James Russell Lowell was born at Elmwood, as it is now called, on Washington's birthday in 1819,—as if to make a good staunch patriot of him; and, what is even more exceptional in American life, he lived and died in the same house in which he was born. It was not such a house as the Craigie mansion, but still spacious and dignified, and denoted very fair prosperity for those times.
Elmwood itself extends for some thirty rods on Brattle Street, but the entrance to the house is on a cross-road which runs down to the marshes. Beyond Elmwood there is a stonecutter's establishment, and next to that Mount Auburn Cemetery, which, however, was a fine piece of woodland in Lowell's youth, called Sweet Auburn by the Harvard students, much frequented by love-sick swains and strolling parties of youths and maidens.
The Lowell residence was well into the country at that time. There were few houses near it, and Boston could only be reached by a long detour in a stage; so that an expedition to the city exhausted the better part of a day. It was practically further in the country than Concord is at present; and it was here that Lowell enjoyed that repose of mind which is essential to vigorous mental development, and could find such interests in external nature as the poet requires for the embellishment of his verse.
He went to college at the age of fifteen, two years older than Edward Everett, but sufficiently young to prove himself a precocious student. Cambridge boys of good families have always been noted at Harvard for their gentlemanly deportment. Besides this, Lowell had an immense fund of wit and good spirits, and the two together served to make him very popular—perhaps too much so for his immediate good. His father had great hopes of his promising son,—that he would prove a fine scholar and take a prominent part in the commencement exercises. He even offered the boy a reward of two hundred dollars in case this should happen; but the attractions of student and social life proved too strong for James. He was quick at languages, but slow in mathematics, and as for Butler's analogy he cannot be blamed for the aversion with which he regarded it. He writes a letter in which he confesses to peeping over the professor's shoulder to see what marks have been given for his recitations, so that his father's exhortation would seem at one time to have been seriously felt by him; but the effort did not last long, and we find him repeatedly reprimanded for neglect of college duties.
He did not live the life of a roaring blade, but more like the humming- bird that darts from one plant to another, and gathers sweetness from every flower in the garden. Finally he was rusticated, just after he had been elected poet of his class, with directions not to return until commencement. We recognize the Puritanic severity of President Quincy in this sentence, which robbed young Lowell of the pleasantest term of college life, as well as the honor of appearing on the stage on Class Day. That his poem should have been read by another to the assembled families of his classmates, served to make his absence more conspicuous. Nor can we discover any sufficient reason for such hard statement.
At the same age that Longfellow was writing for the United States Literary Gazette, Lowell was scribbling verses for an undergraduates' periodical called Harvardiana. They were not very serious productions, and might all be included under the head of bric-a-brac; but there was a-plenty of them. While Longfellow's verse at nineteen was remarkable for its perfection of form, Lowell's suffered chiefly from a lack of this. He had an idea that poetry ought to be an inspiration of the moment; a good foundation to begin with, but which he found afterwards it was necessary to modify.
In the preface to one of his Biglow Papers he speaks of his life in Concord as being
"As lazy as the bream Which only thinks to head up stream."
The men whom he chiefly associated with there were named Barziliai and Ebenezer, and the hoar frost of the Concord meadows would seem to have had a chilling effect on Lowell's naturally tolerant and amiable disposition. He was not attracted by Emerson at this time, but, on the contrary, would seem to have felt an aversion to him. The following lines in his class poem could not have referred to anyone else:
"Woe for Religion, too, when men who claim To place a 'Reverend' before their name Ascend the Lord's own holy place to preach In strains that Kneeland had been proud to reach; And which, if measured by Judge Thatcher's scale, Had doomed their author to the county jail! Alas that Christian ministers should dare To preach the views of Gibbon and Voltaire!"
To confound the strong spiritual assertion of Emerson with the purely negative attitude of the French satirist was a common mistake in those days, and the Lowell of 1838 needs small excuse for it. He must have been in a biting humor at this time, for there is a cut all round in his class poem, although it is the most vigorous and highly-finished production of his academic years.
After college came the law, in which he succeeded as well as youthful attorneys commonly do; and at the age of twenty-five he entered into the holy bonds of matrimony.
The union of James Russell Lowell to Maria White, of Watertown, was the most poetic marriage of the nineteenth century, and can only be compared to that of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Miss White was herself a poetess, and full of poetical impulse to the brim. Maria would seem to have been born in the White family as Albinos appear in Africa,—for the sake of contrast. She shone like a single star in a cloudy sky,—a pale, slender, graceful girl, with eyes, to use Herrick's expression, "like a crystal glasse." A child was born where she did not belong, and Lowell was the chivalrous knight who rescued her.
It must have been Maria White who made an Emersonian of him. Margaret Fuller had stirred up the intellectual life of New England women to a degree never known before or since, and Miss White was one of those who came within the scope of her influence. [Footnote: Lowell himself speaks of her as being "considered transcendental."] She studied German, and translated poems from Uhland, who might be called the German Longfellow. Certain it is that from the time of their marriage his opinions not only changed from what they had been previously, but his ideas of poetry, philosophy, and religion became more consistent and clearly defined. The path that she pointed out to him, or perhaps which they discovered together, was the one that he followed all through life; so that in one of his later poems, he said, half seriously, that he was ready to adopt Emerson's creed if anyone could tell him just what it was.
The life they lived together was a poem in itself, and reminds one of Goethe's saying, that "he who is sufficiently provided for within has need of little from without." They were poor in worldly goods, but rich in affection, in fine thoughts, and courageous endeavor. It is said that when they were married Lowell had but five hundred dollars of his own. They went to New York and Philadelphia, and soon discovering that they had spent more than half of it, they concluded to return home.
The next ten years of Lowell's life might be called the making of the man. He worked hard and lived economically; earning what he could by the law, and what he could not by magazine writing, which paid poorly enough. Publishers had not then discovered that what the general public desires is not literature, but information on current topics, and this is the last thing which the true man of letters is able to provide. A magazine article, or a campaign biography of General Grant, could be written in a few weeks, but a solid historical biography of him, with a critical examination of his campaigns, has not yet been written, and perhaps never will be. A literary venture of Lowell and his friends in 1843, to found a first-rate literary magazine, proved a failure; and it is to be feared that he lost money by it. [Footnote: See Scudder's Life of Lowell, iii. 109.]
However the world might use him he was sure of comfort and happiness at his own fireside, where he read Shelley, and Keats, and Lessing, while Mrs. Lowell studied upon her German translations. The sympathy of a true- hearted woman is always valuable, even when she does not quite understand the grievance in question, but the sympathy that Maria Lowell could give her husband was of a rare sort. She could sympathize with him wholly in heart and intellect. She encouraged him to fresh endeavors and continual improvement. Thus he went on year by year broadening his mind, strengthening his faculties, and improving his reputation. The days of frolicsome gaiety were over. He now lived in a more serious vein, and felt a deeper, more satisfying happiness. It was much more the ideal life of a poet than that of Thoreau, paddling up and down Concord River in search of the inspiration which only comes when we do not think of it.
It may be suspected that he read more literature than law during these years, and we notice that he did not go, like Emerson, to the great fountain-heads of poetry,—to Homer or Dante, Shakespeare or Goethe,—but courted the muse rather among such tributaries as Virgil, Moliere, Chaucer, Keats, and Lessing. It may have been better for him that he began in this manner; but a remark that Scudder attributes to him in regard to Lessing gives us an insight into the deeper mechanism of his mind. "Shelley's poetry," he said, "was like the transient radiance of St. Elmo's fire, but Lessing was wholly a poet." This is exactly the opposite of the view he held during his college life, for Lessing worked in a methodical and painstaking manner and finished what he wrote with the greatest care.
More than this, Lessing was as Lowell realized afterwards, too critical and polemical to be wholly a poet. His "Emilia Galotti" still holds a high position on the German stage and has fine poetic qualities, but it is written in prose. His "Nathan the Wise" was written in verse, but did not prove a success as a drama. In one he attacked the tyranny of the German petty princes, and in the other the intolerance of the Established Church. We may assume that is the reason why Lowell admired them; but Lowell was also too critical and polemic to be wholly a poet,—except on certain occasions. In 1847 he published the "Fable for Critics," the keenest piece of poetical satire since Byron's "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,"—keen and even saucy, but perfectly good-humored. About the same time he commenced his "Biglow Papers," which did not wholly cease until 1866, and were the most incisive and aggressive anti-slavery literature of that period. Soon afterwards he wrote "The Vision of Sir Launfal," which has become the most widely known of all his poems, and which contains passages of the purest a priori verse. Goethe, who exercised so powerful an influence on Emerson, does not appear to have interested Lowell at all.
The most plaintive of Beethoven scherzos,—that in the Moonlight Sonata, —says as if it were spoken in words:
"Once we were happy, now I am forlorn; Fortune has darkened, and happiness gone."
Lowell's poetic marriage did not last quite ten years. Maria White was always frail and delicate, and she became more so continually. Longfellow's clear foresight noticed the danger she was in years before her death, which took place in the autumn of 1853. She left one child, Mabel Lowell, slender and pale like herself, and with poetical lines in her face, too, but fortunately endowed with her father's good constitution. Only ten years! But such ten years, worth ten centuries of the life of a girl of fashion, who thinks she is happy because she has everything she wants. If the truth were known we might find that in the twilight of his life Lowell thought more of these ten years with Maria White than of the six years when he was Ambassador to England,—with twenty-nine dinner-parties in the month of June.
