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.
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