IT has been repeatedly said in my hearing, by men who had come to know’ Lowell personally, after having known his works, that he was better than anything he had done. No one knew this so well as those who knew him best. I made my acquaintance with his works in the days of young artistic enthusiasms, when I used to visit the studio of William Page, the poet’s intimate friend and ardent admirer, to whose almost inspired (oracular, certainly) improvisations on art and poetry I used to listen till my own blood ran quick, and my own enthusiasms made me see what was never to be seen again, even in dreams. Page used to repeat Lowell’s poems with his own commentary, so subtly fantastic at times that it made one think he had taken part in the composition of the poet’s text, or thought he had, at least. I only remember as then in print the volume of early poems, and the .Sir Launfal in a small separate volume. There was much in the poems which appealed powerfully to the green and sentimental stage of mental growth in which 1 then was, and I learned most of them by heart, together with the Sir Launfal. I spent the following autumn at a lighthouse on the coast of New England, sketching the sea in its multiform changes, and the two volumes were all the literature I carried with me. But I remember saying, about that time, to a common friend of Page and myself, that the author wanted only the ripening of a great sorrow to bring out his greater powers. The poems seemed to me, even then, only the overflow of a mind so full of poetic thought that verse flowed from it as water from a deep spring, giving out what would run to waste if not turned to some direct use.
It was not long after this that my criticism was to be tested by life. Lowell’s wife died, leaving him in that gloom from which came the series of short poems, to my mind the best expression of the finest side of the man’s nature,— The Wind-harp, Auf Wiederselien, Palinode, After the Burial, and The Dead House, — expressions of the strong passion of grief at work in a strong and healthy nature, not crushed, but bowed down ; for he was under the influence of a sane and elastic sorrow which did not paralyze, but turned his mental activity to the presentation of the overpowering passion, genuine, pure, and without a trace of the artifice or inflation of the aftermath of grief. The only thing that I know in English poetry to set beside them for genuine pathos is the “ Break, break, break ” of Tennyson, and there the freshness of passion has given place to the consciousness of art and the need of study of form. It was in this phase of his life that I made Lowell’s acquaintance.
I was about commencing the publication, in company with John Durand, son of a former president of the Academy of Design, of an art journal, The Crayon, and went to Cambridge to solicit the assistance of those writers whose work in any way sympathized with the object of our journal. If I remember rightly, I had no letter of introduction, but presented myself on the strength of my mission, and was received by Lowell with the princely courtesy which was his manner. I was full of my project, which seemed to me, in my enthusiasm, evangelical, for I was set to preach and labor for the revival of art; and he accepted me on my own ground, with entire sympathy. One of his letters, written a little later, when our acquaintance had ripened into friendship, has such a significance as a revelation of the state of his mind at that time that I do not believe I need apologize for introducing it, though it is very personal to me ; it would not tell its story if I left out the personal part. I wanted something of his for the opening number of the paper, and he had sent me a passage from his Pictures from Appledore, which he entitled August Afternoon. I wanted him to be on board at " the launch,” and I had also a poem of Bryant’s, that called A Rain Dream in his published volume; but the scheme of the journal did not admit more than one such notable contribution in each number, so I had to choose between Bryant and Lowell as the poet of the occasion. It is to this that he alludes in the letter.
GRUB STREET, 7th Dec’r, 1854.
MY DEAR SIR, — I am sorry to have kept your proofs so long, but I was absent from home the day they came.
I don’t know now whether I sent you the right part of the poem. But I wished to give you the most paletty part first, and I am now so overwhelmed with lectures and Grub Street that I have literally not time to copy the introductory verses describing the island. But, my dear sir, if Bryant has given you a poem, you should put that in your first number, by all means. It will do you more good than many of mine, and your first duty is to your Crayon - child, wherever you are not obliged to sacrifice any principle to it. Don’t mind me in the least. I wish your journal to succeed. Remember that success is the only atmosphere through which your ideas will look lovely to the public you wish to influence. Bryant’s name will help you more than mine ; therefore, take him first. Not that I like to give up my place on board at the launch, either, for I am sure it will be a graceful one.
You must n’t talk of Christmas gifts and things. I shall think you mean to keep me in Grub Street in spite of myself. [I had intended to send his daughter something for Christmas, and suppose I must have asked some question about her tastes.] I positively will not be paid in any way, if I may say so after being more than paid by your beautiful drawings, which M. likes as well as I do, and declares a preference for the larger one, “ On the ” — I can’t make out the name, but I shall call it the Lethe, that drowsy water with tree-dreams in it, so smooth and sleek and soaked with sun, it seems a drink of it would quench the thirst of all sad memories. Only no Lethe can, for we are our own saddest memories, — a hundred a day. I thank you for them most heartily, and for your letter as well.
I am glad you had a pleasant time here. I had, and you made me fifteen years younger while you stayed. When a man gets to my age, enthusiasms don’t often knock at the door of his garret. I am all the more charmed with them when they come. A youth full of such pure intensity of hope and faith and purpose, — what is he but the breath of a resurrection - trumpet to us stiffened old fellows, bidding us up out of our clay and earth if we would not be too late ?
