places in the world, into diplomacy, into stammering civic dinners and ponderous anniversaries, into letters and notes and telegrams, into every turn of the hour—-absolutely into conversation, where indeed it freely disguised itself as intensely colloquial wit. Any friendly estimate of him is foredoomed to savour potently of reminiscence, so that I may mention how vividly I recall the occasion on which he first struck me as completely representative.

The association could only grow, but the essence of it was all there, on the eve of his going as minister to Spain. It was late in the summer of 1877; he spent a few days in London on his way to Madrid, in the hushed grey August, and I remember dining with him at a dim little hotel in Park Street, which I had never entered before and have never entered since, but which, whenever I pass it, seems to look at me with the melancholy of those inanimate things that have participated. That particular evening remained, in my fancy, a kind of bridge between his old bookish and his new worldly life; which however had much more in common than they had in distinction. He turned the pages of the later experience with very much the same contemplative readers sense with which, in his library, be had, for years, smoked the student's pipe over a thousand volumes; the only difference was that a good many of the leaves were still to cut. At any rate, he was enviably gay and amused, and this preliminary hour struck me, literally, as the reward of consistency. It was tinted with the promise of a singularly interesting future, but the saturated American time was all behind it, and what was to come seemed an ideal opportunity for the nourished mind. That the American years had been diluted with several visits to Europe was not a flaw in the harmony, for to recollect certain other foreign occasions—-pleasant Parisian and delightful Italian strolls—-was to remember that if these had been months of absence for him, they were for me, on the wings of his talk, hours of repatriation. This talk was humorously and racily fond, charged with a perfect drollery of reference to the other country (there were always two—-the one we were in and the one we weren't), the details of my too sketchy conception of which, admitted for argument, he showed endless good nature in filling in. It was a joke polished by much use that I was dreadfully at sea about my native land; and it would have been pleasant indeed to know even less than I did, so that I might have learned the whole story from Mr. Lowell's lips.

His America was a country worth hearing about, a magnificent conception, an admirably consistent and lovable object of allegiance. If the sign that, in Europe, one knew him best by was his intense ~national consciousness, one felt that this consciousness could not sit lightly on a man in whom it was the strongest form of piety. Fortunately for him, and for his friends, he was one of the most whimsical, one of the wittiest, of human beings, so that he could play with his patriotism and make it various. All the same, one felt in it, in talk, the depth of passion that hums through much of his finest verse—-almost the only passion that, to my sense, his poetry contains, the accent of chivalry, of the lover, the knight ready to do battle for his mistress. Above all it was a particular allegiance to New England—-a quarter of the earth in respect to which the hand of long habit, of that affection which is usually half convenience, never let go the prime idea, the standard. New England was heroic to him, for he felt in his pulses the whole history of her origines; it was impossible to know him without a sense that he had a rare divination of the hard realities of her past. The Biglow Papers show to what a tune he could play with his patriotism—-all literature contains, I think, no finer sport; but he is serious enough when he speaks of the

—“strange New World, that yit wast never young,

Whose youth, from thee, by gripin' need was wrung,

Brown foundlin' of the woods whose baby-bed,

Was prowled round by the Injun's cracklin' tread,

And who grew'st strong thro' shifts and wants and pains,

Nussed by stern men with empires in their brains.”

He was never at trouble to conceal his respect for such an origin as that, and when he came to Europe in 1877 this sentiment was one of the things he brought with him at the top of his luggage.

One of the others was the extraordinary youthfulness which could make a man considerably younger than himself (so that it was only with the lapse of years that the relation of age settled. upon the right note) constantly forget that he had copious antecedents. In the times when the difference counted for more—-old Cambridge days that seem far away now—-I doubtless thought him more professorial than he felt, but I am sure that in the sequel I never thought him younger. The boy in him was never more articulate than during the last summer that he spent in England, two years before his death. Since the recollection comes of itself, I may mention, as my earliest impression of him, the charm that certain of his Harvard lectures—-on English literature, on Old French—-had for a very immature person, who was supposed to be pursuing, in one of the schools, a very different branch of knowledge, but who on dusky winter afternoons escaped with irresponsible zeal into the glow of Mr. Lowell's learned lamplight, the particular incidence of which, in the small, still lecture-room, and the illumination of his head and hands, I recall with extreme vividness. He talked communicatively of style, and where else, in all the place, was any such talk to be heard? It made a romance of the hour—-it made even a picture of the scene; it was an unforgettable initiation. If he was American enough in Europe, in America he was abundantly European. He was so steeped in history and literature that to some yearning young persons be made the taste of knowledge sweeter, almost, than it was ever to be again. He was redolent, intellectually speaking, of Italy and Spain; he had lived in long intimacy with Dante and Calderon; he embodied, to envious aspirants, the happy intellectual fortune—-independent years in a full library, years of acquisition without haste and without rest, a robust love of study which went sociably arm in arm with a robust love of life. This love of life was so strong in him that he could lose himself in little diversions as well as in big books. He was fond of everything human and natural, everything that had colour and character, and no gayety, no sense of comedy, was ever more easily kindled by contact. When he was not surrounded by great pleasures he could find his account in small ones, and no situation could be dull for a man in whom all reflection, all reaction, was witty.

