Charles Russell Lowell

THE general level in this country, the predominance of the neutral, that impress themselves upon visitors, are partly due to social and economic causes, but they are also partly due to the absence of Time. There is always rawness, want of perspective, lack of composition, where the great artist, Time, has not been long at work. Time changes every aspect, but he has freest scope in history: he diminishes and rubs out, or increases and lifts into bold relief; he disentangles his favorites from the many and sets them full in the foreground of attention, as if there had been but, a few dozen men since the world began. So we may hope that in the course of centuries the history of America will be as interesting, as individual, as striking to the imagination, as that of Europe; and that our heroic age, the period of the Civil War, will be as epical as the struggle round Troy. But first much must be forgotten: the lesser men whose memories love and pride have guarded must be sacrificed to oblivion; thousands of gallant men must be left to nameless graves, serving merely as numbers to magnify the glory of Time’s favorites. Time will not botch his canvas with crowded figures, he chooses only such as can be readily moulded into some beautiful, imaginative, or heroic figure.

Among such figures, if one dare prophesy, will be that of Charles Russell Lowell. This little book of Mr. Emerson’s1 (doubly excellent in its admiration and its restraint) shows how Lowell already begins to detach himself from hundreds as brave as he, and to stand out in simple beauty like one of the figures of ancient Greece. Lowell shows the large freedom of the heroic age. He had no false modesty, no unnerving doubts, no skeptical theories, no sickly conscience. Leonidas did not stop to wonder whether Asiatic civilization might be better for Greece and for the world, he did not weigh honor against life, nor hesitate to leave forever the fair face of his Spartan wife, the race, the chase, the colors of morning on the Spartan hills; he followed the high call of Fate and became immortal. Such a figure was Lowell. His honesty, his manly innocence, his unswerving faith, his singleness of purpose, his erect, straight-eyed young figure, full-facing duty, and his early death, are the stuff that Time the Artist loves.

He was quite free from the straiter elements in New England tradition. To do, ποιεȋιν, was his purpose, to do in that ideal plane where the worker, ποιητής, is a poet. He had the simple idea that every man must do what work he can in the labor of life, come what may. “My ambition, ” he says, “is to keep up my power of work, to be able to toil terribly, as Emerson says of Sir Walter Raleigh; for this I am always training.” He rejoiced in the fact that the real rewards of labor are spiritual. When twenty he wrote: “The happiest afternoon I ever knew, I use the word happiest in its highest sense, was passed at an open window, the first of the season, filing away on cast iron. . . . Nothing can repay a man for what he has done well except the doing of it. . . . The Heroes of the world have certainly needed work and had it and done it well, and it is Heroes that we must try to be.” Yet there was no touch of Puritan self-sufficiency. During the war he wrote, “I have begun of late to doubt seriously whether I ever did anything right;” and later, “I am content not to look ahead very much, but to remain here quietly drilling.”

His valor was of the same simple, integral character. The surgeon of his regiment says of him in the field: “Such a noble scorn of death and danger they [his men] never saw before, and it inspired them with a courage that quailed at nothing. You may believe that impersonal regard for Colonel Lowell colors this a little. You are mistaken; it is temperate and reliable.” While Lowell lay stretched on a table, just before his death, paralyzed from the shoulders down, one of his officers was lying near him, dying, and oppressed by the agony of death. Lowell said to him, “I have always been able to count on you, you were always brave. Now you must meet this as you have the other trials — be steady — I count on you.” In the presence of death he shared with his comrade his own courage. Sir Philip Sidney, when he passed the cup of water to the dying man on the field of Zutphen, thought of the man’s corporal pain; Lowell thought of the dying soldier’s honor.

Lowell’s courage was not that of the mere soldier, rejoicing in fight, like Diomed or Ajax. He took his part in the war with the simple idea that in the eternal strife between the higher and the lower a man must take sides. He -wrote to a friend: “I fancy you feel much as I do about the profitableness of a soldier’s life, and would not think of trying it, were it not for a muddled and tw-isted idea that somehow or other this fight was going to be one in which decent men ought to engage for the sake of humanity — I use the word in its ordinary sense. . . . There are nobler things to be done in this country than fighting. ”

Mr. Emerson’s brief Life and his choice of Letters set Lowell’s character into high relief by showing us the deep and varied happiness that he renounced. He knew the sweetest life had to give; he knew it, deeply enjoyed it, and gave it up. He took pleasure in many things. He appreciated the loveliness of the earth. In Florence he writes, “Here am I with a stock of cheerfulness so great that my spirits verge on the idiotic;” in Paris, “ Blessed be the man that invented words ! I have enjoyed Paris. I have enjoyed immensely the Louvre and the Tuileries garden — Titian and Georgione are as great in France as in Italy;” in Venice, “Yesterday, too, how could I write? I had just come from a picture by Tintoretto, a Venus and Bacchus, which . . . I might almost take as my aim, my ideal in life — and certainly it did give me a push, a swing, which I think I shall never entirely lose. The figure of Venus fills the same place in my idea of life that the Venus of Milo does in my religion.” He enjoyed the exercise of the mind, reading Kant, Darwin, Buckle, Goethe, Ruskin, Carlyle, and the Elizabethan poets. He could speak French and Italian, and read German and Spanish. He loved horses and dogs; “Dogs are my weakness. But chief in his happiness were his friends, and the great affections of life. To his mother he wrote, “Try and help me to be a little more like what you saw me as a little child. . . . You must remember when you are well, I am well; you are the very root of my life now, and will be perhaps forever.”

