Copyright, 1908, by Charles E. Merrill Co.
The aim of this edition of the Vision of Sir Launfal is to furnish the material that must be used in any adequate treatment of the poem in the class room, and to suggest other material that may be used in the more leisurely and fruitful method of study that is sometimes possible in spite of the restrictions of arbitrary courses of study.
In interpreting the poem with young students, special emphasis should be given to the ethical significance, the broad appeal to human sympathy and the sense of a common brotherhood of men, an appeal that is in accord with the altruistic tendencies of the present time; to the intimate appreciation and love of nature expressed in the poem, feelings also in accord with the present movement of cultured minds toward the natural world; to the lofty and inspiring idealism of Lowell, as revealed in the poems included in this volume and in his biography, and also as contrasted with current materialism; and, finally, to the romantic sources of the story in the legends of King Arthur and his table round, a region of literary delight too generally unknown to present-day students.
After these general topics, it is assumed that such matters as literary structure and poetic beauty will receive due attention. If the technical faults of the poem, which critics are at much pains to point out, are not discovered by the student, his knowledge will be quite as profitable. Additional reading in Lowell's works should be secured, and can be through the sympathetic interest and enthusiasm of the instructor. The following selections may be used for rapid examination and discussion: Under the Willows, The First Snow-Fall, Under the Old Elm, Auf Wiedersehen, Sunthin' in the Pastoral Line, Jonathan to John, Mr. Hosea Biglow to the Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the prose essays My Garden Acquaintance and A Good Word for Winter. The opportunity should not be lost for making the students forever and interestedly acquainted with Lowell, with the poet and the man.
The editor naturally does not assume responsibility for the character of the examination questions given, at the end of this volume. They are questions that have been used in recent years in college entrance papers by two eminent examination boards.
October 1, 1908.
|Life of Lowell||7|
|The Vision of Sir Launfal||26|
|The Commemoration Ode||33|
|Poets' Tributes to Lowell||40|
|The Vision of Sir Launfal||41|
|The Shepherd of King Admetus||59|
|An Incident in a Railroad Car||61|
|To the Dandelion||67|
|An Indian-Summer Reverie||77|
|The Present Crisis||103|
|The Commemoration Ode||116|
|The Vision of Sir Launfal||135|
|The Shepherd of King Admetus||151|
|To the Dandelion||152|
|An Indian-Summer Reverie||154|
|The Present Crisis||160|
|The Commemoration Ode||162|
In Cambridge there are two literary shrines to which visitors are sure to find their way soon after passing the Harvard gates, "Craigie House," the home of Longfellow and "Elmwood," the home of Lowell. Though their hallowed retirement has been profaned by the encroachments of the growing city, yet in their simple dignity these fine old colonial mansions still bespeak the noble associations of the past, and stand as memorials of the finest products of American culture.
Elmwood was built before the Revolution by Thomas Oliver, the Tory governor, who signed his abdication at the invitation of a committee of "about four thousand people" who surrounded his house at Cambridge. The property was confiscated by the Commonwealth and used by the American army during the war. In 1818 it was purchased by the Rev. Charles Lowell, pastor of the West Congregational Church in Boston, and after ninety years it is still the family home. Here was born, February 22, 1819, James Russell Lowell, with surroundings most propitious for the nurturing of a poet-soul. Within the stately home there was a refined family life; the father had profited by the unusual privilege of three years' study abroad, and his library of some four thousand volumes was not limited to theology; the mother, whose maiden name was Spence and who traced her Scotch ancestry back to the hero of the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, taught her children the good old ballads and the romantic stories in the Fairie Queen, and it was one of the poet's earliest delights to recount the adventures of Spenser's heroes and heroines to his playmates.
An equally important influence upon his early youth was the out-of-door life at Elmwood. To the love of nature his soul was early dedicated, and no American poet has more truthfully and beautifully interpreted the inspired teachings of nature, whispered through the solemn tree-tops or caroled by the happy birds. The open fields surrounding Elmwood and the farms for miles around were his familiar playground, and furnished daily adventures for his curious and eager mind. The mere delight of this experience with nature, he says, "made my childhood the richest part of my life. It seems to me as if I had never seen nature again since those old days when the balancing of a yellow butterfly over a thistle bloom was spiritual food and lodging for a whole forenoon." In the Cathedral is an autobiographic passage describing in a series of charming pictures some of those choice hours of childhood:
Quite like other boys Lowell was subjected to the processes of the more formal education of books. He was first sent to a "dame school," and then to the private school of William Wells, under whose rigid tuition he became thoroughly grounded in the classics. Among his schoolfellows was W.W. Story, the poet-sculptor, who continued his life-long friend. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was one of the younger boys of the school, recalls the high talk of Story and Lowell about the Fairie Queen. At fifteen he entered Harvard College, then an institution with about two hundred students. The course of study in those days was narrow and dull, a pretty steady diet of Greek, Latin and Mathematics, with an occasional dessert of Paley's Evidences of Christianity or Butler's Analogy. Lowell was not distinguished for scholarship, but he read omnivorously and wrote copiously, often in smooth flowing verse, fashioned after the accepted English models of the period. He was an editor of Harvardiana, the college magazine, and was elected class poet in his senior year. But his habit of lounging with the poets in the secluded alcoves of the old library, in preference to attending recitations, finally became too scandalous for official forbearance, and he was rusticated, "on account of constant neglect of his college duties," as the faculty records state. He was sent to Concord, where his exile was not without mitigating profit, as he became acquainted with Emerson and Thoreau. Here he wrote the class poem, which he was permitted to circulate in print at his Commencement. This production, which now stands at the head of the list of his published works, was curiously unprophetic of his later tendencies. It was written in the neatly, polished couplets of the Pope type and other imitative metres, and aimed to satirize the radical movements of the period, especially the transcendentalists and abolitionists, with both of whom he was soon to be in active sympathy.
Lowell's first two years out of college were troubled with rather more than the usual doubts and questionings that attend a young man's choice of a profession. He studied for a bachelor's degree in law, which he obtained in two years. But the work was done reluctantly. Law books, he says, "I am reading with as few wry faces as I may." Though he was nominally practicing law for two years, there is no evidence that he ever had a client, except the fictitious one so pleasantly described in his first magazine article, entitled My First Client. From Coke and Blackstone his mind would inevitably slip away to hold more congenial communion with the poets. He became intensely interested in the old English dramatists, an interest that resulted in his first series of literary articles, The Old English Dramatists, published in the Boston Miscellany. The favor with which these articles were received increased, he writes, the "hope of being able one day to support myself by my pen, and to leave a calling which I hate, and for which I am not well fitted, to say the least."
During this struggle between law and literature an influence came into Lowell's life that settled his purposes, directed his aspirations and essentially determined his career. In 1839 he writes to a friend about a "very pleasant young lady," who "knows more poetry than any one I am acquainted with." This pleasant young lady was Maria White, who became his wife in 1844. The loves of this young couple constitute one of the most pleasing episodes in the history of our literature, idyllic in its simple beauty and inspiring in its spiritual perfectness. "Miss White was a woman of unusual loveliness," says Mr. Norton, "and of gifts of mind and heart still more unusual, which enabled her to enter with complete sympathy into her lover's intellectual life and to direct his genius to its highest aims." She was herself a poet, and a little volume of her poems published privately after her death is an evidence of her refined intellectual gifts and lofty spirit.
In 1841 Lowell published his first collection of poems, entitled A Year's Life. The volume was dedicated to "Una," a veiled admission of indebtedness for its inspiration to Miss White. Two poems particularly, Irene and My Love, and the best in the volume, are rapturous expressions of his new inspiration. In later years he referred to the collection as "poor windfalls of unripe experience." Only nine of the sixty-eight poems were preserved in subsequent collections. In 1843, with a young friend, Robert Carter, Lowell launched a new magazine, The Pioneer, with the high purpose, as the prospectus stated, of giving the public "a rational substitute" for the "namby-pamby love tales and sketches monthly poured out to them by many of our popular magazines." These young reformers did not know how strongly the great reading public is attached to its literary flesh-pots, and so the Pioneer proved itself too good to live in just three months. The result of the venture to Lowell was an interesting lesson in editorial work and a debt of eighteen hundred dollars. His next venture was a second volume of Poems, issued in 1844, in which the permanent lines of his poetic development appear more clearly than in A Year's Life. The tone of the first volume was uniformly serious, but in the second his muse's face begins to brighten with the occasional play of wit and humor. The volume was heartily praised by the critics and his reputation as a new poet of convincing distinction was established. In the following year appeared Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, a volume of literary criticism interesting now mainly as pointing to maturer work in this field.
It is generally stated that the influence of Maria White made Lowell an Abolitionist, but this is only qualifiedly true. A year before he had met her he wrote to a friend: "The Abolitionists are the only ones with whom I sympathize of the present extant parties." Freedom, justice, humanitarianism were fundamental to his native idealism. Maria White's enthusiasm and devotion to the cause served to crystallize his sentiments and to stimulate him to a practical participation in the movement. Both wrote for the Liberty Bell, an annual published in the interests of the anti-slavery agitation. Immediately after their marriage they went to Philadelphia where Lowell for a time was an editorial writer for the Pennsylvania Freeman, an anti-slavery journal once edited by Whittier. During the next six years he was a regular contributor to the Anti-Slavery Standard, published in New York. In all of this prose writing Lowell exhibited the ardent spirit of the reformer, although he never adopted the extreme views of Garrison and others of the ultra-radical wing of the party.
But Lowell's greatest contribution to the anti-slavery cause was the Biglow Papers, a series of satirical poems in the Yankee dialect, aimed at the politicians who were responsible for the Mexican War, a war undertaken, as he believed, in the interests of the Southern slaveholders. Hitherto the Abolitionists had been regarded with contempt by the conservative, complacent advocates of peace and "compromise," and to join them was essentially to lose caste in the best society. But now a laughing prophet had arisen whose tongue was tipped with fire. The Biglow Papers was an unexpected blow to the slave power. Never before had humor been used directly as a weapon in political warfare. Soon the whole country was ringing with the homely phrases of Hosea Biglow's satiric humor, and deriding conservatism began to change countenance. "No speech, no plea, no appeal," says George William Curtis, "was comparable in popular and permanent effect with this pitiless tempest of fire and hail, in the form of wit, argument, satire, knowledge, insight, learning, common-sense, and patriotism. It was humor of the purest strain, but humor in deadly earnest." As an embodiment of the elemental Yankee character and speech it is a classic of final authority. Says Curtis, "Burns did not give to the Scotch tongue a nobler immortality than Lowell gave to the dialect of New England."