I waited some years really to know him, but it was to find at once that he was delightful to walk with. He spent the winter of 1872-73 in Paris, and if I had not already been fond of the streets of that city, his example and companionship would have made me so. We both had the habit of long walks, and he knew his Paris as he knew all his subjects. The history of a thing was always what he first saw in it—-he recognized it as a link in an interminable chain. He led, at this season, the most home-keeping, book-buying life, and Old French texts made his evenings dear to him. He had dropped (and where he dropped he usually stayed) into an intensely local and extremely savoury little hotel in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, unknown to tourists but patronized by deputies, where the table d'hôte, at which the host sat down with the guests and contradiction flourished, was a page of Balzac, full of illustration for the humorist. I used sometimes, of a Sunday evening, to dine there, and to this day, on rainy winter nights, I never cross the Seine amid the wet flare of the myriad lamps, never note the varnished rush of the river or the way the Louvre grows superb in the darkness, without a recurrent consciousness of the old sociable errand, the sense of dipping into a still denser Paris, with the Temps and M. Sarcey in my pocket.

We both spent the following winter—-he at least the larger part of it—-in Florence, out of manifold memories of which certain hours in his company, certain charmed Italian afternoons in Boboli gardens, on San Miniato terraces, come back to me with a glow of their own. He had indeed memories of earlier Italian times, some of which he has admirably recorded—-anecdotes, tormenting to a late comer, of the superseded, the missed. He himself, in his perpetual freshness, seemed to come so late that it was always a surprise to me that he had started so early. Almost any Italy, however, was good enough for him, and he kept criticism for great occasions, for the wise relapse, the study-chair and the vanquished hesitation (not timid, but overbrimming, like a vessel dangerous to move) of that large prose pen which was so firm when once set in motion. He liked the Italian people—-he liked the people everywhere, and the warm street life and the exquisite idiom; the Tuscan tongue, indeed, so early ripe and yet still so perfectly alive, was one of the comforts of the world to him. He produced that winter a poem so ample and noble that it was worthy to come into being in classic air—-the magnificent elegy on the death of Agassiz, which strikes me as a summary of all his vigors and felicities, his most genial achievement, and (after the Harvard Commemoration Ode) the truest expression of his poetic nature. It is hard to lend to a great old house, in Italy, even when it has become a modern inn, any associations as romantic as those it already wears; but what the high-windowed face of the Florentine Hôtel du Nord speaks to me of to-day, over it's chattering cab-stand and across the statued pillar of the little square of the Holy Trinity, is neither it's ancient honour nor it's actual fall, but the sound, one December evening, by the fire the poet pronounces “starved,” of

“I cannot think he wished so soon to die

With all his senses full of eager heat,

And rosy years that stood expectant by

To buckle the winged sandals on their feet,

He that was friends with Earth, and all her sweet

Took with both hands unsparingly.”

Of Mr. Lowell's residence in Spain I know nothing but what I gathered from his talk, after he took possession, late in the spring of 1879, of the post in London rendered vacant by the retirement of Mr. John Welsh; much of it inevitably referring to the domestic sorrow—-the prolonged illness of his admirable wife—-which cast over these years a cloud that darkened further during the early part of his English period. I remember getting from him a sense that a diplomatic situation at Madrid was not quite so enlivening as might have been expected, and that for the American representatives at least, there was not enough business to give a savour to duty. This particular representatives solution of every personal problem, however, was a page of philology in a cloud of tobacco, and as he had seen the picture before through his studies, so now he doubtless saw his studies through the picture. The palace was a part of it, where the ghost of Charles V. still walked and the princesses were what is called in princesses literary. The diplomatic circle was animated—-if that be the word—-by whist; what his own share of the game was animated by may be left to the imagination of those who remember the irrepressibility, on his lips, of the comic idea. It might have been taken for granted he was well content to be transferred to England; but I have no definite recollection of the degree of his satisfaction beforehand. I think he was mainly conscious of the weight of the new responsibility, so that the unalloyed pleasure was that of his friends and of the most enlightened part of the public in the two countries, to which the appointment appeared to have an unusual felicity. It was made, as it were, for quality, and that continued to be the sign of the function so long as Mr. Lowell exercised it. The difficulty—-if I may speak of difficulty—-was that all judgment of it was necessarily a priori. It was impossible for him to know what a success, in vulgar parlance, he might make of a totally untried character, and above all to foresee how this character would adapt itself to his own. During the years of his residence in London on an official footing it constantly struck me that it was the office that inclined, at every turn, to him, rather than he who inclined to the office.

