Source of book: I own this
Back in my high school days, I had to memorize a poem by James Russell Lowell. I do not remember which one, honestly; just the impression that it was the sort of poem that old-fashioned teachers make high school students memorize. That is not a compliment. As a result, I kind of had a poor impression of Lowell, and never really went back to read more of his works. I did, however, pick up a nice used hardback anthology at some point.
I decided to revisit Lowell, and see if my earlier impression was justified. Fortunately, it appears that he was indeed better than that one selection.
Lowell was one of the “Fireside Poets,” that group of 19th Century American poets who were the first to rival the poets of Europe in popularity. They were, at the time, rather superstars. However, in the 20th Century, their reputation declined as taste in poetry changed. Their traditionalism in form and themes does seem quaint now, and none of them ever rose to the pinnacle of artistic achievement that Tennyson did - and really, who did? That said, they still hold their charms, and I found a number of Lowell’s poems to speak to me.
I also wrote about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline, a few years ago. Like Longfellow, Lowell was an ardent abolitionist, and was generous with his time and money to the cause - he wasn’t wealthy, but still assisted escaped slaves with financial help. Lowell was an interesting character, and a rather admirable person.
Epic Victorian Hipster look, and a great quote.
Under the Willows and Other Poems was published in 1868, and contained primarily poems published in magazines previously.
How about the poems? Here are the ones which stood out to me.
To Charles Eliot Norton - Agro Dolce
The wind is roistering out of doors,
My windows shake and my chimney roars;
My Elmwood chimneys seem crooning to me,
As of old, in their moody, minor key,
And out of the past the hoarse wind blows,
As I sit in my arm-chair, and toast my toes.
'Ho! ho! nine-and-forty,' they seem to sing,
'We saw you a little toddling thing.
We knew you child and youth and man,
A wonderful fellow to dream and plan,
With a great thing always to come,--who knows?
Well, well! 'tis some comfort to toast one's toes.
'How many times have you sat at gaze
Till the mouldering fire forgot to blaze,
Shaping among the whimsical coals
Fancies and figures and shining goals!
What matters the ashes that cover those?
While hickory lasts you can toast your toes.
'O dream-ship-builder: where are they all,
Your grand three-deckers, deep-chested and tall,
That should crush the waves under canvas piles,
And anchor at last by the Fortunate Isles?
There's gray in your beard, the years turn foes,
While you muse in your arm-chair, and toast your toes.'
I sit and dream that I hear, as of yore,
My Elmwood chimneys' deep-throated roar;
If much be gone, there is much remains;
By the embers of loss I count my gains,
You and yours with the best, till the old hope glows
In the fanciful flame, as I toast my toes.
Instead of a fleet of broad-browed ships,
To send a child's armada of chips!
Instead of the great gun, tier on tier,
A freight of pebbles and grass-blades sere!
'Well, maybe more love with the less gift goes,'
I growl, as, half moody, I toast my toes.
If that isn’t the quintessential Fireside Poem, I don’t know what is.
Many of the poems in this collection have nature as a theme. The rather long (and good) title poem has these interesting lines I figured I might quote.
I care not how men trace their ancestry,
To ape or Adam: let them please their whim;
But I in June am midway to believe
A tree among my far progenitors,
Such sympathy is mine with all the race,
Such mutual recognition vaguely sweet
There is between us.
Written in an era when Darwin had turned our understanding of natural history on its head, that little dig at the controversy is a nice touch. Kind of like how George Strait handled it for his own audience later.
Lowell’s life included the tragic. Of his four children, three died by age two. His wife died of tuberculosis a few years later. This poem is in response to one of those deaths. In the letter he wrote, submitting the poem to The Anti-Slavery Standard, he said, “May you never have the key which shall unlock the whole meaning of the poem to you.”
The First Snow-Fall
The snow had begun in the gloaming,
And busily all the night
Had been heaping field and highway
With a silence deep and white.
Every pine and fir and hemlock
Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
And the poorest twig on the elm-tree
Was ridged inch deep with pearl.
From sheds new-roofed with Carrara
Came Chanticleer's muffled crow,
The stiff rails softened to swan's-down,
And still fluttered down the snow.
I stood and watched by the window
The noiseless work of the sky,
And the sudden flurries of snowbirds,
Like brown leaves whirling by.
I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
Where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently,
As did robins the babes in the wood.
Up spoke our own little Mabel,
Saying, 'Father, who makes it snow?'
And I told of the good All-father
Who cares for us here below.
Again I looked at the snow-fall,
And thought of the leaden sky
That arched o'er our first great sorrow,
When that mound was heaped so high.
I remembered the gradual patience
That fell from that cloud like snow,
Flake by flake, healing and hiding
The scar that renewed our woe.
And again to the child I whispered,
'The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father
Alone can make it fall!'
Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her:
And she, kissing back, could not know
That my kiss was given to her sister,
Folded close under deepening snow.
A friend of mine recently lost his son, and I see in his pain the emotion that Lowell shows in every line. I won’t quote it here, but “After the Burial” is also a lacerating response to a child’s death.
Also on the theme of the brevity of life, here is a short one, to be used in a yearbook these days, perhaps.
For An Autograph
Though old the thought and oft exprest,
'Tis his at last who says it best,--
I'll try my fortune with the rest.
Life is a leaf of paper white
Whereon each one of us may write
His word or two, and then comes night.
'Lo, time and space enough,' we cry,
'To write an epic!' so we try
Our nibs upon the edge, and die.
