Merrill's English Texts
THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL
AND OTHER POEMS
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION AND NOTES BY JULIAN W. ABERNETHY, PH.D., PRINCIPAL OF THE BERKELEY INSTITUTE, BROOKLYN, N.Y.
CHARLES E. MERRILL CO.
44-60 EAST TWENTY-THIRD STREET
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
The Vision of Sir Launfal
The Commemoration Ode
Poets' Tributes to Lowell
The Vision of Sir Launfal
The Shepherd of King Admetus
An Incident in a Railroad Car
To the Dandelion
An Indian-Summer Reverie
The Present Crisis
The Commemoration Ode
The Vision of Sir Launfal
The Shepherd of King Admetus
To the Dandelion
An Indian-Summer Reverie
The Present Crisis
The Commemoration Ode
LIFE OF LOWELL
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:
"One summer hour abides, what time I perched, Dappled with noonday, under simmering leaves, And pulled the pulpy oxhearts, while aloof An oriole clattered and the robins shrilled, Denouncing me an alien and a thief."
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:
"There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge, Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge."
And so the sketch of Hawthorne:
"There is Hawthorne, with genius so shrinking and rare That you hardly at first see the strength that is there; A frame so robust, with a nature so sweet, So earnest, so graceful, so lithe and so fleet, Is worth a descent from Olympus to meet."
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:
"I thought our love at fall, but I did err; Joy's wreath drooped o'er mine eyes: I could not see That sorrow in our happy world must be Love's deepest spokesman and interpreter."
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:
"For it died that autumn morning When she, its soul, was borne To lie all dark on the hillside That looks over woodland and corn."
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:
"Peace to thy slumber in the forest shade, Poet and patriot, every gift was thine; Thy name shall live while summers bloom and fade And grateful memory guard thy leafy shrine."
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 such large range as from the ale-house bench Can reach the stars and be with both at home."
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:
"I thank benignant nature most for this,— A force of sympathy, or call it lack Of character firm-planted, loosing me From the pent chamber of habitual self To dwell enlarged in alien modes of thought, Haply distasteful, wholesomer for that, And through imagination to possess, As they were mine, the lives of other men."
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—
"Give its best sweetness to all song. To nature's self her better glory."
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—
"Springtime ne'er denied Indoors by vernal Chaucer, whose fresh woods Throb thick with merle and mavis all the year."
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—
"That make thought physical and thrust far off The Heaven, so neighborly with man of old,"
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.
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"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.
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"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.
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"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.
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"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 cooerdination 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.
THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL
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—
"gaf gyftys largelyche, Gold and sylver; and clodes ryche, To squyer and to knight."
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—
"The King I sought for meekly stood: A naked, hungry child Clung round his gracious knee, And a poor hunted slave looked up and smiled To bless the smile that set him free."
And Christ, the seeker learns, is not to be found by wandering through the world.
"His throne is with the outcast and the weak."
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.
"Have ye founded your throne and altars, then, On the bodies and souls of living men? And think ye that building shall endure, Which shelters the noble and crushes the poor?"
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.
THE COMMEMORATION ODE
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,—
Such was he, our Martyr-Chief,
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 preeminence, 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,—
'Bow down, dear Land, for thou hast found release!'
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."
THE POETS' TRIBUTES TO LOWELL
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."
THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL
AND OTHER POEMS
THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL
PRELUDE TO PART FIRST
Over his keys the musing organist, Beginning doubtfully and far away, First lets his fingers wander as they list, And builds a bridge from Dreamland for his lay: Then, as the touch of his loved instrument 5 Gives hope and fervor, nearer draws his theme, First guessed by faint auroral flushes sent Along the wavering vista of his dream.
Not only around our infancy 10 Doth heaven with all its splendors lie; Daily, with souls that cringe and plot, We Sinais, climb and know it not. Over our manhood bend the skies; Against our fallen and traitor lives The great winds utter prophecies; 15 With our faint hearts the mountain strives; Its arms outstretched, the druid wood Waits with its benedicite; And to our age's drowsy blood Still shouts the inspiring sea. 20
Earth gets its price for what Earth gives us; The beggar is taxed for a corner to die in, The priest hath his fee who comes and shrives us, We bargain for the graves we lie in: At the Devil's booth are all things sold, 25 Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold; For a cap and bells our lives we pay, Bubbles we buy with a whole soul's tasking 'T is heaven alone that is given away, 'T is only God may be had for the asking; 30 No price is set on the lavish summer; June may be had by the poorest comer.