I may appear to speak too much of this phase of his life as the most memorable part of it—-especially considering how short a time it occupied in regard to the whole; but in addition to it's being the only long phase of which I can speak at all closely from personal observation, it is just to remember that these were the years in which all the other years were made most evident. “We knew him and valued him ages before, and never stinted our appreciation, never waited to care for him till he had become the fashion,” his American readers and listeners, his pupils and colleagues, might say; to which the answer is that those who admired him most were just those who might naturally rejoice in the multiplication of his opportunities. He came to London with only a vague notion, evidently, of what these opportunities were to be, and in fact there was no defining them in advance; what they proved to be, on the spot, was anything and everything that he might make them. I remember hearing him say, a day or two after his arrival, “Oh, I've lost all my wit—-you mustn't look to me for good things now.” The words were uttered to a gentleman who had found one of his “things” very good, and who, having a political speech to make in a day or two, had thriftily asked his leave to bring it in. There could have been no better example of the experimental nature of his acceptance of the post; for the very foundation of the distinction that he gave it was his great reserve of wit. He had no idea how much he had left till he tried it, and he had never before had so much occasion to try it. This uncertainty might pervade the minds even of such of his friends as had a near view of his start; but those friends would have had singularly little imagination if they had failed to be struck, in a general way, with the highly civilized character of his mission. There are circumstances in operation (too numerous to recite) which combine to undermine greatly the felicity of the representative of the United States in a foreign country; it is, to speak summarily, in many respects a singularly uncomfortable honour. I cannot express more strongly how happy Mr. Lowell's opportunity seemed to be than by saying that he struck people at the moment as enviable. It was an intensification of the impression given by the glimpse of him on his way to Spain. The true reward of an English style was to be sent to England, and if his career in that country was, throughout, amusing, in the highest sense of the term, this result was, for others at least, a part of their gratified suspense as to the further possibilities of the style.

From the friendly and intimate point of view it was presumable from the first that there would be a kind of drama, a spectacle; and if one had already lived a few years in London one could have an interesting prevision of some of it's features. London is a great personage, and with those with whom she establishes a relation she always plays, as it were, her game. This game, throughout Mr. Lowell's residence, but especially during the early part, was exciting; so much so that I remember being positively sorry, as if I were leaving the theatre before the fall of the curtain, when at that time, more than once, I found myself, by visits to the Continent, obliged to turn my back upon it. The sight of his variety was a help to know London better; and it was a question whether he could ever know her so well as those who could freely consider the pair together. He offered her from the first a nut to crack, a morsel to roll under her tongue. She is the great consumer of spices and sweets; if I were not afraid of forcing the image, I should say that she is too unwieldy to feed herself, and requires, in. recurring seasons, as she sits, prodigiously, at her banquet, to be approached with the consecrated ladle. She placed this implement in Mr. Lowell's hands with a confidence so immediate as to be truly touching—-a confidence that speaks for the eventual amalgamation of the Anglo-Saxon race in a way that, surely, no casual friction can obliterate. She can confer conspicuity, at least for the hour, so well that she is constantly under the temptation to do so; she holds a court for those who speak to her, and she is perpetually trying voices. She recognized Mr. Lowell's from the first and appointed him really her speaker-in-chief. She has a peculiar need, which when you know her well you understand, of being eased off with herself, and the American minister speedily appeared just the man to ease her. He played into her talk and her speeches, her commemorations and functions, her dinners and discussions, her editorials and anecdotes. She has immense wheels which are always going round, and the ponderous precision of which can be observed only on the spot. They naturally demand something to grind, and the machine holds out great iron hands and draws in reputations and talents, or sometimes only names and phrases.

Mr. Lowell immediately found himself, in England, whether to his surprise or no I am unable to say, the first of after-dinner speakers. It was perhaps somewhat to the surprise of his public there, for it was not to have been calculated in advance that he would have become so expert in his own country—-a country sparing of feast-days and ceremonies. His practice had been great before he came to London, but his performance there would have been a strain upon any practice. It was a point of honour with him never to refuse a challenge, and this attitude, under the circumstances, was heroic, for he became a convenience that really tended to multiply occasions. It was exactly his high competence in these directions that constituted the practical good effect of his mission, the particular manner in which it made for civilization. It was the revanche of letters; that, throughout, was the particular note of the part he played. There would have been no revanche if he had played it inadequately; therefore it was a pleasure to feel that he was accomplished up to the hilt. Those who didn't like him pronounced him too accomplished, too omniscient; but, save in a sense that I will specify, I never saw him commit himself unadvisedly, and much is to be forgiven a love of precise knowledge which keeps a man out of mistakes. He had a horror of them; no one was ever more in love with the idea of being right and of keeping others from being wrong. The famous Puritan conscience, which was a persistent part of his heredity, operated in him perhaps most strongly on the scholarly side. He enjoyed the detail of research and the discussion of differences, and he had an instinct for rectification which was unflinching. All this formed a part of the enviability I have noted—-the serenity of that larger reputation which came to him late in life, which had been paid for in advance, and in regard to which his finished discharge of his diplomatic duties acted, if not, certainly, as a cause, at least as a stimulus. The reputation was not, doubtless, the happiest thing; the happiest thing was the inward opportunity, the chance to absorb into an intelligence extraordinarily prepared a peculiarly full revelation.