What would poets do without war? The Trojan war, or some similar conflict, served as the ground-work of Homer's mighty epic; Virgil followed in similar lines; Dante would never have been famous but for the Guelph and Ghibeline struggle. Shakespeare's plays are full of war and fighting; and the wars of Napoleon stimulated Byron, Schiller, and Goethe to the best efforts of their lives. In dealing with men like Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell, who were the intellectual leaders of their time, it is impossible to escape their influence in the anti-slavery movement, and its influence upon them, unpopular as that subject is at present. That was the heroic age of American history, and the truth concerning it has not yet been written. It was as heroic to the South as to the North, for, as Sumner said, the slaveholders would never have made their desperate attack on the Government of this country if they had not been themselves the slaves of their own social organization.
It was the solution of a great historical problem, like that of Constitutional Government versus the Stuarts, and it ought to be treated from a national and not a sectional stand-point.
The live men of that time became abolitionists as inevitably as their forefathers became supporters of the Declaration of Independence. If Webster and Everett had been born twenty years later, they must needs have become anti-slavery, too. Those of Lowell's friends, like George S. Hillard and George B. Loring, who for social or political reasons took the opposite side, afterwards found themselves left in the lurch by an adverse public opinion.
It was the Mexican war that first aroused Lowell to the seriousness of the extension of slavery, and it was meeting a recruiting officer in the streets of Boston, "covered all over with brass let alone that which nature had set on his countenance," which inspired his writing the first of the "Biglow Papers." They were hastily and carelessly written, and Lowell himself held them in slight estimation as literature; but they became immediately popular, as no poetry had that he had published previously. Their freshness and directness appealed to the manliness and good sense of the average New Englander, and the whole community responded to them with repeated applause. There is, after all, much poetry in the Biglow Papers, the more genuine because unintentional; but they are full of the keenest wit and a proverbial philosophy which, if less profound than Emerson's, is more capable of a practical application.
The vernacular in which they are written must have been learned at Concord,—perhaps on the front stoop of the Middlesex Hotel,—while Lowell was listening to the pithy conversation of Yankee farmers, not only about their crops and cattle, but also discussing church affairs and politics, local and national. It was the grandfathers of these men who drove the British back from Concord bridge, and it was their sons who fought their way from the Rapidan to Richmond. With the help of country lawyers they sent Sumner and Wilson to the Senate, and knew what they were about when they did this. For wit, humor, and repartee,—and, it may be added, for decent conversation,—there is no class of men like them. Both Lowell and Emerson have testified to their intrinsic worth.
On one occasion a Concord farmer was driving a cow past Sanborn's school- house, when an impudent boy called out, "The calf always follows the cow." "Why aren't you behind here, then?" retorted the man, with a look that went home like the stroke of a cane. If Lowell had been present he would have been delighted.
The Yankee dialect which he makes use of as a vehicle in these verses is not always as clear-cut as it might be. He says, for instance,
"Pleasure doos make us Yankee kind of winch As if it was something paid for by the inch."
The true New England countryman never flattens a vowel; if he changes it he always makes it sharp. He would be more likely to say: "Pleasure does make us Yankee kind er winch, as if 'twas suthin' paid for by the inch." There are other instances of similar sort; but, nevertheless, if the primitive Yankee should become extinct, as now seems very probable, Lowell's masterly portrait of him will remain, and future generations can reconstruct him from it, as Agassiz reconstructed an extinct species of mammal from fossil bones.
Lowell did not join the Free-soilers, who were now bearing the brunt of the anti-slavery conflict, but attached himself to the more aristocratic wing of the old abolitionists, which was led by Edmund Quincy, Maria Chapman, and L. Maria Child. Lowell was far from being a non-resistant. In fact, he might be called a fighting-man, although he disapproved of duelling; and this served to keep him at a distance from Garrison, of whom he wisely remarked that "the nearer public opinion approached to him the further he retreated into the isolation of his own private opinions." He wrote regularly for the Anti-Slavery Standard until 1851, when the death of his father-in-law supplied the long-desired means for a journey to Italy,—more desired perhaps for his wife's health than for his own gratification. It may be the fault of his biographers, but I cannot discover that Lowell took any share in the opposition to the Fugitive Slave bill, or in the election of Sumner, which was the signal event that followed it. In his whole life Lowell never made the acquaintance of a practical statesman, while Whittier was in constant communication with prominent members of the Free-soil and Republican parties. Sumner went to hear Lowell's lecture on Milton, and praised it as a work of genius.
I have heard the "Vision of Sir Launfal" spoken of more frequently than any other of Lowell's poems. Some of the descriptive passages in it would seem to have flowed from his pen as readily as ink from a quill; and there are others which appear to have been evolved with much thought and ingenuity. One cannot help feeling the sudden change from a June morning at Elmwood to a mediaeval castle in Europe as somewhat abrupt; but when we think of it subjectively as a poetic vision which came to Lowell himself seated on his own door-step, this disillusion vanishes, and we sympathize heartily with the writer. There is no place in the world where June seems so beautiful as in New England, on account of the dismal, cutthroat weather in the months that precede it. Perhaps it is so in reality; for what nature makes us suffer from at one time she commonly atones for it another.
The "Fable for Critics" is written in an easy, nonchalant manner, which helps to mitigate its severity. Thoreau could not have liked very well being called an imitator of Emerson; but the wit of it is inimitable. "T. never purloins the apples from Emerson's trees; it is only the windfalls that he carries off and passes for his own fruit." Emerson remarked on this, that Thoreau was sufficiently original in his own way; and he always spoke of Lowell in a friendly and appreciative manner. The whole poem is filled with such homely comparisons, which hit the nail exactly on the head. The most subtle piece of analysis, however, is Lowell's comparison between Emerson and Carlyle:
"There are persons, mole-blind to the soul's make and style, Who insist on a likeness 'twixt him and Carlyle; To compare him with Plato would be vastly fairer, Carlyle's the more burly, but E. is the rarer; He sees fewer objects, but clearlier, truelier, If C.'s as original, E.'s more peculiar; That he's more of a man you might say of the one, Of the other he's more of an Emerson; C.'s the Titan, as shaggy of mind as of limb,— E. the clear-eyed Olympian, rapid and slim; The one's two-thirds Norseman, the other half Greek, Where the one's most abounding, the other's to seek."
It was the fashion in England at that time to disparage Emerson as an imitator of Carlyle; and this was Lowell's reply to it.
He told Professor Hedge an amusing incident that happened during his first visit to Rome. Lowell and his wife took lodgings with a respectable elderly Italian woman whose husband was in a sickly condition. One morning she met him in the passageway with tearful eyes and said: "Un gran' disgrazie happened last night,—my poor husband went to heaven." Lowell wondered why there was a pope in Rome if going to heaven was considered a disgrace there.
Longfellow's resignation of his professorship at Harvard was a rare piece of good fortune for Lowell; for it was the only position of the kind that he could have obtained there or anywhere else. In fact, it was a question whether the appointment would be confirmed on account of his transcendental tendencies, and his connection with the Anti-slavery Standard; but Longfellow threw the whole weight of his influence in Lowell's favor, and this would seem to have decided it. From this time till 1873 Lowell was more of a prose-writer than a poet, and his essays on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and other English poets are the best of their kind,—not brilliant, but appreciative, penetrating, and well- considered. Wasson said of him that no other critic in the English tongue came so near to expressing the inexpressible as Lowell.
One could wish that his studies in Shakespeare had been more extended. He treats the subject as if he felt it was too great for him; but he was the first to take notice that the play of Richard III. indicated in its main extent a different hand, and it is now generally admitted to have been the work of Fletcher. With the keenest insight he noticed that the magician Prospero was an impersonation of Shakespeare himself; and George Brandes, the most thoroughgoing of Shakespearean scholars, afterwards came to the same conclusion.
Lowell was the gentlemanly instructor. He appealed to the gentleman in the students who sat before him, and he rarely appealed in vain. Like Longfellow he carried an atmosphere of politeness about him, which was sufficient to protect him from everything rude and common. He would say to his class in Italian: "I shall not mark you if you are tardy, but I hope you will all be here on time." This was a safer procedure with a small division of Juniors than it would have been with a large division of Freshmen or Sophomores. Neither did he take much personal interest in his classes. He always invited them to an entertainment at Elmwood in June, but two or three years later he could not remember their faces unless they remained in or about Cambridge. In regard to his efficiency as an instructor and lecturer there was a difference of opinion.
He attended the meetings of the college faculty quite regularly considering the distance of Elmwood from the college grounds; and he was once heard to say that there seemed to be more bad weather on Monday nights than at any other time in the week. His presence might have been dispensed with for the most part. He rarely spoke in conclave, and when the question came up in regard to the suspension of students he often declined to vote. His decorum was perfect, but now and then a humorous look could be observed in his eyes, and it may be suspected that he had a quiet laugh all to himself on the way homeward. On one occasion, before the meeting had been called to order, Professor Cutler said to him: "Do you not dread B.'s forthcoming translation of the Iliad?" But Lowell, seeing that he was watched, replied: "Oh, no, not at all," at the same time nodding to Cutler with his brows.
