James Russell Lowell was a United States Romantic poet, critic,
satirist, writer, diplomat, and abolitionist.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
is the only law which genius knows."
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."
talk about their Pilgrim blood,
Their birthright high and holy!
A mountain-stream that ends in mud
Methinks is melancholy."
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
in earnest have no time to waste
In patching fig-leaves for the naked truth."
true ideal is not opposed to the real but lies in it; and blessed
are the eyes that find it."
is no good in arguing with the inevitable. The only argument available
with an east wind is to put on your overcoat."