The year 1848 was one of remarkably productive results for Lowell. Besides the Biglow Papers and some forty magazine articles and poems, he published a third collection of Poems, the Vision of Sir Launfal, and the Fable for Critics. The various phases of his composite genius were nearly all represented in these volumes. The Fable was a good-natured satire upon his fellow authors, in which he touched up in rollicking rhymed couplets the merits and weaknesses of each, not omitting himself, with witty characterization and acute critical judgment; and it is still read for its delicious humor and sterling criticism. For example, the lines on Poe will always be quoted:
And so the sketch of Hawthorne:
Lowell was now living in happy content at Elmwood. His father, whom he once speaks of as a "Dr. Primrose in the comparative degree," had lost a large portion of his property, and literary journals in those days sent very small checks to young authors. So humble frugality was an attendant upon the high thinking of the poet couple, but this did not matter, since the richest objects of their ideal world could be had without price. But clouds suddenly gathered over their beautiful lives. Four children were born, three of whom died in infancy. Lowell's deep and lasting grief for his first-born is tenderly recorded in the poems She Came and Went and the First Snow-Fall. The volume of poems published in 1848 was "reverently dedicated" to the memory of "our little Blanche," and in the introductory poem addressed "To M.W.L." he poured forth his sorrow like a libation of tears:
The year 1851-52 was spent abroad for the benefit of Mrs. Lowell's health, which was now precarious. At Rome their little son Walter died, and one year after their return to Elmwood sorrow's crown of sorrow came to the poet in the death of Mrs. Lowell, October, 1853. For years after the dear old home was to him The Dead House, as he wrote of it:
Before 1854 Lowell's literary success had been won mainly in verse. With the appearance in the magazines of A Moosehead Journal, Fireside Travels, and Leaves from My Italian Journal his success as a prose essayist began. Henceforth, and against his will, his prose was a stronger literary force than his poetry. He now gave a course of lectures on the English poets at the Lowell Institute, and during the progress of these lectures he received notice of his appointment to succeed Longfellow in the professorship of the French and Spanish languages and Belles-Lettres in Harvard College. A year was spent in Europe in preparation for his new work, and during the next twenty years he faithfully performed the duties of the professorship, pouring forth the ripening fruits of his varied studies in lectures such as it is not often the privilege of college students to hear. That pulling in the yoke of this steady occupation was sometimes galling is shown in his private letters. To W.D. Howells he wrote regretfully of the time and energy given to teaching, and of his conviction that he would have been a better poet if he "had not estranged the muse by donning a professor's gown." But a good teacher always bears in his left hand the lamp of sacrifice.
In 1857 Lowell was married to Miss Frances Dunlap, "a woman of remarkable gifts and grace of person and character," says Charles Eliot Norton. In the same year the Atlantic Monthly was launched and Lowell became its first editor. This position he held four years. Under his painstaking and wise management the magazine quickly became what it has continued to be, the finest representative of true literature among periodicals. In 1864 he joined his friend, Professor Norton, in the editorship of the North American Review, to which he gave much of the distinction for which this periodical was once so worthily famous. In this first appeared his masterly essays on the great poets, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, and the others, which were gathered into the three volumes, Among My Books, first and second series, and My Study Windows. Variety was given to this critical writing by such charming essays as A Good Word for Winter and the deliciously caustic paper On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners.
One of the strongest elements of Lowell's character was patriotism. His love of country and his native soil was not merely a principle, it was a passion. No American author has done so much to enlarge and exalt the ideals of democracy. An intense interest in the welfare of the nation broadened the scope of his literary work and led him at times into active public life. During the Civil War he published a second series of Biglow Papers, in which, says Mr. Greenslet, "we feel the vital stirring of the mind of Lowell as it was moved by the great war; and if they never had quite the popular reverberation of the first series, they made deeper impression, and are a more priceless possession of our literature." When peace was declared in April, 1865, he wrote to Professor Norton: "The news, my dear Charles, is from Heaven. I felt a strange and tender exaltation. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry, and ended by holding my peace and feeling devoutly thankful. There is something magnificent in having a country to love." On July 21 a solemn service was held at Harvard College in memory of her sons who had died in the war, in which Lowell gave the Commemoration Ode, a poem which is now regarded, not as popular, but as marking the highest reach of his poetic power. The famous passage characterizing Lincoln is unquestionably the finest tribute ever paid to Lincoln by an American author.
In the presidential campaign of 1876 Lowell was active, making speeches, serving as delegate to the Republican Convention, and later as Presidential Elector. There was even much talk of sending him to Congress. Through the friendly offices of Mr. Howells, who was in intimate personal relations with President Hayes, he was appointed Minister to Spain. This honor was the more gratifying to him because he had long been devoted to the Spanish literature and language, and he could now read his beloved Calderon with new joys. In 1880 he was promoted to the English mission, and during the next four years represented his country at the Court of St. James in a manner that raised him to the highest point of honor and esteem in both nations. His career in England was an extraordinary, in most respects an unparalleled success. He was our first official representative to win completely the heart of the English people, and a great part of his permanent achievement was to establish more cordial relations between the two countries. His literary reputation had prepared the ground for his personal popularity. He was greeted as "His Excellency the Ambassador of American Literature to the Court of Shakespeare." His fascinating personality won friends in every circle of society. Queen Victoria declared that during her long reign no ambassador had created so much interest or won so much regard. He had already been honored by degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and now many similar honors were thrust upon him. He was acknowledged to be the best after-dinner speaker in England, and no one was called upon so often for addresses at dedications, the unveiling of tablets, and other civic occasions. It is not strange that he became attached to England with an increasing affection, but there was no diminution of his intense Americanism. His celebrated Birmingham address on Democracy is yet our clearest and noblest exposition of American political principles and ideals.
With the inauguration of Cleveland in 1885 Lowell's official residence in England came to an end. He returned to America and for a time lived with his daughter at Deerfoot Farm. Mrs. Lowell had died in England, and he could not carry his sorrow back to Elmwood alone. He now leisurely occupied himself with literary work, making an occasional address upon literature or politics, which was always distinguished by grace and dignity of style and richness of thought.
In November, 1886, he delivered the oration at the 250th anniversary of the founding of Harvard University, and, rising to the requirements of this notable occasion, he captivated his hearers, among whom were many distinguished delegates from the great universities of Europe as well as of America, by the power of his thought and the felicity of his expression.
During the period of his diplomatic service he added almost nothing to his permanent literary product. In 1869 he had published Under the Willows, a collection that contains some of his finest poems. In the same year The Cathedral was published, a stately poem in blank verse, profound in thought, with many passages of great poetic beauty. In 1888 a final collection of poems was published, entitled Heartsease and Rue, which opened with the memorial poem, Agassiz, an elegy that would not be too highly honored by being bound in a golden volume with Lycidas, Adonais and Thyrsis. Going back to his earliest literary studies, he again (1887) lectured at the Lowell Institute on the old dramatists, Occasionally he gave a poem to the magazines and a collection of these Last Poems was made in 1895 by Professor Norton. During these years were written many of the charming Letters to personal friends, which rank with the finest literary letters ever printed and must always be regarded as an important part of his prose works.
It was a gracious boon of providence that Lowell was permitted to spend his last years at Elmwood, with his daughter, Mrs. Burnett, and his grandchildren. There again, as in the early days, he watched the orioles building their nests and listened to the tricksy catbird's call. To an English friend he writes: "I watch the moon rise behind the same trees through which I first saw it seventy years ago and have a strange feeling of permanence, as if I should watch it seventy years longer." In the old library by the familiar fireplace he sat, when the shadows were playing among his beloved books, communing with the beautiful past. What unwritten poems of pathos and sweetness may have ministered to his great soul we cannot know. In 1890 a fatal disease came upon him, and after long and heroic endurance of pain he died, August 12, 1891, and under the trees of Mt. Auburn he rests, as in life still near his great neighbor Longfellow. In a memorial poem Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke for the thousands who mourned:
Lowell's rich and varied personality presents a type of cultured manhood that is the finest product of American democracy. The largeness of his interests and the versatility of his intellectual powers give him a unique eminence among American authors. His genius was undoubtedly embarrassed by the diffusive tendency of his interests. He might have been a greater poet had he been less the reformer and statesman, and his creative impulses were often absorbed in the mere enjoyment of exercising his critical faculty. Although he achieved only a qualified eminence as poet, or as prose writer, yet because of the breadth and variety of his permanent achievement he must be regarded as our greatest man of letters. His sympathetic interest, always outflowing toward concrete humanity, was a quality—
With marvelous versatility and equal ease he could talk with the down-east farmer and salty seamen and exchange elegant compliments with old world royalty. In The Cathedral he says significantly:
In the delightful little poem, The Nightingale in the Study, we have a fanciful expression of the conflict between Lowell's love of books and love of nature. His friend the catbird calls him "out beneath the unmastered sky," where the buttercups "brim with wine beyond all Lesbian juice." But there are ampler skies, he answers, "in Fancy's land," and the singers though dead so long—
His love of reading is manifest in all his work, giving to his style a bookishness that is sometimes excessive and often troublesome. His expression, though generally direct and clear, and happily colored by personal frankness, is often burdened with learning. To be able to read his essays with full appreciation is in itself evidence of a liberal education. His scholarship was broad and profound, but it was not scholarship in the German sense, exhaustive and exhausting. He studied for the joy of knowing, never for the purpose of being known, and he cared more to know the spirit and meaning of things than to know their causes and origins. A language he learned for the sake of its literature rather than its philology. As Mr. Brownell observes, he shows little interest in the large movements of the world's history. He seemed to prefer history as sublimated in the poet's song. The field of belles-lettres was his native province; its atmosphere was most congenial to his tastes. In book-land it was always June for him—
But books could never divert his soul from its early endearments with out-of-door nature. "The older I grow," he says, "the more I am convinced that there are no satisfactions so deep and so permanent as our sympathies with outward nature." And in the preface to My Study Windows he speaks of himself as "one who has always found his most fruitful study in the open air." The most charming element of his poetry is the nature element that everywhere cheers and stimulates the reader. It is full of sunshine and bird music. So genuine, spontaneous and sympathetic are his descriptions that we feel the very heart throbs of nature in his verse, and in the prose of such records of intimacies with outdoor friends as the essay, My Garden Acquaintance. "How I do love the earth," he exclaims. "I feel it thrill under my feet. I feel somehow as if it were conscious of my love, as if something passed into my dancing blood from it." It is this sensitive nearness to nature that makes him a better interpreter of her "visible forms" than Bryant even; moreover, unlike Bryant he always catches the notes of joy in nature's voices and feels the uplift of a happy inspiration.
In the presence of the immense popularity of Mark Twain, it may seem paradoxical to call Lowell our greatest American humorist. Yet in the refined and artistic qualities of humorous writing and in the genuineness of the native flavor his work is certainly superior to any other humorous writing that is likely to compete with it for permanent interest. Indeed, Mr. Greenslet thinks that "it is as the author of the Biglow Papers that he is likely to be longest remembered." The perpetual play of humor gave to his work, even to the last, the freshness of youth. We love him for his boyish love of pure fun. The two large volumes of his Letters are delicious reading because he put into them "good wholesome nonsense," as he says, "keeping my seriousness to bore myself with."
But this sparkling and overflowing humor never obscures the deep seriousness that is the undercurrent of all his writing. A high idealism characterizes all his work. One of his greatest services to his country was the effort to create a saner and sounder political life. As he himself realized, he often moralized his work too much with a purposeful idealism. In middle life he said, "I shall never be a poet until I get out of the pulpit, and New England was all meeting-house when I was growing up." In religion and philosophy he was conservative, deprecating the radical and scientific tendencies of the age, with its knife and glass—
The moral impulse and the poetic impulse were often in conflict, and much of his early poetry for this reason was condemned by his later judgment. His maturer poems are filled with deep-thoughted lines, phrases of high aspiration and soul-stirring ecstasies. Though his thought is spiritual and ideal, it is always firmly rooted in the experience of common humanity. All can climb the heights with him and catch inspiring glimpses at least of the ideal and the infinite.