He had studied English history for forty years in the texts, and at last he could study it in the pieces themselves, could handle and verify the relics. For the man who in such a position recognizes his advantages, England makes herself a museum of illustration. She is at home in the comfortable dust of her ages, where there is no need of excavation, as she has never been buried, and the explorer finds the ways as open to him as the corridors of an exhibition. It was an exhibition of which Mr. Lowell never grew tired, for it was infinitely various and living; it brought him back repeatedly after his public mission had expired, and it was perpetually suggestive to him while that mission lasted. If he played his part so well here—-I allude now more particularly to the social and expressive side of it—-it was because he was so open to suggestion. Old England spoke to him so much as a man of letters that it was inevitable he should answer her back. On the firmness and tact with which he acquitted himself of his strictly diplomatic work I shall not presume to touch; his success was. promptly appreciated in quarters where the official record may be found, as well as in others less discoverable to-day, columns congruous with their vituperative “headings,” where it must be looked for between the lines. These latter responsibilities, begotten mainly of the Irish complication, were heavy ones, but they were doubtless, for Mr. Lowell, the keenest interest of his term, and I include them essentially in the picture afforded by that term of the supremely symmetrical literary life—-the life in which the contrasts have been effectively timed; in which the invading and acclaiming world has entered too late to interfere, to distract, but still in time to fertilize; in which contacts have multiplied and horizons widened gradually; in which, in short, the dessert has come after the dinner, the answer after the question, and the proof after the patience.

I may seem to exaggerate in Mr. Lowell's history the importance of the last dozen years of his life—-especially if the reckoning be made of the amount of characteristic production that preceded them. He was the same admirable writer that he appears to-day before he touched diplomacy—-he had already given to the world the volumes on which his reputation rests. I cannot undertake in this place and at this hour a critical estimate of his writings; the perspective is too short and our acquaintance too recent. But I have been reading him over in fragments, not to judge him, but to recall him, and it is as impossible to speak of him without the sense of his high place as it would be with the pretension to be final about it. He looms, in such a renewed impression, very large and ripe and sane, and if he was an admirable man of letters there should be no want of emphasis on the first term of the title. He was indeed a man, in literature; essentially masculine and active and upright. Presenting to survivors that simplified face that I have spoken of, he almost already looks at us as the last accomplished representative of the joy of life. His robust and humorous optimism rounds itself more and more; he has even now something of the air of a classic, and if he really becomes one it will be in virtue of his having placed as fine an irony at the service of hope as certain masters of the other strain have placed at that of despair. Sturdy liberal as he was, and contemptuous of all timidities of advance and reservations of faith, one thinks of him to-day, at the point at which we leave him, as the last of the literary conservatives. He took his stand on the ancient cheerful wisdom, many of the ingenious modern emendations of which seemed to him simply droll.

Few things were really so droll as he could make them, and not a great many, perhaps, are so absolute. The solution of the problem of life lay for him in action, in conduct, in decency; his imagination lighted up to him but scantily the region of analysis and apology. Like all interesting literary figures, he is full of tacit as well as of uttered reference to the conditions that engendered him; he really testifies as much as Hawthorne to the New England spirit, though in a totally different tone. The two writers, as witnesses, weigh against each other, and the picture would be imperfect if both had not had a hand in it. If Hawthorne expressed the mysticism and the gloom of the transplanted Puritan, his passive and haunted side, Lowell saw him in the familiar daylight of practice and prosperity and good health. The author of The Biglow Papers was surely the healthiest of highly cultivated geniuses, just as he was the least flippant of jesters and the least hysterical of poets. If Hawthorne fairly cherished the idea of evil in man, Lowell s vision of “sin” was operative mainly for a single purpose—-that of putting in motion the civic lash. The Biglow Papers are mainly an exposure of national injustice and political dishonesty; his satiric ardour was simply the other side of the medal of his patriotism. His poetry is not all satirical, but the highest and most sustained flights of it are patriotic, and in reading it over I am struck with the peculiar definiteness it borrows, in parts at least, from this particular inspiration.

The look at life that it embodies is almost never vague or irresponsible; it is only the author's humour that is whimsical, never his emotion nor his passion. His poetical performance might sometimes, no doubt, be more intensely lyrical, but it is hard to see how it could be more intensely moral—-I mean, of course, in the widest sense of the term. His play is as good as a game in the open air; but when he is serious he is as serious as Wordsworth, and much more compact. He is the poet of pluck and purpose and action, of the gayety and liberty of virtue. He commemorates all manly pieties and affections, but does not conceal his mistrust of overbrimming sensibility. If the ancients and the Elizabethans, he somewhere says, “had not discovered the picturesque, as we understand it, they found surprisingly fine scenery in man and his destiny, and would have seen something ludicrous, it may be suspected, in the spectacle of a grown man running to hide his head in the apron of the Mighty Mother whenever he had an ache in his finger or got a bruise in the tussle for existence.” It is visible that the poetic occasion that was most after his own heart was the storm and stress of the civil war. He vibrated in this long tension more deeply than in any other experience. It was the time that kindled his steadiest fire, prompted his noblest verse, and gave him what he relished most, a ground for high assurance, a sense of being sturdily in the right and having something to stand up for. He never feared and never shirked the obligation to be positive. Firm and liberal critic as he was, and with nothing of party spirit in his utterance, save in the sense that his sincerity was his party, his mind had little affinity with superfine estimates and shades and tints of opinion; when he felt at all he felt altogether—-was always on the same side as his likings and loyalties. He had no experimental sympathies, and no part of him was traitor to the rest.