He was always well-dressed, and pretty close to the conventional in his ways,—noted specially for the nicety of his gloves. This was a kind of safeguard to him. Insidious persons suggested that he perfumed his beard, but I do not believe it. He does not appear to have been fond of walking, for we never met him in any part of Cambridge except on the direct road from Elmwood to the college gate. He had a characteristic gait of his own—walking slowly in rather a dreamy manner, and keeping time to the movement of his feet with his arms and shoulders. He was not, however, lost in contemplation, for he often scrutinized those who passed him as closely as a portrait painter might.
If one could meet Lowell in a fairly empty horse-car, he would be quite sociable and entertaining; but if the horse-car filled up, he would become reticent again. He clung to his old friends, his classmates, and others with whom he had grown up, and did not easily make new ones. The modesty of his ambition is conspicuous in the fact that he was quite satisfied with the small salary paid him by the college,—at first only twelve hundred dollars. He evidently did not care for luxury.
Lowell's second marriage was as simple and inevitable as the first. Miss Dunlap was not an ordinary housekeeper, but the sister of one of Maria Lowell's most intimate friends, and she was such a pleasant, attractive lady that the wonder is rather he should have waited four years before concluding to offer himself. She was compared to the Greek bust called Clyte, because her hair grew so low down upon her forehead, and this was considered an additional charm.
Louisa Alcott had a story that at first she refused Lowell's offer on account of what people might say; and that then he composed a poem answering her objections in the form of an allegory, and that this finally convinced her. If he had considered material interests he would have married differently.
In November, 1857, the firm of Phillips & Sampson issued the first number of the Atlantic Monthly in the cause of high-minded literature,—a cause which ultimately proved to be their ruin. Lowell accepted the position of editor, and such a periodical as it proved to be under his guidance could not have been found in England, and perhaps not in the whole of Europe; but it could not be made to pay, and two years later Phillips & Sampson failed,—partly on that account, and partially the victims of a piratical opposition.
Lowell published Emerson's "Brahma" in spite of the shallow ridicule with which he foresaw it would be greeted; but when Emerson sent him his "Song of Nature" he returned it on account of the single stanza:
"One in a Judaean manger, And one by Avon stream, One over against the mouths of Nile, And one in the Academe."
which he declared was more than the Atlantic could be held responsible for. Emerson, who really knew little as to what the public thought of him, was for once indignant. He said: "I did not know who had constituted Mr. Lowell my censor, and I carried the verses to Miss Caroline Hoar, who read them and said, that she considered those four lines the best in the piece." He permitted Lowell, however, to publish the poem without them, as may be seen by examining the pages of the Atlantic, and afterwards published the original copy in his "May Day."
Lowell's editorship of the North American Review, which followed after this, was not so successful. It was chiefly a political magazine at that time, and to understand politics in a large way—that is, sufficiently to write on the subject—one must not only be a close observer of public affairs, but also a profound student of history; and Lowell was neither. He was not acquainted with prominent men in public life, and depended too much on information derived at dinner-parties, or similar occasions. During the war period Sumner, Wilson, and Andrew were almost omnipotent in Massachusetts, for the three worked together in a common cause; but power always engenders envy and so an inside opposition grew up within the Republican party to which Lowell lent his assistance without being aware of its true character. His articles in the North American on public affairs were severely criticised by Andrew and Wilson, while Frank W. Bird frankly called them "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." It was certainly a doubtful course to pursue at such a critical juncture—when all patriots should have been united—and it offended a good many Republicans without conciliating the opposition. Lowell's successor in this editorial chair was an old Webster Whig who had become a Democrat.
In 1873 he resigned his professorship and went to Italy for a holiday. He said to some friends whom he met in Florence: "I am tired of being called Professor Lowell, and I want to be plain Mr. Lowell again. Eliot wanted to keep my name on the catalogue for the honor of the university, but I did not like the idea." This was true republicanism and worthy of a poet.
Lowell was little known on the continent, and he travelled in a quiet, unostentatious manner. He went to dine with his old friends, but avoided introductions, and remained at Florence nearly two months after other Americans had departed for Rome. The reason he alleged for this was that Rome was a mouldy place and the ruins made him feel melancholy; also, because he preferred oil paintings to frescos. He had just come from Venice, and spoke with enthusiasm of the mighty works of Tintoretto,— especially his small painting of the Visitation, above the landing of the staircase in the Scuola of San Rocco. He did not like the easel-paintings of Raphael on account of their hard outlines; those in the Vatican did him better justice. This idea he may have derived from William Morris Hunt, the Boston portrait-painter. He considered the action of the Niobe group too strenuous to be represented in marble.
Miss Mary Felton liked the Niobe statues; so Lowell said, "Now come back with me, and I will sit on you." Accordingly we all returned to the Niobe hall, where Lowell lectured us on the statues without, however, entirely convincing Miss Felton. Then we went to the hall in the Uffizi Palace, which is called the Tribune. Mrs. Lowell had never been in the Tribune, where the Venus de' Medici is enshrined; so her husband opened the door wide and said, "Now go in"—as if he were opening the gates of Paradise.
At Bologna he wished to make an excursion into the mountains, but the 100 veturino charged about twice the usual price, and though the man afterwards reduced his demand to a reasonable figure Lowell would not go with him at all, and told him that such practices made Americans dislike the Italian people. It is to be feared that a strange Italian might fare just as badly in America.
Readers of Lowell's "Fireside Travels" will have noticed that the first of them is addressed to the "Edelmann Storg" in Rome. The true translation of this expression is "Nobleman Story;" that is, William W. Story, the sculptor, who modelled the statue of Edward Everett in the Boston public garden. Lowell's biographer, however, does not appear to have been aware of the full significance of this paraphrase of Story's name.
When King Bomba II. was expelled from Naples by Garibaldi he retired to Rome with his private possessions, including a large number of oil paintings. Wishing to dispose of some of these, and being aware that Americans paid good prices, he applied to William Story to transact the business for him. This the sculptor did in a satisfactory manner; whereupon King Bomba, instead of rewarding Story with a cheque, conferred on him a patent of nobility. It seems equally strange that Story should have accepted such a dubious honor, and that Lowell should recognize it.
On his return to Cambridge the following year, Lowell found himself a grandfather, his daughter having married a gentleman farmer in Worcester county. He was greatly delighted, and wrote to E. L. Godkin, editor of The Nation:
"If you wish to taste the real bouquet of life, I advise you to procure yourself a grandson, whether by adoption or theft.... Get one, and the Nation will no longer offend anybody." [Footnote: Scudder's biography, ii., 186.]
This was a pretty broad hint, but E. L. Godkin was not the man to pay much attention to the advice of Lowell or anybody. In fact, he seems to have won Lowell over after this to his own way of thinking.
Lowell certainly became more conservative with age. He did not support the movement for negro citizenship, and had separated himself in a manner from the other New England poets. After 1872 Longfellow saw little of him, except on state occasions. In 1876 he made a political address that showed that if he had not already gone over to the Democratic party he was very close upon the line. Charles Francis Adams had already gone over to Tilden, and had carried the North American Review with him. It would not do to lose Lowell also, so the Republican leaders hit upon the shrewd device of nominating him as a presidential elector, an honor which he could not very well decline. When the disputed election of Hayes and Tilden came, Godkin proposed that, in order to prevent "Mexicanizing the government," one of the Hayes electors should cast his vote for General Bristow, which would throw the election of President into the House of Representatives; and he endeavored to persuade Lowell to do this. Lowell went so far as to take legal advice on the subject, but his counsellor informed him that since the election of John Quincy Adams it had been virtually decided that an elector must cast his vote according to the ticket on which he was chosen. When the electors met at the Parker House in January, 1877, Lowell deposited his ballot for Hayes and Wheeler, and the slight applause that followed showed that his colleagues were conscious of the position he had assumed.
When President Hayes appointed Lowell to be Minister to Spain, Lowell remarked that he did not see why it should have come to him. It really came to him through his friend E. E. Hoar, of Concord, who was brother- in-law to Secretary Evarts. His friends wondered that he should accept the position, but the truth was that Lowell at this time was comparatively poor. His taxes had increased, and his income had diminished. He complained to C. P. Cranch that the whole profit from the sale of his books during the preceding year was less than a hundred dollars, and he thought there ought to be a law for the protection of authors. The real trouble was hard times.
He did not like Madrid, and at the end of a year wrote that it seemed impossible for him to endure the life there any longer. Evarts gave him a vacation, and at the end of the second year Hayes promoted him to the Court of St. James.
Such an appointment would have been dangerous enough in 1861, but at the time it was made the relations between the United States and Great Britain were sufficiently peaceable to warrant it. Lowell represented his country in a highly creditable manner. The only difficulty he experienced was with the Fenian agitation, and he managed that with such diplomatic tact that no one has yet been able to discover whether he was in favor of home rule for Ireland or not.
He made a number of excellent addresses in England, besides a multitude of after-dinner speeches. Perhaps the best of them was his address at the Coleridge celebration, in which he levelled an attack on the English canonization of what they call "common sense," but which is really a new name for dogmatism. Lowell, if not a transcendentalist, was always an idealist, and he knew that ideality was as necessary to Cromwell and Canning as it was to Shakespeare and Scott.
He was certainly more popular in England than he had ever been in America, and he openly admitted that he disliked to resign his position. Professor Child said, in 1882: "Lowell's conversation is witty, with a basis of literary cramming; and that seems to be what the English like. He went to twenty-nine dinner parties in the month of June, and made a speech at each one of them."