"The proportion of his poetry that can be so called is small. But a great deal of it is very fine, very noble, and at times very beautiful, and it discloses the distinctly poetic faculty of which rhythmic and figurative is native expression. It is impressionable rather than imaginative in the large sense; it is felicitous in detail rather than in design; and of a general rather than individual, a representative rather than original, inspiration. There is a field of poetry, assuredly not the highest, but ample and admirable—in which  these qualities, more or less unsatisfactory in prose, are legitimately and fruitfully exercised. All poetry is in the realm of feeling, and thus less exclusively dependent on the thought that is the sole reliance of prose. Being genuine poetry, Lowell's profits by this advantage. Feeling is fitly, genuinely, its inspiration. Its range and limitations correspond to the character of his susceptibility, as those of his prose do to that of his thought. The fusion of the two in the crucible of the imagination is infrequent with him, because with him it is the fancy rather than the imagination that is luxuriant and highly developed. For the architectonics of poetry he had not the requisite reach and grasp, the comprehensive and constructing vision. Nothing of his has any large design or effective interdependent proportions. In a technical way an exception should be noted in his skilful building of the ode—a form in which he was extremely successful and for which he evidently had a native aptitude ... Lowell's constitutes, on the whole, the most admirable American contribution to the nature poetry of English literature—far beyond that of Bryant, Whittier, or Longfellow, I think, and only occasionally excelled here and there by the magic touch of Emerson."—W. C. Brownell, in Scribner's Magazine, February, 1907.
"Lowell is a poet who seems to represent New England more variously than either of his comrades. We find in his work, as in theirs, her loyalty and moral purpose. She has been at cost for his training, and he in turn has read her heart, honoring her as a mother before the world, and seeing beauty in her common garb and speech.... If Lowell be not first of all an original genius, I know not where to look for one. Judged by his personal bearing, who is brighter, more persuasive, more equal to the occasion than himself,—less open to Doudan's stricture upon writers who hoard and store up their thoughts for the betterment of their printed works? Lowell's treasury can stand the drafts of both speech and composition. Judged by his works, as a poet in the end must be, he is one who might gain by revision and compression. But think, as is his due, upon the high-water marks of his abundant tide, and see how enviable the record of a poet who is our most brilliant and learned critic, and who has given us our best native idyll, our best and most complete work in dialectic verse, and the noblest heroic ode that America has produced—each and all ranking with the first of their kinds in English literature of the modern time."—Edmund Clarence Stedman.
"As a racy humorist and a brilliant wit using verse as an instrument of expression, he has no clear superior, probably no equal, so far at least as American readers are concerned, among writers who have employed the English language. As a satirist he has superiors, but scarcely as an inventor of jeux d'esprit. As a patriotic lyrist he has few equals and very few superiors in what is probably the highest function of such a poet—that of stimulating to a noble height the national instincts of his countrymen.... The rest of his poetry may fairly be said to gain on that of any of his American contemporaries save Poe in more sensuous rhythm, in choicer diction, in a more refined and subtilized imagination, and in a deeper, a more brooding intelligence."—Prof. William P. Trent.
"In originality, in virility, in many-sidedness, Lowell is the first of American poets. He not only possessed, at times in nearly equal measure, many of the qualities most notable in his fellow-poets, rivaling Bryant as a painter of nature, and Holmes in pathos, having a touch too of Emerson's transcendentalism, and rising occasionally to Whittier's moral fervor, but he brought to all this much beside. In one vein he produced such a masterpiece of mingled pathos and nature painting as we find in the tenth Biglow letter of the second series; in another, such a lyric gem as The Fountain; in another, The First Snow-Fall and After the Burial; in another, again, the noble Harvard Commemoration Ode.... He had plainly a most defective ear for rhythm and verbal harmony. Except when he confines himself to simple metres, we rarely find five consecutive lines which do not in some way jar on us. His blank verse and the irregular metres which he, unfortunately, so often employs, have little or no music, and are often quite intolerable. But after all the deductions which the most exacting criticism can make, it still remains that, as a serious poet Lowell stands high. As a painter of nature, he has, when at his best, few superiors, and, in his own country, none. Whatever be their esthetic and technical deficiencies, he has written many poems of sentiment and pathos which can never fail to come home to all to whom such poetry appeals. His hortatory and didactic poetry, as it expresses itself in the Commemoration Ode, is worthy, if not of the music and felicity of Milton and Wordsworth, at least of their tone, when that tone is most exalted. As a humorist he is inimitable. His humor is rooted in a fine sense of the becoming, and in a profounder insight into the character of his countrymen than that of any other American writer."—John Churton Collins.
"He was a brilliant wit and a delightful humorist; a discursive essayist of unfailing charm; the best American critic of his time; a scholar of wide learning, deep also when his interest was most engaged; a powerful writer on great public questions; a patriot passionately pure; but first, last, and always he was a poet, never so happy as when he was looking at the world from the poet's mount of vision and seeking for fit words and musical to tell what he had seen. But his emotion was not sufficiently 'recollected in tranquillity.' Had he been more an artist he would have been a better poet, for then he would have challenged the invasions of his literary memory, his humor, his animal spirits, within limits where they had no right of way. If his humor was his rarest, it was his most dangerous gift; so often did it tempt him to laugh out in some holy place.... Less charming than Longfellow, less homely than Whittier, less artistic than Holmes, less grave than Bryant, less vivid than Emerson, less unique than Poe, his qualities, intellectual, moral and esthetic, in their assemblage and coördination assign him to a place among American men of letters which is only a little lower than that which is Emerson's and his alone."—John White Chadwick.
Early in 1848 in a letter to his friend Briggs, Lowell speaks of The Vision of Sir Launfal as "a sort of story, and more likely to be popular than what I write generally. Maria thinks very highly of it." And in another letter he calls it "a little narrative poem." In December, 1848, it was published in a thin volume alone, and at once justified the poet's expectations of popularity. The poem was an improvisation, like that of his "musing organist," for it was written, we are told, almost at a single sitting, entirely within two days. The theme may have been suggested by Tennyson's Sir Galahad, but his familiarity with the old romances and his love of the mystical and symbolic sense of these good old-time tales were a quite ample source for such suggestion. Moreover Lowell in his early years was much given  to seeing visions and dreaming dreams. "During that part of my life," he says, "which I lived most alone, I was never a single night unvisited by visions, and once I thought I had a personal revelation from God Himself." The Fairie Queen was "the first poem I ever read," he says, and the bosky glades of Elmwood were often transformed into an enchanted forest where the Knight of the Red Cross, and Una and others in medieval costume passed up and down before his wondering eyes. This medieval romanticism was a perfectly natural accompaniment of his intense idealism.
The Vision of Sir Launfal and the Fable for Critics, published in the same year, illustrate the two dominant and strikingly contrasted qualities of his nature, a contrast of opposites which he himself clearly perceived. "I find myself very curiously compounded of two utterly distinct characters. One half of me is clear mystic and enthusiast, and the other, humorist," and he adds that "it would have taken very little to have made a Saint Francis" of him. It was the Saint Francis of New England, the moral and spiritual enthusiast in Lowell's nature that produced the poem and gave it power. Thus we see that notwithstanding its antique style and artificial structure, it was a perfectly direct and spontaneous expression of himself.
The allegory of the Vision is easily interpreted, in its main significance. There is nothing original in the lesson, the humility of true charity, and it is a common criticism that the moral purpose of the poem is lost sight of in the beautiful nature pictures. But a knowledge of the events which were commanding Lowell's attention at this time and quickening his native feelings into purposeful utterance gives to the poem a much deeper significance. In 1844, when the discussion over the annexation of Texas was going on, he wrote The Present Crisis, a noble appeal to his countrymen to improve and elevate their principles. During the next four years he was writing editorially for the Standard, the official organ of the Anti-Slavery Society, at the same time he was bringing out the Biglow Papers. In all these forms of expression he voiced constantly the sentiment of reform, which now filled his heart like a holy zeal. The national disgrace of slavery rested heavily upon his soul. He burned with the desire to make God's justice prevail where man's justice had failed. In 1846 he said in a letter, "It seems as if my heart would break in pouring out one glorious song that should be the gospel of Reform, full of consolation and strength to the oppressed, yet falling gently and restoringly as dew on the withered youth-flowers of the oppressor. That way my madness lies, if any." This passionate yearning for reform is embodied poetically in the Vision. In a broad sense, therefore, the poem is an expression of ideal democracy, in which equality, sympathy, and a sense of the common brotherhood of man are the basis of all ethical actions and standards. It is the Christ-like conception of human society that is always so alluring in the poetry and so discouraging in the prose of life.
The following explanation appeared in the early editions of the poem as an introductory note:
"According to the mythology of the Romancers, the San Greal, or Holy Grail, was the cup out of which Jesus Christ partook of the last supper with his disciples. It was brought into England by Joseph of Arimathea, and remained there, an object of pilgrimage and adoration, for many years in the keeping of his lineal descendants. It was incumbent upon those who had charge of it to be chaste in thought, word, and deed; but, one of the keepers having broken this condition, the Holy Grail disappeared. From that time it was a favorite enterprise of the Knights of Arthur's court to go in search of it. Sir Galahad was at last successful in finding it, as may be read in the seventeenth book of the Romance of King Arthur. Tennyson has made Sir Galahad the subject of one of the most exquisite of his poems.
"The plot (if I may give that name to anything so slight) of the following poem is my own, and, to serve its purposes, I have enlarged the circle of competition in search of the miraculous cup in such a manner as to include not only other persons than the heroes of the Round Table, but also a period of time subsequent to the date of King Arthur's reign."
In the last sentence there is a sly suggestion of Lowell's playfulness. Of course every one may compete in the search for the Grail, and the "time subsequent to King Arthur's reign" includes the present time. The Romance of King Arthur is the Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory. Lowell's specific indebtedness to the medieval romances extended only to the use of the symbol of consecration to some noble purpose in the search for the Grail, and to the name of his hero. It is a free version of older French romances belonging to the Arthurian cycle. Sir Launfal is the title of a poem written by Sir Thomas Chestre in the reign of Henry VI, which may be found in Ritson's Ancient English Metrical Romances. There is nothing suggestive of Lowell's poem except the quality of generosity in the hero, who—
One of Lowell's earlier poems, The Search, contains the germ of The Vision of Sir Launfal. It represents a search for Christ, first in nature's fair woods and fields, then in the "proud world" amid "power and wealth," and the search finally ends in "a hovel rude" where—
And Christ, the seeker learns, is not to be found by wandering through the world.
A similar fancy also is embodied in a little poem entitled A Parable. Christ goes through the world to see "How the men, my brethren, believe in me," and he finds "in church, and palace, and judgment-hall," a disregard for the primary principles of his teaching.
These early poems and passages in others written at about the same time, taken in connection with the Vision, show how strongly the theme had seized upon Lowell's mind.
The structure of the poem is complicated and sometimes confusing. At the outset the student must notice that there is a story within a story. The action of the major story covers only a single night, and the hero of this story is the real Sir Launfal, who in his sleep dreams the minor story, the Vision. The action of this story covers the lifetime of the hero, the imaginary Sir Launfal, from early manhood to old age, and includes his wanderings in distant lands. The poem is constructed on the principles of contrast and parallelism. By holding to this method of structure throughout Lowell sacrificed the important artistic element of unity, especially in breaking the narrative with the Prelude to the second part. The first Prelude describing the beauty and inspiring joy of spring, typifying the buoyant youth and aspiring soul of Sir Launfal, corresponds to the second Prelude, describing the bleakness and desolation of winter, typifying the old age and desolated life of the hero. But beneath the surface of this wintry age there is a new soul of summer beauty, the warm love of suffering humanity, just as beneath the surface of the frozen brook there is an ice-palace of summer beauty. In Part First the gloomy castle with its joyless interior stands as the only cold and forbidding thing in the landscape, "like an outpost of winter;" so in Part Second the same castle with Christmas joys within is the only bright and gladsome object in the landscape. In Part First the castle gates never "might opened be"; in Part Second the "castle gates stand open now." And thus the student may find various details contrasted and paralleled. The symbolic meaning must be kept constantly in mind, or it will escape unobserved; for example, the cost of earthly things in comparison with the generosity of June corresponds to the churlish castle opposed to the inviting warmth of summer; and each symbolizes the proud, selfish, misguided heart of Sir Launfal in youth, in comparison with the humility and large Christian charity in old age. The student should search for these symbolic hints, passages in which "more is meant than meets the ear," but if he does not find all that the poet may or may not have intended in his dreamy design, there need be no detraction from the enjoyment of the poem.