This temper drove the principle of subtlety in his intelligence, which is the need of the last refinement, to take refuge in one particular and I must add very spacious corner, where indeed it was capable of the widest expansion. The thing he loved most in the world after his country was the English tongue, of which he was an infallible master, and his devotion to which was in fact a sort of agent in his patriotism. The two passions, at any rate, were closely connected, and I will not pretend to have determined whether the western republic was dear to him because he held that it was a magnificent field for the language, or whether the language was dear to him because it had felt the impact of Massachusetts. He himself was not unhappily responsible for a large part of the latter occurrence. His linguistic sense is perhaps the thing his reputation may best be trusted to rest upon—-I mean, of course, in it's large outcome of style. There is a high strain of originality in it, for it is difficult to recall a writer of our day in whom the handling of words has been at once such an art and such a science. Mr. Lowell's generous temperament seems to triumph in one quarter, here, while his educated patience triumphs in the other. When a man loves words singly, he is apt not to care for them in an order, just as a very great painter may be quite indifferent to the chemical composition of his colours. But Mr. Lowell was both chemist and artist; the only wonder was that with so many theories about language he should have had so much lucidity left for practice. He used it both as an antiquarian and a lover of life, and was a capital instance of the possible harmony between imagination and knowledge—-a living proof that the letter does not necessarily kill.

His work represents this reconciled opposition, referable as it is half to the critic and half to the poet. If either half suffers just a little, it is perhaps, in places, his poetry, a part of which is I know not what to say but too literary, more the result of an interest in the general form than of the stirred emotion. One feels at moments that he speaks in verse mainly because he is penetrated with what verse has achieved. But these moments are occasional, and when the stirred emotion does give a hand to the interest in the general form, the product is always of the highest order. His poems written during the war all glow with a splendid fusion—-one can think of nothing at once more personal and, in the highest sense of the word, more professional. To me, at any rate, there is something fascinating in the way in which, in the Harvard Commemoration Ode, for instance, the air of the study mingles with the current of passion. The reader who is eternally bribed by form may ask himself whether Mr. Lowell's prose or his poetry has the better chance of a long life—-the hesitation being justified by the rare degree in which the prose has the great qualities of style; but in the presence of some of the splendid stanzas inspired by the war time (and among them I include, of course, the second series of The Biglow Papers) one feels that, whatever shall become of the essays, the transmission from generation to generation of such things as these may safely be left to the national conscience. They translate with equal exaltation and veracity the highest national mood, and it is in them that all younger Americans, those now and lately reaching manhood, may best feel the great historic throb, the throb unknown to plodding peace. No poet, surely, has ever placed the concrete idea of his country in a more romantic light than Mr. Lowell; none, certainly, speaking as an American to Americans, has found on it's behalf accents more eloquently tender, more beguiling to the imagination:—-

“Dear land whom triflers now make bold to scorn,

(Thee from whose forehead Earth awaits her morn.)”

“Oh Beautiful! my Country! ours once more!

Smoothing thy gold of war-dishevelled hair

O'er such sweet brows as never other wore,

And letting thy set lips,

Freed from wrath's pale eclipse,

The rosy edges of their smile lay bare!”

Great poetry is made only by a great meaning, and the national bias, I know, never made anything better that was not good in itself; but each time I read over the Harvard Commemoration Ode, the more full and strong, the more august and pathetic, does it appear. This is only a proof that if Patriotism preserves it she will show excellent taste—-which she has been known in some cases not to do.

If I were not afraid of falling into the tone of literary criticism, I should speak of several of the impressions—-that is, of the charmed absorption—-accompanying an attentive re-perusal of the four or five volumes of Mr. Lowell's poetry. The word I have already used comes back to me—-it is all so masculine, so fine without being thin, so peculiarly solid in it's felicity. It is intensely literary and yet intensely warm—-warm with the contact of friendly and domestic things, loved local sights and sounds, the colour and odour of New England, and (here, particularly, warm without fever) with the sanest, lucidest intellectual life. There is something of seasonable nature in every verse—-the freshness of the spirit sociable with earth and sky and stream. In the best things there is the incalculable magic note—-all the more effective from the general ground tone of reason. What could be more strangely sweet than the little poem of PhÅ“be, in Heartsease and Rue—-a reminiscence of the saddest of small bird-notes caught in the dimmest of wakeful dawns? What could be more largely vivid, more in the grand style of friendship and portraiture, than the masterly composition on the death of Agassiz, in which the very tenderness of regret flushes faintly with humour, and ingenuity broadens at every turn into eloquence? Such a poem as this—-immensely fortunate in reflecting an extraordinary personality—-takes it's place with the few great elegies in our language, gives a hand to Lycidas and-to Thyrsis.

I may not go into detail, or I should speak of twenty other things, especially of the mellow, witty wisdom of The Cathedral, and of the infinite, intricate delicacy of Endymion—-more tremulous, more penetrating, than any other of the author's poetic productions, I think, and exceptionally fine in surface. As for The Biglow Papers, they seem to me, in regard to Mr. Lowell, not so much produced as productive—-productive of a clear, delightful image of the temper and nature of the man. One says of them, not that they are by him, but that they are his very self—-full of his opinions and perceptions, his humour and his wit, his character, his experience, his talk, and his intense consciousness of race. They testify to many things, but most of all to the thing I have last named; and it may seem to those whose observation of the author was most complete during the concluding years of his life that they could testify to nothing more characteristic. If he was inveterately, in England and on the Continent, the American abroad (though jealous indeed of the liberty to be at home even there), so the lucubrations of Parson Wilbur and his contributors are an unsurpassably deliberate exhibition of the primitive home-quality. I may seem to be going far when I say that they constitute to my sense the author's most literary production; they illustrate, at any rate, his inexhaustible interest in the question of style and his extraordinary acuteness in dealing with it. They are a wonderful study of style—-by which I mean of organized expression and nothing could be more significant than the fact that he should have put his finest faculty for linguistics at the service of the Yankee character.

