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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Lowell, James Russell (1819-1891)
"It seems to me that the bane of our country is a profession of faith either with no basis of real belief, or with no proper examination of the grounds on which the creed is supposed to rest."

--James Russell Lowell


James Russell Lowell was a United States Romantic poet, critic, satirist, writer, diplomat, and abolitionist.

Lowell was born, lived most of his life, and died, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was the son of Charles Lowell (1782–1861). On his mother's side he was descended from the Spences and Trails, who made their home in the Orkney Islands. His great-grandfather, Robert Trail, had returned to Britain on the outbreak of hostilities in 1775.

He was brought up near open countryside, and always felt close to nature; he also became acquainted with the work of Edmund Spenser and Sir Walter Scott in childhood, and was taught old ballads by his mother. His schoolmaster was an Englishman, and before he entered Harvard College he had a more familiar acquaintance with Latin verse than most.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1838, after an undistinguished academic career. During his college course he wrote a number of trivial pieces for a college magazine, and shortly after graduating printed for private circulation the poem his class had asked him to write for their graduation festivities. Not knowing what vocation to choose, he vacillated among business, the ministry, medicine and law. Having decided to practise law, he took a course at the Harvard law school, and was admitted to the bar. While studying law, however, he contributed poems and prose articles to various magazines and was one of the five members of the group known as the Fireside Poets.

After an unhappy love affair, he became engaged to Maria White in the autumn of 1840, and the next twelve years of his life were deeply affected by her influence. Maria White Lowell was herself a noted poet. Her character and beliefs led her to become involved in the movements directed against the evils of intemperance and slavery. Lowell was already regarded as a man of wit and poetic sentiment; Miss White was admired for her beauty, her character and her intellectual gifts, and the two became the hero and heroine of their social circle.

In 1841, Lowell published A Year's Life, which was dedicated to his future wife, and recorded his new emotions with a backward glance at the preceding period of depression and irresolution. Lowell was inspired to new efforts towards self-support, and though nominally maintaining his law office, he joined a friend, Robert Carter, in founding a literary journal, The Pioneer.

It opened the way to new ideals in literature and art, and the writers to whom Lowell turned for assistance—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whittier, Edgar Allan Poe, Story and Parsons, none of them yet possessed of a wide reputation—indicate the acumen of the editor. Lowell had already turned his studies in dramatic and early poetic literature to account in another magazine, and continued the series in The Pioneer, besides contributing poems; but after three monthly numbers, beginning in January 1843, the magazine ceased publication, partly because of Lowell's sudden illness, partly through the inexperience and unfortunate business connections of the founders. Nevertheless, the venture confirmed him in his desire for a literary career.

In 1843 he published a collection of his poems, and a year later he gathered up certain material which he had printed, edited and added to it, and produced Conversations on Some of the Old Poets. The dialogue form was used, but there was no attempt at the dramatic. The book reflects Lowell's state of mind at the time, for the conversations relate only partly to the poets and dramatists of the Elizabethan era; they also include discussion of current reforms in church, state and society.

Literature and reform continued to share Lowell's attention for the next decade. Just as the book appeared, he and Maria were married, and spent the winter and early spring of 1845 in Philadelphia. Here, besides continuing his literary contributions to magazines, Lowell had a regular engagement as an editorial writer on The Pennsylvania Freeman, a fortnightly journal devoted to the Anti-Slavery cause.

In the spring of 1845 the Lowells returned to Cambridge and made their home at Elmwood. Blanche, the first child born to Lowell, was born on the last day of 1845. Sadly she died fifteen months later. A second daughter, Mabel, was born six months after Blanche's death, and lived to survive her father; a third, Rose, died in infancy.

Lowell's mother was in poor mental health, and his wife was physically frail. These troubles combined with a lack of money conspired to make Lowell almost a recluse, but he continued to produce writings which show the interest he took in affairs. He contributed poems to the daily press, prompted by the slavery question; early in 1846, he was a correspondent of the London Daily News, and in the spring of 1848 he formed a connection with the National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York, agreeing to contribute weekly either a poem or a prose article.