In the last years of his life he was greatly infested with imitators who, as he said of Emerson in the "Fable for Critics," stole his fruit and then brought it back to him on their own dishes. Some of them were too influential to be easily disposed of, and others did not know when they were rebuffed. An old man, failing in strength and vigor, he had to endure them as best he could.
The story of Lowell's visions rests on a single authority, and if there was any truth in it, it seems probable that he would have confided the fact to more intimate friends. There are well-authenticated instances of visions seen by persons in a waking condition—this always happens, for instance, in delirium tremens—but they are sure to indicate nervous derangement, and are commonly followed by death. If there was ever a poet with a sound mind and a sound body, it was James Russell Lowell.
Edwin Arnold considered him the best of American poets, while Matthew Arnold did not like him at all. Emerson, in his last years, preferred him to Longfellow, but it is doubtful if he always did so. The strong point of his poetry is its intelligent manliness,—the absence of affectation and all sentimentality; but it lacks the musical element. He composed neither songs nor ballads,—nothing to match Hiawatha, or Gray's famous Elegy. America still awaits a poet who shall combine the savoir faire of Lowell with the force of Emerson and the grace and purity of Longfellow.
Emerson had an advantage over his literary contemporaries in the vigorous life he lived. You feel in his writing the energy of necessity. The academic shade is not favorable to the cultivation of genius, and Lowell reclined under it too much. His best work was already performed before he became a professor. What he lacks as a poet, however, he compensates for as a wit. He is the best of American humorists—there are few who will be inclined to dispute that—even though we regret occasional cynicisms, like his jest on Milton's blindness in "Fireside Travels."
Christopher Pearce Cranch was born March 9, 1813, at Alexandria, Virginia, and was the son of Judge William Cranch, of the United States Circuit Court. His father came originally from Weymouth, Massachusetts, and had been appointed to his position through the influence of John Quincy Adams. His mother, Anna Greenleaf, belonged to a well known Boston family. Pearce, as he was always called by his relatives, indicated a talent for the fine arts, as commonly happens, at an early age, and united with this a lively interest in music, singing and playing on the flute. These side issues may have prevented him from entering college so early as he might otherwise have done. He graduated at Columbia College, in 1832, after a three-year course. He wished to make a profession of painting, but Judge Cranch was aware how precarious this would be as a means of livelihood, and advised him to study for the ministry,—for which his quiet ways and grave demeanor seemed to have adapted him. He accordingly entered the Harvard Divinity-School, and was ordained as a Unitarian clergyman.
For the next six years Cranch lived the life of an itinerant preacher. He preached all over New England, making friends everywhere, and receiving numerous calls without, however, settling down to a fixed habitation. This would seem to have been a peculiarity of his temperament; for in 1875 George William Curtis wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Cranch a letter which began with "O ye Bedouins"; and it is true that until that time he can hardly be said to have had a habitation of his own. He extended his migration as minister-at-large from Bangor, Maine, to Louisville, Kentucky. His varied accomplishments made him attractive to the younger members of the parishes for which he preached, but he never remained long enough in one place for their interest to take root.
The wave of German thought and literary interest was now sweeping over England and America. Repelled by doctors of divinity and the older class of scholars, it was seized upon with avidity by the more susceptible natures of the younger generation. Its influence was destined to be felt all through the coming period of American literature. C. P. Cranch was affected by it, as Emerson, Longfellow and even Hawthorne, were affected by it. This, however, did not take place at once, and when Emerson's "Nature" was published, Cranch was at first repelled by the peculiarity of its style. At the house of Rev. James Freeman Clark, in Cincinnati, he drew some innocently satirical illustrations of it. One was of a man with an enormous eye under which he wrote: "I became one great transparent eye-ball"; and another was a pumpkin with a human face, beneath which was written: "We expand and grow in the sunshine." In another sketch Emerson and Margaret Fuller were represented driving "over hill and dale" in a rockaway.
[Footnote: Sanborn's Life of Alcott.]
He would make these humorous sketches to entertain his friends at any time, seizing on a half-sheet of paper, or whatever might be at hand; but he did not long continue to caricature Emerson. His first volume of poetry, published in 1844, was dedicated to Emerson, and in Dwight's "Translations from Goethe and Schiller," there are a number of short pieces by Cranch, almost perfect in their rendering from German to English. Among these the celebrated ballad of "The Fisher" is translated so beautifully as to be slightly, if at all, inferior to the original. The stanza,
"The water in dreamy motion kept, As he sat in a dreamy mood, A wave hove up, and a damsel stept All dripping from the flood,"
may have appealed strongly to Cranch at this time; for we find that in October, 1841, he was married at Fishkill-on-the-Hudson to a young lady of an old Knickerbocker family, Miss Elizabeth De Windt. If she did not come to him out of the Hudson, there can be no doubt that he courted her by the banks of the most beautiful river in North America.
Cranch had given up the clerical profession six months before this, and had adopted that of a landscape painter, for which he would seem to have studied with some artist in New York City,—unknown to fame, and long since forgotten. He continued to sketch and paint, and write prose and verse on the Hudson until 1846, when he embarked with his wife on a sailing packet for Marseilles. He had the good fortune to find a fellow- passenger in George William Curtis, and during the voyage of seven weeks, a lifelong friendship grew up between these two highly gifted men.
The volume of poems which he published in 1844 is now exceedingly rare; yet many of the pieces belong to a high order of excellence. In ease and grace of versification they resemble Longfellow, but in thought they are more like Emerson or Goethe. Consider this opening from "The Riddle":
"Ye bards, ye prophets, ye sages, Read to me, if ye can, That which hath been the riddle of ages, Read me the riddle of Man.
Then came the bard with his lyre, And the sage with his pen and scroll, And the prophet with his eye of fire, To unriddle a human soul.
But the soul stood up in its might; Its stature they could not scan; And it rayed out a dazzling mystic light, And shamed their wisest plan.
Yet sweetly the bard did sing, And learnedly talked the sage, And the seer flashed by with his lightning wing, Soaring beyond his age."
This is sonorous. It has a majesty of expression and a greatness of thought which makes Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" seem weak and even common-place. The whole poem is pitched in the same key, and Cranch never equalled it again, excepting once, and then in a very different manner. Rev. Gideon Arch, a Hungarian scholar, philologist, and exile of 1849, said of his "Endymion" that there were Endymions in all languages, but that Cranch's was the best. To resuscitate it from the oblivion into which it has fallen, it is given entire:
"Yes, it is the queenly moon Walking through her starred saloon, Silvering all she looks upon: I am her Endymion; For by night she comes to me,— O, I love her wondrously.
She into my window looks, As I sit with lamp and books, And the night-breeze stirs the leaves, And the dew drips down the eaves; O'er my shoulder peepeth she, O, she loves me royally!
Then she tells me many a tale, With her smile, so sheeny pale, Till my soul is overcast With such dream-light of the past, That I saddened needs must be, And I love her mournfully.
Oft I gaze up in her eyes, Raying light through winter skies; Far away she saileth on; I am no Endymion; O, she is too bright for me, And I love her hopelessly!
Now she comes to me again, And we mingle joy and pain, Now she walks no more afar, Regal with train-bearing star, But she bends and kisses me— O, we love now mutually!"
This has the very sheen of moonlight upon it, and certainly is to be preferred to Dr. Johnson's scholastic "Endymion":
"Diana, huntress chaste and fair, Now thy hounds have gone to sleep,"—
If Cranch had continued in this line, and perhaps have improved upon it, he would surely have become one of the foremost American poets, but a poet cannot live by verse alone, and after he began to be thoroughly in earnest with his painting, his rhythmic genius fell into the background. From Marseilles George W. Curtis proceeded to Egypt, where he wrote his well known book of Nile travels, while Cranch set out for Rome to perfect his art.
He studied there at a night-school, painting in water colors from nude models and arrangements of drapery, but not taking lessons from any regular instructor. He never applied himself much to figure-painting, however. He sold his paintings chiefly to American travellers, and when the Revolution broke out in 1848, he returned to Sorrento, where his second child, Mrs. Leonora Scott, was born. His first child was born the year previous, in Rome, but afterwards died. In 1851, he returned to New York and Fishkill, but not meeting with such good appreciation there as he had in Italy, he went to Europe again in the autumn of 1853, and resided in Paris. One cause of this may have been the unfriendliness of his brother-in-law, who was a leading art critic in New York City, and who disliked Cranch on account of his wife, and never neglected an opportunity of disparaging his work.
One of his early landscapes is now before me. I think it must have been painted anterior to his sojourn in Rome, owing to the coldness of the coloring. It represents a scene on the Hudson near Fishkill, with some cattle in the foreground, and a rather bold-looking mountain on the opposite side of the river. The clouds above the mountain are light and fleecy; the foliage soft and graceful; the cattle also are fine, but the effect is like a chilly spring day when one requires a winter overcoat. An allegorical piece, illustrating Heine's fir-tree dreaming of the palm, has a much pleasanter effect, although it represents a wintry scene.
His art improved greatly in Paris, and he also wrote a number of short poems which his friend, James Russell Lowell, published in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1856 George L. Stearns sent him an order for a painting, which Cranch executed the following year, and wrote Mr. Stearns this explanation concerning it, in a very interesting letter dated Paris, March 18, 1857:
"Your picture is done and is quite a favorite with those who have seen it. In fact, I think so well of it that I shall probably send it to the Exposition, which opens soon. After that it shall be sent to you. It is an oak and a sunset—a warm and low-toned picture—and I am sure you will like it."
