Lowell's Addresses

ONE is struck by the singular variety of occasion and place which called out the nine speeches in this volume.1 Two have a connection with English democracy,— the Address at Birmingham and the Notes on Don Quixote read at the Workingmen’s College, London, — and it is pleasing to observe that these, with the Harvard Address, are the most valuable; two were delivered in Westminster Abbey, — the first a tribute of American feeling for Dean Stanley, the latter a finished, though not elaborate, éloge upon Coleridge, touched with the grateful remembrance of a man of letters for one of the lights of his early years, and full of charity; two others sprang from literature, — one commemorative of Fielding, the second the annual address pronounced before the Wordsworth Society; and three are associated with America, — the words uttered in Exeter Hall, on Garfield’s death, which bear so well the difficult test of being read after the intensity of the moment’s sentiment has passed away, the defense of books at the opening of a Massachusetts free library, and the opus magnum of the Harvard Address, with which our readers were lately made familiar. This is an extraordinary list, whether the dignity of many of the occasions, the compass or the elevation of the subjects, or the diversity of the audiences be considered ; it offers a powerful illustration of the high organization of English civilization that the ripest culture can touch, by so many channels and in such various modes of contact, the general life ; nor is it an accident of birth that the man who has been able to hold this place is an American. The country may justly take pride in the temper and quality of these speeches, which display national as well as personal excellences, and will be the lasting record of Mr. Lowell’s life abroad, as a representative American. But more than the variety of theme and circumstance in the contents of this volume, its unity of spirit, its single-mindedness, are forced upon the reader’s attention : not that it is characterized by sameness of idea, — on the contrary, it is perpetually changeful in thought, — or by any scheme or system which of itself organizes a man’s knowledge always in the same general lines, and is thus the source of a merely formal and specious coherency ; nor that it has any one end in view, any defined purpose, or recurring moral, or proselytizing tendency, even ; but in it one perceives everywhere the presence of culture transmuted into character, knowledge that has suffered the immortalizing change into wisdom, judgments that share in the permanency of things because derived from long - established traditions and the whole intellectual and social habit of the race, — in brief, one sees the same mind in it all, completely developed, consistent, and fortified in its principles.

This mind is preëminently that of a man of letters. Literature, in the exact sense, has been its nutriment. The largest part of what Mr. Lowell has to say, too, pertains to literature. It is true that the greater portion is strictly criticism, though somewhat affected in its form and bearing by the adventitious circumstance that it was spoken, and must be read by tire ear as well as by the eye; but it is more than criticism, as generally understood, because the decisions do not apply merely to the special author in hand, but have a wider relation to authorship itself; not to books alone, but also to the spiritual life which it is the office of books to quicken, strengthen, and perfect. Mr. Lowell may be writing of some individual, and have only him in mind; but it frequently happens that a slightly accented sentence, what seems perhaps a simple remark by the way, is a text for a long sermon, if the reader will follow out its suggestions. Sometimes Mr. Lowell’s suppression of this implicit homily appears to be against his will. He, as a man of letters, necessarily places a high value upon literary form ; wisdom by itself is less prized apart — to use his own phrase — from “ the beauty in which it is incarnated ; ” and for a poet to fail of this incarnating beauty, he is well assured, is a defect in the very substance and tissue of genius. With the growth of popular education, there has lately come an effort to make analysis do the work of intuition in the study of literature : because the eye cannot see what the poet has embodied, it is fancied that the dissecting hand can make the soul apparent; but what is thus arrived at is truth, in its philosophical, not its poetic form. The method has its advantages, no doubt, and one would not depreciate its worth ; in particular, it is a great boon to poets who in considerable portions of their work have not expressed the truth with such perfection that it can be perceived on first sight; that is, to poets who have failed, at times, in that “ incarnating beauty ” which belongs to the ever-living works of genius. Students of Wordsworth know very well that he is often sensible when he is not poetic, but his devotees are slow to recognize and acknowledge the fact that at such times his poems have not the principle of life in them which makes real literature survive, and constitutes its reality. To think all of Wordsworth, or any very large proportion of his literary remains, to be literature is to confuse the mind’s sense of relative values ; to set up a standard of meaning in place of the old standard of style is to abolish the distinction of prose and verse, of philosophy and poetry ; and to substitute for the creative artist that merely percipient creature who is called the Seer. Mr. Lowell made many a downright stroke, in his address to the Wordsworth Society, which must have seemed to the poet’s more devout worshipers as if their idol were having his hands and feet lopped off; but what looks to us like the most significant word, the unkindest. cut of all when one sees how deep it sinks into the marrow, is a hardly noticeable sentence slipping gravely in at the end of a paragraph: “ There are various methods of criticism ; but I think we should all agree that literary work is to be judged from the purely literary point of view.” Who would not assent to so obvious a truism ? But what becomes of Wordsworthians in general, what becomes of the modern sect of the Browningites, if literary work is “ to be judged from the purely literary point of view ” ? It is to escape from the literary point of view and its limitations that meaning is made the test of value, independent of style, and the gown of the scholar usurps the honors due alone to the poet’s laurel. It is well to be understood : the now popular method of study may feed the mind, may open the inner truth of the author and multiply its usefulness as thought, and no doubt does this excellent service; but shall the foolish therefore imagine that lucid expression is not elemental in the work of genius, or that any poetry which lacks it is of enduring power ? A man of letters is naturally impatient of the intrusion of foreign standards upon the domain of literature, and must at least “hesitate” his dissent, as, if we do not do Mr. Lowell an injustice, he has here done.

