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had had much to be grateful for. 'I have always believed that a man's fate is born with him, and that he cannot escape from it nor greatly modify ( 'it' (Lowell once wrote to his friend Charles Eliot Norton)'and that consequently every one 'gets in the long run exactly what he deserves, neither more nor less.' Lowell goes on to say that the creed is a 'cheerful’one; he might have added that it is no less sensible and manly than it is cheerful.
Whether he found his creed satisfactory at all times or was always conscious that he had a creed, we cannot know, but he could be the blithest of fatalists when it pleased him to be.
POET AND PROSE WRITER
Lowell's prose is manly, direct, varied, flexible, generally harmonious, abounding in passages marked by grace, beauty, and sweetness, and capable of rising to genuine eloquence. In its overflowing vitality and human warmth it is an adequate expression of the man, imaging his mocking and humorous moods no less than his deep sincerity, his strength of purpose, and his passion. Much of it has the confidence and ease that go with successful improvisation. If Lowell was 'willing to
‘risk the prosperity of a verse upon a lucky throw
of words,' he was even more willing to take like chances with his prose.
His thought ran easily into figurative form, and the making of metaphor was as natural to him as breathing. He would even amuse himself with conceits, for he loved to play with language, to force words into shapes he might perchance have condemned had he found them in the work of another. But if style is to be representative, this playfulness, however annoying to Lowell's critics, is a virtue. A Lowell chastened in his English and wholly academic would not be the Lowell we rejoice in.
He practised the art of poetry in many forms and always with success. Of everything he wrote you might say that it had been his study, though you might refrain from saying that it had been 'all in all his study.' In other words, as we read Lowell the question never arises whether or not the poet is working in unfamiliar materials, but whether he might not have given his product a higher finish, the materials and the form remaining the same. He was no aspirant after flawless beauty. He wrote spontaneously and was for the time wholly possessed by his theme. But what he had written he had written; and if never content with the result he at least compelled himself to be philosophical. He made a few changes, to be sure,
, but (as was said of a far greater poet) he would correct with an afterglow of poetic inspiration, not with a painful tinkering of the verse.
It is by tinkering with the verse, however (the “higher’tinkering), that perfection is attained. And he who wrote with evident ease so many lovely and felicitous lines could as easily have bettered lines that are wanting in finish. It was not Lowell's way. Too much may not be required of a man who often felt the utmost repugnance to reading his own writings, once they were in print.
POEMS, THE BIGLOW PAPERS, FABLE FOR
CRITICS, VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL
Lowell's first poetic flights were strong-winged.
Threnodia,''The Sirens,''Summer Storm,'. To Perdita, Singing,' whatever their faults, have a richness, a melody, a freedom of structure, an almost careless grace, that are captivating. Here was no painful effort in production with the inevitable result of frigidity and hardness.
The poet's gift matured rapidly. There is strength in such poems as · Prometheus,' 'Co' lumbus,' 'A Glance behind the Curtain,' rare beauty in ‘A Legend of Brittany,''Hebe,' and Rhæcus,' a mystical power in the haunting lines of “The Sower,' passion and uplift in 'The Pre
'sent Crisis,’ ‘Anti-Apis,' the lines To W. L. 'Garrison,' and the 'Ode to France,' while in ‘An Interview with Miles Standish ’ is a promise of that satirical power which was presently to find complete expression in The Biglow Papers.
Early in his career Lowell announced his theory of the poet's office, which is to inspire to high thought and noble action, not merely to please with pretty fancies and melodious verse. The Ode,' written in 1841, is an expression of his poetic faith. The ethical and reforming bent in Lowell's character was so strong as to make it difficult for him, true bard though he was, to look on poetry as an art to be cultivated for itself alone.
Inspiriting as were stanzas like “The Present Crisis,' Lowell's power became most effective in the anti-slavery struggle when the outbreak of the Mexican War led to the writing of The Biglow Papers. Printed anonymously in a journal, copied into other newspapers, the question of their au
, thorship much debated, these satires were at last adjudicated to the man who wrote them, but not until he himself had heard it demonstrated in 'the pauses of a concert ' that he was wholly incapable of such a performance.
Of the characters of the little drama, Hosea Biglow, the country youth, stands for the plain common-sense of New England, opposed to the extension of slavery whatever the means employed, and above all by legalized murder with an ac
companiment of drums and fifes. The Reverend Homer Wilbur acts as 'chorus,' and by his learned comments surrounds the productions of the country muse with an atmosphere of scholarship. Birdofredom Sawin is the clown of the little show.
Many finer touches have become obscure by the lapse of time, and The Biglow Papers is now provided with historical notes; but the energy, the spirit, and the unfailing humor of the work are perennial. Lowell was most fortunate in his verbal felicities. Who could have foreseen that so much danger lurked in a middle initial, or that a plain name of the sort borne by the former senator from Middlesex contained such comic potentialities?
We were gittin' on nicely up here to our village,
With good old idees o' wut's right an' wut aint,
But John P.
Lowell was surprised at his own success. What he at first thought a mere fencing stick' proved to be a weapon. The blade was two-edged, and the Yankees did well to fall back a little when he lifted it against the enemy. For in writing The Biglow Papers Lowell took real delight in noting the oddities and laughing at the foibles of his own New Englanders, a people whom he loved with all tenderness, but to whose faults he was not in the least blind.