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These pages bear constant witness to Lowell's passion for books, a passion too genuine and deepseated to admit of any doubt on his part of the worth of literature. He had none of Emerson's scepticism, who held that if people would only think, they might do without books. The dullest proser and most leaden-winged poet could not make Lowell despair.
A number of essays display no little of the severity which we have learned to associate with reviewing after the manner of Jeffrey and Lockhart. Yet these caustic passages were written by a man who said of himself that he had 'to fight 'the temptation to be too good-natured.' Priggishness was as absurd to him in scholarship and letters as elsewhere, and he never lost a chance to give it a touch of the whip. Happily there is little of this. Lowell was almost uniformly urbane, gracious, reasonable.
If his subject was a great one Lowell treated it in a great way; if circumscribed and provincial he enlarged its boundaries — as in the essay on James 'Gates Percival,' where a subject of small intrinsic worth becomes a study of the American literary mind at one of its periods of acute self-consciousness, useful historically and tending to present-day edification. Needless to say, Lowell enjoyed handling this topic. He liked to satirize the early American authors and critics, solemn and important over their great work of inaugurating a New
World literature and quite convinced that, since that little driblet of the Avon had succeeded in
producing William Shakespeare,' something unusual was to be expected of the Mississippi River.
Although Lowell's standing as a critic rests on such writings as his ‘Dryden,’ ‘Shakespeare,' Chaucer,' 'Spenser,' 'Pope,' and 'Dante,' the amateur of good literature cannot afford to neglect anything to which this fine scholar put his hand.
The later volumes contain some of his most illuminating criticism (notably in the ‘Fielding,' 'Don Quixote,''Gray,''Walton,' and 'Landor'), and his style seems the perfection of ease and suppleness. Doubtless it is negligent now and then, but always with the winning negligence of a master in the difficult art of expression.
POLITICAL ADDRESSES AND PAPERS
The Anti-Slavery Papers consists of editorial articles reprinted from “The Pennsylvania Free'man,' and 'The Anti-Slavery Standard.'' Witty, ironical, and pungent, these fugitive leaves are of value for the light they throw on the history of the struggle maintained by the Abolitionists against their powerful enemies both in the North and in January, 1845, to November, 1850.
the South, as well as for the idea they give of the militant Lowell at a time when to conviction of the justness of the cause for which he fought was added a measure of joyousness in the mere act of fighting. Of
greater significance is the volume of Political Essays, twelve papers written at intervals between 1858 and 1866. Designed for the most part to serve an immediate purpose, and betraying in every page the writer's depth of feeling, intensity of patriotism, and strong but not bigoted Northern convictions, these essays, by their
acuteness of insight, balanced judgment, admirable temper, and wealth of allusion, as well as by their literary flavor and their occasional eloquence, hold a permanent place not only among Lowell's best writings but among the best of the innumerable political papers called out by the Civil War.
Of Lowell's later political utterances none is more notable than the address on ‘Democracy,' delivered at Birmingham in 1884, a cleverly phrased and thoughtful speech in which the American minister defended the democratic idea with logic as adroit as it was sound. That the source of American democracy was the English constitution must have been news to a part at least of his English audience. It was a happy thought of Lowell's to show how stable democracy might be as a system of government. He made the argument from expediency, that it is cheaper in the long run to lift men up than to hold them down, and that a ballot in their “hands is less dangerous to society than a sense of
wrong in their heads.' He would not have been Lowell had he not also shown that a democracy has its finer instincts, or failed to recognize the fact that as an experiment in the art of government it must stand or fall by its own merits. And the whole address is strongly optimistic, in its insistence that those who have the divine right to govern will be found to govern in the end.'
The address on ‘The Place of the Independent 'in Politics' supplements the Birmingham address. As Lowell before an English audience had dwelt on the good points and favorable aspect of de‘mocracy,' so before a home audience he discussed its weak points and its dangers. He thought the system would bear investigation. At no time did he labor under the mistake of supposing that democracy was a contrivance which ran of its own accord. Parties there must be and politicians to look after them, but it is no less essential that there should be somebody to look after the politicians. The address is a plea for unselfishness in political action.
Admirers of Lowell find it easy to believe that of all American makers of verse he had the most of what is called inspiration. With less catholic tastes he might have become a greater poet and would undoubtedly have been a finer artist. But granting that it was a matter of choice, and that Lowell had elected to make mastery in verse (with all the sacrifices involved) the object of his life, how serious then would have been the loss to criticism and to politics. The Lowell we know, with his extraordinary mental vivacity, his grasp of a multitude of interests that make for culture, is surely a more engaging figure than the hypothetical Lowell of purely poetical achievement.