Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865

by James Russell Lowell
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Themes and Meanings

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Lowell’s ode seeks consolation through a meaning based on the motives and purposes of the fallen soldiers; he does not propose Christian immortality or Greco-Roman enduring fame. At first, the contrast between the active life achieved by the soldiers and the merely intellectual or ordinary lives of those who did not participate in the war is sufficient to argue that their sacrifice was worthwhile. They have mastered fate and stand as a beacon to the future, showing what true manhood is. Yet, the poet is forced to concede, everything passes; no one man’s fame endures. Their devotion to a higher cause is worthy of “man’s praise and woman’s love,” and they have found the “better way.”

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However, praise and celebration are undermined by the irremovable fact of death: The poet’s paean continually turns into a dirge. This tension is resolved as the poet reflects that the dead may be lost as individuals, but they have left a legacy to their fellow and future citizens that raises them into “a new imperial race.” As a result, the “rescued Nation” has attained a nobility beyond any aristocratic European models. Rather than isolated individuals, the “pith and marrow of a Nation” have accomplished this great victory. The nation, restored to peace, can be confident in the face of any challenge. All can join together to dedicate themselves to the nation and its distinctive merit: freedom, truth, openness to all.

This theme underwrites the elegy to Lincoln in stanza 6. He too has fallen but has shown a new model of leadership and heroism. Out of the West has come a traditional shepherd of the people, yet with something new: great not by birth but by sincerity, humility, and equality, in contrast to European aristocrats. He is “New birth of our new soil, the first American.”

A counterpoint to these themes is that of the poet’s relation to the heroes and to the nation. At first, the poet depreciates the value of mere poetry in comparison to the deeds of the fallen. Yet his reflection and feeling turn as he grasps the legacy of courage and devotion to the country’s cause and ideals that moved these young men. He takes inspiration from them and finds the point of view and the tone suited to celebration. The poet’s “passions, hopes, and fears,” his “triumphs and his tears,” keep “measure with his people.” He can then legitimately join in the gratitude of the nation restored and—confident that he is expressing the feelings of his audience—vow that whatever the nation asks, “we will dare.”

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