Your inspiration is still to you a living mistress ; make her immortal in her promptings and her consolations by imaging her truly in art. Mine looks at me with eyes of paler flame and beckons across a gulf. You came into my loneliness like an incarnate aspiration. And it is dreary enough sometimes, fora mountain peak on whose snow your foot makes the first mortal print is not so lonely as a room full of happy faces from which one is missing forever. This was originally the fifth stanza of The Wind-Harp:
Rocked to rest within rest by its thankful beating,
Say, which is harder, — to bear the pain
Of laughter and light, or to wait in vain,
’Neath the unleaved tree, the impossible meeting ?
If Death’s lips be icy. Life gives, iwis,
Some kisses more clay-cold and darkening than his !
Forgive me, but you spoke of it first. [I had in a letter spoken of The WindHarp, which he had read to me on a visit, just before.]
I have done better than send you a poem; I have got you — a subscriber. On this momentous topic I shall enlarge no further than to say that I wish to be put on your list also in my capacity as gentleman, and not author. I will not be deadheaded. I respect my profession too much. . . .
Heartily and hopefully yours,
J. R. LOWELL.
It is nearly forty years since that letter was written, but I can never read it again without the reflection, pale though it be, of the pathos which rests on that visit to his study when he read me The Wind-Harp, and we sat silent long into the twilight of the autumn day, the bare boughs of the elm-trees outside his windows cutting against the sky, and his little daughter came in after her lessons. When she left the room I spoke of her delicately chiseled features, and he replied by pointing to her mother’s portrait on the study wall.
Perhaps I overrate my own way of looking at Lowell, but in that letter there seems the expression of his character, writ large. Out of the depth of the shadow over his life, in the solitude of his study, with nothing but associations of his wrecked happiness permitted around him, the kindly sympathy with a new aspiration wakened him to a momentary gayety, his humor flashed out irrepressible, and his large heart turned its warmest side to the new friend, who came only to make new calls on his benevolence ; that is, to give him another opportunity to bestow himself on others. There is in it the generosity, the pathos, the subtle humor, the worldly wisdom, and the self-forgetfulness which we who knew him recognize, drawn against the dark background of his bereaved life.
The letter, at this long distance, confounds itself with the visit which preceded it. I had stayed with him at Elmwood, and we had talked of many things which provoke confidence, had visited his favorite bits of landscape in the classic fields, Beaver Brook, the Waver ley Oaks, etc., and, in the dusk of the day, chance, or some spiritual induction, had led him into speaking of his griefs, charily, half apologetically; and when a man can speak of his griefs to another, there are two ties established, one of a sympathy in them, and the other of that lightening of the soul from the putting them into words, which seems to incur an obligation where really one is conferred. It was in this confidence that he read me the Ode to Happiness, the first full expression of his sorrow he had made to me; and I quite broke down, and stole to the window to hide my tears. Perhaps certain trivial troubles of my own, but which at the time seemed to me as grave as death, put me in tune with his mood, and so our friendship found its first minor chord.
Nothing would have induced me to take his advice and give any other the place I intended for him at " the launch,” so the first number of The Crayon contained the bit of his Appledore study, of which he sent me two more fragments later on. He took the liveliest interest in the paper as long as I remained at the head of it, and amongst other things wrote for it the Invita Minerva, in the proof-correcting of which he allowed himself one of the quaint, and to my mind delightful, bits of eccentric diction he was so fond of, but rarely indulged in. The second line, which in the collected poems stands,
was so written originally, but in the correction of proof was changed to “ in the west wind blue,” and was so printed in The Crayon.
The next letter I have from him — for the minor letters and the manuscripts seem all to have gone to the autograph-hunters—is dated the week after The Crayon had been launched. I have no recollection of what I had written, but I do remember that on reading the Auf Wiedersehen, printed in one of the magazines of the day, — I think Putnam’s,— I sent him some verses which that poem called out, and in which, possibly, I had tried, not to console, for the folly of that I even then knew, but to mingle a sympathetic pain with his.
ELMWOOD, 11 th Jan., 1855.
MY DEAR FRIEND, — I fear you have thought me very cold and ungrateful not to have answered sooner (if it were only with God bless you) your very kind and tender letter. I cannot say more of it than that it came to my heart like the words of a woman. I need not write how entirely grateful I am for it.
I have delayed writing till I found a chance to copy some more Appledore for you. I have sent a tolerably long bit this time, for I suppose you will like something to fill up as much as may be. So look upon it as a large canvas that will at least cover bare wall. I have had your two drawings framed, and they hang up now on the inside of my door, and please everybody that sees them, me above all.
I have been fearfully busy with my lectures ! And so nervous about them, too ! I had never spoken in public. There was a great rush for tickets (the lectures are gratis), only one in five of the applicants being supplied, and altogether I was quite taken aback. I had no idea that there would be such a desire to hear me.