Critical judgment upon The Vision of Sir Launfal is generally severe in respect to its structural faults. Mr. Greenslet declares that "through half a century, nine readers out of ten have mistaken Lowell's meaning," even the "numerous commentators" have "interpreted the poem as if the young knight actually adventured the quest and returned from it at the end of years, broken and old." This, however, must be regarded as a rather exaggerated estimate of the lack of unity and consistency in the poem. Stedman says: "I think that The Vision of Sir Launfal owed its success quite as much to a presentation of nature as to its misty legend. It really is a landscape poem, of which the lovely passage, 'And what is so rare as a day in June?' and the wintry prelude to Part Second, are the specific features." And the English critic, J. Churton Collins, thinks that "Sir Launfal, except for the beautiful nature pictures, scarcely rises above the level of an Ingoldsby Legend."
The popular judgment of the poem (which after all is the important judgment) is fairly stated by Mr. Greenslet: "There is probably no poem in American literature in which a visionary faculty like that [of Lowell] is expressed with such a firm command of poetic background and variety of music as in Sir Launfal ... its structure is far from perfect; yet for all that it has stood the searching test of time: it is beloved now by thousands of young American readers, for whom it has been a first initiation to the beauty of poetic idealism."
While studying The Vision of Sir Launfal the student should be made familiar with Tennyson's Sir Galahad and The Holy Grail, and the libretto of Wagner's Parsifal. Also Henry A. Abbey's magnificent series of mural paintings in the Boston Public Library, representing the Quest of the Holy Grail, may be utilized in the Copley Prints. If possible the story of Sir Galahad's search for the Grail in the seventeenth book of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur should be read. It would be well also to read Longfellow's King Robert of Sicily, which to some extent presents a likeness of motive and treatment.
In April, 1865, the Civil War was ended and peace was declared. On July 21 Harvard College held a solemn service in commemoration of her ninety-three sons who had been killed in the war. Eight of these fallen young heroes were of Lowell's own kindred. Personal grief thus added intensity to the deep passion of his utterance upon this great occasion. He was invited to give a poem, and the ode which he presented proved to be the supreme event of the noble service. The scene is thus described by Francis H. Underwood, who was in the audience:
"The services took place in the open air, in the presence of a great assembly. Prominent among the speakers were Major-General Meade, the hero of Gettysburg, and Major-General Devens. The wounds of the war were still fresh and bleeding, and the interest of the occasion was deep and thrilling. The summer afternoon was drawing to its close when the poet began the recital of the ode. No living audience could for the first time follow with intelligent appreciation the delivery of such a poem. To be sure, it had its obvious strong points and its sonorous charms; but, like all the later poems of the author, it is full of condensed thought and requires study. The reader to-day finds many passages whose force and beauty escaped him during the recital, but the effect of the poem at the time was overpowering. The face of the poet, always singularly expressive, was on this occasion almost transfigured—glowing, as if with an inward light. It was impossible to look away from it. Our age has furnished many great historic scenes, but this Commemoration combined the elements of grandeur and pathos, and produced an impression as lasting as life."
Of the delivery and immediate effect of the poem Mr. Greenslet says: "Some in the audience were thrilled and shaken by it, as Lowell himself was shaken in its delivery, yet he seems to have felt with some reason that it was not a complete and immediate success. Nor is this cause for wonder. The passion of the poem was too ideal, its woven harmonies too subtle to be readily communicated to so large an audience, mastered and mellowed though it was by a single deep mood. Nor was Lowell's elocution quite that of the deep-mouthed odist capable of interpreting such organ tones of verse. But no sooner was the poem published, with the matchless Lincoln strophe inserted, than its greatness and nobility were manifest."
The circumstances connected with the writing of the ode have been described by Lowell in his private letters. It appears that he was reluctant to undertake the task, and for several weeks his mind utterly refused to respond to the high duty put upon it. At last the sublime thought came to him upon the swift wings of inspiration. "The ode itself," he says, "was an improvisation. Two days before the commemoration I had told my friend Child that it was impossible—that I was dull as a door-mat. But the next day something gave me a jog, and the whole thing came out of me with a rush. I sat up all night writing it out clear, and took it on the morning of the day to Child." In another letter he says: "The poem was written with a vehement speed, which I thought I had lost in the skirts of my professor's gown. Till within two days of the celebration I was hopelessly dumb, and then it all came with a rush, literally making me lean (mi fece magro), and so nervous that I was weeks in getting over it." In a note in Scudder's biography of Lowell (Vol. II., p. 65), it is stated upon the authority of Mrs. Lowell that the poem was begun at ten o'clock the night before the commemoration day, and finished at four o'clock in the morning. "She opened her eyes to see him standing haggard, actually wasted by the stress of labor and the excitement which had carried him through a poem full of passion and fire, of five hundred and twenty-three lines, in the space of six hours."
Critical estimates are essentially in accord as to the deep significance and permanent poetic worth of this poem. Greenslet, the latest biographer of Lowell, says that the ode, "if not his most perfect, is surely his noblest and most splendid work," and adds: "Until the dream of human brotherhood is forgotten, the echo of its large music will not wholly die away." Professor Beers declares it to be, "although uneven, one of the finest occasional poems in the language, and the most important contribution which our Civil War has made to song." Of its exalted patriotism, George William Curtis says: "The patriotic heart of America throbs forever in Lincoln's Gettysburg address. But nowhere in literature is there a more magnificent and majestic personification of a country whose name is sacred to its children, nowhere a profounder passion of patriotic loyalty, than in the closing lines of the Commemoration Ode. The American whose heart, swayed by that lofty music, does not thrill and palpitate with solemn joy and high resolve does not yet know what it is to be an American."
With the praise of a discriminating criticism Stedman discusses the ode in his Poets of America: "Another poet would have composed a less unequal ode; no American could have glorified it with braver passages, with whiter heat, with language and imagery so befitting impassioned thought. Tried by the rule that a true poet is at his best with the greatest theme, Lowell's strength is indisputable. The ode is no smooth-cut verse from Pentelicus, but a mass of rugged quartz, beautiful with prismatic crystals, and deep veined here and there with virgin gold. The early strophes, though opening with a fine abrupt line, 'weak-winged is song,' are scarcely firm and incisive. Lowell had to work up to his theme. In the third division, 'Many loved Truth, and lavished life's best oil,' he struck upon a new and musical intonation of the tenderest thoughts. The quaver of this melodious interlude carries the ode along, until the great strophe is reached,—
in which the man, Abraham Lincoln, whose death had but just closed the national tragedy, is delineated in a manner that gives this poet a preëminence, among those who capture likeness in enduring verse, that we award to Velasquez among those who fasten it upon the canvas. 'One of Plutarch's men' is before us, face to face; an historic character whom Lowell fully comprehended, and to whose height he reached in this great strophe. Scarcely less fine is his tearful, yet transfiguring, Avete to the sacred dead of the Commemoration. The weaker divisions of the production furnish a background to these passages, and at the close the poet rises with the invocation,—
a strain which shows that when Lowell determinedly sets his mouth to the trumpet, the blast is that of Roncesvalles."
W.C. Brownell, the latest critic of Lowell's poetry, says of this poem: "The ode is too long, its evolution is defective, it contains verbiage, it preaches. But passages of it—the most famous having characteristically been interpolated after its delivery—are equal to anything of the kind. The temptation to quote from it is hard to withstand. It is the cap-sheaf of Lowell's achievement." In this ode "he reaches, if he does not throughout maintain, his own 'clear-ethered height' and his verse has the elevation of ecstasy and the splendor of the sublime."
The versification of this poem should be studied with some particularity. Of the forms of lyric expression the ode is the most elaborate and dignified. It is adapted only to lofty themes and stately occasions. Great liberty is allowed in the choice and arrangement of its meter, rhymes, and stanzaic forms, that its varied form and movement may follow the changing phases of the sentiment and passion called forth by the theme. Lowell has given us an account of his own consideration of this matter. "My problem," he says, "was to contrive a measure which should not be tedious by uniformity, which should vary with varying moods, in which the transitions (including those of the voice) should be managed without jar. I at first thought of mixed rhymed and blank verses of unequal measures, like those in the choruses of Samson Agonistes, which are in the main masterly. Of course, Milton deliberately departed from that stricter form of Greek chorus to which it was bound quite as much (I suspect) by the law of its musical accompaniment as by any sense of symmetry. I wrote some stanzas of the Commemoration Ode on this theory at first, leaving some verses without a rhyme to match. But my ear was better pleased when the rhyme, coming at a longer interval, as a far-off echo rather than instant reverberation, produced the same effect almost, and yet was gratified by unexpectedly recalling an association and faint reminiscence of consonance."
Horace E. Scudder: James Russell Lowell: A Biography. 2 vols. The standard biography.
Ferris Greenslet: James Russell Lowell: His Life and Work. The latest biography (1905) and very satisfactory.
Francis H. Underwood: James Russell Lowell: A Biographical Sketch and Lowell the Poet and the Man. Interesting recollections of a personal friend and editorial associate.
Edward Everett Hale: Lowell and His Friends.
Edward Everett Hale, Jr.: James Russell Lowell. (Beacon Biographies.)
Charles Eliot Norton: Letters of James Russell Lowell. 2 vols. Invaluable and delightful.
Edmund Clarence Stedman: Poets of America.
W.C. Brownell: James Russell Lowell. (Scribner's Magazine, February, 1907.) The most recent critical estimate.
George William Curtis: James Russell Lowell: An Address.
John Churton Collins. Studies in Poetry and Criticism, "Poetry and Poets of America." Excellent as an English estimate.
Barrett Wendell: Literary History of America and Stelligeri, "Mr. Lowell as a Teacher."
Henry James: Essays in London and Library of the World's Best Literature.
George E. Woodberry: Makers of Literature.
William Watson: Excursions in Criticism.
W.D. Howells: Literary Friends and Acquaintance.
Charles E. Richardson: American Literature.
M.A. DeWolfe Howe: American Bookmen.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson: Old Cambridge.
Frank Preston Stearns: Cambridge Sketches. 1905.
Richard Burton: Literary Leaders of America. 1904.
John White Chadwick: Chambers's Cyclopedia of English Literature.
Hamilton Wright Mabie: My Study Fire. Second Series, "Lowell's Letters."
Margaret Fuller: Art, Literature and the Drama. 1859.
Richard Henry Stoddard: Recollections, Personal and Literary, "At Lowell's Fireside."
Edwin P. Whipple: Outlooks on Society, Literature and Politics, "Lowell as a Prose Writer."
H.R. Haweis: American Humorists.
Bayard Taylor: Essays and Notes.
G.W. Smalley: London Letters, Vol. 1., "Mr. Lowell, why the English liked him."