There is a good deal in these addresses, as a whole, which must be classed as dissent; for in many respects Mr. Lowell stands against a rising tide. Is it to be inferred that he represents the times that were, in literary criticism and in his conviction of what nurture is best for the souls of men ? Certainly it is to be feared that Coleridge, to whose spiritualizing influence he regards the English mind as much indebted, is little read, less consulted, and perhaps scarcely understood by those who rule the hour among us. It would not be venturing much to intimate that younger men will learn more of the great critical authority of their fathers from this speech, on unveiling his bust in the Abbey, than they ever knew from Coleridge’s own works. The trend of our time is toward the lowlands of the understanding, so Mr. Lowell would think ; is toward the region of observation and record, toward the science of what the senses report, and that portraiture of the material which is comprehensively termed realism. To dwell on the merits of Coleridge, to expound the methods of Cervantes in creation, or, nearer at hand, to point to Fielding’s way, is to prefer the Old Comedy to the New, in our Athens. Some one may irreverently suggest that, though Coleridge no doubt did a good turn in importing Germany, it is Russia that we need now ; and Cervantes, — was he not a romantic writer, perhaps ? As for Fielding, why, he lived long before Thackeray and Dickens, even! Irreverence might go so far, for what head among us but quails beneath the truncheon of realism ? Yet when he was over-seas Mr. Lowell told the workingmen to whom he read his notes on Don Quixote that when he entered the company of the realistic school he felt “ set to grind in the prison-house of the Philistines. I walk about in a nightmare, the supreme horror of which is that my coat is all button-holed for bores to thrust their fingers through, and bait me to my heart’s content.” And he goes on to speak of ancient worthies, like that impossible Hector, and Roland with his ridiculous horn, and Macbeth in the old witch-story, and others of the same kind of beings, who “ move about, if not in worlds not realized, at least in worlds not realized to any eye but that of imagination, a world far from police reports, a world into which it is a privilege, I might almost say an achievement, to enter.” Our irreverent critic will, perhaps, not dispute the alleged habitat of these romantic heroes, but as to the privilege and achievement of entering there he will be more skeptical. Mr. Lowell belongs to the idealists, and it is too much to expect that he should take a more modern view ; he has been so shaped and inspired by the old culture that he is loyal to it as to the blood and spirit of the fathers; and the old culture is, beyond gainsaying, idealistic, from Homer and David down to the birth of Zola. It could scarcely be hoped that a man to whom literature as it has been is the breath of his spiritual being should revoke old - time judgments, and decree anew in favor of literature as we make it. Such charitable consideration will be allowed to the veteran of our criti cism, no doubt, by the most modern school ; but he can hardly look for more than tolerance. Is it, then, so true that to get away from our neighbors we must seek Plutarch ? Can one not converse with the spirit except in Dante ? And after all, would it be so very much wiser to stay with our neighbors, and disbelieve in heroes of an older type ; to deny the spirit, and give our days and nights to the jargon of French fish-wives and the slang of the American street ? Mr. Lowell observes, “We are apt to wonder at the scholarship of the men of three centuries ago, and at a certain dignity of phrase that characterizes them. They were scholars, because they did not read so many things as we. They had fewer books, but these were of the best. Their speech was noble, because they lunched with Plutarch and supped with Plato.” There is “ a certain dignity of phrase ” that characterizes this volume also, such as has not been noticeable in any American book for a long time. Is not the reason, in its degree, the same, and may it not be that the old culture is still justified of her children ? Three centuries hence, if any should care to examine the literature of this decade, will they not explain Mr. Lowell’s preeminence, in weight, closeness, and beauty of phrase in somewhat the same way ? If this should prove so, the realists may well ponder that admirable quotation which is so forcibly flung down before the feet of those who forget “ the warning of Sir Walter Raleigh, perhaps more important to the artist than to the historian, that it is dangerous to follow truth too near the heels.” As a matter of minor criticism, there is a passing remark of Mr. Lowell’s upon Spanish literature: speaking of the “ flavor of the soil,” he says, “ It has the advantage of giving even to second-class writers in a foreign language that strangeness which in our own tongue is possible only to originality either of thought or style.” Does not this indicate the mistake of perspective that is made by those who are now so loud in the praise of all Russian books ?