And what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days; Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune, 35 And over it softly her warm ear lays: Whether we look, or whether we listen, We hear life murmur, or see it glisten; Every clod feels a stir of might, An instinct within it that reaches and towers, 40 And, groping blindly above it for light, Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers; The flush of life may well be seen Thrilling back over hills and valleys; The cowslip startles in meadows green, 45 The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice, And there's never a leaf nor a blade too mean To be some happy creature's palace; The little bird sits at his door in the sun, Atilt like a blossom among the leaves, 50 And lets his illumined being o'errun With the deluge of summer it receives; His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings, And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings; He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,— 55 In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?
Now is the high-tide of the year And whatever of life hath ebbed away Comes flooding back, with a ripply cheer, Into every bare inlet and creek and bay; 60 Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it, We are happy now, because God wills it; No matter how barren the past may have been, 'T is enough for us now that the leaves are green; We sit in the warm shade and feel right well 65 How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell; We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing That skies are clear and grass is growing: The breeze comes whispering in our ear That dandelions are blossoming near, 70 That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing, That the river is bluer than the sky, That the robin is plastering his house hard by; And if the breeze kept the good news back, For other couriers we should not lack; 75 We could guess it all by yon heifer's lowing,— And hark! how clear bold chanticleer, Warmed with the new wine of the year, Tells all in his lusty crowing!
Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how; 80 Everything is happy now, Everything is upward striving; 'T is as easy now for the heart to be true As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,— 'T is the natural way of living: 85 Who knows whither the clouds have fled? In the unscarred heaven they leave no wake; And the eyes forget the tears they have shed, The heart forgets its sorrow and ache; The soul partakes the season's youth, 90 And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe Lie deep 'neath a silence pure and smooth, Like burnt-out craters healed with snow. What wonder if Sir Launfal now Remembered the keeping of his vow? 95
"My golden spurs now bring to me. And bring to me my richest mail, For to-morrow I go over land and sea In search of the Holy Grail: Shall never a bed for me be spread, 100 Nor shall a pillow be under my head, Till I begin my vow to keep; Here on the rushes will I sleep. And perchance there may come a vision true Ere day create the world anew," 105 Slowly Sir Launfal's eyes grew dim, Slumber fell like a cloud on him, And into his soul the vision flew.
The crows flapped over by twos and threes, In the pool drowsed the cattle up to their knees, 110 The little birds sang as if it were The one day of summer in all the year, And the very leaves seemed to sing on the trees: The castle alone in the landscape lay Like an outpost of winter, dull and gray; 115 'T was the proudest hall in the North Countree, And never its gates might opened be, Save to lord or lady of high degree; Summer besieged it on every side, But the churlish stone her assaults defied; 120 She could not scale the chilly wall, Though around it for leagues her pavilions tall Stretched left and right, Over the hills and out of sight; Green and broad was every tent, 125 And out of each a murmur went Till the breeze fell off at night.
The drawbridge dropped with a surly clang, And through the dark arch a charger sprang, Bearing Sir Launfal, the maiden knight, 130 In his gilded mail, that flamed so bright It seemed the dark castle had gathered all Those shafts the fierce sun had shot over its wall In his siege of three hundred summers long, And, binding them all in one blazing sheaf, 135 Had cast them forth: so, young and strong, And lightsome as a locust leaf, Sir Launfal flashed forth in his maiden mail, To seek in all climes for the Holy Grail.
It was morning on hill and stream and tree, 140 And morning in the young knight's heart; Only the castle moodily Rebuffed the gifts of the sunshine free, And gloomed by itself apart; The season brimmed all other things up 145 Full as the rain fills the pitcher-plant's cup.
As Sir Launfal made morn through the darksome gate, He was 'ware of a leper, crouched by the same, Who begged with his hand and moaned as he sate; And a loathing over Sir Launfal came; 150 The sunshine went out of his soul with a thrill, The flesh 'neath his armor 'gan shrink and crawl, And midway its leap his heart stood still Like a frozen waterfall; For this man, so foul and bent of stature, 155 Rasped harshly against his dainty nature, And seemed the one blot on the summer morn,— So he tossed him a piece of gold in scorn.
