Poets

Search more than 3,000 biographies of contemporary and classic poets.

James Russell Lowell

1819–1891

James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1819, the son of the Reverend Charles Lowell and Harriet Spence. He attended William Wells School and Harvard University, where he graduated with a degree in law. However, Lowell had no interest in pursuing a career in that field. Shortly after graduating from Harvard, in 1841, he published his first collection of poems, A Year’s Life (C. C. Little and J. Brown), inspired by the poet Maria White, whom he would marry three years later.

An ardent abolitionist, Lowell published widely in many anti-slavery newspapers, such as the Pennsylvania Freeman and the Anti-Slavery Standard. He also published a number of literary essays, political pamphlets, and satirical works, such as The Biglow Papers, a series of satirical verses written in opposition to the Mexican War.

Lowell authored multiple poetry books, including the collections Poems: Second Series (B. B. Mussey and Co., 1848) and Poems (John Owen, 1844), as well as the popular book-length poems A Fable for Critics: A Glance at a Few of Our Literary Progenies (Putnam, 1848) and The Vision of Sir Launfal (George Nichols, 1848). Along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, Lowell belongs to the group of writers called the Fireside Poets, or “schoolroom” poets, known for their conservative, traditional forms; strict attention to rhyme and meter; and moral, religious, and political themes. Lowell’s works, particularly the Arthurian tale The Vision of Sir Launfal, were frequently used as school texts.

In 1853, Lowell’s wife and three of their four children fell ill and died. Two years later, he returned to Harvard to replace Longfellow as professor of modern languages and literature. He spent the following year traveling and studying in Europe, then returned to Harvard to teach for the next twenty years.

In 1857 he married Frances Dunlap and became editor of the Atlantic Monthly, a position he held for about five years. Then, for the next ten years, he served as editor of the North American Review.

Known for his politics and personal charm, Lowell was appointed to the position of United States Minister to Spain in 1877, then served as United States Minister to England from 1880 to 1885.

When Dunlap died in 1885, Lowell withdrew from public life. He continued to publish books of poetry and prose until his death on August 12, 1891.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Heartease and Rue (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1888)
Early Poems (John B. Alden, 1887)
Three Memorial Poems (James R. Osgood, 1877)
The Cathedral (Fields, Osgood, and Co., 1870)
Under the Willows and Other Poems (Fields, Osgood, and Co., 1869)
The Biglow Papers, Second Series (Ticknor and Fields, 1867)
The Vision of Sir Launfal (George Nichols, 1848)
Poems: Second Series (George Nichols, 1848)
A Fable for Critics: A Glance at a Few of Our Literary Progenies (Putnam, 1848)
The Biglow Papers, First Series (George Nichols, 1848)
Poems (John Owen, 1844)
A Year’s Life, and Other Poems (Little and Brown, 1841)

James Russell Lowell

By This Poet

6

The First Snowfall

The snow had begun in the gloaming,
   And busily all the night
Had been heaping field and highway
   With a silence deep and white.
   
Every pine and fir and hemlock
   Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
And the poorest twig on the elm-tree
   Was ridged inch deep with pearl.

From sheds new-roofed with Carrara
   Came Chanticleer's muffled crow,
The stiff rails were softened to swan's-down,
   And still fluttered down the snow.

I stood and watched by the window
   The noiseless work of the sky,
And the sudden flurries of snow-birds,
   Like brown leaves whirling by.

I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
   Where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently,
   As did robins the babes in the wood.
   
Up spoke our own little Mabel,
   Saying, "Father, who makes it snow?"
And I told of the good All-father
   Who cares for us here below.
   
Again I looked at the snow-fall,
   And thought of the leaden sky
That arched o'er our first great sorrow,
   When that mound was heaped so high.
   
I remembered the gradual patience
   That fell from that cloud-like snow,
Flake by flake, healing and hiding
   The scar of our deep-plunged woe.
   
And again to the child I whispered,
   "The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father
   Alone can make it fall!"
   
Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her;
   And she, kissing back, could not know
That my kiss was given to her sister,
   Folded close under deepening snow.

The Present Crisis

When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth's aching breast	 
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,	 
And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb	 
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime	 
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.	         
  
Through the walls of hut and palace shoots the instantaneous throe,	 
When the travail of the Ages wrings earth's systems to and fro;	 
At the birth of each new Era, with a recognizing start,	 
Nation wildly looks at nation, standing with mute lips apart,	 
And glad Truth's yet mightier man-child leaps beneath the Future's heart.	  
  
So the Evil's triumph sendeth, with a terror and a chill,	 
Under continent to continent, the sense of coming ill,	 
And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels his sympathies with God	 
In hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk up by the sod,	 
Till a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in the nobler clod.	  
  
For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along,	 
Round the earth's electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;	 
Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity's vast frame	 
Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame;—	 
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim.	  
  
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,	 
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;	 
Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,	 
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,	 
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.	  
  
Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,	 
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?	 
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet 'tis Truth alone is strong,	 
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng	 
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.	  
  
Backward look across the ages and the beacon-moments see,	 
That, like peaks of some sunk continent, jut through Oblivion's sea;	 
Not an ear in court or market for the low, foreboding cry	 
Of those Crises, God's stern winnowers, from whose feet earth's chaff must fly;	 
Never shows the choice momentous till the judgment hath passed by.	  
  
Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record	 
One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old systems and the Word;	 
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—	 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,	 
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.	  
  
We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,	 
Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate,	 
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market's din,	 
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,—	 
"They enslave their children's children who make compromise with sin."	  
  
Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops, fellest of the giant brood,	 
Sons of brutish Force and Darkness, who have drenched the earth with blood,	 
Famished in his self-made desert, blinded by our purer day,	 
Gropes in yet unblasted regions for his miserable prey;—	 
Shall we guide his gory fingers where our helpless children play?	  
  
Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,	 
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just;	 
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,	 
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,	 
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.	  
  
Count me o'er earth's chosen heroes,—they were souls that stood alone,	 
While the men they agonized for hurled the contumelious stone,	 
Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden beam incline	 
To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their faith divine,	 
By one man's plain truth to manhood and to God's supreme design.	  
  
By the light of burning heretics Christ's bleeding feet I track,	 
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back,	 
And these mounts of anguish number how each generation learned	 
One new word of that grand Credo which in prophet-hearts hath burned	 
Since the first man stood God-conquered with his face to heaven upturned.	 
  
For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands,	 
On the morrow crouches Judas with the silver in his hands;	 
Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots burn,	 
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return	 
To glean up the scattered ashes into History's golden urn.	  
  
'Tis as easy to be heroes as to sit the idle slaves	 
Of a legendary virtue carved upon our fathers' graves,	 
Worshippers of light ancestral make the present light a crime;—	 
Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered by men behind their time?	 
Turn those tracks toward Past or Future, that made Plymouth Rock sublime?	  
  
They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts,	 
Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past's;	 
But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free,	 
Hoarding it in mouldy parchments, while our tender spirits flee	 
The rude grasp of that great Impulse which drove them across the sea.	  
  
They have rights who dare maintain them; we are traitors to our sires,	 
Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom's new-lit altar-fires;	 
Shall we make their creed our jailer? Shall we, in our haste to slay,	 
From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps away	 
To light up the martyr-fagots round the prophets of to-day?	  
  
New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;	 
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;	 
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,	 
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,	 
Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's blood-rusted key.

The Sirens

   The sea is lonely, the sea is dreary, 
The sea is restless and uneasy; 
Thou seekest quiet, thou art weary, 
Wandering thou knowest not whither;— 
Our little isle is green and breezy, 
Come and rest thee! Oh come hither, 
Come to this peaceful home of ours, 
      Where evermore 
The low west-wind creeps panting up the shore 
To be at rest among the flowers; 
Full of rest, the green moss lifts, 
   As the dark waves of the sea 
Draw in and out of rocky rifts, 
   Calling solemnly to thee 
With voices deep and hollow,— 
      "To the shore 
   Follow! Oh, follow! 
   To be at rest forevermore! 
         Forevermore!" 

Look how the gray old Ocean 
From the depth of his heart rejoices, 
Heaving with a gentle motion, 
When he hears our restful voices; 
List how he sings in an undertone, 
Chiming with our melody; 
And all sweet sounds of earth and air 
Melt into one low voice alone, 
That murmurs over the weary sea, 
And seems to sing from everywhere,— 
"Here mayst thou harbor peacefully, 
Here mayst thou rest from the aching oar; 
   Turn thy curvëd prow ashore, 
And in our green isle rest forevermore! 
         Forevermore!" 
And Echo half wakes in the wooded hill, 
   And, to her heart so calm and deep, 
   Murmurs over in her sleep, 
Doubtfully pausing and murmuring still, 
         "Evermore!" 
      Thus, on Life's weary sea, 
      Heareth the marinere 
      Voices sweet, from far and near, 
      Ever singing low and clear, 
      Ever singing longingly. 

   It is not better here to be, 
Than to be toiling late and soon? 
In the dreary night to see 
Nothing but the blood-red moon 
Go up and down into the sea; 
Or, in the loneliness of day, 
   To see the still seals only 
Solemnly lift their faces gray, 
   Making it yet more lonely? 
Is it not better than to hear 
Only the sliding of the wave 
Beneath the plank, and feel so near 
A cold and lonely grave, 
A restless grave, where thou shalt lie 
Even in death unquietly? 
Look down beneath thy wave-worn bark, 
   Lean over the side and see 
The leaden eye of the sidelong shark
      Upturnëd patiently, 
   Ever waiting there for thee: 
Look down and see those shapeless forms, 
   Which ever keep their dreamless sleep 
   Far down within the gloomy deep, 
And only stir themselves in storms, 
Rising like islands from beneath, 
And snorting through the angry spray, 
As the frail vessel perisheth 
In the whirls of their unwieldy play; 
   Look down! Look down! 
Upon the seaweed, slimy and dark, 
That waves its arms so lank and brown, 
      Beckoning for thee! 
Look down beneath thy wave-worn bark 
      Into the cold depth of the sea! 
   Look down! Look down! 
      Thus, on Life's lonely sea, 
      Heareth the marinere 
      Voices sad, from far and near, 
      Ever singing full of fear, 
      Ever singing dreadfully. 

   Here all is pleasant as a dream; 
The wind scarce shaketh down the dew, 
The green grass floweth like a stream 
         Into the ocean's blue; 
            Listen! Oh, listen! 
Here is a gush of many streams, 
   A song of many birds, 
And every wish and longing seems 
Lulled to a numbered flow of words,— 
            Listen! Oh, listen! 
Here ever hum the golden bees 
Underneath full-blossomed trees, 
At once with glowing fruit and flowers crowned;— 
So smooth the sand, the yellow sand, 
That thy keel will not grate as it touches the land; 
All around with a slumberous sound, 
The singing waves slide up the strand, 
And there, where the smooth, wet pebbles be 
The waters gurgle longingly, 
As if they fain would seek the shore, 
To be at rest from the ceaseless roar, 
To be at rest forevermore,— 
         Forevermore. 
      Thus, on Life's gloomy sea, 
      Heareth the marinere 
      Voices sweet, from far and near, 
      Ever singing in his ear, 
      "Here is rest and peace for thee!"

Related Poets