I delivered my first lecture to a crowded hall on Tuesday night, and I believe I have succeeded. The lecture was somewhat abstract, but I kept the audience perfectly still for an hour and a quarter. (They are in the habit of going out at the end of the hour.) I delivered it again yesterday to another crowd, and was equally successful; so I think I am safe now. But I have six yet to write, and am consequently very busy and pressed for time.
I felt anxious, of course, for I had a double responsibility. The lectures [before the Lowell Institute] were founded by a cousin of mine, and the Trustee is another cousin ; so I wished not only to do credit to myself and my name, but to justify my relative in appointing me to lecture.
It is all over now, and as far as the public is concerned I have succeeded; but the lectures keep me awake and make me lean.
I am quite sensible now that I did not do Mr. Bryant justice in the Fable. But there was no personal feeling in what I said, though I have regretted what I did say because it might seem personal. I am now asked to write a review of his poems for the North American. If I do, I shall try to do him justice.
I think he has been more fortunate in Flemish pictures than I, if he does not find in Appledore a sentiment that is wanting in them. One of the best fragments is yet to come. . . .
Yours, J. R. LOWELL.
His allusion to Bryant was due to my having told him that the latter was always a little sore at Lowell’s treatment of him in the Fable for Critics, and especially at the lines which became a commonplace of criticism : —
Like being stirred up with the very North Pole ; ”
and as just before taking charge of The Crayon I had been on the staff of Bryant’s Evening Post, and on friendly terms with the poet, I had become aware of the impression, and desired to efface it. The opportunity occurred a little later, on the occasion of Lowell’s departure for Europe, when I gave him a dinner in New York, to which I invited Bryant; and seating them together, with no regard to precedence (they had never seen each other before), I left them to themselves. Though there were of the company Charles Sumner, C. F. Briggs (Harry Franco), Whipple, Bayard Taylor, and other of Lowell’s old friends, he devoted himself to Bryant the entire evening, and completely fascinated him. Anxious to gather the elder poet’s impression, I left Lowell and Taylor at Oscanyan’s café smoking their nargilehs, and walked home with Bryant, soon satisfying myself. The allusion to Flemish art was in reply to a criticism of Bryant on the Appledore, which he spoke of as like a Flemish picture in its fidelity ; his reflection was not one of disparagement, though Lowell so regarded it.
Those who have no acquaintance with the literary life of the day I am dealing with can hardly understand how limited then was the range of Lowell’s possession of the public. It was usual, amongst his friends, to speak of him as the " most Shakespearean man since Shakespeare ; ” but by the American public, even, he was hardly held as more than a brilliant dilettante. His carelessness of the form of his work, his evident slight estimation of it, and the extraordinary ease with which it was thrown off, all contributed to this impression. The Biglow Papers were political squibs, of the true position of which as literature no one then had a just conception, blown about as they were in the winds which grew to the great tempest of our civil war, and read with partisan eyes; the Fable for Critics was limited in its range of audience, and, treated as a controversial and personal jeu d’esprit, attacked and defended without serious study ; while the serious poems were so unequal, and, as he afterwards recognized, in some cases so unworthy his powers, that they diminished the impression of the mass of his work. He set so little value on what cost him no labor — for he wrote verse more easily than prose — that he never gave himself the trouble of polishing or pruning, and the early volume contains much that is juvenile and open to sharp criticism, rendered all the more certain by his own pungency as critic. He knew his own value, as we know it now, but it, was the value in posse which he felt; for his work of the moment he had little concern. Had he held more conceit of his verse and more anxiety about public opinion, he certainly would have suppressed much of his early work, to his better reputation in later years. The lectures referred to in the letter last quoted showed him in another light, and justified the faith of his friends in his large intellectual possessions. They drove him into deep water, and he was obliged to swim in mare magno; their preparation involved work, which in his melancholy and loneliness was necessary to bring him out of the morbid condition into which he had fallen when I first knew him. He had become hypochondriacal, and at the time of my first visit had begun to nurse imaginary ills and brooded much by himself, with a hopeless feeling as to his future condition, which he made no effort to throw off. The lectures brought him up out of the depths, and he resumed his normal life. With all his strength of feeling and impulsive activity, his was too healthy a nature to remain long in morbid conditions, and once he had set about resisting them he rapidly returned to healthy work. On the 25th of January, a fortnight later than the last letter, he wrote me: —
. . . “ I came very near forgetting my proof sheets altogether, but I have delivered five of my lectures now, and on Friday shall have half finished my course. Meanwhile I have only a week’s start, so that I have to work hard, what with inevitable interruptions. . . .
** Do not think that I feel the less interest in you and yours because I write such scrawls. I am not used to being tied to hours or driven. I have always waited on the good genius, and he will not come for being sent after by express ; so I am in a feeze half the time.”
