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In 1861 the little puppets were taken out of the box where they had lain for fifteen years and furbished
for a new tragi-comedy. The second series of The Biglow Papers was read no less eagerly than the first had been. Quite as brilliant as their predecessors, the later poems are more impassioned, and in those touching on English hostility to the North the satire is bitterly stinging.
While the numbers of the first series were in course of publication Lowell produced a rhymed primer of contemporary American literature under the title of A Fable for Critics. It was an improvisation, and therefore the buoyancy, the jovial offhand manner, the impudence even, were a matter of course and all in its favor. Often penetrating and just in his criticisms, Lowell was invariably amusing, and in the cleverness of the rhyme and word play quite inimitable.
Two months after the appearance of the Fable the popular Vision of Sir Launfal was published. Though undoubtedly read more for the sake of the preludes than for the slight but touching story, it is by no means certain that the preludes, brought out as independent poems, could have won the number of readers they now have. In other words, The Vision of Sir Launfal has a unity which it seems on first acquaintance to lack.
UNDER THE WILLOWS, THE CATHEDRAL,
COMMEMORATION ODE, THREE MEMO-
Under the Willows' is a poem of Nature in which the poet at no time loses sight either of the world of books or of the world of men. If he be driven indoors by the rigors of May, he is content to sit by his wood-fire and read what the poets have said in praise of that inclement month. Or if June has come and he can dream under his favorite willows, his reveries gain a zest from the interruptions of the tramp, lavish summer's bedesman,'the scissors-grinder, that grimy Ulysses of New England, the school children, and the road-menders,
Vexing Macadam's ghost with pounded slate. It is a poem of thanksgiving in which the poet voices his gratitude for the benediction of the higher mood and the human kindness of the lower.
The volume to which Under the Willows' gives its name is typical. He who prizes Lowell's verse will hardly be content with any selection which does not include 'Al Fresco,' 'A Winter
Evening Hymn to my Fire,’‘Invita Minerva,' “The Dead House,''The Parting of the Ways,' "The Fountain of Youth,' and 'The Nightingale in the Study.'
Its manner of contrasting To-Day with Yesterday, the genius that creates with the spirit that analyzes, makes The Cathedral an essentially American poem. The minster in its 'vast repose,'
Silent and gray as forest-leaguered cliff, must always seem a marvel to a dweller among temples of 'deal and paint.' The poem is the meditation of a New World conservative, altogether catholic of sympathies, who holds no less firmly to the past because, under the fascination of democracy, he breathes in the presence of the 'backwoods Charlemagne' a braver air and is conscious of an 'ampler manhood.' And what, he asks, will be the faith of this new avatar of the Goth, what temples will the creature build ? Very beautiful, very suggestive, and in its shifting moods entirely representative of the poet who wrote it must this fine work always seem.
The Ode recited at the Harvard Commemoration (July 21, 1865) is Lowell's supreme achievement in verse. It breathes the most exalted patriotism, a love of native land that is intense, fiery, consuming. Though written in honor of sons of the University who had gone to the war, the spirit of the Ode is not local and particular. The poet celebrates not individual deeds alone but the sum of those deeds, not man but manhood:That leap of heart whereby a people rise
Up to a noble anger's height, And, flamed on by the Fates, not shrink, but grow more bright, That swift validity in noble veins,
Of choosing danger and disdaining shame,
Of being set on flame
These are imperishable gains,
These hold great futures in their lusty reins
The mingling of proud humility, tenderness, and reverence, the throbbing passion and the exultant fervor of the concluding verses, lift this ode to a high place in American poetry, it may be to the highest place. To the many, however, the chief value of The Commemoration Ode lies in the stanza on Lincoln. So just as an estimate of character, so restrained in its accents of praise, American in all finer meanings of the word, splendid in its imagery and poignant in the note of grief, this beautiful tribute to the great president is final and satisfying.
The first of the Three Memorial Poems is an 'Ode, read at the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Fight at Concord.'
In the opening stanzas on Freedom the poet strikes the notes of exultation fitting the time and the place, then passes to those inevitable allusions which appeal to local pride (and Lowell handles this passage with utmost skill), draws the lesson that must of necessity be drawn from the home
spun deeds' of the men of old, makes Freedom utter her warning to the men of the present, and, no prophet of evil, closes in the triumphant spirit in which he began.
‘Under the Old Elm’ is a magnificent tribute to a man so great that there is need of odes like this to help us comprehend his greatness. After calling up the scene when Washington, “a stranger
' among strangers,' stood beneath that legendary tree to take command of his army,ʻall of captains,'
, a motley rout, valorous deacons, selectmen, and village heroes among others, more skilled in debating their orders than obeying them, good fighters all, but 'serious drill's despair,' - the poet chants those beautiful lines in which is drawn the distinction between Nation' and Country. The one is fashioned of computable things, good each in its kind and important in its place:
But Country is a shape of each man's mind