About a year before his death he married Miss Josephine Shaw, sister of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. “In these times,” he said, “weddings are what they should be, quiet, simple and sacred.” From the front he wrote to her, “I don’t want to be shot till I’ve had a chance to come home. I have no idea that I shall be hit, but I want so much not to be now, that it sometimes frightens me.” Yet when Mrs. Lowell made plans for them after the war, for travels in Italy or Egypt, he answered, “We do not own ourselves, and have no right even to wish ourselves out of harness.”

He was killed at the age of twentynine; she, then twenty years old, lived on for forty-one years, living as her husband had lived, spending herself in service, free from care for self, free from all that could cloud or obscure the nobility of life. While she lived she was so light-hearted, so interested in all sorts of things, so loving in all human relations, so careful of little duties, and took so much delight in the daily joys and recreations of life, that, blinded by the mere pleasure of her presence, one did not wholly realize the simple heroic lines of her character. It is death and death only that reveals the full nobility of a life. As her husband had felt the great law of human gravitation impelling him to the service of humanity, so did she. Semper gaudens in Domino. She went about the city of New York, to right wrongs, to succor those in tribulation, to comfort the weak-hearted, to raise up those that had fallen, just as if it were ordinary business. Mr. Felix Adler applied to her a phrase from one of Longfellow’s poems, “The Lady with the Lamp ; ” it was a happy phrase to choose. The lamp which Josephine Shaw Lowell held shed its own light on the objects it shone upon; in that moment the coarse became less coarse, the refined more refined, the repulsive, the vulgar, the mean, lost something of their baseness, and not in that moment only, for the lamp was a magic lamp, and where its light had fallen something luminous remained forever. Her story should be told, like the reminiscences of St. Francis by his disciples, in Fioretti, — the little flowers of memory and imagination that blossomed out of their affection. Her visits to the needy, to grief-stricken women, to unfortunate girls; her efforts that the insane should be kindly and carefully tended, that alms to the poor should do all good and no harm, that employees and laborers should deal fairly with one another, that justice should prevail in government, and honor in public affairs, could only be told in such stories. For it was not merely the things she did that made men and women love her, but the graciousness of her presence which graced her acts as fragrance graces lilies of the valley. St Francis said that “God is always courteous,” and she had that high attribute.

Through long service to the ideal, she learned to rejoice in the world as she found it, believing that such was the will of God. In spite of daily scenes of misery, she was smiling and happy, joyful in her appointed place, seeming to say, like the Lady Piccarda in Dante’s Paradise:

The quality of Love allays our Will,
It makes us only long for what we have,
And lets us thirst for nothing else beside.
If we should crave a higher place, our will
Would be at discord with the Will of God
That puts us here; and in these spheres there is
No room for discord as thou see’st (if thou
Canst see God’s Nature), for to live in love
Is here necessity. The life of bliss
Hath life alone within His Holy Will;
And so our sep’rate wills are one through His.
So that ranged as we are from sphere to sphere
Throughout this realm, is joy to all this realm,
And to our King, who forms our wills with His.
And His Will is our peace ; it is the sea
To which moves all that His Will doth create.

The Roman Catholic Church, in its interpretation of the desires and needs of mankind, has had the custom of expressing in its own phraseology the cry of affection for such women as she, acknowledging by canonization the general right and duty to honor, to venerate, to imitate. This practice, in that ancient mode, we have denied ourselves; but when we see a holy life lived among us, we feel the same gratitude, the same wish to venerate, the same recognition of righteousness that the old world felt. Whatever our skepticism, it seldom goes so far as to doubt the reverence due to forty years of noble life.

Mrs. Lowell’s life is the poetry that celebrates her husband’s heroism. By what she did his high purposes attained achievement at least in part, and through her — one may believe or hope — they will still remain fruitful and accomplishing. When men have once seen the heroic and the beautiful they can never again be utterly indifferent to them. Had it not been for her, General Lowell’s figure would have remained that of the heroic young warrior dying for his country; but from her we learn that the cause he had at heart was the larger cause of humanity. He was a soldier by accident as it were; he plunged into the war, as a man fords a stream in his way, for the sake of leading his fellows to a fairer country beyond, in which he and they in soberness and moderation should strive for a fuller, freer, juster sharing of what life has to give between the men who work with their heads and those who work with their hands. In that way he hoped to satisfy his great desire of discharging the debt under which, as he felt, he lay to other men. He was one of those of whom his admired poet Dante speaks: “All men on whom a Higher Nature has imprinted a love of what ought to be, esteem it their chief concern that, according to the measure in which they have been enriched by the toil of men who have gone before, they themselves must toil for the good of the men that come after them, so that these may be the richer because of them.”

After finishing this little volume, after putting aside questionings, regrets, and longings for what might have been, one stands up with a feeling of pride, holding the book in one’s hands, in possession of an answer to those who taunt us with luxury, ostentation, vulgarity; for here is the life of an American who, as men of all ways of thinking will agree, lived not for ambition, selfseeking, power, or glory, but for honor; and one feels the strong belief that Lowell’s was not merely a life that is past, but the model of lives that are to be.

One is grateful to Mr. Emerson, who, with this mere handful of letters, has given us so definite an outline of Lowell’s personality; and in the short story he brings in that delightful group of young men, Shaw, Higginson, Barlow, as well as Mr. Forbes, Governor Andrew, and others.

  1. The Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell. By EDWARD W. EMERSON. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1907.