The Biglow Papers


Second Series. Ticknor and Fields.

“ You kin spall an’ punctooate thet as you please,” says Mr. Biglow in sending to the editor of the Atlantic the last of the Biglow Papers ; “ I alius do, it kind of puts a noo soot of close onto a word, this ere funattick spellin’ doos, an’ takes ’em out of the prissen dress they wair in the Dixionary. Ef I squeeze the cents out of ’em, it’s the main thing, and wut they wuz made for ; wut’s left’s jest pummis.”
Whereby, we fear, Mr. Biglow may give the impression that it is not a dialect in which he writes his poems, but a language which he misspells and perverts by caprice or through ignorance, and thus discredit something of Mr. Lowell’s exquisite introductory discourse. The feeble critic-folk who have gravely made our great humorist responsible for the clownish tricks in orthography of Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, and the like, scarcely needed to have such a doubt added to the confusion born in them.
After all, however, Mr. Biglow’s carelessness and their dulness cannot greatly trouble the larger number of Mr. Lowell’s admirers, who perceive the perfect art and lawful nature of his quaintest and most daring drollery. At the door of Mr. Thackeray must lie the charge of bastardy in question, for he was the first to create the merry monsters now so common in literature. In Charles Yellowplush, he caricatured the man of a certain calling, and by the rule of unreason gifted him with a laboriously fantastic orthography ; and Artemtis Ward and Nasby are merely local variations of the same idea. The showman and the confederate gospeller make us laugh by their typographical pleasantry ; they are neither of them without wit ; and for the present they have a sort of reality ; but they are of a stuff wholly different from that of Hosea Biglow, who is the type of a civilization, and who expresses, in a genuine vernacular, the true feeling, the racy humor, and the mother-wit of Yankee-land. His characteristic excellences are likely to survive for a long time the dialect which gives them utterance, though this is by no means evanescent; for Hosea Biglow is almost as much at home now in the rural speech of Northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as in that of New England. Yet his dialect must one day cease to be spoken; and when posterity read him, as Englishmen do Burns, for the imperishable quality of his humor and sentiment, we fear that they will be somewhat puzzled to recall the immortal name of Petroleum V. Nasby, to whom he resigns the office of political satire,
Alas ! has the king really abdicated ? Then let us have a republic of humor, and make each one Ins own jokes hereafter. As for Nasby, he is not of the blood. He is wittier and better-hearted than Artemus Ward, and he has generosity of purpose and elevation of aim, but he is only a moralized merry-andrew ; whereas one may lift his glance from the smiling lips of the Yankee minstrel, and behold his honest eyes full of self-respectful thought, and that complement of humor, pathos,—without which your jester is but a sorry antic. He himself hardly knows whether his next word is to be in shower or shine. But how sovereignly he passes from one mood to the other, or then gives us a strain mixed of both, — an interfusion of delight and pain, such as we feel in reading that perfect poem explaining to the public his long silence! It is his great art to lift us above the parties and persons he satirizes, and confront us with their errors ; and if his wit seems to play with any theme too long, there is some surprise awaiting us like that which, in the “ Speech in March Meetin’,” turns us from the droll aspects of Mr. Johnson’s defection to the thrilling and appealing spectacle of a nation’s life, love, and hope possibly lost in the neglect of a Heavengiven occasion : —
“ I seem to hear a whisperin’ in the air,
A sighin' like of unconsoled despair,
That comes from nowhere an’ from everywhere,
An’ seems to say, ‘ Why died we ? warn’t it, then,
To settle, once for all, that men wuz men ?
O, airth’s sweet Cup snetched from us barely tasted
The grave’s real chill is feelin’ life wuz wasted I
O, you we lef’, long-lingerin' et the door,
Lovin' you best, coz we loved Her the more.
