Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865 Analysis

James Russell Lowell

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”

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...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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”...

(The entire section is 611 words.)