The leper raised not the gold from the dust: "Better to me the poor man's crust, Better the blessing of the poor, 160 Though I turn me empty from his door; That is no true alms which the hand can hold; He gives only the worthless gold Who gives from a sense of duty; 165 But he who gives a slender mite, And gives to that which is out of sight. That thread of the all-sustaining Beauty Which runs through, ail and doth all unite,— The hand cannot clasp the whole of his alms, 170 The heart outstretches its eager palms, For a god goes with it and makes it store To the soul that was starving in darkness before."
PRELUDE TO PART SECOND
Down swept the chill wind from the mountain peak, From the snow five thousand summers old; 175 On open, wold and hill-top bleak It had gathered all the cold, And whirled it like sleet on the wanderer's cheek: It carried a shiver everywhere From the unleafed boughs and pastures bare; 180 The little brook heard it and built a roof 'Neath which he could house him, winter-proof; All night by the white stars' frosty gleams He groined his arches and matched his beams: Slender and clear were his crystal spars 185 As the lashes of light that trim the stars; He sculptured every summer delight In his halls and chambers out of sight; Sometimes his tinkling waters slipt Down through a frost-leaved forest-crypt, 190 Long, sparkling aisles of steel-stemmed trees Bending to counterfeit a breeze; Sometimes the roof no fretwork knew But silvery mosses that downward grew; Sometimes it was carved in sharp relief 195 With quaint arabesques of ice-fern leaf; Sometimes it was simply smooth and clear For the gladness of heaven to shine through, and here He had caught the nodding bulrush-tops And hung them thickly with diamond-drops, 200 That crystalled the beams of moon and sun, And made a star of every one: No mortal builder's most rare device Could match this winter-palace of ice; 'Twas as if every image that mirrored lay 205 In his depths serene through the summer day, Each fleeting shadow of earth and sky, Lest the happy model should be lost, Had been mimicked in fairy masonry By the elfin builders of the frost. 210
Within the hall are song and laughter. The cheeks of Christmas glow red and jolly, And sprouting is every corbel and rafter With lightsome green of ivy and holly: Through the deep gulf of the chimney wide 215 Wallows the Yule-log's roaring tide; The broad flame-pennons droop and flap And belly and tug as a flag in the wind; Like a locust shrills the imprisoned sap, Hunted to death in its galleries blind; 220 And swift little troops of silent sparks, Now pausing, now scattering away as in fear, Go threading the soot-forest's tangled darks Like herds of startled deer.
But the wind without was eager and sharp, 225 Of Sir Launfal's gray hair it makes a harp, And rattles and wrings The icy strings, Singing, in dreary monotone, A Christmas carol of its own, 230 Whose burden still, as he might guess, Was—"Shelterless, shelterless, shelterless!"
The voice of the seneschal flared like a torch As he shouted the wanderer away from the porch, And he sat in the gateway and saw all night 235 The great hall-fire, so cheery and bold, Through the window-slits of the castle old, Build out its piers of ruddy light Against the drift of the cold.
There was never a leaf on bush or tree, 240 The bare boughs rattled shudderingly; The river was dumb and could not speak, For the weaver Winter its shroud had spun; A single crow on the tree-top bleak From his shining feathers shed off the cold sun; 245 Again it was morning, but shrunk and cold, As if her veins were sapless and old, And she rose up decrepitly For a last dim look at earth and sea.
Sir Launfal turned from his own hard gate, 250 For another heir in his earldom sate; An old, bent man, worn out and frail, He came back from seeking the Holy Grail: Little he recked of his earldom's loss, No more on his surcoat was blazoned the cross. 255 But deep in his soul the sign he wore, The badge of the suffering and the poor.
Sir Launfal's raiment thin and spare Was idle mail 'gainst the barbed air, For it was just at the Christmas time; 260 So he mused, as he sat, of a sunnier clime, And sought for a shelter from cold and snow In the light and warmth of long ago; He sees the snake-like caravan crawl O'er the edge of the desert, black and small, 265 Then nearer and nearer, till, one by one, He can count the camels in the sun, As over the red-hot sands they pass To where, in its slender necklace of grass, The little spring laughed and leapt in the shade, 270 And with its own self like an infant played, And waved its signal of palms.