He knew more, I think, about the rustic American speech than all others together who have known anything of it, so much more closely, justly, and sympathetically had he noted it. He honoured it with the strongest scientific interest, and indeed he may well have been on terms of reciprocity with a dialect that had enabled him to produce a masterpiece. The only drawback I can imagine to a just complacency in this transaction would have been the sense that the people are few, after all, who can measure the minute perfection of the success—-a success not only of swift insight, but of patient observation. Mr. Lowell was as capable of patience in illustrating New England idiosyncrasies as he was capable of impatience. He never forgot, at any rate, that he stood for all such things—-stood for them particularly during the years he spent in England; and his attitude was made up of many curious and complicated and admirable elements. He was so proud—-not for himself, but for his country—-that he felt the need of a kind of official version of everything that in other quarters might be judged anomalous there. Theoretically he cared little for the judgment of other quarters, and he was always amused—-the good-natured British Lion in person could not have been more so—-at “well-meaning" compliment or commendation; it required, it must be admitted, more tact than is usually current to incur the visitation of neither the sharper nor the sunnier form of his irony. But in fact the national consciousness was too acute in him for slumber at his post, and he paid, in a certain restlessness, the penalty of his imagination, of the fatal sense of perspective and the terrible faculty of comparison. It would have been intolerable to him, moreover, to be an empirical American, and he had organized his loyalty with a thoroughness of which his admirable wit was an efficient messenger. He never anticipated attack, though it would be a meagre account of his attitude to say it was defensive; but he took appreciation for granted, and eased the way for it with reasons that were cleverer in nothing than in appearing casual. These reasons were innumerable, but they were all the reasons of a lover. It was not simply that he loved his country—-he was literally in love with it.

If there be two kinds of patriotism, the latent and the patent, his kind was essentially the latter. Some people for whom the world is various and universal, and who dread nothing so much as seeing it cornered, regard this particular sentiment as a purely practical one, a prescription of duty in a given case, like a knack with the coiled hose when the house is on fire, or the plunge of the swimmer when a man is overboard. They grudge it a place in the foreground of the spirit—-they consider that it shuts out the view. Others find it constantly comfortable and perpetually fresh—-find, as it were, the case always given; for them the immediate view is the view and the very atmosphere of the mind, so that it is not a question only of performance, but of contemplation as well. Mr. Lowell's horizon was too wide to be curtained out, and his intellectual curiosity such as to have effectually prevented his shutting himself up in his birth chamber; but if the local idea never kept his intelligence at home, he solved the difficulty by at least never going forth without it. When he quitted the hearth it was with the household god in his hand, and as he delighted in Europe it was to Europe that he took it. Never had a household god such a magnificent outing, nor was made free of so many strange rites and climes; never, in short, had any patriotism such a liberal airing. If, however, Mr. Lowell was loath to admit that the American order could have an infirmity, I think it was because it would have cost him so much to ac knowledge that it could have communicated one to an object that he cherished as he cherished the English tongue. That was the innermost atmosphere of his mind, and he never could have afforded, on this general question, any policy but a policy of annexation. He was capable of convictions in the light of which it was clear that the language he wrote so admirably had encountered in the United States not corruption, but conservation. Any conviction of his on this subject was a contribution to science, and he was zealous to show that the speech of New England was most largely that of an older and more vernacular England than the England that to-day finds it queer. He was capable of writing perfect American to bring out this archaic element. He kept in general the two tongues apart, save in so far as his English style betrayed a connection by a certain American tact in the art of leaving out. He was perhaps sometimes slightly paradoxical in the contention that the language had incurred no peril in it's western adventures; this is the sense in which I meant just now that he occasionally crossed the line. The difficulty was not that his vision of pure English could not fail in America sometimes to be clouded—-the peril was for his vision of pure American. His standard was the highest, and the wish was often, no doubt, father to the thought. The Biglow Papers are delightful, but nothing could be less like The Biglow Papers than the style of the American newspaper. He lent his wit to his theories, but one or two of them lived on him like unthrifty sons.

None the less it was impossible to be witness of his general action during his residence in England without feeling that, not only by the particular things he did, but by the general thing he was, he contributed to a large ideal of peace. We certainly owe to him (and by “we” I mean both countries—-he made that plural elastic) a mitigation of danger. There is always danger between country and country, and danger in small and shameful forms as well as big and inspiring ones; but the danger is less and the dream of peace more rosy when they have been beguiled into a common admiration. A common aversion even will do—-the essential thing is the disposition to share. The poet, the writer, the speaker, ministers to this community; he is Orpheus with his lute—-the lute that pacifies the great stupid beasts of international prejudice; so that if a quarrel takes place over the piping form of the loved of Apollo it is as if he were rent again by the Mænads. It was a charm to the observant mind to see how Mr. Lowell kept the Mænads in their place—-a work admirably continued by his successor in office, who had, indeed, under his roof, an inestimable assistant in the process. Mr. Phelps was not, as I may say, single-handed; which was his predecessor's case even for some time prior to an irreparable bereavement. The prying Furies, at any rate, during these years, were effectually snubbed, and will, it is to be hoped, never again hold their snaky heads very high. The spell that worked upon them was simply the voice of civilization, and Mr. Lowell's advantage was that he happened to find himself in a supremely good place for producing it. He produced it both consciously and unconsciously, both officially and privately, from principle and from instinct, in the hundred spots, on the thousand occasions, which it is one of the happiest idiosyncrasies of English life to supply; and since I have spoken so distinctly of his patriotism, I must add that after all he exercised the virtue most in this particular way. His new friends liked him because he was at once so fresh and so ripe, and this was predominantly what he understood by being a good American. It was by being one in this sense that he broke the heart of the Furies.

