Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865

by James Russell Lowell
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

James Russell Lowell’s Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865 consists of 426 irregularly rhyming lines of six to twelve syllables (the first line has four syllables) divided into twelve stanzas of varying length. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14. Lowell’s ode was commissioned to be read at a service to commemorate Harvard men who died fighting for the Union. The poem praises the dedication of the fallen to a high ideal, and a lengthy stanza pays tribute to Lincoln. The poet and his audience, taking inspiration from the dead, vow renewed devotion to the “rescued Nation.”

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The first stanza concedes that poetry seems too weak to honor the valor of the slain, yet it may preserve their memory. Science and the arts cannot raise humans above death, but truth can “entice” people to courageous deeds. Those who seek truth in intellectual labors or contemplative faith rank below those who seek truth through action. Life is fleeting and wasted in material ambition and trivial pursuits, but something higher beckons people to claim a heavenly birthright. The path to a higher fate is steep and difficult. Peace has its value, but when conflict erupts, the Ideal and Truth claim stalwart, heroic action in their defense. The manly, drawing on inner strength, respond. Such was “our Martyr-Chief” Lincoln. Formed by nature of clay from “the unexhausted West,” he shepherded his people with wisdom. He is thus a new kind of hero, “the first American,” with “nothing of Europe.”

Returning to the theme, humanity’s hope points to something beyond the self, faith in “some ideal Good,” whether called “Freedom, Law, [or] Country.” Those who meet this challenge deserve and will always win “man’s praise and woman’s love.” The thought of the fallen again plunges the poet into sorrow. Yet, compared to their faith and courage, survivors seem to be the dead. Can their remembrance escape change and oblivion, which rule everything?

Manhood is larger than a single man. The soldiers’ courageous deeds will raise up “a new imperial race.” Europe’s dynasties are outworn, but these men bequeath high honor to a democratic nation. The nation’s song must end in exultant gratitude. The achievement of these men, the “pith and marrow of a Nation,” strengthens all people. Church bells and beacon fires spread the news across the continent that the country is saved. The twelfth and final stanza exhorts the very land to bow down in prayer and praise to God. The poet speaks for all people in expressing deep love of his beautiful country and vowing readiness to dare whatever the land may ask of people.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

The poem’s form is that of the Pindaric or “irregular” ode. Its lofty style and irregular meter are suited to deep thought and intense emotion in response to an important public occasion. The language is consistently elevated, dignified, and general; the diction is archaic and literary. Phrases such as “feathered words” and “slender life” echo Greek poetry. The diction is appropriate to the formality and dignity of the occasion and theme; to the Harvard audience, which included distinguished scholars; and to the poet’s own academic position. Various phrases echo Miltonic (“that clear fame”) or Shakespearean style (“we poor puppets, jerked by unseen wires,/ After our little hour of strut and rave”; “That is best blood that hath most iron in ‘t/ To edge resolve with”). Many images are conventional and ancient: The dead are crowned with laurel, the poet sweeps the strings of his lyre, mortals are like leaves that fall, the path to fame is steep and harsh.

While responding to its occasion, the ode aims at a generality that transcends the particular. Neither Harvard nor Lincoln is actually named. By praising the soldiers’ dedication to truth, Lowell alludes to Harvard’s motto, “Veritas” (Latin for “truth”). Readers are not told how or why the “Martyr-Chief” (Lincoln) has fallen. The issues in the Civil War are only allusions; for example, the poet says that now even the poorest within America’s borders can lift “an enfranchised brow” (meaning they were “set free”; emancipated slaves were not guaranteed the vote until 1870). Personified ideas serve as agents of action: Ideal, Nation, Land, Truth, Danger, Soul. Thus the style directs the reader away from specific historical facts toward deeper and enduring meanings.

Another side of the poem’s generality is its deliberate effect of vigorous, spontaneous, unrevised thought under the pressure of the occasion. Energetic condensation, even at the cost of some violence to diction or syntax, engages the reader’s active effort to decipher the meaning. Lincoln’s mind, for example, was not a lonely mountain peak, sometimes hidden in vapors; it was like the prairie (where he grew up), genial, level, yet near the stars. Similarly, in a visionary moment, the poet sees the “aureoled presence” of the dead and says, “We feel the orient of their spirit glow.” The light of a brighter morning shines on the young heroes, but they are themselves a source of light to those left behind. “Orient” captures this double sense.

Paradoxes and thoughts contrary to the conventional reinforce the effect of strenuous thought. Thus, those who died for truth achieved so intense a life that those who are left behind seem dead. Elaborate and surprising metaphors contribute as well: The soldiers write poems in their blood by their deeds; Peace has its value until “the sharp, decisive word/ Light the black lips of cannon.”

The varying line lengths and rhyme patterns also support the impression of intense and sharply changing emotion. More than once, the mood of a stanza reverses at the midpoint, marked by a phrase such as “But stay!” or “Say not so!” Meter is used most effectively to create incantatory rhythms. In the climactic stanza 11, where the poet finds consolation for fallen individuals in the legacy they leave their country, the first half of the stanza consists mostly of seven-syllable lines with the rhythm of a magic charm. In the second half, the meter reverts to mostly ten-syllable lines, suggesting the achieved stability of mood and thought as the poet praises the nation. Similarly, the poem ends with a rhythmically compact group of six-syllable lines with feminine rhymes as the poet and his audience rededicate themselves to their country.

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Themes