"For Christ's sweet sake, I beg an alms;" The happy camels may reach the spring, But Sir Launfal sees only the grewsome thing, 275 The leper, lank as the rain-blanched bone, That cowers beside him, a thing as lone And white as the ice-isles of Northern seas In the desolate horror of his disease.
And Sir Launfal said,—"I behold in thee 280 An image of Him who died on the tree; Thou also hast had thy crown of thorns, Thou also hast had the world's buffets and scorns,— And to thy life were not denied The wounds in the hands and feet and side; 285 Mild Mary's Son, acknowledge me; Behold, through him, I give to thee!"
Then the soul of the leper stood, up in his eyes And looked at Sir Launfal, and straightway he Remembered in what a haughtier guise 290 He had flung an alms to leprosie, When he girt his young life up in gilded mail And set forth in search of the Holy Grail. The heart within him was ashes and dust; He parted in twain his single crust. 295 He broke the ice on the streamlet's brink. And gave the leper to eat and drink; 'T was a moldy crust of coarse brown bread, 'T was water out of a wooden bowl,— Yet with fine wheaten bread was the leper fed, 300 And 't was red wine he drank with his thirsty soul.
As Sir Launfal mused with a downcast face, A light shone round about the place; The leper no longer crouched at his side, But stood before him glorified, 305 Shining and tall and fair and straight As the pillar that stood by the Beautiful Gate,— Himself the Gate whereby men can Enter the temple of God in Man.
His words were shed softer than leaves from the pine, 310 And they fell on Sir Launfal as snows on the brine, That mingle their softness and quiet in one With the shaggy unrest they float down upon; And the voice that was softer than silence said, "Lo, it is I, be not afraid! 315 In many climes, without avail, Thou hast spent thy life for the Holy Grail; Behold, it is here,—this cup which thou Didst fill at the streamlet for me but now; This crust is my body broken for thee, 320 This water his blood that died on the tree; The Holy Supper is kept, indeed, In whatso we share with another's need,— Not what we give, but what we share,— For the gift without the giver is bare; 325 Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,— Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me."
Sir Launfal awoke as from a swound:— "The Grail in my castle here is found! Hang my idle armor up on the wall, 330 Let it be the spider's banquet-hall; He must be fenced with stronger mail Who would seek and find the Holy Grail."
The castle gate stands open now, And the wanderer is welcome to the hall 335 As the hangbird is to the elm-tree bough; No longer scowl the turrets tall, The Summer's long siege at last is o'er; When the first poor outcast went in at the door, She entered with him in disguise, 340 And mastered the fortress by surprise; There is no spot she loves so well on ground, She lingers and smiles there the whole year round; The meanest serf on Sir Launfal's land Has hall and bower at his command; 345 And there's no poor man in the North Countree But is lord of the earldom as much as he.
THE SHEPHERD OF KING ADMETUS
There came a youth upon the earth, Some thousand years ago, Whose slender hands were nothing worth, Whether to plow, or reap, or sow.
He made a lyre, and drew therefrom 5 Music so strange and rich, That all men loved to hear,—and some Muttered of fagots for a witch.
But King Admetus, one who had Pure taste by right divine, 10 Decreed his singing not too bad To hear between the cups of wine.
And so, well pleased with being soothed Into a sweet half-sleep, Three times his kingly beard he smoothed. 15 And made him viceroy o'er his sheep.
His words were simple words enough, And yet he used them so, That what in other mouths were rough In his seemed musical and low. 20
Men called him but a shiftless youth, In whom no good they saw; And yet, unwittingly, in truth, They made his careless words their law.
They knew not how he learned at all, 25 For, long hour after hour, He sat and watched the dead leaves fall, Or mused upon a common flower.
It seemed the loveliness of things Did teach him all their use, 30 For, in mere weeds, and stones, and springs, He found a healing power profuse.
Men granted that his speech was wise, But, when a glance they caught Of his slim grace and woman's eyes, 35 They laughed, and called him good-for-naught.
Yet after he was dead and gone, And e'en his memory dim, Earth seemed more sweet to live upon, More full of love, because of him. 40
And day by day more holy grew Each spot where he had trod, Till after-poets only knew Their first-born brother as a god.
