Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


THE WORLD OF BOOKS: Mr. Lowell's New Poems*


James Russell Lowell, Heartsease and Rue. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin; St. John: Alfred Morrissey, 1888.


Owing to the exalted position which Mr. Lowell holds in American literature, it is difficult to judge fairly a new work coming from his pen. In the literary activity of the new world his is doubtless at present the most imposing figure; and in observation of such a figure one is apt to find his sense of perspective growing confused. I have heard it seriously advanced by critics that Mr. Lowell is the greatest of American poets. Such a criticism is founded either upon ignorance of what constitutes great poetry, or upon failure to appreciate what certain others in America have done. Mr. Lowell may be regarded as perhaps the choicest product of American culture; he is the American "Man of Letters" par excellence, skilled in the vehicles of prose or verse, of ripest scholarship and most unimpeachable taste. He is, besides all this, a true poet. He has the divine faculty, both in imagination and in expression. But the gift is the gift of the minor singer. He is not a master poet in the sense in which Emerson is a master, and Poe is a master. He has not the compelling power which gathers to itself disciples and impresses itself upon the verse of a generation. He has written perhaps the noblest ode yet produced in America, - the splendid "Commemoration Ode"; he has done most dainty lyrics, and the masterpiece of American dialect verse is his. This is title enough to all the distinction which is so rightly showered upon him, but it does not make him a creator and a seer, inspiring poets and teaching them their art. Such a one was Emerson. It does not make him the ideal singer of all household joys and sorrows, of the grace of the common day. Such a one was Longfellow. This apparent depreciation is necessary to prevent misunderstanding; for if we believed some reviewers we would expect the dainty volume before us to shake our souls like an utterance of Tennyson, or Browning, or Swinburne. In very truth, Heartsease and Rue is a collection of poems which will delight but not enthrall. They are apt to be rather casual in their tone. They rarely seem to have compelled the poet’s utterance. Very often they are not markedly musical. But there is none so poor but there has been lavished upon it some portion of the riches of a subtle and vigorous intellect. Sometimes we come across such a passage of simple loveliness as the following, which lacks not an essential of the truest poetry:

          "Truly this life is precious to the root,
And good the feel of grass beneath the foot;
To lie in buttercups and clover bloom,
          Tenants in common with the bees,
And watch the white clouds drift through gulfs of trees,
Is better than long waiting in the tomb;
Only once more to feel the coming spring
As the birds feel it when it bids them sing,
          Only once more to see the moon
Through leaf-fringed abbey-arches of the elms
          Curve her mild sickle in the West
Sweet with the breadth of hay-cocks, were a boon
Worth any promise of soothsayer realms
Or casual hope of being elsewhere blest."

The "Ode to Agassiz", from which these lines are taken, is thoughtful and gravely sweet throughout, and constructed with great technical skill; but it often lacks the simplicity and ease of the passage quoted.

The second section is devoted to poems of sentiment, and contains to my mind, the chief poetic wealth of the collection. Here is the poem "Endymion" which lately appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. I remember how its radiant clarity seemed to illuminate the whole of that number. Here are such memorable and witching lyrics as "Phoebe", "Agro Dolce", "Fact or Fancy" and the brief strain called "Monna Lisa", with its delicacy reminding one of Lovelace. Sections three and four, treating of Fancy, and of Humor and Satire, show the piquant, but not stinging, wit, the graciousness mingled with homely fun, that Mr. Lowell has taught us to expect of him. Let me close with one of the daintiest of all half-playful love-poems:


"I could not bear to see those eyes
On all with wasteful largess shine,
And that delight of welcome rise
Like sunshine strained through amber wine,
But that a glow from deeper skies,
From conscious fountains more divine,
Is (is it?) mine.

Be beautiful to all mankind,
As Nature fashioned thee to be;
‘Twould anger me did all not find
The sweet perfection that’s in thee;
Yet deep one charm of charms behind -
Nay, thou’rt rich, keep two or three
For (is it?) me!


"The World of Books: Mr. Lowell's New Poems," Progress 1:17 (Saint John, N.B.), 25 August 1888, 6 [back]