And a few days later, but without date except “ Elmwood,”he says : —
“ I shall have done grinding for the Philistines next Saturday, and it will give me, I need not say, the greatest pleasure to see you. ... I have been meaning for some time to write you a word, merely to say that Longfellow told me the other day that he would send you the first poem he had that was suitable for your purpose. Perhaps he has written ; if not, I shall be glad to be the herald.
“ You will like to hear (but it is at present a semi-secret) that I am to be nominated next Thursday to fill Longfellow’s place in the college. It, was all very pleasant, for the place sought me, and not I it.
“ I have only to deliver two courses of lectures in the year; have all the rest of the time to myself, and the salary will make me independent. If the Overseers of the College confirm the appointment of the Corporation (of which there is little doubt), I shall go abroad for a year to Germany and Spain to acquire the languages.
“ So by the time you come I shall probably be Professor Lowell, at your service, and shall expect immense respect in consequence. Take care after that how you squire or mister me. I have not discovered the dulness of The Crayon, and only hope its point will be sharp enough to draw the public. If I go to Berlin, I will send you some sketches of the gallery there. Spain, too, is rich.”
He was so scornful of money, when his friends were concerned, that he seemed to be independent of his labor ; but we see the satisfaction with which he welcomes the independence of the salaried professor, and I am sure that the greater feeling in his own mind was that he could afford to be more generous. I never heard him speak of money except to refuse to be paid it, and in the above communication. At that moment of my life, I was perhaps better prepared to be liberal with him than he with me, but any compensation beyond a drawing or study from nature was always absolutely refused to the last of our journalistic relations ; and when, later in life, fortune left me on the shoals, he insisted on putting me, on occasion, on my feet again, with all the love of a brother and the delicacy of a poet, and always with some excuse of an unexpected good fortune which he wished to partake with some one.
“• Greater than anything he ever did,” they used to say ; but how much greater, and how much nobler than any work can be, no one knows so well as I. His heart ran even with his brain, and, when there was a chance, outran it. He had twin faults: he underestimated his own work, and tinted that of his friends with the colors of his esteem. In one of the exhibitions of our National Academy I had a large study of a bit of Adirondack forest and lake, of which one of the critics had spoken in strongly damnatory terms, and Lowell wrote me of it: —
ELMWOOD, 21st May, 1855.
MY DEAR FRIEND,8212;"It being granted that the earth is a hollow cube ” — “ But I beg your pardon, my dear sir, I granted no such thing.” “ Well, then, it being necessary to the purposes of this argument that the earth should be a hollow cube, which is precisely the same thing, I go on to demonstrate,” etc.
Now what does he mean by saying that your picture is “an unpleasingly grouped assemblage of unpleasing natural objects ” ? Is a hemlock-trunk unpleasing ? Is the silvery-gray bole of a sloping birch unpleasing ? Is the beechstem plashed with wavering pools of watery sunshine unpleasing ? And pray tell me how, in a picture, a thing can be “ literally rendered.” There is no such matter possible. The closer the imitation, in giving rounded or irregular shapes, perspective, etc., on a flat surface, the greater have been the difficulties overcome, and the greater the imagination in being able to see things as they truly are, and not as they seem. To make a model of a beech-stem is quite another affair. We would rather have a section of the real thing. Is there not a difference even in daguerreotypes in favor of the man who is enough of an artist to choose the right moment and point of view ? And even were the tree-trunk a deformed one, were it ever so ugly, misshapen, warty, scrofulous, carious, what you will, it is one of the curious psychological facts that it is yet not unpleasing. For while any lusus naturœ in anything that breathes is hateful, a fanciful resemblance to the diseases and deformities of animal life in anything that merely grows appeals at once to our sense of the odd, the humorous, the grotesque; or else is not disagreeable because it is a likeness upward, and not downward. But this glances toward a deeper deep, and I forbear. Anyhow, I like your picture and. the idea of it, only you must make interest with Aquarius to water your lake a little. But
gios, and stuff,
He shifted his trumpet, and only took snuff.”
Or let me translate a proverb from the Feejee dialect: —
No need of any fuss.
Nay, take this other which I this moment copy from the walls of a house just unburied at Pompeii: —
Be chary, ostraeizer, of your shells !
Madman, than deem’st thyself sublimely free,
And ly’st on straw in that crampt cell of Thee.
Or perhaps this is a better translation of the last couplet: —
Chained to the wall of that crampt cell, Thyself.
The Feejee Islanders (who love curried Calvinists and minced missionary) and the Pompeians (who got up such suicidal fireworks for the entertainment of Admiral Pliny) knew a thing or two, nevertheless !
It is a glorious, blue, northwesterly sky ; the oak woods are pink with buds ; the linnets, catbirds, fire hangbirds, and robins are all singing hymeneals to the Spring, and she trembles through all her wreaths of new-born leaves and seems equally pleased with each of them. She does not say, “ Oh, Linnet, put yourself to school with Maestro Catbird,” nor " Be silent, Robin, my boy, till you can sing like Signor Robert of Lincoln.” Per Bacco! did not brave Masaccio paint St. Peter right in the streets of Florence, working a miracle with vulgar Florentines all about him, and did not Raphael and Michael say that the Brancacci chapel was their school ? . . .