The prose articles form a series of incisive, witty and sometimes prophetic diatribes. It was a period of great mental activity, and four books which stand as witnesses to the Lowell of 1848, namely, the second series of Poems, containing among others "Columbus," "An Indian Summer Reverie," "To the Dandelion,"; "The Changeling"; A Fable for Critics, in which, after the manner of Leigh Hunt's The Feast of the Poets, he characterizes in witty verse and with good-natured satire American contemporary writers, and in which, the publication being anonymous, he included himself; The Vision of Sir Launfal, a romantic story suggested by the Arthurian legends—one of his most popular poems; and finally The Biglow Papers.

Lowell had already acquired a reputation, but this satire brought him wider fame. The book was not premeditated; a single poem, inspired by the recruiting for the abhorred Mexican-American War, couched in rustic phrase and sent to the Boston Courier, made him a leader of the little army of Anti-Slavery reformers. Lowell discovered what he had done at the same time that the public did, and he followed the poem with eight others, either in the Courier or the Anti-Slavery Standard.

He developed four well-defined characters in the process: a country farmer, Ezekiel Biglow, and his son Hosea; the Rev. Homer Wilbur, a shrewd old-fashioned country minister; and Birdofredum Sawin, a Northern renegade who enters the army, together with one or two subordinate characters; and his stinging satire and sly humor are so set forth in the vernacular of New England as to give at once a historic dignity to this form of speech. (Later he wrote an elaborate paper to show the survival in New England of the English of the early 17th century.) He embroidered his verse with an entertaining apparatus of notes and mock criticism; even his index was spiced with wit. The book was a caustic arraignment of the course taken in connexion with the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War.

The death of Lowell's mother, and the fragility of his wife's health, led Lowell, his wife, their daughter Mabel and their infant son Walter, to go to Europe in 1851, and they went direct to Italy. Walter died suddenly in Rome, and they received news of the illness of Lowell's father. They returned in November 1852, and Lowell published some recollections of his journey in the magazines, collecting the sketches later in a prose volume, Fireside Travels. He took part in the editing of an American edition of the British Poets, but the state of his wife's health preoccupied him, and only her death (27 October 1853) released him from the strain of anxiety, the grief accompanied by a readjustment of his nature and a new intellectual activity.

At the invitation of his cousin, he delivered a course of lectures on English poets at the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1855. This first formal appearance as a critic and historian of literature at once gave him a new standing in the community, and he was elected to the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages in Harvard College, made vacant by the retirement of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Lowell accepted the appointment, with the proviso that he should have a year of study abroad. He spent it mainly in Germany, visiting Italy, and increasing his acquaintance with the French, German, Italian and Spanish languages.

He returned to America in the summer of 1856, and began his college duties, retaining his position for twenty years. As a teacher he proved a quickener of thought amongst students, rather than a close instructor. His power lay in the interpretation of literature rather than in linguistic study, and his influence over his pupils was exercised by his own fireside as well as in the relation, always friendly and familiar, which he held to them in the classroom. In 1856 he married Frances Dunlap, who was in charge of his daughter Mabel.

In the autumn of 1857 The Atlantic Monthly was established, and Lowell was its first editor. He at once gave the magazine the stamp of high literature and of bold speech on public affairs. He held this position only till the spring of 1861, but he continued to make the magazine the vehicle of his poetry and of some prose for the rest of his life; his prose, however, was more abundantly presented in the pages of The North American Review during the years 1862-1872, when he was associated with Mr. Charles Eliot Norton in its conduct.

This magazine especially gave him the opportunity of expression of political views during the eventful years of the War of the Union. It was in The Atlantic during the same period that he published a second series of The Biglow Papers. Both his collegiate and editorial duties stimulated his critical powers, and the publication in the two magazines, followed by republication in book form, of a series of studies of great authors, gave him an important place as a critic. Shakespeare, Dryden, Lessing, Rousseau, Dante, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton, Keats, Carlyle, Thoreau, Swinburne, Chaucer, Emerson, Pope, Gray--these are the principal subjects of his prose, and the range of topics indicates the catholicity of his taste.