The combination made a quality which pervaded his whole intellectual character; for the quality of his diplomatic action, of his public speeches, of his talk, of his influence, was simply the genius that we had always appreciated in his critical writings. The hours and places with which he had to deal were not equally inspiring; there was, inevitably, colourless company, there were dull dinners, influences prosaic and functions mechanical; but he was, substantially, always the messenger of the Muses, and of that particular combination of them which had permitted him to include a tenth in their number—-the infallible sister to whom humour is dear. I mean that the man and the author, in him, were singularly convertible; it was what made the author so vivid. It was also what made that voice of civilization to whose harmony I have alluded practically the same thing as the voice of literature. Mr. Lowell's style was an indefeasible part of him, as his correspondence, if it be ever published, will copiously show; it was in all relations his natural channel of communication. This is why, at the opening of this paper, I ventured to speak of his happy exercise of a great opportunity as at bottom the revanche of letters. This, at any rate, the literary observer was free to see in it; such an observer made a cross against the day, as an anniversary for form, and an anniversary the more memorable that form, when put to tests that might have been called severe, was so far from being found wanting in substance, met the occasion in fact so completely. I do not pretend that during Mr. Lowell's residence in England the public which he found constituted there spent most of it's time in reading his essays; I only mean that the faculty it relished in him most was the faculty most preserved for us in his volumes of criticism.

It is not an accident that I do not linger over the contents of these volumes—-this has not been a part of my undertaking. They will not go out of fashion, they will keep their place and hold their own; for they are full of broad-based judgment, and of those stamped sentences of which we are as naturally retentive as of gold and silver coin. Reading them over lately in large portions, I was struck not only with the “good things” that abound in them, but with the soundness and fullness of their inspiration. It is intensely the air of letters, but it is like that of some temperate and restorative clime. I judge them perhaps with extravagant fondness, for I am attached to the class to which they belong; I like such an atmosphere, I like the living fragrance of the book-room. In turning over Mr. Lowell's critical pages, I seem to hear the door close softly behind me, and to see in the shaded lamplight one of the sweetest chances that life gives us of being happy. I see an apartment brown and book-lined, which is the place in the world most convertible into fairyland. The turning of the leaves and the crackling of the fire are the only things that break it's stillness—-the stillness in which mild miracles are wrought. These are the miracles of evocation, of resurrection, of transmission, of insight, of history, of poetry. It may be a little room, but it is a great world; it may be a deep solitude, but it is a mighty company. In this critical chamber of Mr. Lowell's there is a charm, to my sense, in knowing what is outside of the closed door—-it intensifies both the isolation and the experience. The big new western order is outside, and yet within all seems as immemorial as Persia. It is like a little lighted cabin, full of the ingenuities of home, in the grey of a great ocean. Such ingenuities of home are what represent, in Mr. Lowell's case, the conservatism of the author. His home was the receding past—-it was there that his taste was at ease. From what quarter his disciples in the United States will draw their sustenance it is too soon to say; the question will be better answered when we have the disciples more clearly in our eye. We seem already, however, to distinguish the quarter from which they will not draw it. Few of them, as yet, appear to have in their hand, or rather in their head, any such treasure of knowledge.

It was when his lifetime was longest that the fruit of culture was finest in him and that his wit was most profuse. In the admirable address on Democracy that he pronounced at Birmingham in 1884, in the beautiful speech on the Harvard anniversary of 1886, everything is so supremely well said that we seem to be reading some consecrated masterpiece; they represent, in the highest perfection, the maturity of a masterly talent. There are places where he seems in a sort of mystical communication with the richest sources of English prose. “But this imputed and vicarious longevity, though it may be obscurely operative in our lives and fortunes, is no valid offset for the shortness of our days, nor widens by a hair's breadth the horizon of our memories.” He sounds like a younger brother of Bacon and of Milton, either of whom, for instance, could not have uttered a statelier word on the subject of the relinquishment of the required study of Greek than that “oblivion looks in the face of the Grecian Muse only to forget her errand.” On the other hand, in the address delivered in 1884 before the English Wordsworth Society, he sounds like no one but his inveterately felicitous self. In certain cases, Wordsworth, like Elias the prophet, “'stands up as fire and his word burns like a lamp.' But too often, when left to his own resources and to the conscientious performance of the duty laid upon him to be a great poet quand même, he seems diligently intent on producing fire by the primitive method of rubbing the dry sticks of his blank verse one against the other, while we stand in shivering expectation of the flame that never comes.” It would be difficult to express better the curious evening chill of the author of The Excursion, which is so like the conscious mistake of camping out in autumn.