In a letter of a little earlier date (10th of May, 1855) he gives another instance of his constant thoughtfulness for others : . . . " I saw Longfellow yesterday, and reminded him of his promise to send you a poem; and he renewed it, but. said that he had not anything he liked well enow to send. I told him that it did not much matter for a long poem, and that his name would be of service to The Crayon now that it was seeking an introduction to the world. I know that he means rightly, and only hope that he will send you something while it can be of commercial advantage to you. Don’t be shocked at my marketplace view of the thing; I feel as wise as a woman when I find anybody with a beard who seems a worse manager than I, and one has a right to be shrewd for his friend. Meanwhile I send you some verses of my own, which you may like or not, as you please. They are very much at your service if you want them, and perhaps Professor Lowell’s name may be of use. . . . As soon as we have a leaf or two I shall expect a visit from you. I will write and let you know when our winter is over. Our spring is like that delicacy a frozen plum pudding, which cheats every uninitiated person into an impromptu toothache. It looks as if it ought to be hot, and it is Nova Zembla focussed.”
Following these letters there is a wide gap in my file. I have no memorandum of the time of his sailing for Germany, but in the letter of May 10th he says, “Think of anything I can do for you on the other side. I go to Germony first; ” and the next letter I have is dated from Dresden. I was overworked on The Crayon, and he on his German studies; for he was not a man to do less than his utmost when he had accepted his duty. But this is dated October 14, 1855, and shows already the renewed intellectual activity at full swing. The wit and humor which in our first acquaintance only flashed out in intervals of gloom begin to take the upper hand again.
. . . You may lay it to anything you like except my having forgotten you that I have not written sooner. I have thought of you only too much, for I wished, when I wrote, to send you something for The Crayon, and not finding aught to write about, you began to haunt me and shake your printersinky locks at me, — only, unhappily, the case was the reverse of Banquo’s, since thou couldst say I’d not done it. Now this would not do. I would not have a friendship which I value so much, more than any contracted in these later years, associated with any uneasy thought. So I resolved to lay the ghost at once, as we can all blue ghosts that haunt us, in a sea of ink. What have I to say that I had not a month ago ? Nothing; but then I will write and manfully say so. I can at least tell you how warm a feeling I have towards you, and that is something. But for The Crayon ? That we will see presently. First I must thank you for the likeness of yourself, which you may be sure I am glad to have with me, and for your letters. Only why so short ? One would think you were writing across Broadway instead of the Atlantic. But I will give it a good turn by thinking that you do not feel me far away from you, as truly I am not. About Griswold and the rest of it I understand nothing, and care as little, unless for its troubling you. When I get over here, it is the Styx that is between me and America. I have drunk Lethe water to wash down Nepenthe with, and have forgotten everything but ray friends, like a happy shade. What care wre careless spirits for what troubled us in the flesh ? “ My little man,” says Wordsworth to Pope, when they meet in the Fortunate Islands, “ I am sorry to say ” — the wretch ! he is not sorry a bit — “ that your poems are not so much read as once.” “My what? Ah! poems,—yes, I think I did write some things once. And so they don’t read ’em, eh ? ’T is all one for that, — I would n’t read ’em myself. Come in, Mr. — a — a — I beg your pardon — ah, Woodwarth? Yes, come in, Mr. Woodwarth, and try the Lethe; 't is the best spring in the place; and you will meet some eminent characters in the pumproom.” So it goes. Give yourself no more trouble about the picture. As it is one, I suppose I may say hang the picture ! But I dare be sworn you have forgotten all about it by this time.
But for The Crayon—what have I seen ? Why, I have seen the Van Eyck at Ghent, and liked it so well that I have never a word to say about it. And I saw the Memlings at Bruges, — what a place it is! a bit of Italy drifted away northward and stranded like an erratic boulder in Flanders, — and I liked those so wTell that I am equally dumb thereanent. And I saw the Rubenses in Antwerp, which have all been skinned alive by the restorers, and which they have put into a little room fenced off from the Cathedral, so that they may get a franc out of every stranger who comes there, — the Jews ! “ Is not my Father’s house a house of prayer? But ye have made it a den of thieves.” There has been great power and passion in those pictures, — Rubens is a poem translated out of Low Dutch into Italian ; but in the little doghole where they are, one cannot see them. What was meant to be seen at forty feet shall one see at fifteen? Offer a man a magnifying-glass to look at an elephant with ! Somehow I feel inclined to say “ he was a great gentleman, that Rubens,” hut great man seems a little too much. But great he surely was in some sense or other, — you feel that. Then I saw all the Dutch pictures at the Hague, but I think that Rembrandt, the greatest imagination these low countries ever produced, is better seen here in Dresden than at the Hague. As for Paul Potter’s famous Bull, it is no more to be compared with Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair than a stuffed and varnished dolphin with a living one. Here there are some wonderful pictures. Titian’s Tribute-Money is marvellously great; the head of Christ the noblest and most pathetic I have ever seen, full of a magnificent sadness. There is also a truly delicious Claude, a deep rockimbedded bay so liquidly dark and cool! There is a Holy Family by Holbein, too, pathetically prosaic. I forgot to speak of an Albert Dürer at the Hague, a portrait of the future Emperor (Maximilian, I think) as a child of three years, with an apple in his hand instead of the globe of empire which was afterward, if I remember, so heavy for him. Is it not a pretty fancy? But I have really got something for The Crayon,—this is not, but must wait till next week’s mail, — an account of a visit I made to Retsch. It is late now, and I am not in a good mood, either. I have heard bad news, — not of M., thank God !