AN INCIDENT IN A RAILROAD CAR
He spoke of Burns: men rude and rough Pressed round to hear the praise of one Whose heart was made of manly, simple, stuff, As homespun as their own.
And, when he read, they forward leaned, 5 Drinking, with eager hearts and ears, His brook-like songs whom glory never weaned From humble smiles and tears.
Slowly there grew a tender awe, Sunlike, o'er faces brown and hard. 10 As if in him who read they felt and saw Some presence of the bard.
It was a sight for sin and wrong And slavish tyranny to see, A sight to make our faith more pure and strong 15 In high humanity.
I thought, these men will carry hence Promptings their former life above. And something of a finer reverence For beauty, truth, and love, 20
God scatters love on every side, Freely among his children all, And always hearts are lying open wide, Wherein some grains may fall.
There is no wind but soweth seeds 25 Of a more true and open life, Which burst unlocked for, into high-souled deeds, With wayside beauty rife.
We find within these souls of ours Some wild germs of a higher birth, 30 Which in the poet's tropic heart bear flowers Whose fragrance fills the earth.
Within the hearts of all men lie These promises of wider bliss, Which blossom into hopes that cannot die, 35 In sunny hours like this.
All that hath been majestical In life or death, since time began, Is native in the simple heart of all, The angel heart of man. 40
And thus, among the untaught poor, Great deeds and feelings find a home, That cast in shadow all the golden lore Of classic Greece and Rome.
O, mighty brother-soul of man. 45 Where'er thou art, in low or high, Thy skyey arches with, exulting span O'er-roof infinity!
All thoughts that mould the age begin Deep down within the primitive soul, 50 And from the many slowly upward win To one who grasps the whole.
In his wide brain the feeling deep That struggled on the many's tongue Swells to a tide of thought, whose surges leap 55 O'er the weak thrones of wrong.
All thought begins in feeling,—wide In the great mass its base is hid, And, narrowing up to thought, stands glorified, A moveless pyramid. 60
Nor is he far astray, who deems That every hope, which rises and grows broad In the world's heart, by ordered impulse streams From the great heart of God.
God wills, man hopes; in common souls 65 Hope is but vague and undefined, Till from the poet's tongue the message rolls A blessing to his kind.
Never did Poesy appear So full of heaven to me, as when 70 I saw how it would pierce through pride and fear, To the lives of coarsest men.
It may be glorious to write Thoughts that shall glad the two or three High souls, like those far stars that come in sight 75 Once in a century;—
But better far it is to speak One simple word, which now and then Shall waken their free nature in the weak 80 And friendless sons of men;
To write some earnest verse or line Which, seeking not the praise of art. Shall make a clearer faith and manhood shine In the untutored heart.
He who doth this, in verse or prose, 85 May be forgotten in his day, But surely shall be crowned at last with those Who live and speak for aye.
I saw the twinkle of white feet. I saw the flash of robes descending; Before her ran an influence fleet, That bowed my heart like barley bending.
As, in bare fields, the searching bees 5 Pilot to blooms beyond our finding, It led me on, by sweet degrees Joy's simple honey-cells unbinding.
Those Graces were that seemed grim Fates; With nearer love the sky leaned o'er me; 10 The long-sought Secret's golden gates On musical hinges swung before me.
I saw the brimmed bowl in her grasp Thrilling with godhood; like a lover I sprang the proffered life to clasp;— 15 The beaker fell; the luck was over.
The Earth has drunk the vintage up; What boots it patch the goblet's splinters? Can Summer fill the icy cup, Whose treacherous crystal is but Winter's? 20
O spendthrift Haste! await the gods; Their nectar crowns the lips of Patience; Haste scatters on unthankful sods The immortal gift in vain libations.
Coy Hebe flies from those that woo, 25 And shuns the hands would seize upon her; Follow thy life, and she will sue To pour for thee the cup of honor.
TO THE DANDELION
Dear common flower, that grow'st beside the way, Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold, First pledge of blithesome May, Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold, High-hearted buccaneers, o'er joyed that they 5 An Eldorado in the grass have found, Which not the rich earth's ample round. May match in wealth—thou art more dear to me Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be.