Longfellow's Herons of Elmwood; Whittier's A Welcome to Lowell; Holmes's Farewell to Lowell, At a Birthday Festival, and To James Russell Lowell; Aldrich's Elmwood; Margaret J. Preston's Home-Welcome to Lowell; Richard Watson Gilder's Lowell; Christopher P. Cranch's To J.R.L. on His Fiftieth Birthday, and To J.R.L. on His Homeward Voyage; James Kenneth Stephen's In Memoriam; James Russell Lowell, "Lapsus Calami and Other Verses"; William W. Story's To James Russell Lowell, Blackwood's Magazine, Vol. 150; Eugene Field's James Russell Lowell; Edith Thomas's On Reading Lowell's "Heartsease and Rue."
JULY 21, 1865
1. The Musing organist: There is a peculiar felicity in this musical introduction. The poem is like an improvisation, and was indeed composed much as a musician improvises, with swift grasp of the subtle suggestions of musical tones. It is a dream, an elaborate and somewhat tangled metaphor, full of hidden meaning for the accordant mind, and the poet appropriately gives it a setting of music, the most symbolic of all the arts. It is an allegory, like any one of the adventures in the Fairie Queen, and from the very beginning the reader must be alive to the symbolic meaning, upon which Lowell, unlike Spenser, places chief emphasis, rather than upon the narrative. Compare the similar musical device in Browning's Abt Vogler and Adelaide Proctor's Lost Chord.
6. Theme: The theme, subject, or underlying thought of the poem is expressed in line 12 below:
or more comprehensively in the group of four lines of which this is the conclusion. The organist's fingers wander listlessly over the keys at first; then come forms and figures from out of dreamland over the bridge of his careless melody, and gradually the vision takes consistent and expressive shape. So the poet comes upon his central subject, or theme, shaped from his wandering thought and imagination.
7. Auroral flushes: Like the first faint glimmerings of light in the East that point out the pathway of the rising sun, the uncertain, wavering outlines of the poet's vision precede the perfected theme that is drawing near.
9. Not only around our infancy, etc.: The allusion is to Wordsworth's Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, especially these lines:
As Lowell's central theme is so intimately associated with that of Wordsworth's poem, if not directly suggested by it, the two poems should be read together and compared. Lowell maintains that "heaven lies about us" not only in our infancy, but at all times, if only we have the soul to comprehend it.
12. We Sinais climb, etc.: Mount Sinai was the mountain in Arabia on which Moses talked with God (Exodus xix, xx). God's miracles are taking place about us all the time, if only we can emancipate our souls sufficiently to see them. From out of our materialized daily lives we may rise at any moment, if we will, to ideal and spiritual things. In a letter to his nephew Lowell says: "This same name of God is written all over the world in little phenomena that occur under our eyes every moment, and I confess that I feel very much inclined to hang my head with Pizarro when I cannot translate those hieroglyphics into my own vernacular." (Letters, I, 164).
Compare the following passage in the poem Bibliolatres:
15. Prophecies: Prophecy is not only prediction, but also any inspired discourse or teaching. Compare the following lines from the poem Freedom, written the same year:
At the end of this poem Lowell gives his view of "fallen and traitor lives." He speaks of the "boundless future" of our country—
While reading Sir Launfal the fact must be kept in mind that Lowell was at the time of writing the poem filled with the spirit of freedom and reform, and was writing fiery articles in prose for the Anti-Slavery Standard, expressing his bitter indignation at the indifference and lukewarmness of the Northern people on the subject of slavery.
17. Druid wood: The Druids were the aged priests of the Celts, who performed their religious ceremonies in the forests, especially among oaks, which were peculiarly sacred to them. Hence the venerable woods, like the aged priests, offer their benediction. Every power of nature, the winds, the mountain, the wood, the sea, has a symbolic meaning which we should be able to interpret for our inspiration and uplifting. Read Bryant's A Forest Hymn.
18. Benedicite: An invocation of blessing. Imperative form of the Latin benedicere, to bless. Longfellow speaks of the power of songs that—
19-20. Compare these lines with the ninth strophe of Wordsworth's Ode. The "inspiring sea" is Wordsworth's "immortal sea." Both poets rejoice that some of the impulses and ideals of youth are kept alive in old age.
21. Earth gets its price, etc.: Notice the special meaning given to Earth here, in contrast with heaven in line
29. Here again the thought is suggested by Wordsworth's Ode, sixth strophe:
23. Shrives: The priest shrives one when he hears confession and grants absolution.
25. Devil's booth: Expand this metaphor and unfold its application to every-day life.
27. Cap and bells: The conventional dress of the court fool, or jester, of the Middle Ages, and, after him, of the stage clown, consisted of the "fool's cap" and suit of motley, ornamented with little tinkling bells.
28. Bubbles we buy, etc.: This line, as first published, had "earn" for "buy."
31. This line read originally: "There is no price set," etc. The next line began with "And."
32-95. This rapturous passage descriptive of June is unquestionably the most familiar and most celebrated piece of nature poetry in our literature. It is not only beautiful and inspiring in its felicitous phrasings of external nature, but it is especially significant as a true expression of the heart and soul of the poet himself. It was always "the high-tide of the year" with Lowell in June, when his spirits were in fine accord with the universal joy of nature. Wherever in his poetry he refers to spring and its associations, he always expresses the same ecstasy of delight. The passage must be compared with the opening lines of Under the Willows (which he at first named A June Idyll):
And in Sunthin' in the Pastoral Line the coming of spring is delightfully pictured:
In a letter written in June, 1867, Lowell says: "There never is such a season, and that shows what a poet God is. He says the same thing over to us so often and always new. Here I've been reading the same poem for near half a century, and never had a notion what the buttercup in the third stanza meant before."
It is worth noting that Lowell's happy June corresponds to May in the English poets, as in Wordsworth's Ode:
In New England where "Northern natur" is "slow an' apt to doubt,"
or as Hosea Biglow says:
41. The original edition has "grasping" instead of "groping."
42. Climbs to a soul, etc.: In his intimate sympathy with nature, Lowell endows her forms with conscious life, as Wordsworth did, who says in Lines Written in Early Spring:
So Lowell in The Cathedral says:
So again he says in Under the Willows:
It must be remembered that this humanizing of nature is an attitude toward natural objects characteristic only of modern poetry, being practically unknown in English poetry before the period of Burns and Wordsworth.
45. The cowslip startles: Surprises the eye with its bright patches of green sprinkled with golden blossoms. Cowslip is the common name in New England for the marsh-marigold, which appears early in spring in low wet meadows, and furnishes not infrequently a savory "mess of greens" for the farmer's dinner-table.
46. Compare Al Fresco, lines 34-39:
56. Nice: Delicately discriminating.
62. This line originally read "because God so wills it."
71. Maize has sprouted: There is an anxious period for the farmer after his corn is planted, for if the spring is "backward" and the weather cold, his seed may decay in the ground before sprouting.
73. So in Sunthin' in the Pastoral Line, when robin-redbreast sees the "hossches'nuts' leetle hands unfold" he knows—
77. Note the happy effect of the internal rhyme in this line.
93. Healed with snow: Explain the appropriateness of the metaphor.
94-95. Is the transition here from the prelude to the story abrupt, or do the preceding lines lead up to it appropriately? Just why does Sir Launfal now remember his vow? Do these lines introduce the "theme" that the musing organist has finally found in dreamland, or the symbolic illustration of his theme?
97. Richest mail: The knight's coat of mail was usually of polished steel, often richly decorated with inlaid patterns of gold and jewels. To serve his high purpose, Sir Launfal brings forth his most precious treasures.
99. Holy Grail: According to medieval legend, the Sangreal was the cup or chalice, made of emerald, which was used by Christ, at the last supper, and in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the last drops of Christ's blood when he was taken down from the cross. The quest of the Grail is the central theme of the Arthurian Romances. Tennyson's Holy Grail should be read, and the student should also be made familiar with the beautiful versions of the legend in Abbey's series of mural paintings in the Boston Public Library, and in Wagner's Parsifal.
103. On the rushes: In ancient halls and castles the floors were commonly strewn with rushes. In Taming of the Shrew, when preparing for the home-coming of Petruchio and his bride, Grumio says: "Is supper ready, the house trimmed, rushes strewed, cobwebs swept?"
109. The crows flapped, etc.: Suggestive of the quiet, heavy flight of the crow in a warm day. The beginning and the end of the stanza suggest drowsy quiet. The vision begins in this stanza. The nature pictures are continued, but with new symbolical meaning.
114. Like an outpost of winter: The cold, gloomy castle stands in strong contrast to the surrounding landscape filled with the joyous sunshine of summer. So the proud knight's heart is still inaccessible to true charity and warm human sympathy. So aristocracy in its power and pride stands aloof from democracy with its humility and aspiration for human brotherhood. This stanza is especially figurative. The poet is unfolding the main theme, the underlying moral purpose, of the whole poem, but it is still kept in vague, dreamy symbolism.
116. North Countree: The north of England, the home of the border ballads. This form of the word "countree," with accent on the last syllable, is common in the old ballads. Here it gives a flavor of antiquity in keeping with the story.
122. Pavilions tall: The trees, as in line 125, the broad green tents. Note how the military figure, beginning with "outposts," in line 115, is continued and developed throughout the stanza, and reverted to in the word "siege" in the next stanza.
130. Maiden knight: A young, untried, unpracticed knight. The expression occurs in Tennyson's Sir Galahad. So "maiden mail" below.
137. As a locust-leaf: The small delicate leaflets of the compound locust-leaf seem always in a "lightsome" movement.
138. The original edition has "unscarred mail."
138-139. Compare the last lines of Tennyson's Sir Galahad:
147. Made morn: Let in the morning, or came into the full morning light as the huge gate opened.
148. Leper: Why did the poet make the crouching beggar a leper?
152. For "gan shrink" the original has "did shrink."
155. Bent of stature: Criticise this phrase.
158. So he tossed ... in scorn: This is the turning-point of the moral movement of the story. Sir Launfal at the very beginning makes his fatal mistake; his noble spirit and lofty purposes break down with the first test. He refuses to see a brother in the loathsome leper; the light and warmth of human brotherhood had not yet entered his soul, just as the summer sunshine had not entered the frowning castle. The regeneration of his soul must be worked out through wandering and suffering. Compare the similar plot of the Ancient Mariner.
163. No true alms: The alms must also be in the heart.
164. Originally "He gives nothing but worthless gold."
166. Slender mite: An allusion to the widow's "two mites." (Luke xxi, 1-4.)
168. The all-sustaining Beauty: The all-pervading spirit of God that unites all things in one sympathetic whole. This divinity in humanity is its highest beauty. In The Oak Lowell says:
172. A god goes with it: The god-like quality of real charity, of heart to heart sympathy. In a letter written a little after the composition of this poem Lowell speaks of love and freedom as being "the sides which Beauty presented to him then."
172. Store: Plenty, abundance.
175. Summers: What is gained by the use of this word instead of winters?
176. Wold: A high, open and barren field that catches the full sweep of the wind. The "wolds" of north England are like the "downs" of the south.
181. The little brook: In a letter written in December, 1848, Lowell says: "Last night I walked to Watertown over the snow with the new moon before me and a sky exactly like that in Page's evening landscape. Orion was rising behind me, and, as I stood on the hill just before you enter the village, the stillness of the fields around me was delicious, broken only by the tinkle of a little brook which runs too swiftly for Frost to catch it. My picture of the brook in Sir Launfal was drawn from it." See the poem Beaver Brook (originally called The Mill), and the winter picture in An Indian-Summer Reverie, lines 148-196.
184. Groined: Groined arches are formed by the intersection of two arches crossing at any angle, forming a ribbed vault; a characteristic feature of Gothic architecture.