You might make an item out of this, — that the King of Saxony allows no copies to be made in the gallery, in order that the artists here may choose original subjects and paint them out of their own experience. Also Bendemann (their best painter here) is making a good picture, very pure and classic, out of the meeting of Ulysses with Nausicaa, in the Odyssey. But I must say goodnight and God bless you ! I have so much writing of German to do that my eyes can’t bear much night work, and it is near twelve. Sunday is my only holiday. Next week, then. . . .
The Visit to Retsch never came. Lowell always planned more than any mortal man could do; he laid schemes of work like bridges with one abutment in time and the other in eternity. He had too much to do, and I, on the other side, became so overborne by my editorial duties — The Crayon going to leeward all the time then — that our correspondence flagged. The next word I have from him shows the man overworked and dejected, but doing his duty to his position.
DRESDEN, 18th Feb’ y, 1856.
MY DEAR FRIEND, — I reproach myself bitterly for not having sooner answered your letter, but what is the use of spurring an already beaten-out horse? What energy can self-reproach communicate to a man who has barely resolution enough to do what is necessary for the day, and who shoves everything else over into the never-coming to-morrow ? To say all in one word, I have been passing a very wretched winter. I have been out of health and out of spirits, gnawed a great part of the time by an insatiable homesickness, and deprived of my usual means of ridding myself of bad thoughts by putting them into verse; for I have always felt that I was here for the specific end of learning German, and not of pleasing myself.
Just now I am better in body and mind. My cure has been wrought by my resolving to run away for a month into Italy. Think of it, — Italy! I shall see Page and Norton and the grave of our little Walter. I can hardly believe that I am going, and in ten days.
What you tell me about The Crayon you may be sure fills me with a very sincere regret. It does not need to tell you how much interest I took in it and you ; and what is better, my interest in it was not that merely of a friend of yours, but sprang from a conviction that it would do much for the æsthetic culture of our people. I am very sorry on every account that it is to be given up. I had hoped so much from it. It is a consolation to me that you will be restored to the practice instead of the criticism and exposition of art, and that we shall get some more pictures like the one which took so strong a hold of me in the New York exhibition. I shall hope to become the possessor of one myself, after I get quietly settled again at Elmwood with the Old Man of the Sea of my first course of lectures off my shoulders. You must come and make me a visit, and I will show you some nice studies of landscape in our neighborhood, and especially one bit of primitive forest that I know within a mile and a half of our house.
I have been studying like a dog — no, dogs don’t study — I mean a learned pig — this winter, and I think my horizon has grown wider, and that when I come back I shall be worth more to my friends. I have learned the boundaries of my knowledge, and Terra Incognita does not take so much space on my maps. In German I have every reason to be satisfied with my progress, though I should have learned more of the colloquial language if I had had spirits enough to go into any society. But already the foreboding of Italy fills me with a new life and soul. I feel as if I had been living with no outlook on my south side, and as if a wall had been toppled over which had darkened all my windows in that direction. Bodily and spiritually I have suffered here with cold, but God be thanked, it will soon be over.
My great solace (or distraction) has been the theatre, which is here excellent. I not only get a lesson in German, but I have learned much of the technology of the stage. For historical accuracy in costume and scenery, I have never seen anything comparable. An artistic nicety and scrupulousness extends itself to the most inconsidered trifles in which so much of illusion consists, and which commonly are so bungled as to draw attention instead of evading it by an absorption in the universal.
If I had known that I was going to London, I should have been extremely pleased to have made the acquaintance of Ruskin. But my journey thither was sudden and flighty, and I saw nobody except Hogarth, Turner, and Rembrandt. Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode and Rembrandt’s Jacob’s Dream at Dulwich College gave me invaluable suggestions.
