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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 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!"

from The Vision of Sir Launfal

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,
     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,
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,
     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,
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,—
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;
Now the heart is so full that a drop over-fills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
'Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
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,
     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;
     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!

Under the Willows [May is a pious fraud of the almanac]

May is a pious fraud of the almanac,
A ghastly parody of real Spring
Shaped out of snow and breathed with eastern wind;
Or if, o'er-confident, she trust the date,
And, with her handful of anemones,
Herself as shivery, steal into the sun,
The season need but turn his hourglass round,
And Winter suddenly, like crazy Lear,
Reels back, and brings the dead May in his arms,
Her budding breasts and wan dislustred front
With frosty streaks and drifts of his white beard
All overblown. Then, warmly walled with books,
While my wood-fire supplies the sun's defect,
Whispering old forest-sagas in its dreams,
I take my May down from the happy shelf
Where perch the world's rare song-birds in a row,
Waiting my choice to open with full breast,
And beg an alms of springtime, ne'er denied
Indoors by vernal Chaucer, whose fresh woods
Throb thick with merle and mavis all the year.

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