In a lifetime bracketed by the beginning and end of the nineteenth century, Lowell personified rather than shaped his age. Scion of the Boston Lowells (as close to a natural aristocracy as the United States has ever produced), James Russell went dutifully to Harvard, graduating in law in 1840, but committed in his heart to the pursuit of poetry. He vindicated his choice by returning to his alma mater in 1856 as Professor of Romance Languages and Belles-lettres in succession to Longfellow. Lowell had in the meantime made the acquaintance of Emerson and Thoreau; he had been active both as a poet and a journalist, contributing a copious amount of prose to the abolitionist cause and a plenitude of lyric to his muse. He edited many journals, most notably the Pioneer in 1843.
As a versifier, Lowell’s early reputation depended on his satirical dialect poems, known collectively as The Bigelow Papers (1848). The technique seems in retrospect ham-handed, the peculiarities overdone; yet in skewering American hypocrisy, the Papers do sometimes exhibit a timeless quality: “I du believe the people want / A tax on teas and coffees, / Thet nothin’ ain’t extravygunt, – / Providin’ I’m in office,” a campaign-stumper says in a candid aside. Another stanza from the same monologue suggests the sine qua non of contemporary liberalism: “I du believe in any plan / O’ levyin’ the texes, / Ez long ez, like a lumberman, / I git jest wut I axes.” That this poem, in particular, takes the form of a mock credo further suggests that Lowell knew what an ideology was, whether he had the word for it or not.
Like Karl Marx and Percy Shelley (and like the Romantics generally), Lowell was attracted to the Prometheus myth. Lowell’s “Prometheus” (1843) is the most ambitious, and arguably the best, of his early poems; his Titan gives voice to the Emersonian Oversoul, proclaims the perfectibility of the human, and thus remains true to the Unitarian-Transcendentalist vision. “There is a higher purity than thou,” says the stealer-of-fire to Jove, who stands in for Jehovah; later in the ode Prometheus extols “the supremeness of Beauty.” After the Civil War, Lowell made an effort to be the trans-Atlantic Browning, dedicating poems short and long to historical subjects. “The Cathedral” (1869) is impressively Gothic and forecasts the themes of Henry Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904). Ruskin liked these lines. More intimate and revealing is Lowell’s elegy for Louis Agassiz.
Lowell also wrote criticism (see Some Conversations on Old Poets, 1844) and in the decades after Appomattox helped to establish a sense among the Brahmin classes of a distinct American literature. The opinions that modern people have about Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, for example, are largely Lowell’s. The case of Lowell points to the central limitation in American poetry (perhaps in American culture). Where it looks to the past, that past tends to be Yankee, Unitarian, and Transcendentalist; thus, what an artist of the tradition tends to “conserve” is Puritanism with its perfectionist program and a notion of Christianity at once purged of the Trinity and melded with a pantheism that appears to be otherwise entirely irreligious. Where it wants to be “progressive” (at one point, in the late 1840s, Lowell thought of himself as a “radical”), this poetry oddly finds itself in much the same place, advocating the Promethean project of consummating man as the Man-God. Thus, Lowell could see that many of his countrymen had submitted to an ideology (tax my neighbor’s corn to subsidize my crop—it’s the moral thing to do) but he could not see that he too worked within strict ideological limitations. (The politician being mocked in the quatrain about taxes is a Southern Democrat, as though they were the only ones who sinned.)
The reason for modern conservatives to investigate Lowell is that the postmodern gatekeepers hate him and would consign him to the trash-heap with all the rest of American “phallogocentrism.” Lowell, in contrast to Whitman, understood form.
- Heymann, C. David. American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980.