It will not be long now, I hope, before I see you at Elmwood ; for you must make me a visit as soon as I get warm in my study again. It is all Berg ab now, and I shall erelong feel the swing of our Atlantic once more. The very thought revives me. We seaboard fellow’s cannot live long without snuffing salt water. Let me hear from you in Italy ; tell me what you are painting and all about yourself. As soon as I am myself again, I shall try to make my friendship of some worth to you. But always I am your affectionate friend,
J. R. L.
The next gap in the correspondence is one of over a year. I do nut remember, and have no record of the time, when he married his second wife, Frances Dunlap; but the revolution she brought about in his life had begun before his friends knew the causes of it. She was one of the rarest and most sympathetic creatures I have ever known. She was the governess of Lowell’s daughter, when I first went to stay at Elmwood, and I then felt the charm of her character. She was a sincere Swedenborgian, with the serene faith and spiritual outlook I have generally found to be characteristic of that sect; with a warmth of spiritual sympathy of which I have never known another instance; a fine and subtle faculty of appreciation, serious and tender, which was to Lowell like an enfolding of the Divine Spirit. The only particular in which the sympathy failed was in the feeling that she had in regard to his humorous poems. She disliked the vein. It was not that she lacked humor or the appreciation of his, but she thought that kind of literature unworthy of him. This she said to me more than once. But aside from this she fitted him like the air around him. He had felt the charm of her character before he went to Europe, and had begun to bend to it, but, as he said to me after his marriage, he would make no sign till he had tested by a prolonged absence the solidity of the feeling he had felt growing He waited, therefore, till his visit to Germany had satisfied him that it was sympathy, and not propinquity, that lay at the root of his inclination for her, before declaring himself. No married life could be more fortunate in all respects except one, — they had no children. But for all that his life required she was to him healing from sorrow and a defense against all trouble, a very spring of life and hope. A letter from Cambridge (May 14, 1857) must have been written in the interval between his return from Germany and this change in his life, for he had begun his work at the university.
... I am glad you do not forget me, though I seem so memoryless and ungrateful. I shall be better, one of these days, I hope. While my lectures are on my mind I am not myself, and I seem to see all the poetry drying out of me. I droop on my rocks and hear the surge of the living waters, but they will not reach me till some extraordinary springtide, and maybe not then. . . .
When you come, I wish you to come straight here. We can house you for a while [he was then living with his friend Dr. Estes Howe, in Cambridge, Elmwood having been let for a term], at any rate, and the word " board ” is hateful to me. Just now there is a sister of
Mrs. - here, with the biggest baby
that ever was seen. If the nurse were in proportion, the house would have to be greatened. And there is also the biggest (and nicest) young lady from Ohio. So where could I put you at night, unless I hung you up or leaned you up in a corner, like a beau as you are ? But the drift of things will go on, and they will float away on it before long, and then there will be a bed, and that will be better. I will let you know when. I shall be jolly and companionable by that time, which I was not when you were here before, for I could think of nothing but the lectures which were before me. Perhaps you were right about it and I have no business here. However, we die at last and go where there are no lectures.
The apple - trees are in blossom, but I have hardly had time to see them. Horse chestnuts are in leaf, and linnets and robins sing. But there are not so many birds here as at Elmwood, — not so many anywhere as there used to be, and I think the cares of life weigh on them so that they can’t sing. We have had only a day or two of warm weather yet. Spring seems like an ill-arranged scene at the theatre that hitches and won’t slide forward, and we see winter through the gaps. Bring May with you when you come, — remember that. Tell me what your plans are, and when you had arranged to come hitherward and when you would rather. . , .
J. R. L.
In the next letter there are landmarks of our separate journeys in life. Lowell had married Miss Dunlap ; we had made our first excursion to the Adirondacks; the Atlantic Monthly had been founded, with Lowell as its editor. I had become his contributor, as he had been mine. In one of my letters after bis marriage, I had written to congratulate him, saying that I had already written one letter (probably on hearing of the engagement) and had suppressed it, as too enthusiastic and perhaps boyish.
CAMBRIDGE, 2Sth Oct’r, 1857.
MY DEAR STILLMAN,—Thank you for your letters, especially that from the dear old Adirondacks. Though written in pencil, it did my heart more good than my eyes harm, only it made me homesick to be back again
“ A chasing the wild-deer and following the row.”
Your last I ought to have answered a week ago, but when I stop payment of letters I do it altogether, and like a man of honor allow no favored creditors.
I should like the article very much. Make it about six or seven pages (print), and at the same time be as lively and as solid as you can. You may have full swing. This is like ordering so many pints of inspiration, eh?— as if Castaly were bottled up like Congress water and sent all over the country for sale. Well, never mind, make it as good as you can. Instructive articles should be sweetened as much as possible, for people don’t naturally like to learn anything, and prefer taking their information as much as they can in disguise.
Why did you not send me the enthusiastic letter you say you suppressed? I should have been delighted with it. For God’s sake, don’t let your enthusiasm go ! it is your good genius. When we have once lost it, we would give all the barren rest of our lives to get back but a day of it. Your letter would have hit in the white, too, for I am as happy as I can be, and thank God continually. I have known and honored my wife for years, but I find some new good in her daily. So you may be as warm as you like in your congratulations. . . .