It was an extreme satisfaction to the very many persons in England who valued Mr. Lowell's society that the termination of his official mission there proved not the termination of the episode. He came back for his friends—-he would have done anything for his friends. He also, I surmise, came back somewhat for himself, inasmuch as he entertained an affection for London which he had no reason for concealing. For several successive years he reappeared there with the brightening months, and I am not sure that this irresponsible and less rigorously sociable period did not give him his justest impressions. It surrendered him, at any rate, more completely to his friends and to several close and particularly valued ties. He felt that he had earned the right to a few frank predilections. English life is a big pictured story-book, and he could dip into the volume where he liked. It was altogether delightful to turn some of the pages with him, and especially to pause—-for the marginal commentary in finer type, some of it the model of the illuminating footnote—-over the massive chapter of London.

It is very possible not to feel the charm of London at all; the foreigner indeed who does so is a very rare bird. It marks the comparative community of the two big branches of the English race that of all aliens Americans are most susceptible to this many-voiced appeal. They are capable of loving the capital of their race almost with passion, which for the most part is the way it is loved when it is not hated. The sentiment was strong in Mr. Lowell; a part of the spirit of his maturity (or shall I say of his youth?) was lodged here, and at the end he came back every year to feel the touch of it. He gave himself English summers, and if some people should say that the gift was scarcely liberal, others; who met him on this ground, will reply that such seasons drew from him, in the circle of friendship, a radiance not inherent in their complexion. This association became a feature of the London May and June—-it held it's own even in the rank confusion of July. It pervaded the quarter he repeatedly inhabited, where a commonplace little house, in the neighbourhood of the Paddington station, will long wear in it's narrow front, to the inner sense of many passers, a mystical gold-lettered tablet. Here he came and went, during several months, for such and such a succession of years; here one could find him at home in the late afternoon, in his lengthened chair, with his cherished pipe and his table piled high with books. Here he practiced little jesting hospitalities, for he was irrepressibly and amusingly hospitable. Whatever he was in his latest time, it was, even in muffled miseries of gout, with a mastery of laughter and forgetfulness. Nothing amused him more than for people to dine with him, and few things, certainly, amused them as much. His youth came back to him not once for all, but twenty times for every occasion. He was certainly the most boyish of learned doctors.

This was always particularly striking during the several weeks of August and September that he had formed the habit of spending at Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast. It was here, I think, that he was most naturally at his ease, most humorously evaded the hard bargain of Time. The place is admirable—-an old red-roofed fishing-town, in one of the indentations of a high, brave coast, with the ruins of a great abbey just above it, an expanse of purple moor behind, and a convenient extension in the way of an informal little modern watering-place. The mingled breath of the sea and the heather makes a medium that it is a joy to inhale, and all the land is picturesque and noble, a happy hunting-ground for the good walker and the lover of grand lines and fine detail. Mr. Lowell was wonderful in both of these characters, and it was in the active exercise of them that I saw him last. He was, in such conditions, a delightful host and a prime initiator. Two of these happy summer days, on the occasion of his last visit to Whitby, are marked possessions of my memory: one of them a ramble on the warm wide moors, after a rough lunch at a little stony upland inn, in company charming and intimate, the thought of which, to-day, is a reference to a double loss; the other an excursion, made partly by a longish piece of railway, in his society alone, to Rievaulx Abbey, most fragmentary but most graceful of ruins. The day at Rievaulx was as exquisite as I could have wished it if I had known that it denoted a limit, and in the happy absence of any such revelation altogether given up to adventure and success. I remember the great curving green terrace in Lord Feversham's park—-prodigious and surely unique; it hangs over the abbey like a theatrical curtain—-and the temples of concord, or whatever they are, at either end of it, and the lovable view, and the dear little dowdy inn parlour at Helmsley, where there is, moreover, a massive fragment of profaner ruin, a bit of battered old castle, in the grassy préau of which (it was a perfect English picture) a company of well-grown young Yorkshire folk of both sexes were making lawn-tennis balls fly in and out of the past. I recall with vividness the very waits and changes of the return and our pleased acceptance of everything. We parted on the morrow, but I met Mr. Lowell a little later in Devonshire—-O clustered charms of Ottery!—-and spent three days in his company. I travelled back to London with him, and saw him for the last time at Paddington. He was to sail immediately for America. I went to take leave of him, but I missed him, and a day or two later he was gone.

I note these particulars, as may easily be imagined, wholly for their reference to himself—-for the emphasized occasion they give to remembrance and regret. Yet even remembrance and regret, in such a case, have a certain free relief, for our final thought of James Russell Lowell is that what he consistently lived for remains of him. There is nothing ineffectual in his name and fame—-they stand for delightful things. He is one of the happy figures of literature. He had his trammels and his sorrows, but he drank deep of the full, sweet cup, and he will long count as an erect fighting figure on the side of optimism and beauty. He was strong without narrowness; he was wise without bitterness and bright without folly. That appears for the most part the clearest ideal of those who handle the English form, and he was altogether in the straight tradition. This tradition will surely not forfeit it's great part in the world so long as we continue occasionally to know it by what is so solid in performance and so stainless in character.

 
 
 

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