Poem of the Day: ‘Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865’ by James Russell Lowell

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a eulogy for James Russell Lowell, novelist Henry James wrote:

He is one of the happy figures of literature. He had his trammels and his sorrows, but he drank deep of the full, sweet cup, and he will long count as an erect fighting figure on the side of optimism and beauty. He was strong without bitterness and bright without folly.

J. A. J. Wilcox and S. W. Rouse / Library of Congress

This bright optimism suffused Lowell’s writing, even as he confronted the violent, divided state of American politics and life in the middle of the 19th century.

In the summer of 1865, just months after both the conclusion of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, Lowell recited an ode at Harvard in memory of alumni who had died in the conflict. Despite the sad occasion and the darkness of the national atmosphere, he spoke of an essential goodness that would endure:

Ah, there is something here
        Unfathomed by the cynic’s sneer,
        Something that gives our feeble light
        A high immunity from Night,
        Something that leaps life’s narrow bars
        To claim its birthright with the hosts of heaven;
          A seed of sunshine that doth leaven
        Our earthly dulness with the beams of stars

Lowell expressed a similarly hopeful outlook in his prose during the tense lead-up to the war, and in its uncertain early days. In the magazine’s 1860 endorsement of Lincoln’s bid for the presidency, for instance, he concluded on a note of moral confidence:

We have entire faith in the benignant influence of Truth, the sunlight of the moral world, and believe that slavery, like other worn-out systems, will melt gradually before it. “All the earth cries out upon Truth, and the heaven blesseth it; ill works shake and tremble at it, and with it is no unrighteous thing.”

This faith in the Union’s moral cause comes through in 1861’s “The Pickens and Stealins Rebellion,” too:

We are to prove which is stronger, — an oligarchy built on men, or a commonwealth built of them. Our structure is alive in every part with defensive and recuperative energies; woe to theirs, if that vaunted corner-stone which they believe patient and enduring as marble should begin to writhe with intelligent life!

We have no doubt of the issue. We believe that the strongest battalions are always on the side of God.

And Lowell was ready to join those battalions. In a poetic tribute delivered on Lowell’s 70th birthday, his Atlantic co-founder Oliver Wendell Holmes celebrated the editor as a

True knight of Freedom, ere her doubtful cause
Rose from the dust to meet the world’s applause,
His country’s champion on the bloodless field
Where truth and manhood stand for spear and shield!

James, too, wrote fondly of Lowell’s sanguine view of the country:

His America was a country worth hearing about, a magnificent conception, an admirably consistent and lovable object of allegiance. …

Mr. Lowell’s prose [and] his poetry … translate with equal exaltation and veracity the highest national mood, and it is in them that all younger Americans, those now and lately reaching manhood, may best feel the great historic throb, the throb unknown to plodding peace. No poet, surely, has placed the concrete idea of his country in a more romantic light than Mr. Lowell; none, certainly, speaking as an American to Americans, has found on its behalf accents more eloquently tender, more beguiling to the imagination.

This same literary sensibility and passion—for New England, for America, for truth—informed Lowell’s vision for The Atlantic, which he helped shape as founding editor.

In a May 1857 letter to his friend Charles Eliot Norton, Lowell wrote about that vision:

We are going to start a new magazine here in October ... The magazine is to be free without being fanatical, and we hope to unite in it all available talent of all modes of opinion. The magazine is to have opinions of its own and not be afraid to speak them. I think we shall be scholarly and gentlemanlike.

Later that year he added:

The second number of Maga. will be out to-morrow, and it is a very good one—better than the first, which is what I wished, and I hope Number Three will be better yet. The song I wish the young lady to sing is, ‘Mamma, I’m young, but I’m growin’ yet.’

Like his writings about the Civil War, these letters are full of Lowell’s sunny outlook, his belief in an enduring moral cause and in better things to come. As we approach our 160th anniversary this year, Lowell’s optimistic vision is one The Atlantic still values—and one we’re still trying to live up to.