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JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.
In the year 1639 Percival Lowle, or Lowell, a merchant of Bristol, England, landed at the little seaport town of Newbury, Mass.
We generally speak of a man's descent. In the case of James Russell Lowell's ancestry it was rather an ascent through eight generations. Percival Lowle's son, John Lowell, was a worthy cooper in old Newbury; his great-grandson was a shoemaker, his great-great-grandson was the Rev. John Lowell of Newburyport, the father of the Hon. John Lowell, who is regarded as the author of the clause in the Massachusetts Constitution abolishing slavery.
Judge Lowell's son, Charles, was a Unitarian minister, “learned, saintly, and discreet.” He married Miss Harriet Traill Spence, of Portsmouth, a woman of superior mind, of great wit, vivacity, and an impetuosity that reached eccentricity. She was of Keltic blood, of a family that came from the Orkneys, and claimed descent from the Sir Patrick Spens of “the grand old ballad.” Several of her family were connected with the American navy. Her father was Keith Spence, purser of the frigate “ Philadelphia," and a prisoner at Tripoli.
By ancestry on both sides, and by connections with the Russells and other distinguished families, Lowell was a good type of the New England gentleman.
He was born on the 22d of February, 1819, at Elmwood, not far from Brattle Street, Cambridge.
This three-storied colonial mansion of wood was built in 1767 by Thomas Oliver, the last royal Lieutenant-Governor, before the Revolution.1 Like other houses in “ Tory Row," it was abandoned by its owners. Soon afterwards it came
1 Thomas Oliver was graduated from Harvard College in the class of 1753. He was a gentleman of fortune, and lived first in Roxbury. He bought the property on
into possession of Elbridge Gerry, Governor of Massachusetts, and fifth Vice-President of the United States, whose memory and name are kept alive by the term "gerrymander.” It next be. came the property of Dr. Lowell about a year before the birth of his youngest child, and it was the home of the poet until his death.
Lowell's early education was obtained mainly at a school kept nearly opposite Elmwood by a retired publisher, an Englishman, Mr. William Wells. He also studied in the classical school of Mr. Danial G. Ingraham in Boston. He was graduated from Harvard College in the class of 1838. He is reportedas declaring that he read almost everything except the classbooks prescribed by the faculty. Lowell says, in one of his early poems referring to Harvard,
"Tho' lightly prized the ribboned parchments three,
He was secretary of the Hasty Pudding Society, and one of the editors of the college periodical Harvardiana, to which he contributed various articles in prose and verse. His neglect of prescribed studies, and disregard of college discipline, resulted in his rustication just before commencement in 1838. sent to Concord, where he resided in the family of Barzillai Frost, and made the acquaintance of Emerson, then beginning to rouse the ire of conservative Unitarianism by his transcendental philosophy, of the brilliant but overestimated Margaret Fuller, who afterwards severely criticised Lowell's verse, and of
Elmwood Avenue in 1766. When he accepted the royal commission of LieutenantGovernor, he became President of the Council appointed by the King. On Sept. 2, 1774, about four thousand Middlesex freeholders assembled at Cambridge and compelled the mandamus councillors to resign. The President of the Council urged the propriety of delay, but the Committee would not spare him. He was forced to sign an agreement, “as a man of honor and a Christian, that he would never hereafter, upon any terms whatsoever, accept a seat at said Board on the present novel and oppressive form of government.” He immediately quitted Cambridge; and when the British troops evacuated Boston he accompanied them. By an odd coincidence he went to reside at Bristol, England, where he died at the age of eighty-two years, in 1815, shortly before the Lowells, who were of Bristol origin, took possession of his former home. In Underwood's sketch of Lowell, Thomas Oliver is confused with Chief Justice Peter Oliver, a man of a very different type of character.
other well-known residents of the pretty town. He had been elected poet of his class. His removal from college prevented him from delivering the poem which was afterwards published anonymously for private distribution. It contained a satire on abolitionists and reformers. “I know the village,” he writes long afterwards in the person of Hosea Biglow, Esquire.
“I know the village though, was sent there once
On his return to Cambridge he took up the study of law, and, in 1840, received the degree of LL.B. He even went so far as to open an office in Boston; but it is a question whether there was any actual basis of fact in a whimsical sketch of his entitled “My First Client,” published in the short-lived Boston Miscellany, edited by Nathan Hale.
Several things engrossed Lowell's attention to the exclusion of law. Society at Cambridge was particularly attractive at that time. Allston the painter was living at Cambridgeport. Judge Story's pleasant home was on Brattle Street.
The Fays then occupied the house which has since become the seat of Radcliffe College. Longfellow, described as “a slender, blond young professor,” was established in the Craigie House. The famous names of Dr. Palfrey, Professor Andrews Norton, father of Lowell's friend and biographer, the “saintly” Henry Ware, and others will occur to the reader. He was fond of walking and knew every inch of the beautiful ground then called “ Sweet Auburn,” now turned by the hand of misguided man into that most distressing of monstrosities a modern cemetery. He haunted the poetic shades of the Waverley Oaks, heard the charming music of Beaver Brook, and climbed the hills of Belmont and Arlington.
He himself took his turn in establishing a magazine. In January, 1843, he started The Pioneer, to which Hawthorne, John Neal, Miss Barrett, Poe, Whittier, Story, Parsons, and others contributed, and which, in spite of such an array of talent, perished untimely during the winds of March.
He had already published, in 1841, a little volume of poems entitled “A Year's Life.” They were marked by no great originality, betrayed little promise of future eminence, and Margaret Fuller, who reviewed them, was quite right in asserting that “neither the imagery nor the music of Lowell's verses was his own.” The first sonnet in the present volume (page 1) practically acknowledges the force of this criticism. The influence of Wordsworth and Tennyson may be distinctly traced in most of them. But many of the lines were harsh and many of the rhymes were careless. Lowell's later and correcter taste omitted most of them from his collected works.
Not far from Elmwood, but in the adjoining village of Watertown, lived one of Lowell's classmates, whose sister, Maria White, a slender, delicate girl, with a poetic genius in some respects more regulated and lofty than his own, early inspired him with a true and saving love. Speaking of the influences that moulded his life, George William Curtis says:
“The first and most enduring was an early and happy passion for a lovely and high-minded woman who became his wife – the Egeria who exalted his youth and confirmed his noblest aspirations; a heaven-eyed counsellor of the serener air, who filled his mind with peace and his life with joy."
The young lady's prudent father objected to the marriage until the newly fledged lawyer should be in a position to support a wife.
Shortly after the shipwreck of The Pioneer, Lowell was offered a hundred dollars by Graham's Monthly for ten poems. When Pegasus is able to earn such princely sums, there seems no reason why Love should be kept waiting at the cottage door. In 1844 Lowell published a new edition of his poems, and married Miss White. It was her influence that decided him to cast in his lot with the abolitionists. It was her refined taste that shaped and tempered his impetuous verse. A volume of her poems was in 1855, in an edition of fifty copies, privately printed, and is now very rare. It is an odd circumstance that in Lowell's library, from which Harvard College was allowed to select any volumes not in Gore Hall, neither this book nor any of Lowell's own early poems was to be found.
The young couple took up their residence at Elmwood, and here were born three daughters and a son. All but one of his children died in infancy. Many of the tenderest of his poems refer with touching pathos to his bereavement: such for instance are “ The Changeling” and “ The First Snowfall.”