This landscape represents two vigorous oak trees by the bank of a river, with a sunset seen through the branches, and reflected in the water. The scene is remarkably like a similar one on Concord River, about two hundred yards below the spot where Hawthorne and Channing discovered the body of the schoolmistress who drowned herself, as Hawthorne supposed, from lack of sympathy. It seems as if the original sketch must have been made at that point. It is of a deep rich coloring, smoothly and delicately finished,—a painting that no one has yet been able to find fault with. Rev. Samuel Longfellow, who knew almost every picture in the galleries of Europe, considered it equal to a Ruysdael, and he liked it better than a Ruysdael.
In the letter above referred to Cranch also writes:
"Since your letter (a long time ago) I have written you a good many epistles (in a kind of invisible ink of my invention) which probably you have never received.
"The truth is, I am a distinguished case of total depravity in the matter of correspondence. Letters ought to flow from one as easily and spontaneously as spoken words. But then one must write all the time and report life continuously, as one does in speech. A letter does nothing but give some little detached morsel of one's life—and we say to ourselves what is the use of holding up to a friend three thousand miles off such unsatisfactory statements, such dribblings and droppings? 'Write what is uppermost,' says one at your elbow. Ah, if we could only say what is uppermost; as I sit down for instance to write (say this letter) I am caught into a sort of whirl of thoughts, in which it is impossible to say exactly what is foremost and what is hindmost. Then if I only attempt to narrate events, where am I to begin—so you see (I am theorizing about letters) a letter must be a sort of epitome of a friend's being and life or else nothing. Applying the theory to myself, finding myself unable to shut my genie in a box and carry him on my shoulders, I simply go and state that there is such a box with a genie supposed to be in it, lying at the custom-house, and here is the roughest sort of sketch of it," etc.
This is characteristic of the man. He lived largely in an atmosphere of poetic pleasantry, which served as an alleviation to his cares and as an attraction to his friends.
Cranch did not always succeed so well. He never became a mannerist, but there was too much similarity in his subjects, and the treatment too often bordered on the commonplace. Tintoretto said: "Colors can be bought at the paint-shop, but good designs are only obtained by sleepless nights and much reflection." It is doubtful if Cranch ever laid awake over his work, either in poetry or painting. He had a dreamy, phlegmatic disposition, which seemed to carry him through life without much effort of the will. He once confessed that when he was a boy he would never fire a gun for fear it might kick him over, and when he was at Hampton beach in 1875 he was in the habit of going out to sketch at a certain hour with prosaic regularity. He did not seem to be on the watch, as an artist should, for rare effects of light and scenery, and he talked of art with very little enthusiasm. Yet he lived the true life of his profession, enjoying his work, contented with little praise, and without envy of those who were more fortunate. What is called odium artisticum was unknown to him.
He was an unpretending, courteous American gentleman. His disposition was perfect, and no one could remember having seen him out of temper. His pleasant flow of wit and humor, together with his varied accomplishments, made him a very brilliant man in society, and he counted among his friends the finest literati in Rome, London, and the United States. He knew Thackeray as he knew Curtis and Lowell, and was once dining with him in a London chop-house, when Thackeray said: "Have you read the last number of The Newcombs?—if not, I will read it to you." Accordingly he gave the waiter a shilling to obtain the document, and read it aloud to Cranch and a friend who was with him.
[Footnote: Both mentioned in Hawthorne's Notebook.]
Cranch could never understand this, for it was the last thing he would have done himself without an invitation; but he enjoyed the reading, and often referred to it.
When he returned to America in 1863 he went to live on Staten Island in order to be near George William Curtis, who cared for him as Damon did for Pythias, and who served to counteract the ill-omened influence of Cranch's brother-in-law. The Century Club purchased one of his pictures, an allegorical subject, which I believe still hangs in their halls. From 1873 to 1877 Lowell would seem to have frequented Cranch's house in preference to any other in Cambridge.
When Cranch first went to live there he occupied a small but sunny and otherwise desirable house on the westerly side of Appian Way,—a name that amused him mightily,—but in 1876 he purchased the house on the southwestern corner of Ellery and Harvard Streets. Having arranged his household goods there he sent one of his own paintings as a present to Emerson in order to renew their early acquaintance. Emerson responded to it by a characteristic note, in which he said that his son and daughter, who were both good artists, had expressed their approval of his present. He then referred to the danger which arises from a multiplicity of talents, and said: "I well recollect how you made the frogs vocal in the ponds back of Sleepy Hollow."
Cranch did not feel that this was very complimentary, but a few days later there came an invitation for Mr. and Mrs. Cranch to spend the day at Concord. Emerson met them at the railway station with his carryall. He had on an old cylinder hat which had evidently seen good service, and yet became him remarkably. He was interested to hear what George William Curtis thought about politics, and to find that it agreed closely with the opinion of his friend, Judge Hoar. The Cranchs had a delightful visit.
Cranch's baritone voice was like his poem, the "Riddle," deep, rich and sonorous. He might have earned a larger income with it, perhaps, than he did by writing and painting. He sang comic songs in a manner peculiarly his own,—as if the words were enclosed in a parenthesis,—as much as to say, "I do not approve of this, but I sing it just the same," and this made the performance all the more amusing. He sang Bret Harte's "Jim" in a very effective manner, and he often sang the epitaph on Shakespeare's tomb,
"Good friend, for Jesus sake forbeare,"
as a recitative, both in English and Italian,—In questa tomba. He seemed to bring out a hidden force in his singing, which was not apparent on ordinary occasions. His reading of poetry was also fine, but he depended in it rather too much on his voice, too little on the meaning of the verse. It was not equal to Celia Thaxter's reading.
The same types of physiognomy continually reappear among artists. William M. Hunt looked like Horace Vernet, and Cranch in his old age resembled the Louvre portrait of Tintoretto, although his features were not so strong. He used to say in jest that he was descended from Lucas Cranach, but that the second vowel had dropped out. He cared as little for the fashions as poets and artists commonly do, but there was no dandy in Boston who appeared so well in a full dress suit.
In 1873 the Velasquez method of painting was in full vogue at Boston. Cranch did not believe in imitations, or in adopting the latest style from Paris, and he set himself against the popular hue-and-cry somewhat to his personal disadvantage. Charles Perkins and the other art scholars who founded the Art Museum in Copley Square were all on Cranch's side, but that did not seem to help him with the public. "They cannot bend the bow of Ulysses," said Cranch in some disgust. He preferred Murillo to Velasquez, and once had quite an argument with William Hunt on the subject in Doll & Richards's picture-store. Hunt asserted that there was no essential difference between a sketch and a finished picture,—he might have said there was no difference between a boy and a man,—that all the artist needed was to express himself, and that it was immaterial in what way he did so. Cranch thought afterwards, though unfortunately it did not occur to him at the moment, that the test of such a theory would be its application to sculpture. He wondered what Raphael would have thought of it.
It was quite a grief to Cranch that his own daughter, who inherited his talent, should have deserted him at this juncture, and gone over to the opposition. She filled his house with rough, heavily-shaded studies of still-life, flowers, and faces of her friends; but of all Hunt's pupils, Miss Cranch, Miss Knowlton, and Miss Lamb were the only ones who achieved artistic distinction in their special work.
It was in order to withdraw her from this Walpurgis art-dance that Cranch undertook his last journey to Paris in his seventieth year. There the young lady quickly dropped her Boston method, and, acquiring a more conservative handling, became an excellent portrait painter; too soon, however, obliged to relinquish her art on account of ill-health.
Cranch's landscapes now adorn the walls of private houses; very largely the houses of his numerous friends. He did not paint in the fashion of the time, but like Millet followed a fashion of his own; and I do not know of any of his pictures in public collections, although there are many that deserve the honor. The best landscape of his that I have seen was painted just before his last visit to Paris. It represents a low- toned sunset like the "Two Oaks"; an autumnal scene on a narrow river, with maples here and there upon its banks. The sky is covered by a dull gray cloud, but in the west the sun shines through a low opening and gives promise of a better day. The peculiar liquid effect of the setting sun is wonderfully rendered, and the rich browns and russets of the foliage lead up, as it were, like a flight of steps to this final glory, —a restful and impressive scene. This landscape is not painted in the smooth manner of the "Two Oaks," but with soft, flakelike touches which slightly remind one of Murillo. Its coloring has the peculiarity that artificial light wholly changes its character, whereas Cranch's paintings, previous to 1875, appear much the same by electric light that they do in daytime. It is called the "Home of the Wood Duck."
Between 1870 and 1880 he published a number of poems in the Atlantic Monthly as well as a longer piece called "Satan," for which it was said by a certain wit that he received the devil's pay. His two books for young folks, "The Last of the Huggermuggers" and "Kobboltozo," ought not to be overlooked, for the illustrations in them are the only remains we have of his rare pencil drawings, as good, if not better, than Thackeray's drawings.