J. R. LOWELL.
I think it was in the summer of the next year that I went to Cambridge to live, and was thenceforward mainly divided in my occupations between the Adirondacks and the vicinity of “ the Oaks ” at Waverley, until I went to Europe, in the autumn of 1859. iff. Each summer we made an excursion into the Adirondacks, and formed the club which took its name from that region. Under the circumstances, few letters passed between us, for we were not long without seeing each other until I went abroad. Lowell was indeed very happy in his married life, and amongst the pictures Memory will keep on her tablet for me, till Death passes his sponge over it once for all, is one of his wife lying in a long chair under the trees at Dr. Howe’s, when the sun was getting cool, and laughing with her low, musical laugh at a contest in punning between Lowell and myself, hand passibus œquis, but in which he found enough to provoke his wit to activity; her almost Oriental eyes twinkling with fun, half closed and flashing from one to the other of us; her low, sweet forehead, wide between the temples ; mouth wreathing with humor ; and the whole frame, lithe and fragile, laughing with her eyes at his extravagant and rollicking word-play. One would hardly have said that she was a beautiful woman, but fascinating she was in the happiest sense of the word, with all the fascination of pure and perfect womanhood and perfect happiness.
In those days the boy was still riotous in Lowell, and until the war came, with its heart-breaking for him and his, and he entered into the larger sphere of public affairs, the escapades of his overflowing and juvenile vitality were irrepressible. In the Adirondacks he cast off all dignity, was one of the best and most devoted shots with the rifle, but proposed to introduce, by regulation, archery for our deer-hunting. He was the life of the company, always running over with fun and contrivance of merriment. I remember once, coming home from Boston with those members of the Saturday Club who lived in Cambridge, Agassiz, Howe, Holmes, Lowell, and others, that in the midst of a grave discussion between Agassiz and himself upon the authority of the Scriptures, Lowell, passing through the exit from the college grounds, vaulted suddenly on one of the great stone columns, clapped his hands to his sides, gave a lusty cockcrow, and hopped down again to pursue the argument, insisting on the admission of the Psalms amongst the inspired books. Nothing human was foreign to his sympathies. I loved him as David loved Jonathan ; and though I continually offended his sense of fitness and decorum, doing things wanting in tact and refinement, in sheer green boyishness and want of judgment, he never took offense, but treated me as a younger brother ; for I think he understood my feeling for him, uncouth as were its forms at times ; and his benevolence towards me never faltered, though the diverging circumstances of our lives carried us further and further apart. His bitter griefs and bereavements following our war, his troubles, personal and patriotic, his absorption later in official duties, the accumulating burdens which would have crushed the energies of a smaller man, left his serenity undisturbed ; even the disgusting attacks of the Irishry and the politicians, on account of his action in England, only raised a philosophic sarcasm. He was so much “ greater than anything he ever did " that I would rather every line he ever wrote were blotted from my memory than that I should forget the days I spent at Elmwood, or those we spent in the greenwood of the Adirondack; but one and the other locality, like all those in which I knew him, are forever lonely and desolate to me.
The latest word I have from him was written from the Legation in London, in answer to one inquiring if he had received a bit of Albanian work I had sent him from Montenegro, a new tip to the sheath of a yataghan of some rare and early Albanian silver work, which I had sent him before, but which then lacked its original tip. It is dated 7th of March, 1882.
. . . Yes, my dear Stillman, the tip of the sheath arrived safely, and is thought very pretty, although it does not come up to the old work, and could not fairly BE called on for such a feat in practical æsthetics. We like it.
You have learned to be satirical in the neighborhood of the Aristophanic Theatre, but I shake off your sarcasms, not as the lion, but as the duck the dewdrop from his back. I may fairly answer in the Gospel words, " silver and gold have I none,”for I am so near my wit’s end that I have neither speech nor silence, or feel so, at least. [I had written to ask him to exchange some of his golden silence for a little silver speech.]
But I had enough sentiment left to be a good deal upset by the story of your murder [a telegram from Cettinje had announced that I had been decapitated in Albania], though I did not believe it. I hate the electric telegraph worse than ever.
If you come across an ancient statue, send it me by post, and I will pay you in the metal with so much of which you credit me. Mrs. Lowell sends her kindest regards, and I remain
Affectionately always yours,
J. R. LOWELL.
The handwriting begins to show age, — it is tremulous, and the letters are writ large. Death only could extinguish the kindly thought, the fine sense of humor, the affectionate fidelity to the past and its ties; nothing had changed in him to the last. When last I saw him, shortly before his recall from London, he certainly showed the signs of age, but I think less than I ; the kindly caress in his voice, the flash of humor in his eye, the masterhood in his port, were there as I had known them thirty years before. Wrinkles and gray hair were there, and the tremulousness of the hand in writing; but the mind, though sobered by such sorrows as few men bear, was as serene and spiritual as ever. I could imagine that he labored under his dispensations as a good ship in a storm, burying his head at times under the wave, but rising to it, shaking off the weight, and keeping on.
W. J. Stillman.