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.)