190. Forest-crypt: The crypt of a church is the basement, filled with arched pillars that sustain the building. The cavern of the brook, as the poet will have us imagine it, is like this subterranean crypt, where the pillars are like trees and the groined arches like interlacing branches, decorated with frost leaves. The poet seems to have had in mind throughout the description the interior of the Gothic cathedrals, as shown by the many suggestive terms used, "groined," "crypt," "aisles," "fretwork," and "carvings."
193. Fretwork: The ornamental work carved in intricate patterns, in oak or stone, on the ceilings of old halls and churches.
195. Sharp relief: When a figure stands out prominently from the marble or other material from which it is cut, it is said to be in "high relief," in distinction from "low relief," bas relief.
196. Arabesques: Complicated patterns of interwoven foliage, flowers and fruits, derived from Arabian art. Lowell had undoubtedly studied many times the frost designs on the window panes.
201. That crystalled the beams, etc.: That caught the beams of moon and sun as in a crystal. For "that" the original edition has "which."
204. Winter-palace of ice: An allusion, apparently, to the ice-palace built by the Empress of Russia, Catherine II, "most magnificent and mighty freak. The wonder of the North," Cowper called it. Compare Lowell's description of the frost work with Cowper's similar description in The Task, in the beginning of Book V.
205-210. 'Twas as if every image, etc.: Note the exquisite fancy in these lines. The elves have preserved in the ice the pictures of summer foliage and clouds that were mirrored in the water as models for another summer.
211. The hall: In the old castles the hall was always the large banqueting room, originally the common living room. Here all large festivities would take place.
213. Corbel: A bracket-like support projecting from a wall from which an arch springs or on which a beam rests. The poet has in mind an ancient hall in which the ceiling is the exposed woodwork of the roof.
214. This line at first read: "With the lightsome," etc. Why did Lowell's refining taste strike out "the"?
216. Yule-log: The great log, sometimes the root of a tree, burned in the huge fireplace on Christmas eve, with special ceremonies and merrymakings. It was lighted with a brand preserved from the last year's log, and connected with its burning were many quaint superstitions and customs. The celebration is a survival through our Scandinavian ancestors of the winter festival in honor of the god Thor. Herrick describes it trippingly in one of his songs:
219. Like a locust, etc.: Only one who has heard both sounds frequently can appreciate the close truth of this simile. The metaphors and similes in this stanza are deserving of special study.
226. Harp: Prof. William Vaughn Moody questions whether "the use of Sir Launfal's hair as a 'harp' for the wind to play a Christmas carol on" is not "a bit grotesque." Does the picture of Sir Launfal in these two stanzas belong in the Prelude or in the story in Part Second?
230. Carol of its own: Contrasted with the carols that are being sung inside the castle.
231. Burden: The burden or refrain is the part repeated at the end of each stanza of a ballad or song, expressing the main theme or sentiment. Still is in the sense of always, ever.
233. Seneschal: An officer of the castle who had charge of feasts and ceremonies, like the modern Lord Chamberlain of the King's palace. Note the effect of the striking figure in this line.
237. Window-slits: Narrow perpendicular openings in the wall, serving both as windows and as loopholes from which to fire at an enemy.
238. Build out its piers: The beams of light are like the piers or jetties that extend out from shore into the water to protect ships. Such piers are also built out to protect the shore from the violent wash of the ocean. The poet may possibly, however, have had in mind the piers of a bridge that support the arches and stand against the sweep of the stream.
243. In this line instead of "the weaver Winter" the original has "the frost's swift shuttles." Was the change an improvement?
244. A single crow: Note the effect of introducing this lone crow into the bleak landscape.
250. It must not be forgotten that this old Sir Launfal is only in the dream of the real Sir Launfal, who is still lying on the rushes within his own castle. As the poor had often been turned away with cold, heartless selfishness, so he is now turned away from his own "hard gate."
251. Sate: The use of this archaic form adds to the antique flavor of the poem. So with the use of the word "tree" for cross, in line 281 below. Lowell was passionately fond of the old poets and the quaint language of the early centuries of English literature, and loved to introduce into his own poetry words and phrases from these sources. Of this habit he says:
254. Recked: Cared for.
255. Surcoat: A long flowing garment worn over the armor, on which was "emblazoned" the coat of arms. If the knight were a crusader, a red cross was embroidered thus on the surcoat.
256. The sign: The sign of the cross, the symbol of humility and love. This is the first real intimation, the keynote, of the transformation that has taken place in Sir Launfal's soul.
259. Idle mail: Useless, ineffectual protection. This figure carries us back to the "gilded mail," line 131, in which Sir Launfal "flashed forth" at the beginning of his quest. The poem is full of these minor antitheses, which should be traced by the student.
264-272. He sees, etc.: This description is not only beautiful in itself, but it serves an important purpose in the plan of the poem. It is a kind of condensation or symbolic expression of Sir Launfal's many years of wandering in oriental lands. The hint or brief outline is given, which must be expanded by the imagination of the reader. Otherwise the story would be inconsistent and incomplete. Notice how deftly the picture is introduced.
272. Signal of palms: A group of palm trees seen afar off over the desert is a welcome signal of an oasis with water for the relief of the suffering traveler. Some critics have objected that so small a spring could not have "waved" so large a signal!
273. Notice the abruptness with which the leper is here introduced, just as before at the beginning of the story. The vision of "a sunnier clime" is quickly swept away. The shock of surprise now has a very different effect upon Sir Launfal.
275. This line at first read: "But Sir Launfal sees naught save the grewsome thing."
278. White: "And, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow." (Numbers xii, 10.)
279. Desolate horror: The adjective suggests the outcast, isolated condition of lepers. They were permitted no contact with other people. The ten lepers who met Jesus in Samaria "stood afar off and lifted up their voices."
281. On the tree: On the cross. "Whom they slew and hanged on a tree, Him God raised up the third day." (Acts x, 39.) This use of the word is common in early literature, especially in the ballads.
285. See John xx, 25-27.
287. Through him: The leper. Note that the address is changed in these two lines. Compare Matthew xxv, 34-40. This gift to the leper differs how from the gift in Part First?
291. Leprosie: The antiquated spelling is used for the perfect rhyme and to secure the antique flavor.
292. Girt: The original word here was "caged."
294. Ashes and dust: Explain the metaphor. Compare with "sackcloth and ashes." See Esther iv, 3; Jonah iii, 6; Job ii, 8.
300, 301. The figurative character of the lines is emphasized by the word "soul" at the end. The miracle of Cana seems to have been in the poet's mind.
304, 305. The leper is transfigured and Christ himself appears in the vision of the sleeping Sir Launfal.
307. The Beautiful Gate: "The gate of the temple which is called Beautiful," where Peter healed the lame man. (Acts iii, 2.)
308. Himself the Gate: See John x, 7, 9: "I am the door."
310. Temple of God: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?" (I Corinthians iii, 16, 17; vi, 19.)
312. This line at first began with "which."
313. Shaggy: Is this term applicable to Sir Launfal's present condition, or is the whole simile carried a little beyond the point of true likeness?
314. Softer: Lowell originally wrote "calmer" here. The change increased the effect of the alliteration. Was it otherwise an improvement?
315. Lo, it is I: John vi, 20.
316. Without avail: Was Sir Launfal's long quest entirely without avail? Compare the last lines of Tennyson's Holy Grail, where Arthur complains that his knights who went upon the Holy Quest have followed "wandering fires, lost in the quagmire," and "leaving human wrongs to right themselves."
320, 321. Matthew xxvi, 26-28; Mark xiv, 22-24.
322. Holy Supper: The Last Supper of Christ and his disciples, upon which is instituted the communion service of the churches. The spirit of the Holy Supper, the communion of true brotherhood, is realized when the Christ-like spirit triumphs in the man. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew xxv, 40.)
326. The original has "bestows" for "gives."
328. Swound: The antiquated form of swoon.
332, 333. Interpret the lines. Did the poet have in mind the spiritual armor described in Ephesians vi, 11-17?
336. Hangbird: The oriole, so called from its hanging nest; one of Lowell's most beloved "garden acquaintances" at Elmwood. In a letter he says: "They build a pendulous nest, and so flash in the sun that our literal rustics call them fire hang-birds." See the description in Under the Willows beginning:
See also the charming prose description in My Garden Acquaintance.
338. Summer's long siege at last is o'er: The return to this figure rounds out the story and serves to give unity to the plan of the poem. The siege is successful, summer has conquered and entered the castle, warming and lighting its cold, cheerless interior.
342, 343. Is Lowell expressing here his own convictions about ideal democracy?
Apollo, the god of music, having given offense to Zeus, was condemned to serve for the space of one year as a shepherd under Admetus, King of Thessaly. This is one of the most charming of the myths of Apollo, and has been often used by the poets. Remarking upon this poem, and others of its period, Scudder says that it shows "how persistently in Lowell's mind was present this aspect of the poet which makes him a seer," a recognition of an "all-embracing, all-penetrating power which through the poet transmutes nature into something finer and more eternal, and gives him a vantage ground from which to perceive more truly the realities of life." Compare with this poem An Incident in a Railroad Car.
5. Lyre: According to mythology, Apollo's lyre was a tortoise-shell strung with seven strings.
8. Fagots for a witch: The introduction of this witch element into a Greek legend rather mars the consistency of the poem. Lowell finally substituted for the stanza the following:
Lowell suggests in this dainty symbolical lyric his conception of the poet's inspiration. Hebe was cup-bearer to the gods of Olympus, in Greek mythology, and poured for them their nectar. She was also the goddess of eternal youth. By an extension of the symbolism she becomes goddess of the eternal joyousness of the poetic gift. The "influence fleet" is the divine afflatus that fills the creative mind of the poet. But Pegasus cannot be made to work in harness at will. True inspiration comes only in choice moments. Coy Hebe cannot be wooed violently. Elsewhere he says of the muse:
"Follow thy life," he says, "be true to thy best self, then Hebe will bring her choicest ambrosia." That is—
Four stanzas were added to this poem after its first appearance, the sixth, seventh, eighth and tenth, but in the finally revised edition these were cut out, very likely because Lowell regarded them as too didactic. Indeed the poem is complete and more artistic without them.
"Of Lowell's earlier pieces," says Stedman, "the one which shows the finest sense of the poetry of nature is that addressed To the Dandelion. The opening phrase ranks with the selectest of Wordsworth and Keats, to whom imaginative diction came intuitively, and both thought and language are felicitous throughout. This poem contains many of its author's peculiar beauties and none of his faults; it was the outcome of the mood that can summon a rare spirit of art to express the gladdest thought and most elusive feeling."
6. Eldorado: The land of gold, supposed to be somewhere in South America, which the European adventurers, especially the Spaniards, were constantly seeking in the sixteenth century.
27. Sybaris: An ancient Greek colony in southern Italy whose inhabitants were devoted to luxury and pleasure.
52-54. Compare Sir Launfal.
Lowell's love for Maria White is beautifully enshrined in this little poem. He wrote it at about the time of their engagement. While it is thus personal in its origin, it is universal in its expression of ideal womanhood, and so has a permanent interest and appeal. In its strong simplicity and crystal purity of style, it is a little masterpiece. Though filled with the passion of his new and beautiful love, its movement is as calm and artistically restrained as that of one of Wordsworth's best lyrics.
This is one of the tender little poems that refer to the death of the poet's daughter Blanche, which occurred in March, 1847. The First Snow-fall and She Came and Went embody the same personal grief. When sending the former to his friend Sydney H. Gay for publication, he wrote: "May you never have the key which shall unlock the whole meaning of the poem to you." Underwood, in his Biographical Sketch says that "friends of the poet, who were admitted to the study in the upper chamber, remember the pairs of baby shoes that hung over a picture-frame." The volume in which this poem first appeared contained this dedication—"To the ever fresh and happy memory of our little Blanche this volume is reverently dedicated."