Gold such as thine ne'er drew the Spanish prow 10 Through the primeval hush of Indian seas, Nor wrinkled the lean brow Of age, to rob the lover's heart of ease; 'T is the Spring's largess, which she scatters now To rich and poor alike, with lavish hand, 15 Though most hearts never understand To take it at God's value, but pass by The offered wealth with unrewarded eye.
Thou art my tropics and mine Italy; To look at thee unlocks a warmer clime; 20 The eyes thou givest me Are in the heart, and heed not space or time: Not in mid June the golden-cuirassed bee Feels a more summer-like, warm ravishment In the white lily's breezy tent, 25 His fragrant Sybaris, than I, when first From the dark green thy yellow circles burst.
Then think I of deep shadows on the grass,— Of meadows where in sun the cattle graze, Where, as the breezes pass, 30 The gleaming rushes lean a thousand ways,— Of leaves that slumber in a cloudy mass, Or whiten in the wind, of waters blue That from the distance sparkle through Some woodland gap, and of a sky above, 35 Where one white cloud like a stray lamb doth move.
My childhood's earliest thoughts are linked with thee; The sight of thee calls back the robin's song, Who, from the dark old tree Beside the door, sang clearly all day long, 40 And I, secure in childish piety, Listened as if I heard an angel sing With news from Heaven, which he could bring Fresh every day to my untainted ears, When birds and flowers and I were happy peers. 45
Thou art the type of those meek charities Which make up half the nobleness of life, Those cheap delights the wise Pluck from the dusty wayside of earth's strife: Words of frank cheer, glances of friendly eyes, 50 Love's smallest coin, which yet to some may give The morsel that may keep alive A starving heart, and teach it to behold Some glimpse of God where all before was cold.
Thy winged seeds, whereof the winds take care, 55 Are like the words of poet and of sage Which through the free heaven fare, And, now unheeded, in another age Take root, and to the gladdened future bear That witness which the present would not heed, 60 Bringing forth many a thought and deed, And, planted safely in the eternal sky, Bloom into stars which earth is guided by.
Full of deep love thou art, yet not more full Than all thy common brethren of the ground, 65 Wherein, were we not dull, Some words of highest wisdom might be found; Yet earnest faith from day to day may cull Some syllables, which, rightly joined, can make A spell to soothe life's bitterest ache, 70 And ope Heaven's portals, which are near us still, Yea, nearer ever than the gates of Ill.
How like a prodigal doth nature seem, When thou, for all thy gold, so common art! Thou teachest me to deem 75 More sacredly of every human heart, Since each reflects in joy its scanty gleam Of Heaven, and could some wondrous secret show, Did we but pay the love we owe, And with a child's undoubting wisdom look 80 On all these living pages of God's book.
But let me read thy lesson right or no, Of one good gift from thee my heart is sure: Old I shall never grow While thou each, year dost come to keep me pure 85 With legends of my childhood; ah, we owe Well more than half life's holiness to these Nature's first lowly influences, At thought of which the heart's glad doors burst ope, In dreariest days, to welcome peace and hope. 90
Not as all other women are Is she that to my soul is dear; Her glorious fancies come from far, Beneath the silver evening-star, And yet her heart is ever near. 5
Great feelings hath she of her own, Which lesser souls may never know; God giveth them to her alone, And sweet they are as any tone Wherewith the wind may choose to blow. 10
Yet in herself she dwelleth not, Although no home were half so fair; No simplest duty is forgot, Life hath no dim and lowly spot That doth not in her sunshine share. 15
She doeth little kindnesses, Which most leave undone, or despise; For naught that sets one heart at ease, And giveth happiness or peace, Is low-esteemed in her eyes. 20
She hath no scorn of common things, And, though she seem of other birth, Round us her heart entwines and clings, And patiently she folds her wings To tread the humble paths of earth. 25
Blessing she is: God made her so, And deeds of week-day holiness Fall from her noiseless as the snow, Nor hath she ever chanced to know That aught were easier than to bless. 30
She is most fair, and thereunto Her life doth rightly harmonize; Feeling or thought that was not true Ne'er made less beautiful the blue Unclouded heaven of her eyes. 35
She is a woman: one in whom The spring-time of her childish years Hath never lost its fresh perfume, Though knowing well that life hath room For many blights and many tears. 40