That Death, not we, had conquered, we should
Ef she upon our memory turned her heel,
An* unregretful throwed us all away
To flaunt it in a Blind Man’s Holiday,’ ’’
There never was political satire so thoroughly humane as Hosea Biglow’s ; there never was satire so noble before. The purpose is never once degraded ; and where the feeling deepens, as in the passage we have quoted, the dialect fades to an accent, and the verse of the Supposed rustic is, as his prayer would be, in speech natural, pure, solemn, and strong. It is always strong. It would be hard to find a weak line, or a line of wandering significance, in the whole book ; and the reader who threw a word away would find himself a thought the poorer. We shall not repeat here the cheapened phrase of compliment, which seems more flimsy and unreal than ever in its application to the robust life of such poetry. If we do not find fault, it is because we see everything to admire, and nothing to blame. Quick, sharp wit, pervading humor, trenchant logic, sustained feeling, — well, we come to the poverty of critical good-nature in spite of ourselves, and it is a satisfaction to know that the reviewed can suffer nothing from it, but will remain as honestly fresh, original, and great as if we had not sought to label his fine qualities.
It is not as mere satire, however, that the Biglow Papers are to be valued. The First and Second Series form a creative fiction of unique excellence. The love for nature, so conspicuous in these later poems, is of the simplest and manliest expressed in literature. The four seasons are not patronized, nor the reader bored ; but we enjoy the very woods and fields in Hosea Biglow’s quaintly and subtly faithful feeling for them. They are justly subordinate to him, however, and we are not suffered to forget Mr. Lowell’s creed, that human nature is the nature best worth celebrating. The landscape is but the setting for Jaalam, — shrewd, honest, moral, angular, — Hosea Biglow municipalized. The place should be on the maps, for it has as absolute existence as any in New England, and its people by slight but unerring touches are made as real. For ourselves, we intend to spend part of our next vacation at Jaalam, and shall visit the grave of the Reverend Homer Wilbur, for whose character we have conceived the highest regard, and whose death we regret not less keenly than Hosea Biglow’s resolution to write no more. It would have been a pleasure — which we shall now never enjoy—to enter the study of the good minister, and tell him how thoroughly we had learned to know him through his letters introducing Mr. Biglow’s effusions, and how we had thus even come to take an interest in Jaalam’s shadowy antiquities. We should have esteemed it a privilege to have his views of the political situation ; and if we had turned to talk of literature, we should have been glad to hear an admirer of the classic Pope give his notion of the classic Swinburne.
Somewhere in the South, Birdofredum Sawin must be lingering, — the most hightoned and low-principled of the reconstructed. In his character Mr. Lowell has presented us with so faultless an image of what Pure Cussedness works in the shrewd and humorous Yankee nature, that we hope not even the public favor shall prevent his appearance as an original Union man. The completion of the ballad of “The Courtin’ ” is a benefaction very stimulating to desire for whatever the author has not absolutely refused to give us.
As for the Introduction to this series of the Biglow Papers, the wonder is how anything so curiously learned and instructive could be made so delicious, Most of us will never appreciate fully the cost of what is so lightly and gracefully offered of the fruit of philological research; but few readers will fail to estimate aright the spirit which pervades the whole prologue. Mr. Lowell pauses just before the point where those not sharing the original enthusiasm might be fatigued with the study of words and phrases, and yet possesses his reader of more portable, trustworthy knowledge of Americanisms than is elsewhere to be found. The instances of national and local humor given are perfect; and Mr. Lowell’s reserve in attempting to define American humor — which must remain, like all humor, an affair of perception rather than expression — might teach something to our Transatlantic friends, who suppose it to be merely a quality of exaggeration. We enjoy, quite as well as even the discreet learning of this Introduction, such glimpses as the author chooses to give us of his purpose in writing the Biglow Papers, and in adopting the Yankee dialect for his expression, as well as of his methods of studying this dialect. Some slight defence he makes of points assailed in his Work ; but for the most part it is effortless, familiar talk with his readers, always significant, but persistent in nothing, and in tone as full and rich as the best talk of Montaigne or Cervantes.