A changeling, according to folk-lore and fairy tale, is a fairy child that the fairies substitute for a human child that they have stolen. The changeling was generally sickly, shrivelled and in every way repulsive. Here the poet reverses the superstition, substituting the angels for the mischievous fairies, who bring an angel child in place of the lost one. Whittier has a poem on the same theme, The Changeling.
29. Zingari: The Gypsies—suggested by "wandering angels" above—who wander about the earth, and also sometimes steal children, according to popular belief.
52. Bliss it: A rather violent use of the word, not recognized by the dictionaries, but nevertheless felicitous.
Lowell's love of Elmwood and its surroundings finds expression everywhere in his writings, both prose and verse, but nowhere in a more direct, personal manner than in this poem. He was not yet thirty when the poem was written, and Cambridge could still be called a "village," but the familiar scenes already had their retrospective charms, which increased with the passing years. Later in life he again celebrated his affection for this home environment in Under the Willows.
"There are poetic lines and phrases in the poem," says Scudder, "and more than all the veil of the season hangs tremulously over the whole, so that one is gently stirred by the poetic feeling of the rambling verses; yet, after all, the most enduring impression is of the young man himself in that still hour of his life, when he was conscious, not so much of a reform to which he must put his hand, as of the love of beauty, and of the vague melancholy which mingles with beauty in the soul of a susceptible poet. The river winding through the marshes, the distant sound of the ploughman, the near chatter of the chipmunk, the individual trees, each living its own life, the march of the seasons flinging lights and shadows over the broad scene, the pictures of human life associated with his own experience, the hurried, survey of his village years—all these pictures float before his vision; and then, with an abruptness which is like the choking of the singer's voice with tears, there wells up the thought of the little life which held as in one precious drop the love and faith of his heart."
1. Visionary tints: The term Indian summer is given to almost any autumnal period of exceptionally quiet, dry and hazy weather. In America these characteristic features of late fall were especially associated with the middle West, at a time when the Indians occupied that region.
5. Hebe: Hebe was cup-bearer to the gods at their feasts on Olympus. Like Hebe, Autumn fills the sloping fields, rimmed round with distant hills, with her own delicious atmosphere of dreamy and poetic influence.
11. My own projected spirit: It seems to the poet that his own spirit goes out to the world, steeping it in reverie like his own, rather than receiving the influence from nature's mood.
25. Gleaning Ruth: For the story of Ruth's gleaning in the fields of Boaz, see the book of Ruth, ii.
38. Chipmunk: Lowell at first had "squirrel" here, which would be inconsistent with the "underground fastness." And yet, are chipmunks seen up in walnut trees?
40. This line originally read, "with a chipping bound." Cheeping is chirping, or giving the peculiar cluck that sounds like "cheep," or "chip."
45. Faint as smoke, etc.: The farmer burns the stubble and other refuse of the season before his "fall plowing."
46. The single crow, etc.: Note the full significance of this detail of the picture. Compare Bryant's Death of the Flowers:
50. Compare with this stanza the pretty little poem, The Birch Tree.
68. Lavish of their long-hid gold: The chestnut leaves, it will be remembered, turn to a bright golden yellow in autumn. These descriptions of autumn foliage are all as true as beautiful.
73. Maple-swamps: We generally speak of the swamp-maple, which grows in low ground, and has particularly brilliant foliage in autumn.
82. Tangled blackberry: This is the creeping blackberry of course, which every one remembers whose feet have been caught in its prickly tangles.
91. Martyr oak: The oak is surrounded with the blazing foliage of the ivy, like a burning martyr.
99. Dear marshes: The Charles River near Elmwood winds through broad salt marshes, the characteristic features of which Lowell describes with minute and loving fidelity.
127. Bobolink: If Lowell had a favorite bird, it was the bobolink, although the oriole was a close competitor for his praises. In one of his letters he says: "I think the bobolink the best singer in the world, even undervaluing the lark and the nightingale in the comparison." And in another he writes: "That liquid tinkle of theirs is the true fountain of youth if one can only drink it with the right ears, and I always date the New Year from the day of my first draught. Messer Roberto di Lincoln, with his summer alb over his shoulders, is the true chorister for the bridals of earth and sky. There is no bird that seems to me so thoroughly happy as he, so void of all arrière pensée about getting a livelihood. The robin sings matins and vespers somewhat conscientiously, it seems to me—makes a business of it and pipes as it were by the yard—but Bob squanders song like a poet."
Compare the description in Sunthin' in the Pastoral Line:
See also the opening lines of Under the Willows for another description full of the ecstasy of both bird and poet. The two passages woven together appear in the essay Cambridge Thirty Years Ago, as a quotation. An early poem on The Bobolink, delightful and widely popular, was omitted from later editions of his poems by Lowell, perhaps because to his maturer taste the theme was too much moralized in his early manner. "Shelley and Wordsworth," says Mr. Brownell, "have not more worthily immortalized the skylark than Lowell has the bobolink, its New England congener."
134. Another change: The description now returns to the marshes.
147. Simond's hill: In the essay Cambridge Thirty Years Ago Lowell describes the village as seen from the top of this hill.
159-161. An allusion to the Mexican War, against which Lowell was directing the satire of the Biglow Papers.
174-182. Compare the winter pictures in Whittier's Snowbound.
177. Formal candles: Candles lighted for some form or ceremony, as in a religious service.
192. Stonehenge: Stonehenge on Salisbury plain in the south of England is famous for its huge blocks of stone now lying in confusion, supposed to be the remains of an ancient Druid temple.
207. Sanding: The continuance of the metaphor in "higher waves" are "whelming." With high waves the sand is brought in upon the land, encroaching upon its limits.
209. Muses' factories: The buildings of Harvard College.
218. House-bespotted swell: Lowell notes with some resentment the change from nature's simple beauties to the pretentiousness of wealth shown in incongruous buildings.
220. Cits: Contracted from citizens. During the French Revolution, when all titles were abolished, the term citizen was applied to every one, to denote democratic simplicity and equality.
223. Gentle Allston: Washington Allston, the celebrated painter, whom Lowell describes as he remembered him in the charming essay Cambridge Thirty Years Ago.
225. Virgilium vidi tantum: I barely saw Virgil—caught a glimpse of him—a phrase applied to any passing glimpse of greatness.
227. Undine-like: Undine, a graceful water nymph, is the heroine of the charming little romantic story by De la Motte Fouqué.
234. The village blacksmith: See Longfellow's famous poem, The Village Blacksmith. The chestnut was cut down in 1876. An arm-chair made from its wood still stands in the Longfellow house, a gift to Longfellow from the Cambridge school children.
254. Six old willows: These much-loved trees afforded Lowell a subject for a later poem Under the Willows, in which he describes particularly one ancient willow that had been spared, he "knows not by what grace" by the ruthless "New World subduers"—
In a letter written twenty years after the Reverie to J.T. Fields, Lowell says: "My heart was almost broken yesterday by seeing nailed to my willow a board with these words on it, 'These trees for sale.' The wretch is going to peddle them for firewood! If I had the money, I would buy the piece of ground they stand on to save them—the dear friends of a lifetime."
255. Paul Potter: One of the most famous of the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, notable for the strong realism of his work.
264. Collegisse juvat: The full sentence, in the first ode of Horace, reads, "Curriculo pulverem Olympicum collegisse juvat." (It is a pleasure to have collected the dust of Olympus on one's chariot wheels.) The allusion is to the Olympic games, the most celebrated festival of Greece. Lowell puns upon the word collegisse with his own coinage, which may have the double meaning of going to college and collecting.
272. Blinding anguish: An allusion to the death of his little daughter Blanche. See The Changeling, The First Snow-fall, and She Came and Went.
11. Uncinctured front: The forehead no longer encircled with a crown.
13-16. There is a little confusion in the figures here, the cathedral part of the picture being a little far fetched.
40. Mad Pucks: Puck is the frolicsome, mischief-making spirit of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.
45. Dodona grove: The grove of oaks at Dodona was the seat of a famous Greek oracle, whose responses were whispered through the murmuring foliage of the trees.
Beaver Brook at Waverley was a favorite resort of Lowell's and it is often mentioned in his writings. In summer and winter it was the frequent goal of his walks. The poem was at first called The Mill. It was first published in the Anti-Slavery Standard, and to the editor, Sidney H. Gay, Lowell wrote:—"Don't you like the poem I sent you last week? I was inclined to think pretty well of it, but I have not seen it in print yet. The little mill stands in a valley between one of the spurs of Wellington Hill and the main summit, just on the edge of Waltham. It is surely one of the loveliest spots in the world. It is one of my lions, and if you will make me a visit this spring, I will take you up to hear it roar, and I will show you 'the oaks'—the largest, I fancy, left in the country."
21. Undine: In mythology and romance, Undine is a water-spirit who is endowed with a soul by her marriage with a mortal. The race is the watercourse conducted, from the dam in an open trough or "penstock" to the wheel.
45. In that new childhood of the Earth: This poem was written a few weeks after the Vision of Sir Launfal was published, and it therefore naturally partakes of its idealism.
This poem was written in 1844. The discussion over the annexation of Texas was absorbing public attention. The anti-slavery party opposed annexation, believing that it would strengthen the slave-holding interests, and for the same reason the South was urging the scheme. Lowell wrote several very strong anti-slavery poems at this time, To W.L. Garrison, Wendell Phillips, On the Death of C.T. Torrey, and others, which attracted attention to him as a new and powerful ally of the reform party. "These poems," says George William Curtis, "especially that on The Present Crisis, have a Tyrtæan resonance, a stately rhetorical rhythm, that make their dignity of thought, their intense feeling, and picturesque imagery, superbly effective in recitation. They sang themselves on every anti-slavery platform."
While the poem was inspired by the political struggle of the time, which Lowell regarded as a crisis in the history of our national honor and progress, its chief strength is due to the fact that its lofty sentiment is universal in its appeal, and not applicable merely to temporal and local conditions.
17. Round the earth's electric circle, etc.: This prophetic figure was doubtless suggested by the first telegraph line, which Samuel F.B. Morse had just erected between Baltimore and Washington.
37. The Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John i, 1.)
44. Delphic cave: The oracle at Delphi was the most famous and authoritative among the Greeks. The priestess who voiced the answers of the god was seated in a natural fissure in the rocks.
46. Cyclops: The Cyclopes were brutish giants with one eye who lived in caverns and fed on human flesh, if the opportunity offered. Lowell is recalling in these lines the adventure of Ulysses with the Cyclops, in the ninth book of Homer's Odyssey.
64. Credo: Latin, I believe: the first word in the Latin version of the Apostles' Creed, hence used for creed.
This poem first appeared as "a short fragment of a pastoral," in the introduction to the First Series of the Biglow Papers. It is said to have been composed merely to fill a blank page, but its popularity was so great that Lowell expanded it to twice its original length, and finally printed it as a kind of introduction to the Second Series of the Biglow Papers. It first appeared, however, in its expanded form in a charitable publication, Autograph Leaves of Our Country's Authors, reproduced in facsimile from the original manuscript.
"This bucolic idyl," says Stedman, "is without a counterpart; no richer juice can be pressed from the wild grape of the Yankee soil." Greenslet thinks that this poem is "perhaps the most nearly perfect of his poems."