It is likely that the parents read these stories with more pleasure than their children; for they not only contain a deal of fine wit, but there is a moral allegory running through them both. An American vessel is wrecked on a strange island, and the sailors who have escaped death are astonished at the gigantic proportions of the sand and the sea-shells, and of the bushes by the shore. Presently the Huggermuggers appear, and the American mariners in terror run to hide themselves; but they soon find that these giants are the kindliest of human beings. There are also dwarfs on the island, larger than ordinary men, but small compared with the Huggermuggers. They are disagreeable, envious creatures, who wish to ruin the giants in order to have the island more entirely to themselves. Having accomplished this in a somewhat mysterious manner, they attempted to improve their own stature by eating a certain shell-fish which had been the favorite food of the giants; but the shell-fish had also disappeared with the Huggermuggers, and after searching for it a long time they finally summoned the Mer-King, the genius of the sea, who raised his head above the water in a secluded cove and spoke these verses:
"Not in the Ocean deep and clear, Not on the Land so broad and fair, Not in the regions of boundless Air, Not in the Fire's burning sphere— 'Tis not here—'tis not there: Ye may seek it everywhere. He that is a dwarf in spirit Never shall the isle inherit. Hearts that grow 'mid daily cares Come to greatness unawares; Noble souls alone may know How the giants live and grow."
This is an allegory, but of very general application; and it has more especially a political application. Cranch may have intended it to illustrate the life of Alexander Hamilton.
Cranch was not a giant himself, but he knew how to distinguish true greatness from the spurious commodity. Emerson considered his varied accomplishments his worst enemy; but that depends on how you choose to look at it. It is probable enough that if Cranch had followed out a single pursuit to its perfection, and if he had not lived so many years in Europe, he would have been a more celebrated man; but Cranch did not care for celebrity. He was content to live and to let live. Men of great force, like Macaulay and Emerson, who impress their personality on the times in which they live, communicate evil as well as good; but Cranch had no desire to influence his fellow men, and for this reason his influence was of a purer quality. It was like the art of Albert Durer. No one could conceive of Cranch's injuring anybody; and if all men were like him there would be no more wars, no need of revolutions. Force, however, is necessary to combat the evil that is already established.
He died at his house on Ellery Street January 20, 1890, as gently and peacefully as he had lived. There is an excellent portrait of him by Duveneck in the rooms of the University Club, at Boston; but the sketch of his life, by George William Curtis, was refused on the ground that he was an Emersonian. The same objection might have been raised against Lowell, or Curtis himself with equally good reason.
T. G. APPLETON.
Thomas G. Appleton, universally known as "Tom" Appleton, was a notable figure during the middle of the last century not only in Boston and Cambridge, but in Paris, Rome, Florence, and other European cities. He was descended from one of the oldest and wealthiest families of Boston, and graduated from Harvard in 1831, together with Wendell Phillips and George Lothrop Motley. He was not distinguished in college for his scholarship, but rather as a wit, a bon vivant, and a good fellow. Yet his companions looked upon him as a strong character and much above the average in intellect. After taking his degree of Bachelor of Arts he went through the Law School, and attempted to practise that profession in Boston. At the end of the first year, happening to meet Wendell Phillips on the sidewalk, the latter inquired if he had any clients. He had not; neither had Phillips, and they both agreed that waiting for fortune in the legal profession was wearisome business. They were both well adapted to it, and the only reason for their ill success would seem to have been that they belonged to wealthy and rather aristocratic families, amongst whom there is little litigation.
At the same time Sumner was laying the foundation by hard study for his future distinction as a legal authority, and Motley was discussing Goethe and Kant with the youthful Bismarck in Berlin. Wendell Phillips soon gave up his profession to become an orator in the anti-slavery cause; and Tom Appleton went to Rome and took lessons in oil painting.
Nothing can be more superficial than to presume that young men who write verses or study painting think themselves geniuses. A man may have a genius for mechanics; and in most instances men and women are attracted to the arts from the elevating character of the occupation. It is not likely that Tom Appleton considered himself a genius, for although he had plenty of self-confidence, his opinion of himself was always a modest one. He painted the portraits of some of his friends, but he never fairly made a profession of it. However, he learned the mechanism of pictorial art in this way, and soon became one of the best connoisseurs of his time.
His finest enjoyment was to meet with some person, especially a stranger, with whom he could discuss the celebrated works in the galleries of Europe. He soon became known as a man who had something to say, and who knew how to say it. He told the Italian picture-dealers to cheat him as much as they could, and he gave amusing accounts of their various attempts to do this. He knew more than they did.
After this time he lived as much in Europe as he did in America. Before 1860 he had crossed the Atlantic nearly forty times. The marriage of his sister to Henry W. Longfellow was of great advantage to him, for through Longfellow he made the acquaintance of many celebrated persons whom he would not otherwise have known, and being always equal to such occasions he retained their respect and good will. One might also say, "What could Longfellow have done without him?" His conversation was never forced, and the wit, for which he became as much distinguished in social life as Lowell or Holmes, was never premeditated, often making its appearance on unexpected occasions to refresh his hearers with its sparkle and originality.
In the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" Doctor Holmes quotes this saying by the "wittiest of men," that "good Americans, when they die, go to Paris." Now this wittiest of men was Tom Appleton, as many of us knew at that time. He said of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" that it probably had faded out from being stared at by sightseers, and that the same thing might have happened to the Sistine Madonna if it had not been put under glass,—these being the two most popular paintings in Europe. His fund of anecdotes was inexhaustible.
Earlier in life he was occasionally given to practical jokes. A woman who kept a thread and needle store in Boston was supposed to have committed murder, and was tried for it but acquitted. One day, as Appleton was going by her place of business with a friend he said: "Come in here with me; I want to see how that woman looks." Then surveying the premises, as if he wished to find something to purchase, he asked her if she had any "galluses" for sale,—gallus being a shop-boy's term at the time for suspenders.
When the Art Museum in Boston was first built its odd appearance attracted very general attention, and some one asked Tom Appleton what he thought of it. "Well," he said, "I have heard that architecture is a kind of frozen music, and if so I should call the Art Museum frozen 'Yankee Doodle.'"
Thomas G. Appleton was no dilettante; his interest in the subject was serious and abiding. He did not wear his art as he did his gloves, nor did he turn it into an intellectual abstraction. There was nothing he disliked more than the kind of pretension which tries to make a knowledge of art a vehicle for self-importance. "Who," he said, "ought not to feel humble before a painting of Titian's or Correggio's? It is only when we feel so that we can appreciate a great work of art." He believed that an important moral lesson could be inculcated by a picture as well as by a poem,—even by a realistic Dutch painting. "Women worship the Venus of Milo now," he said, "just as they did in ancient Greece, and it is good for them, too." He respected William Morris Hunt as the best American painter of his time, but thought he would be a better painter if he were not so proud. Pride leads to arrogance, and arrogance is blinding.
After he came into possession of his inheritance he showed that he could make a good use of money. One of his first acts was to purchase a set of engravings in the Vatican, valued at ten thousand dollars, for the Boston Public Library. "I was not such a fool as to pay that sum for it, though," he remarked to Rev. Samuel Longfellow. He visited the studios of struggling artists in Rome and Boston, gave them advice and encouragement,—made purchases himself, sometimes, and advised his friends to purchase when he found a painting that was really excellent. He also purchased some valuable old paintings to adorn his house on Commonwealth Avenue.
He placed two of these at one time on free exhibition at Doll's picture- store, and going into the rooms where they hung, I found Tom Appleton explaining their merits to a group of remarkably pretty school-girls.
At the same moment, another gentleman who knew Mr. Appleton entered, and said, "Ah! a Palma Vecio, Mr. Appleton; how delightful! It is a Palma, is it not?"
"That," replied Mr. Appleton, "is probably a Palma; but what do you say to this, which I consider a much better picture?" The gentleman did not know; but it looked like Venetian coloring.
"Quite right," said Mr. Appleton; "I bought it at the sale of a private collection in Rome, and it was catalogued as a Tintoretto, but I said, 'No, Bassano;' and it is the best Bassano I ever saw. The Italians call it 'Il Coconotte.'"
Mr. Appleton had no intention of palming off doubtful paintings on his friends or the public; but in regard to "Il Coconotte" he was confident of its true value, and rightly so. The painting, so called from a head in the group covered very thinly with hair, was the pride of his collection and one of the best of Bassano's works. The other painting looked to me like a Palma, and I have always supposed that it was one.
After this Mr. Appleton branched off on to an interesting anecdote concerning an Italian cicerone, and finally left his audience as well entertained as if they had been to the theatre.
In 1871 he published a volume of poems for private circulation, in which there were a number of excellent pieces, and especially two which deserve a place in any choice collection of American poetry. One is called the "Whip of the Sky" and relates to a subject which Mr. Appleton often dwelt upon,—the unnecessary haste and restlessness of American life, and is given here for the wider circulation which it amply deserves:
THE WHIP OF THE SKY.
Weary with travel, charmed with home, The youth salutes New England's air; Nor notes, within the azure dome, A vigilant, menacing figure there, Whose thonged hand swings A whip which sings: "Step, step, step," sings the whip of the sky: "Hurry up, move along, you can if you try!"
Remembering Como's languid side, Where, pulsing from the citron deep, The nightingale's aerial tide Floats through the day, repose and sleep, Reclined in groves,— A voice reproves. "Step, step, step," cracks the whip of the sky: "Hurry up, jump along, rest when you die!"