Muse not which way the pen to hold,
Luck hates the slow and loves the bold,
Soon come the darkness and the cold.
Greatly begin! though thou have time
But for a line, be that sublime,--
Not failure, but low aim, is crime.
Ah, with what lofty hope we came!
But we forget it, dream of fame,
And scrawl, as I do here, a name.
Lowell was (I suppose like most poets), a bit of a mystic in his way. One of the more interesting things about my particular collection is that it has introductions to many of the poems, indicating the circumstances in which they were written. In the introduction to “The Dead House,” Lowell opines that “I have a notion that the inmates of a house should never be changed. When the first occupants go out it should be burned, and a stone set up with ‘Sacred to the Memory of a Home’ on it. Suppose the body were eternal, and that when one spirit went out another took the lease.”
Here is another one which struck me as interesting. In our own times, when Muslims are vilified, it is interesting to find a more favorable mention. This poem also has a great message about our own idols.
Mahmood the Image-Breaker
Old events have modern meanings; only that survives
Of past history which finds kindred in all hearts and lives.
Mahmood once, the idol-breaker, spreader of the Faith,
Was at Sumnat tempted sorely, as the legend saith.
In the great pagoda's centre, monstrous and abhorred,
Granite on a throne of granite, sat the temple's lord,
Mahmood paused a moment, silenced by the silent face
That, with eyes of stone unwavering, awed the ancient place.
Then the Brahmins knelt before him, by his doubt made bold,
Pledging for their idol's ransom countless gems and gold.
Gold was yellow dirt to Mahmood, but of precious use,
Since from it the roots of power suck a potent juice.
'Were yon stone alone in question, this would please me well,'
Mahmood said; 'but, with the block there, I my truth must sell.
'Wealth and rule slip down with Fortune, as her wheel turns round;
He who keeps his faith, he only cannot be discrowned.
'Little were a change of station, loss of life or crown,
But the wreck were past retrieving if the Man fell down.'
So his iron mace he lifted, smote with might and main,
And the idol, on the pavement tumbling, burst in twain.
Luck obeys the downright striker; from the hollow core,
Fifty times the Brahmins' offer deluged all the floor.
Another one of religious theme is this one. The opening stanza is fantastic, with its tribute to the unknown and unsung heroes of everyday life.
One feast, of holy days the crest,
I, though no Churchman, love to keep,
All-Saints,--the unknown good that rest
In God's still memory folded deep;
The bravely dumb that did their deed,
And scorned to blot it with a name,
Men of the plain heroic breed,
That loved Heaven's silence more than fame.
Such lived not in the past alone,
But thread to-day the unheeding street,
And stairs to Sin and Famine known
Sing with the welcome of their feet;
The den they enter grows a shrine,
The grimy sash an oriel burns,
Their cup of water warms like wine,
Their speech is filled from heavenly urns.
About their brows to me appears
An aureole traced in tenderest light,
The rainbow-gleam of smiles through tears
In dying eyes, by them made bright,
Of souls that shivered on the edge
Of that chill ford repassed no more,
And in their mercy felt the pledge
And sweetness of the farther shore
One final poem I will mention is a more humorous one. The occasion was that John Bartlett (yes, of the famous book of quotations!), a neighbor of Lowell’s, sent him a seven pound trout as a gift. There is so much that is fun about this poem, from the idea that Death is an angler, to the hope that the trout will weigh in Bartlett’s favor at the Last Judgement.
To Mr. John Bartlett - Who Had Sent Me a Seven-Pound Trout
Fit for an Abbot of Theleme,
For the whole Cardinals' College, or
The Pope himself to see in dream
Before his lenten vision gleam.
He lies there, the sogdologer!
His precious flanks with stars besprent,
Worthy to swim in Castaly!
The friend by whom such gifts are sent,
For him shall bumpers full be spent,
His health! be Luck his fast ally!
I see him trace the wayward brook
Amid the forest mysteries,
Where at their shades shy aspens look.
Or where, with many a gurgling crook,
It croons its woodland histories.
I see leaf-shade and sun-fleck lend
Their tremulous, sweet vicissitude
To smooth, dark pool, to crinkling bend,--
(Oh, stew him, Ann, as 'twere your friend,
With amorous solicitude!)
I see him step with caution due,
Soft as if shod with moccasins,
Grave as in church, for who plies you,
Sweet craft, is safe as in a pew
From all our common stock o' sins.
The unerring fly I see him cast,
That as a rose-leaf falls as soft,
A flash! a whirl! he has him fast!
We tyros, how that struggle last
Confuses and appalls us oft.
Unfluttered he: calm as the sky
Looks on our tragi-comedies,
This way and that he lets him fly,
A sunbeam-shuttle, then to die
Lands him, with cool aplomb, at ease.
The friend who gave our board such gust,
Life's care may he o'erstep it half,
And, when Death hooks him, as he must,
He'll do it handsomely, I trust,
And John H---- write his epitaph!
Oh, born beneath the Fishes' sign,
Of constellations happiest,
May he somewhere with Walton dine,
May Horace send him Massic wine,
And Burns Scotch drink, the nappiest!
And when they come his deeds to weigh,
And how he used the talents his,
One trout-scale in the scales he'll lay
(If trout had scales), and 'twill outsway
The wrong side of the balances.
I enjoyed Lowell more than I expected. He was much more of an emotional and thoughtful guy than the one poem would indicate. I am glad I gave him another chance.