He wrote also a number of essays, such as "My Garden Acquaintance," "A Good Word for Winter," "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners," which were incursions into the field of nature and society. Although the great bulk of his writing was now in prose, he made after this date some of his most notable ventures in poetry. In 1868 he issued the next collection in Under the Willows and Other Poems, but in 1865 he had delivered his "Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration," and the successive centennial historical anniversaries drew from him a series of stately odes.

In 1877 Lowell, who had mingled so little in party politics that the sole public office he had held was the nominal one of elector in the Presidential election of 1876, was appointed by President Hayes minister resident at the court of Spain. He had a good knowledge of Spanish language and literature, and his long-continued studies in history and his quick judgment enabled him speedily to adjust himself to these new relations.

Some of his despatches to the home government were published in a posthumous volume Impressions of Spain. In 1880 he was transferred to London as American minister, and remained there till the close of President Arthur's administration in the spring of 1885. As a man of letters he was already well known in England, and he was in much demand as an orator on public occasions, especially of a literary nature; but he also proved himself a sagacious publicist, and made himself a wise interpreter of each country to the other.

Shortly after his retirement from public life he published Democracy and Other Addresses, all of which had been delivered in England. The title address was an epigrammatic confession of political faith as hopeful as it was wise and keen. The close of his stay in England was saddened by the death of his second wife in 1885. After his return to America he made several visits to England. His public life had made him more of a figure in the world; he was decorated with the highest honors Harvard could pay officially, and with degrees of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Bologna.

He issued another collection of his poems, Heartsease and Rue, in 1888, and occupied himself with revising and rearranging his works, which were published in ten volumes in 1890. The last months of his life were attended by illness, and he died at Elmwood on the 12th of August 1891. After his death his literary executor, Charles Eliot Norton, published a brief collection of his poems, and two volumes of added prose, besides editing his letters.

The spontaneity of Lowell's nature is delightfully disclosed in his personal letters. They are often brilliant, and sometimes very penetrating in their judgment of men and books; but the most constant element is a pervasive humor, and this humor, by turns playful and sentimental, is largely characteristic of his poetry, which sprang from a genial temper, quick in its sympathy with nature and humanity.

The literary refinement which marks his essays in prose is not conspicuous in his verse, which is of a more simple character. There was an apparent conflict in him of the critic and the creator, but the conflict was superficial. The man behind both critical and creative work was so genuine, that through his writings and speech and action he impressed himself deeply upon his generation in America, especially upon the thoughtful and scholarly class who looked upon him as especially their representative.

This is not to say that he was a man of narrow sympathies. On the contrary, he was democratic in his thought, and outspoken in his rebuke of whatever seemed to him antagonistic to the highest freedom. Thus, without taking a very active part in political life, he was recognized as one of the leaders of independent political thought. He found expression in so many ways, and was apparently so inexhaustible in his resources, that his very versatility and the ease with which he gave expression to his thought sometimes stood in the way of a recognition of his large, simple political ideality and the singleness of his moral sight.

Quotations

"Freedom is the only law which genius knows."

"Where Church and State are habitually associated, it is natural that minds, even of a high order, should unconsciously come to regard religion as only a subtler mode of police."

"They talk about their Pilgrim blood,
Their birthright high and holy!
A mountain-stream that ends in mud
Methinks is melancholy."

"It is mediocrity which makes laws and sets mantraps and spring-guns in the realm of free song, saying thus far shalt thou go and no further."

"Men in earnest have no time to waste
In patching fig-leaves for the naked truth."

"The true ideal is not opposed to the real but lies in it; and blessed are the eyes that find it."

"There is no good in arguing with the inevitable. The only argument available with an east wind is to put on your overcoat."

 
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