Slave of electric will, which strips From him the bliss of easeful hours; And bids, as from a tyrant's lips, Rest, quiet, fly, as useless flowers, He wings his heart To make him smart. "Step, step, step," snaps the whip of the sky: "Hurry up, race along, rest when you die!"
He maddens in the breathless race, Nor misses station, power or pelf; And only loses in the chase The hunted lord of all,—himself. His gain is loss, His treasure dross. "Step, step, step," mocks the whip of the sky, "Hurry up, limp along, rest when you die!"
With care he burthens all his soul; Heaped ingots curve his willing back; Submissive to that fierce control, He needs at last the sky-whip's crack, Till at the grave, No more a slave,— "Rest, rest, rest," sighs the whip of the sky: "Hurry not, haste no more, rest when you die!"
Celia Thaxter, the finest of poetic readers, read this to me one September morning at the Isles of Shoals, and at the conclusion she remarked: "If that could only be read every year in our public schools it might do the American people some good."
As compared with this, the sonnet on Pompeii has the effect of a strong complementary color,—for instance, like orange against dark blue. It echoes the pathetic reverie that we feel on beholding the monuments of the mighty past. It contains not the pathos of yesterday, nor of a hundred years ago, but as Emerson says, "of the time out of mind."
The silence there was what most haunted me. Long, speechless streets, whose stepping-stones invite Feet which shall never come; to left and right Gay colonnades and courts,—beyond, the glee, Heartless, of that forgetful Pagan sea. O'er roofless homes and waiting streets, the light Lies with a pathos sorrowfuler than night. Fancy forbids this doom of Life with Death Wedded; and with a wand restores the Life. The jostling throngs swarm, animate, beneath The open shops, and all the tropic strife Of voices, Roman, Greek, Barbarian, mix. The wreath Indolent hangs on far Vesuvius's crest; And beyond the glowing town, and guiltless sea, sweet rest.
Tom Appleton was greatly interested in the performances of the spiritualists, trance mediums, and other persons pretending to supernatural powers. How far he believed in this occult science can now only be conjectured, but he was not a man to be easily played upon. He thought at least that there was more in it than was dreamed of by philosophers. When the Longfellow party was at Florence in April, 1869, Prince George of Hanover, recently driven from his kingdom by Bismarck, called to see the poet, and finding that he had gone out, was entertained by Mr. Appleton with some remarkable stories of hypnotic and spiritualistic performances. The prince, who was a most amiable looking young German, was evidently very much interested.
Deafness came upon Mr. Appleton in the last years of his life, though not so as to prevent his enjoying the society of those who had clear voices and who spoke distinctly. When one of his friends suggested that the trouble might be wax in his ears, he shook his head sadly and said: "Oh no: not wax, but wane."
He was finally taken ill while all alone in New York City, and the Longfellows were telegraphed for. When one of his relatives came to him he spoke of his malady in a stoically humorous manner; and his last words were when he was dying: "How interesting this all is!" A man never left this world with a more perfect faith in immortality!
I have often been inside the old Holmes house in Cambridge. It served as a boarding-house during our college days, but afterwards Professor James B. Thayer rented it for a term of years, until it was finally swept away like chaff by President Eliot's broom of reform. The popular notion that it was a quaint-looking old mansion of the eighteenth century, which seems to have been encouraged by Doctor Holmes himself, is a misconception. It was a two-and-a-half story, low-studied house, such as were built at the beginning of the last century, with a roof at an angle of forty-five degrees and a two-story ell on the right side of the front door. Doctor Holmes says:
"Gambrel, gambrel; let me beg You will look at a horse's hinder leg. First great angle above the hoof,— That is the gambrel; hence gambrel roof."
Now, any one who looks carefully at the picture of the old Holmes house, in Morse's biography of the Doctor, will perceive that this was not the style of roof which the house had,—at least, in its later years.
Doctor Holmes graduated at Harvard in 1829 at the age of twenty. His class has been a celebrated one in Boston, and there were certainly some good men in it,—especially Benjamin Pierce and James Freeman Clarke,— but I think it was Doctor Holmes's class-poems that gave it its chief celebrity, which, after all, means that it was a good deal talked about. In one of these he said:
"No wonder the tutor can't sleep in his bed With two twenty-niners over his head."
He was said to have composed twenty-nine poems for his class, and then declared that he had reached the proper limit,—that it would not be prudent to go beyond the magical number. It was not a dissipated class, but one with a good deal of life in it, much given to late hours and jokes, practical and unpractical. The Doctor himself is mysteriously silent concerning his college course, and so are his biographers; but we may surmise that it was not very different in general tenor from Lowell's; although his Yankee shrewdness would seem to have preserved him from serious catastrophes.
In the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" Doctor Holmes mentions an early acquaintance with Margaret Fuller, which is not referred to by Mr. Morse, but must have arisen either at Mrs. Prentiss's Boston school or at the Cambridgeport school which young Oliver afterwards attended. Even at that age he recognized Margaret's intellectual gifts, and he was not a little emulous of her; for he fancied that he "had also drawn a small prize in the great literary lottery." He looked into one of her compositions, which was lying on the teacher's desk, and felt quite crest-fallen by discovering a word in it which he did not know the meaning of. This word was trite; and it may he suspected that a good many use it without being aware of its proper significance.
Margaret Fuller rose to celebrity with the spontaneity of true genius, and left her name high upon the natural bridge of American literature. Holmes did not come before the public until years after her death; and then perhaps it might not have happened but for James Russell Lowell and the Atlantic. He was a bright man, and possessed a peculiar mental quality of his own; but as we think of him now we can hardly call him a genius. He would evidently have liked in his youth to have made a profession of literature; but his verse lacked the charm and universality which made Longfellow popular so readily; nor did he possess the daring spirit of innovation with which Emerson startled and convinced his contemporaries. He first tried the law, and as that did not suit his taste he fell into medicine, but evidently without any natural bent or inclination for the profession. He was fond of the university, and when, after a temporary professorship at Dartmouth he was appointed lecturer on anatomy at the Harvard Medical-School, his friends realized that he had found his right position.
Lecturing on anatomy is a routine, but by no means a sinecure. It requires a clearness and accuracy of statement which might be compared to the work of an optician. Some idea of it can be derived from the fact that there may be eight or ten points to a human bone, each of which has a name of eight or ten syllables,—only to be acquired by the hardest study. Doctor Holmes's lecturing manner was incisive and sometimes pungent, like his conversation, but always good-humored and well calculated to make an impression even on the most lymphatic temperaments. While it may be said that others might have done it as well, it is doubtful if he could have been excelled in his own specialty. His ready fund of wit often served to revive the drooping spirits of his audience, and many of his jests have become a kind of legendary lore at the Medical-School. Most of them, however, were of a too anatomical character to be reproduced in print.
So the years rolled over Doctor Holmes's head; living quietly, working steadily, and accumulating a store of proverbial wisdom by the way. In June, 1840, he married Amelia Lee Jackson, of Boston, an alliance which brought him into relationship with half the families on Beacon Street, and which may have exercised a determining influence on the future course of his life. Doctor Holmes was always liberally inclined, and ready to welcome such social and political improvements as time might bring; but he never joined any of the liberal or reformatory movements of his time. Certain old friends of Emerson affirmed, when Holmes published his biography of the Concord sage in 1885, that no one else was so much given to jesting as Emerson in his younger days. This may have been true; but it is also undeniable that Emerson himself had changed much during that time, and that the socialistic Emerson of 1840 was largely a different person from the author of "Society and Solitude." Holmes had already composed one of the fairest tributes to Emerson's intellectual quality that has yet been written.
"He seems a winged Franklin, heavenly wise, Born to unlock the secrets of the skies."
Emerson began his course in direct apposition to the conventional world; but he was the great magnet of the age, and the world could not help being attracted by him. It modified its course, and Emerson also modified his, so that the final reconciliation might take place. Meanwhile Doctor Holmes pursued the even tenor of his way. Concord does not appear to have been attractive to him. He had a brother, John Holmes, who was reputed by his friends to be as witty as the "Autocrat" himself, but who lived a quiet, inconspicuous life. John was an intimate friend of Hon. E. R. Hoar and often went to Concord to visit him; but I never heard of the Doctor being seen there, though it may have happened before my time. He does not speak over-much of Emerson in his letters, and does not mention Hawthorne, Thoreau or Alcott, so far as we know, at all. They do not appear to have attracted his attention.
We are indebted to Lowell for all that Doctor Holmes has given us. The Doctor was forty-eight when the Atlantic Monthly appeared before the public, and according to his own confession he had long since given up hope of a literary life. We hardly know another instance like it; but so much the better for him. He had no immature efforts of early life to regret; and when the cask once was tapped, the old wine came forth with a fine bouquet. When Phillips & Sampson consulted Lowell in regard to the editorship of the Atlantic, he said at once: "We must get something from Oliver Wendell Holmes." He was Lowell's great discovery and proved to be his best card,—a clear, shining light, and not an ignis fatuus.
When the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" first appeared few were in the secret of its authorship and everybody asked: "Who is this new luminary?" It was exactly what the more intelligent public wanted, and Holmes jumped at once into the position in literature which he has held ever since. Readers were delighted with his wit, surprised at his originality and impressed by his proverbial wisdom. It was the advent of a sound, healthy intelligence, not unlike that of President Lincoln, which could deal with common-place subjects in a significant and characteristic manner. The landlady's daughter, the schoolmistress, little Boston, and the young man called John, are as real and tangible as the dramatis personae in one of Moliere's plays. They seem more real to us than many of the distinguished men and women whom we read of in the newspapers.