17. Crooknecks: Crookneck squashes.
19. Ole queen's-arm: The old musket brought from the Concord fight in 1775.
32. To draw a straight furrow when plowing is regarded as evidence of a skilful farmer.
36. All is: The truth is, "all there is about it."
37. Long o' her: Along of her, on account of her.
40. South slope: The slope of a hill facing south catches the spring sunshine.
43. Ole Hunderd: Old Hundred is one of the most familiar of the old hymn tunes.
58. Somewhat doubtful as to the sequel.
94. Bay o' Fundy: The Bay of Fundy is remarkable for its high and violent tides, owing to the peculiar conformation of its banks.
96. Was cried: The "bans" were cried, the announcement of the engagement in the church, according to the custom of that day.
The poem was dedicated "To the ever sweet and shining memory of the ninety-three sons of Harvard College who have died for their country in the war of nationality." The text of the poem is here given as Lowell first published it in 1865. He afterward made a few verbal changes, and added one new strophe after the eighth. There is a special interest in studying the ode in the form in which it came rushing from the poet's brain.
1-14. The deeds of the poet are weak and trivial compared with the deeds of heroes. They live their high ideals and die for them. Yet the gentle words of the poet may sometimes save unusual lives from that oblivion to which all common lives are destined.
5. Robin's-leaf: An allusion to the ballad of the Babes in the Wood.
9. Squadron-strophes: The term strophe originally was applied to a metrical form that was repeated in a certain established way, like the strophe and antistrophe of the Greek ode, as sung by a divided chorus; it is now applied to any stanza form. The poem of heroism is a "battle-ode," whose successive stanzas are marching squadrons, whose verses are lines of blazing guns, and whose melody is the strenuous music of "trump and drum."
13. Lethe's dreamless ooze: Lethe is the river of oblivion in Hades; its slimy depths of forgetfulness are not even disturbed by dreams.
14. Unventurous throng: The vast majority of commonplace beings who neither achieve nor attempt deeds of "high emprise."
16. Wisest Scholars: Many students who had returned from the war were in the audience, welcomed back by their revered mother, their Alma Mater.
20. Peddling: Engaging in small, trifling interests. Lowell's attitude toward science is that of Wordsworth, when he speaks of the dry-souled scientist as one who is all eyes and no heart, "One that would peep and botanize Upon his mother's grave."
21. The pseudo-science of astrology, seeking to tell commonplace fortunes by the stars.
25-26. Clear fame: Compare Milton's Lycidas:
32. Half-virtues: Is Lowell disparaging the virtues of peace and home in comparison with the heroic virtues of war? Or are these "half-virtues" contrasted with the loftier virtue, the devotion to Truth?
34. That stern device: The seal of Harvard College, chosen by its early founders, bears the device of a shield with the word Ve-ri-tas (truth) upon three open books.
46. Sad faith: Deep, serious faith, or there may be a slight touch of irony in the word, with a glance at the gloomy faith of early puritanism and its "lifeless creed" (l. 62).
62. Lifeless creed: Compare Tennyson's:
73. The tide of the ocean in its flow and ebb is under the influence of the moon. To get the sense of the metaphor, "fickle" must be read with "Fortune"—unless, perchance, we like Juliet regard the moon as the "inconstant moon."
81. To protect one's self everyone connives against everyone else. Compare Sir Launfal, I. 11. Instead of climbing Sinais we "cringe and plot."
82. Compare Sir Launfal, I. 26. The whole passage, II. 76-87, is a distant echo of the second and third stanzas of Sir Launfal.
83-85. Puppets: The puppets are the pasteboard actors in the Punch and Judy show, operated by unseen wires.
84. An echo of Macbeth, V, 5:
97. Elder than the Day: Elder than the first Day. "And God called the light Day," etc. (Genesis i, 5.) We may have light from the divine fountains.
110-114. In shaping this elaborate battle metaphor, one can easily believe the poet to have had in mind some fierce mountain struggle during the war, such as the battle of Lookout Mountain.
111. Creeds: Here used in the broad sense of convictions, principles, beliefs.
115-118. The construction is faulty in these lines. The two last clauses should be co-ordinated. The substance of the meaning is: Peace has her wreath, while the cannon are silent and while the sword slumbers. Lowell's attention was called to this defective passage by T.W. Higginson, and he replied: "Your criticism is perfectly just, and I am much obliged to you for it—though I might defend myself, I believe, by some constructions even looser in some of the Greek choruses. But on the whole, when I have my choice, I prefer to make sense." He then suggested an emendation, which somehow failed to get into the published poem:
120. Baäl's stone obscene: Human sacrifices were offered on the altars of Baäl. (Jeremiah xix, 5.)
147-205. This strophe was not in the ode as delivered, but was written immediately after the occasion, and included in the published poem. "It is so completely imbedded in the structure of the ode," says Scudder, "that it is difficult to think of it as an afterthought. It is easy to perceive that while the glow of composition and of recitation was still upon him, Lowell suddenly conceived this splendid illustration, and indeed climax of the utterance, of the Ideal which is so impressive in the fifth stanza.... Into these threescore lines Lowell has poured a conception of Lincoln, which may justly be said to be to-day the accepted idea which Americans hold of their great President. It was the final expression of the judgment which had slowly been forming in Lowell's own mind."
In a letter to Richard Watson Gilder, Lowell says: "The passage about Lincoln was not in the ode as originally recited, but added immediately after. More than eighteen months before, however, I had written about Lincoln in the North American Review—an article that pleased him. I did divine him earlier than most men of the Brahmin caste."
It is a singular fact that the other great New England poets, Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes, had almost nothing to say about Lincoln.
150. Wept with the passion, etc.: An article in the Atlantic Monthly for June, 1885, began with this passage: "The funeral  procession of the late President of the United States has passed through the land from Washington to his final resting-place in the heart of the prairies. Along the line of more than fifteen hundred miles his remains were borne, as it were, through continued lines of the people; and the number of mourners and the sincerity and unanimity of grief was such as never before attended the obsequies of a human being; so that the terrible catastrophe of his end hardly struck more awe than the majestic sorrow of the people."
170. Outward grace is dust: An allusion to Lincoln's awkward and rather unkempt outward appearance.
173. Supple-tempered will: One of the most pronounced traits of Lincoln's character was his kindly, almost femininely gentle and sympathetic spirit. With this, however, was combined a determination of steel.
175-178. Nothing of Europe here: There was nothing of Europe in him, or, if anything, it was of Europe in her early ages of freedom before there was any distinction of slave and master, groveling Russian Serf and noble Lord or Peer.
180. One of Plutarch's men: The distinguished men of Greece and Rome whom Plutarch immortalized in his Lives are accepted as types of human greatness.
182. Innative: Inborn, natural.
187. He knew to bide his time: He knew how to bide his time, as in Milton's Lycidas, "He knew himself to sing." Recall illustrations of Lincoln's wonderful patience and faith.
198. The first American: In a prose article, Lowell calls him "The American of Americans." Compare Tennyson's "The last great Englishman," in the Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington. Stanza IV of Tennyson's ode should be compared with this Lincoln stanza.
202. Along whose course, etc.: Along the course leading to the "inspiring goal." The conjunction of the words "pole" and "axles" easily leads to a confusion of metaphor in the passage. The imagery is from the ancient chariot races.
232. Paean: A paean, originally a hymn to Apollo, usually of thanksgiving, is a song of triumph, any loud and joyous song.
236. Dear ones: Underwood says in his biography of Lowell: "In the privately printed edition of the poem the names of eight of the poet's kindred are given. The nearest in blood are the nephews, General Charles Russell Lowell, killed at Winchester, Lieutenant James Jackson Lowell, at Seven Pines, and Captain William Lowell Putnam, at Ball's Bluff. Another relative was the heroic Colonel Robert G. Shaw, who fell in the assault on Fort Wagner."
As a special memorial of Colonel Shaw, Lowell wrote the poem, Memoriae Positum. With deep tenderness he refers to his nephews in "Mr. Hosea Biglow to the Editor of the Atlantic Monthly":
243. When Moses sent men to "spy out" the Promised Land, they reported a land that "floweth with milk and honey," and they "came unto the brook of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bare it between two upon a staff; and they brought of the pomegranates and of the figs" (Numbers xiii.)
245. Compare the familiar line in Gray's Elegy:
and Tennyson's line, in the Ode to the Duke of Wellington:
In a letter to T.W. Higginson, who was editing the Harvard Memorial Biographies, in which he was to print the ode, Lowell asked to have the following passage inserted at this point:
Lowell's remark in The Cathedral, that "second thoughts are prose," might be fairly applied to this emendation. Fortunately, the passage was never inserted in the ode.
255. Orient: The east, morning; hence youth, aspiration, hope. The figure is continued in l. 271.
262. Who now shall sneer? In a letter to Mr. J.B. Thayer, who had criticized this strophe, Lowell admits "that there is a certain narrowness in it as an expression of the popular feeling as well as my own. I confess I have never got over the feeling of wrath with which (just after the death of my nephew Willie) I read in an English paper that nothing was to be hoped of an army officered by tailors' apprentices and butcher boys." But Lowell asks his critic to observe that this strophe "leads naturally" to the next, and "that I there justify" the sentiment.
265. Roundhead and Cavalier: In a general way, it is said that New England was settled by the Roundheads, or Puritans, of England, and the South by the Cavaliers or Royalists.
272-273. Plantagenets: A line of English kings, founded by Henry II, called also the House of Anjou, from their French origin. The House of Hapsburg is the Imperial family of Austria. The Guelfs were one of the great political parties in Italy in the Middle Ages, at long and bitter enmity with the Ghibelines.
323. With this passage read the last two stanzas of Mr. Hosea Biglow to the Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, beginning:
328. Helm: The helmet, the part of ancient armor for protecting the head, used here as the symbol of war.
343. Upon receiving the news that the war was ended, Lowell wrote to his friend, Charles Eliot Norton: "The news, my dear Charles, is from Heaven. I felt a strange and tender exaltation. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry, and ended by holding my peace and feeling devoutly thankful. There is something magnificent in having a country to love."
The following questions are taken from recent examination papers of the Examination Board established by the Association of Schools and Colleges in the Middle States and Maryland, and of the Regents of the State of New York. Generally only one question on The Vision of Sir Launfal is included in the examination paper for each year.
Under what circumstances did the "vision" come to Sir Launfal? What was the vision? What was the effect upon him?
What connection have the preludes in the Vision of Sir Launfal with the main divisions which they precede? What is their part in the poem as a whole?
Contrast Sir Launfal's treatment of the leper at their first meeting with his treatment at their second.
1. Describe a scene from the Vision of Sir Launfal.
2. Describe the hall of the castle as Sir Launfal saw it on Christmas eve.
Give the meaning of these lines, and explain what you think is Lowell's purpose in the preface from which they are taken. Give the substance of the corresponding preface to the other part of the poem, and account for the difference between the two.
Describe the scene as it might have appeared to one standing just outside the castle gate, as Sir Launfal emerged from his castle in his search for the Holy Grail.
Compare the Ancient Mariner and the Vision of Sir Launfal with regard to the representation of a moral idea in each.
Explain the meaning of Sir Launfal's vision, and show how it affected his conduct.
Describe an ideal summer day as portrayed in the Vision of Sir Launfal.
Quote at least ten lines.
Discuss, with illustrations, Lowell's descriptions in the Vision of Sir Launfal, touching on two of the following points:—(a) beauty, (b) vividness, (c) attention to details.
Write a description of winter as given in Part Second.
Outline in tabular form the story of Sir Launfal's search for the Holy Grail; be careful to include in your outline the time, the place, the leading characters, and the leading events in their order.
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