It is generally acknowledged that when compared with his contemporaries Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier, James Russell Lowell is more intellectual, wittier, and more versatile in his writings. He is remembered as a critic of distinction who carefully reread everything before he passed judgment; he was a superb writer of comic dialect poems; and he did a masterful job in the whole composition of THE BIGLOW PAPERS.
Lowell as lyric poet, however, is not clearly superior. He was an inconsistent performer. With his brilliant and perceptive critical mind, he could spot weaknesses and virtues in the poetry of others. Under the spell of a lyrical mood he could often write quite successful poems. But frequently he failed in his own verse, or at least the results were only mediocre. He could be guilty of penning rough lines, seemingly unable at times to create the essential beauty of the true lyric. His ear for melody was erratic; thus his lyrics often lack musical quality.
His first volume of verse, A YEAR’S LIFE, showed the irregularity characteristic of all of Lowell’s poetry. He himself recognized the inferiority of many of the poems and later referred to the collection as “the firstlings of my muse, / Poor windfalls of unripe experience.” Many of these verses, especially the longer ones, are disjointed and of doubtful imaginative ingenuity. Yet others evince qualities which foreshadow later fine lyrics. “Threnodia,” for example, the touching ode on the death of a child that will be seen no more, is written in simple, well-controlled lines and offers an effective one-word refrain at the end of each stanza. There is also something of the lyric grace and freshness of Tennyson and Keats in poems such as “The Sirens,” “Irene,” “Rosaline,” “The Moon,” and “Allegra.” Some of the sonnets in this collection are graceful and effective, especially those on Wordsworth, Spenser, and Keats.
Lowell’s second collection, POEMS, established his reputation. The voice in these poems seems fresher and more original. “A Legend of Brittany,” a lengthy tale of ill-fated love between a humble peasant girl and an ambitious priest, is beautifully written. Void of didacticism, the poem was praised by Edgar Allan Poe, who lauded it for its aesthetic appeal. But again there are poems here which show Lowell’s inconsistency. In “Rhoecus,” which treats the legend of the wood nymph and the bee, Lowell mixes the aesthetic with the didactic and somewhat mars the beauty of the poem. The wood nymph moralizes after Rhoecus has injured her emissary the bee:
And he who scorns the least of Nature’sworksIs thenceforth exiled and shut out fromall.
Such lines are incongruous with a beautiful passage like the following:
He started and beheld with dizzy eyesWhat seemed the substance of a happydreamStand there before him, spreading awarm glowWithin the green glooms of the shad-owy oak.It seemed a woman’s shape, yet all toofairTo be a woman, and with eyes too meekFor any that were wont to mate withgods.All naked like a goddess stood she there,And like a goddess all too beautifulTo feel the guilt-born earthliness ofshame.
An ardent believer in abolition and humanitarian reform in general, Lowell wrote many poems which deal with reform themes. The satires in the first and second series of THE BIGLOW PAPERS are among the most famous of these verses. But the two-volume collection of 1848, along with THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL in the same year, also made literature the handmaiden of reform. Three lengthy poems in blank verse, “Prometheus,” “Columbus,” and “A Glance Behind the Curtain” (on Oliver Cromwell), extol great men who stood for the liberation of mankind. “The Present Crisis” is a stirring abolition poem. THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL, on the surface a poem about a knight’s search for the Holy Grail, puts forth the theme of Christian charity. Launfal is told, as he hands a cup of water to a thirsty leper,
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