Dissents of other kinds are to be found in these pages. It is not a birdbolt shot into the air, when the critic of Fielding turns upon those who find that author intolerably gross with the rejoinder that “ the second of the seven deadly sins is not less dangerous when she talks mysticism, and ogles us through the gaps of a fan painted with the story of the virgin martyr.” This sentence lays bare the most offensive weakness of the æsthetic school. Mr. Lowell’s distrust of the tendencies of the new education, which is the half of his Harvard Address, has been too lately spread upon the pages of this magazine to be set forth anew. But it would be ungracious to dwell, in this paper, only upon the points of disagreement which the author reveals between his perception of what is and his judgment of what ought to be. How many and various they are may be known from the examples which have been cited; but were they much more numerous, and the rifts of severance as wide as they are profound, — which is by no means the case, — the author would remain an optimist; in the midst of his most destructive critical reservations he would seem only a wiser, not a less sincere and reverential, worshiper ; in the full flow of his protest, whether against realism, or the new education, or what not, he would interpose a compliment of Spanish largeness, and confirm his audience in their conviction of the general cheerfulness of the outlook. If Mr. Lowell does not readily acquiesce with all the powers that be, he believes in those that are to be. He will not despair of the republic of letters, or that of democracy either. To his view there are apparently darker clouds in the literary than in the political horizon ; but, however that may turn out, he is certainly more in harmony with current thought in what he has to say of our institutions and society, of the national experience of democracy, and of the progressive and humanizing elements in our social theory than he is in his discussions of education or of the laws of literary art. If his dissents in the one division are instructive, no less are his assents in the other. He could not profess more explicitly adherence to the democratic principle as the basis of a greater and more equal public welfare in the state than any nation has hitherto known, as the promise of a prosperity to be still more widely distributed among the common people, and as a means of regeneration in the life of the poor. He more than adheres to the political faith in which the nation is built, — his acceptance of it goes to the point of advocacy.

The leading address in this volume, that on democracy, is the work of an exceptionally wise and subtle observer. It does not take pains to sustain democracy upon the ground of its foundations in equity, in utility, and the manifest destiny which history reveals to the student ; rather, it maintains the practical working of it against objections which are deeply lodged only in the prejudices, self-conceit, and fears of a cultivated class, and dwells upon its inevitable success and its humanitarian spirit. Mr. Lowell is not one of the weaklings of philanthropy. He had such object-lessons in mania before him in his youth, and the half-century in which his life has been thrown has been so thick with reforms that he is not to be captured by any cause at this late day. He refers more than once to those whose sympathies are so touched by some single case of suffering that they fail to perceive the regulative law, to those who cannot see the crime because the criminal’s person intervenes, and to other classes whose sensibilities are more developed than their judgments. He himself sees with perfect clearness a definitely constituted world, whose conditions may be hard but are fixed, and also a something which the theologians used to call man’s heart, the prolific source of evil, suffering, and pain ; and he is well aware that all human life goes on, as one might say, between these upper and nether grindstones of Nature and Human Nature ; he does not look for any philanthropy to change this constitution of things. It is a welcome sight when one whose hold is so firm on the facts of human existence nevertheless suggests and apparently believes that the organization of society is subject to considerable human improvement, and not a part of that order with which man has nothing to do but to submit to it. The value of such suggestion and belief depends upon the kind of change which the writer deems possible and desirable. Mr. Lowell does not express himself very fully upon the matter, but he seems willing to follow the idea of democracy into its developments with that optimistic feeling which has already been remarked upon. A careful reader will observe a thoroughgoing sympathy with the effort of the poor, the humble and homely classes who do the physical work of the world, to obtain a larger share of the fruits of the common toil; and also he may notice a cordial disposition of mind toward the purposes and spirit at least of some of those who aim at this result through social changes. One should not put an undue emphasis upon His words, but it is not too much to say that he shows a mind open and hospitable to those reforms of the future which democracy seems to carry in itself as premises contain a conclusion. This address wall now for the first time be widely read in this country, and not the least weighty part of it, not the least significant of the drift of thought, wall be those paragraphs which deal with what is still before us in the evolution of our social theory as a nation. The public, the silent and thinking audience, will give them attention ; but the whole volume, alike in its advocacy and its protests, is one to arrest the mind, to stir thought, and to suggest revisions of opinions.

  1. Democracy and Other Addresses. By JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.