Much of James Russell Lowell’s poetry does not deserve as harsh a judgment as he himself accorded it. Partially, Lowell’s sense of failure came from his inability to settle on what kind of verse he was most suited to write. He could pose as a lyric poet who was facile in dressing up contemporary ideas in traditional verse forms with appropriately suitable diction in the manner of the Fireside school. He could pose as a writer of light verse who could supply the periodical audience with historical romances such as The Vision of Sir Launfal or warmhearted, local-color sketches of New England eccentrics. He could pose as a satiric poet who could capture the foibles of the political and academic establishments. He could pose as a philosophical poet in the manner of William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Yet none of his four most frequently employed poetic stances seemed to be the genuine voice of James Russell Lowell. His regret that he had never “really caught up” to his muse was a complaint that many of his severest critics would echo. “In Mr. Lowell’s prose works,” a reviewer pointed out in 1848, “we have before observed a certain disjointedness.” With his new A Fable for Critics, the “looseness,” the “rambling plot,” the “want of artistic finish,” the “lack of polish” characteristic of his criticism had spilled over into his approach to poetry, the critic continued. In 1952, one of Lowell’s ablest biographers branded his work as lacking the kind of “coherent personality” that could make his words endure.
Unable to find a voice of his own, too distracted by the various employment opportunities that came his way to spend much time rewriting or repressing the worst of his poetry, and betrayed by his own prodigious talents, which enabled him to dash off verses quickly and fluently, Lowell had produced by the end of his life much undistinguished poetry. In each of his four characteristic modes, however, individual poems can be found that display a high degree of craftsmanship, a quick wit, a sharp eye for detail, an easy, natural cadence, and a steady and thoughtful mind.
Six of Lowell’s thirteen collections of verse were anchored by traditional odes, sonnets, and lyrics dressed up in a style that one of Lowell’s contemporaries praised as a “masterful” blend of all “the chords of a lyre,” sounding in “loud, but harmonious concert.” In A Year’s Life, the 1844 and the 1848 editions of Poems, Under the Willows and Other Poems, Heartsease and Rue, and Last Poems of James Russell Lowell, Lowell struggled with the poetic conventions of his day. Frequently, he lost. Imitating alternately the voices of John Keats, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Lowell created a series of random reflections that stitched together pat phrases, formulaic ideas, long Latinate constructions, and overly generalized descriptions. These were the least successful of his four stylistic poses. They reworked well-worn subject matter: his love for Maria White in the earlier volumes and his awe of the New England countryside in the later ones. Frequently, they were derived not from his actual life experiences but from secondary reactions to some other art form: a review of “The Mona Lisa” or “On Hearing a Sonata of Beethoven Played in the Next Room” or his sonnet sequences to Keats or Wordsworth. Many of these poems managed to sound “poetic” without displaying much originality or passion. They could offhandedly summarize Keats’s poetry as “serene and pure, like gushing joy of light.” They could describe Lowell’s fiancé as a “maiden whose birth could command the morning-stars their ancient music make.” They could explain the duty of the poet: “his nobleness should be God like high” so that “his least deed is perfect as a star.”
On occasion, however, he could infuse even these traditional forms with a freshness of diction, a naturalness of rhythm, a precision of image, and an economy of language showing that when he found the time to write, he could write very well indeed. In Under the Willows and Other Poems and Heartsease and Rue, Lowell’s facility at turning a phrase could frequently redeem his conventional material by unconventional animation. His skies could be “sweet as a psalm.” A scorned lover, “walking alone where we walked together,” could discover “in the grey autumnal weather” that “the leaves fade, inconstant as you.” His philosophy of life could be compressed into the pithy “not failure, but low aim, is the crime.”
When Lowell aimed his poetry lower, however, he frequently achieved greater success. His conventional lyrics, which were aimed at a cultivated audience who demanded conventional ideas in a conventional style, frequently deadened Lowell’s enthusiasms. When he wrote down to a less educated readership with the aim of persuading, delighting, or entertaining, he often gave his natural wit full rein and created a series of lighthearted poems having the suppleness, spontaneity, and mischievousness of Mark Twain’s prose or Ogden Nash’s verse. His first three volumes contained few of these newspaper or magazine pieces, but Under the Willows and Other Poems and Heartsease and Rue were in the main collections of periodical pieces first printed in The Atlantic Monthly, the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, The Nation, and the New York Ledger.
“The Unhappy Lot of Mr. Knott”
“The Unhappy Lot of Mr. Knott,” which first appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1851, typified this happier Lowell with its sharp-edged portrait of the more shallow aspirations of New...
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