Doctor Holmes is the American Sterne. He did not seek a vehicle for his wit in the oddities and mishaps of English middle-class domestic life, but in the contrasts and incongruities of a Boston boarding-house. He informs us at the outset that he much prefers a family with an ancestry— one that has had a judge or a governor in it, with old family portraits, old books and claw-footed furniture; but if Doctor Holmes had depended on such society for his material he would hardly have interested the public whom he addressed. One of Goethe's critics complained that the class of persons he had introduced in "Wilhelm Meister" did not belong to good society; and to this the "aristocratic" poet replied: "I have often been in society called good, from which I have not been able to obtain an idea for the shortest poem."
So it is always: the interesting person is the one who struggles. After the struggle is over, and prosperity commences, the moral ends,—young Corey and his bride go off to Mexico. The lives of families are represented by those of its prominent individuals. The ambitious son of an old and wealthy family makes a new departure from former precedents, thus creating a fresh struggle for himself, and becomes an orator, like Wendell Philips, or a scientist, like Darwin.
In the "Autocrat" we recognize the dingy wall-paper of the dining-room, the well-worn furniture, the cracked water-pitcher, and the slight aroma of previous repasts; but we soon forget this unattractive background, for the scene is full of genuine human life. The men and women who congregate there appear for what they really are. They wear no mental masks and other disguises like the people we meet at fashionable entertainments; and each acts himself or herself. Boarding-houses, sanitariums, and sea voyages are the places to study human nature. When a man is half seasick the old original Adam shows forth in him through all the wrappings of education, social restraint, imitation and attempts at self-improvement, with which he has covered it over for so many years. Once on a Cunard steamship I heard an architect from San Francisco tell the story of the hoop-snake, which takes its tail in its teeth and rolls over the prairies at a speed equal to any express train. He evidently believed the story himself, and as I looked round on the company I saw that they all believed it, too, excepting Captain Martyn, who gave me a sly look from the corner of his eye. "Rocked in the cradle of the deep," they had become like children again, and were ready to credit anything that was told in a confident manner. But Doctor Holmes's digressions are infectious.
The "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" is an irregular panorama of human life without either a definite beginning or end,—unless the autocrat's offering himself to the schoolmistress (an incident which only took place on paper) can be considered so; but it is by no means a patchwork. He talks of horse-racing, the Millerites, elm trees, Doctor Johnson, the composition of poetry and much else; but these subjects are introduced and treated with an adroitness that amounts to consummate art. He is always at the boarding-house, and if his remarks sometimes shoot over the heads of his auditors, this is only because he intends that they should. The first ten or fifteen pages of the "Autocrat" are written in such a cold, formal and pedantic manner that the wonder is that Lowell should have published it. After that the style suddenly changes and the Doctor becomes himself. It is like a convention call which ends in a sympathetic conversation.
Doctor Holmes's humor permeates every sentence that he wrote. Even in his most serious moods we meet with it in a peculiar phrase, or the use of some exceptional word.
Now and then his wit is very brilliant, lighting up its surroundings like the sudden appearance of a meteor. The essence of humor consists in a contrast which places the object or person compared at a disadvantage. If the contrast is a dignified one we have high comedy; but if the reverse, low comedy. Some of Holmes's comparisons make the reader laugh out aloud. He says that a tedious preacher or lecturer, with an alert listener in the audience, resembles a crow followed by a king-bird,—a spectacle which of itself is enough to make one smile; and as for an elevated comparison, what could be more so, unless we were to seek one in the moon. There is a threefold wit in it; but the full force of this can only be appreciated in the original text.
Nature commonly sets her own stamp on the face of a humorist. The long pointed nose of Cervantes is indicative of immeasurable fun, and there have been many similar noses on the faces of less distinguished wits. Doctor Holmes ridiculed phrenology as an attempt to estimate the money in a safe by the knobs on the outside, but he evidently was a believer in physiognomy, and he exemplified this in his own case. His face had a comical expression from boyhood; its profile reminded one of those prehistoric images which Di Cesnola brought from Cyprus. As if he were conscious of this he asserted his dignity in a more decided manner than a man usually does who is confident of the respect of those about him. Thus he acquired a style of his own, different from that of any other person in Boston. He was not a man to be treated with disrespect or undue familiarity.
A medical student named Holyoke once had occasion to call on him, and as soon as he had introduced himself Doctor Holmes said: "There, me friend, stand there and let me take an observation of you." He then fetched an old book from his library which contained a portrait of Holyoke's grandfather, who had also been a physician. He compared the two faces, saying: "Forehead much the same; nose not so full; mouth rather more feminine; chin not quite so strong; but on the whole a very good likeness, and I have no doubt you will make an excellent doctor." After Holyoke had explained his business Doctor Holmes finally said: "I liked your grandfather, and shall always be glad to see you here."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was class poet of 1861, an honor which pleased his father very much. Immediately after graduating he went to the war, and came near losing his life at the battle of Antietam. A rifle- ball passed through both lungs, and narrowly missed his heart. Alexander Hamilton died of exactly such a wound in seven hours; and yet in three days Captain Holmes was able to write to his father. The Doctor started at once for the seat of war, and met with quite a series of small adventures which he afterwards described in a felicitous article in the Atlantic, called "My Hunt after the Captain." His friend, Dr. Henry P. Bowditch, lost his son in the same battle, and when they met at the railway depot Holmes said: "I would give my house to have your fortune like mine."
In a letter to Motley dated February 3, 1862, he says:
"I was at a dinner at Parker's the other day where Governor Andrew and Emerson, and various unknown dingy-linened friends of progress met to hear Mr. Conway, the not unfamous Unitarian minister of Washington,— Virginia-born, with seventeen secesh cousins, fathers, and other relatives,—tell of his late experience at the seat of Government. He is an out-and-out immediate emancipationist,—believes that is the only way to break the strength of the South; that the black man is the life of the South; that they dread work above all things, and cling to the slave as the drudge that makes life tolerable to them. I do not know if his opinion is worth much."
This was a meeting of the Bird Club which Doctor Holmes attended and the dingy-linened friends of progress were such men as Dr. Samuel G. Howe, Governor Washburn, Governor Claflin, Dr. Estes Howe, and Frank B. Sanborn. It has always been a trick of fashionable society, a trick as old as the age of Pericles, to disparage liberalism by accusing it of vulgarity; but we regret to find Doctor Holmes falling into line in this particular. He always speaks of Sumner in his letters with something like a slur—not to Motley, for Motley was Sumner's friend, but to others who might be more sympathetic. This did not, however, prevent him from going to Sumner in 1868 to ask a favor for his second son, who wanted to be private secretary to the Senator and learn something of foreign affairs. Sumner granted the request, although he must have been aware that the Doctor was not over-friendly to him; but it proved an unfortunate circumstance for Edward J. Holmes, who contracted malaria in Washington, and this finally resulted in an early death.
Why is it that members of the medical profession should take an exceptional interest in poisonous reptiles? Professor Reichert and Dr. S. Weir Mitchell spent a large portion of their leisure hours for several years in experimenting with the virus of rattlesnakes, and of the Gila monster, without, however, quite exhausting the subject. Doctor Holmes kept a rattlesnake in a cage for a pet, and was accustomed to stir it up with an ox-goad. A New York doctor lost his life by fooling with a poisonous snake, and another in Liverpool frightened a whole congregation of scientists with two torpid rattlesnakes which suddenly came to life on the president's table. Does it arise from their custom of dealing with deadly poisons, or is it because they officiate as the high priests of mortality?
Doctor Holmes's "Elsie Venner" was one of the offshoots of this peculiar medical interest, and when we think of it in that light the story seems natural enough. The idea of a snaky woman is as old as the fable of Medusa. I read the novel when I was fifteen, and it made as decided an impression on me as "Ivanhoe" or "Pickwick." I remember especially a proverbial saying of the old doctor who serves as the presiding genius of the plot: he knew "the kind of people who are never sick but what they are going to die, and the other kind who never know they are sick until they are dead." If Doctor Holmes had taken this as his text, and written a novel on those lines, he might have created a work of far-reaching importance. He appears to have known very little concerning poisonous reptiles; had never heard of the terrible fer-de-lance, which infests the cane-swamps of Brazil—a snake ten feet in length which strikes without warning and straight as a fencer's thrust. But "Elsie Venner" and Holmes's second novel, "The Guardian Angel," are, to use Lowell's expression on a different subject:
"As full of wit, gumption and good Yankee sense, As there are mosses on an old stone fence."
In the autumn of 1865 some Harvard students, radically inclined, obtained possession of a religious society in the college called the Christian Union, revolutionized it and changed its name to the Liberal Fraternity. They then invited Emerson, Henry James, Sr., Doctor Holmes, and Colonel Higginson to deliver lectures in Cambridge under their auspices. This was a pretty bold stroke, but Holmes evidently liked it. He said to the committee that waited upon him: "What is your rank and file? How deep do you go down into the class?" He also promised to lecture, and that he did not was more the fault of the students than his own. He was by no means a radical in religious matters, but he hated small sectarian differences— the substitution of dogma for true religious feeling. In his poem at the grand Harvard celebration in 1886 he made a special point of this principle: