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date: 24 September 2018

The Fireside Poets

Summary and Keywords

The terms “Fireside Poets” or “Schoolroom Poets” are used to designate a group of five poets—William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell—who were popular in America in the latter half of the 19th century. Their poetry was read both around household firesides, often aloud by a mother or father to the gathered family, and in schoolrooms, where they inculcated wisdom and morals and patriotic feeling in America’s young. While they continued to be taught in K-12 classrooms well into the 20th century, they lost their standing first with critics and then with college and university professors with the coming of modernism in the early decades of the 20th century. Despite scattered attempts to restore both their critical reputations and their place in the curriculum, they continue to have only a marginal place in the minds of those most familiar with poetry. The Postmodern/New Historicist challenges to modernism find little of interest in them—Belknap’s A New Literary History of America (2009), for instance barely mentions them—while the neo-Victorian turn toward socially conscious literature, which might be expected to retrieve them, has so far paid them little mind, though some attention has recently been given to their environmental and Native American themes. But this marginalization may more reflect the marginalization of poetry as a whole in American society at large than a true estimate of their worth to common readers. While young students no longer read Longfellow’s Evangeline or Bryant’s “The Chambered Nautilus,” these poets may yet form the vanguard of a restoration of the enjoyment of poetry in America.

Keywords: fireside poets, schoolroom poets, 19th-century American poetry, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell

  • Then, warmly supplied with books,
  • While my wood-fire supplies the sun’s defect,
  • Whispering old forest-sagas in its dreams,
  • I take my May down from the happy shelf
  • Where perch the world’s rare song-birds in a row.
  • (James Russell Lowell, “Under the Willows”)

At the end of the 19th century, with the last of their number dead only a half-dozen years, the five poets known collectively as the Fireside Poets or Schoolroom Poets—William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell—held a central place in the American literary tradition. Yet by the end of the 20th century their collective place had vanished. Their survival at all in the classrooms of the 21st century (the reading aloud of poetry by a fireside having vanished with their collective reputation) is now a matter of individual survival, with a small handful of poems by Longfellow and two or three each by Bryant and Whittier remaining in anthologies that have dropped Holmes and Lowell altogether. Perhaps it is for the best that each poet stand on his own merits alone, for they may well be more interesting for individual rather than shared characteristics. Yet before considering each individually, it is worth considering them together, as together they represent virtues that are endangered if not permanently extirpated from American literature.

Their differences are many. While three—Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell—were Harvard professors, Bryant never finished college and spent most of his adult life as a newspaper editor in New York City, and Whittier was largely self-educated. All at times were capable of sentimental writing, but only Longfellow really developed this vein, whereas Holmes was more often wry and playful and Lowell sometimes intellectual to a fault. Holmes acknowledged and embraced a patrician bias, while Whittier wrote poems of working people and lowly life and Longfellow made himself the exemplar of middle-class life. Of the five, only Longfellow and Bryant are best remembered for their poetry; Holmes and Lowell each had equal success in prose (and Holmes, a professor of medicine, had even more success in that field, saving countless lives through his identification of the cause of puerperal—childbed—fever), while Whittier is equally remembered for his tireless work to end the evil of slavery in America.

Yet their public was not wrong to think of them as forming a group to which Emerson or Whitman or Dickinson, to take three poets whose reputations came to overshadow theirs in the 20th century, did not belong. All derived their idea of poetry to varying degrees from 18th-century English verse, an idea of poetry less personal and more worldly than that of Emerson or Whitman or Dickinson. All were formally restrained, maintaining decorum even as, at their best, each sought an authentic American voice. And although Whittier was once stoned by a mob in New Hampshire for his abolitionist views and although Holmes, at the other extreme, held himself aloof from the hurly-burly of life, all five were men with whom the common reader of the day felt comfortable. They were not alienated from their society or from humanity as were, each in their own way, their contemporaries who have come to be more admired—not only Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, but also Poe, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville. Their poetry did not disturb the genial warmth of the fireside or the earnest striving for improvement of the schoolroom. Yet as American society in the 21st century is ever more engulfed by the noise and solipsism of a culture too much alienated from the heart of both humanity and nature, it might once more find refreshment in a less alienated, more ordered, and more balanced poetry.

William Cullen Bryant

In 1819 William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) published “On Trisyllabic Feet in Iambic Measure,” a technical essay on prosody in which the young poet argued that American poets needed a greater freedom than that allowed by the practice of the 18th-century Neoclassical English poet Alexander Pope. Bryant had himself already demonstrated his mastery of iambic pentameter, the meter of Shakespeare and Milton as well as of Pope, in his poem “Thanatopsis” (1817). Both essay and poem demonstrate Bryant’s mastery of the English poetic tradition as well as his interest in extending its range in America, not by rejection of that tradition but, like Wordsworth in England, by utilizing pre-18th-century freedoms to write verse closer to “the language of men,” or in Bryant’s case, closer to American language and experience.

“Thanatopsis,” written in the finest blank verse achieved in American poetry before that of Robert Frost, is the best known of Bryant’s poems. A meditation on nature’s indifference to human death, somewhat softened by lines added to the beginning and end after its original publication, “Thanatopsis” takes a broad view of nature and the world, making no reference to specifically American nature, save for a single reference to the forest of the Northwest “where rolls the Oregon,” in depicting the round earth as “one mighty sepulcher.” More representative of Bryant’s Americanism is “A Winter Piece” (1821), which also rejects the rhymed couplets of the heroic verse of British Augustan poetry in favor of unrhymed blank verse. But rather than reaching for the minor Miltonic grandeur of “Thanatopsis,” “A Winter Piece” achieves a more modest, even homely, blank verse in describing New England’s woods in winter, ending with a description of March maple sugaring, wreaths of smoke of smoke rising from the sugar houses in the morning sunshine as the woods ring with youthful voices and the stroke of the axe.

At a time when his countrymen were chopping down the American forests as fast as they could, however, Bryant celebrated them as sanctuaries of the spirit. In “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood” (1824), “Autumn Woods” (1824), “After a Tempest” (1824), and “A Forest Hymn” (1825), Bryant invites the reader to leave behind the “sorrows, crimes, and cares” of the human world and join him in the wild wood:

  • The calm shade
  • Shall bring a kindred calm, and the sweet breeze
  • That makes the green leaves dance, shall waft a balm
  • To thy sick heart.

The rivers and streams that flow from forest to farm and town and thence to the sea, the flowers that bloom in the woods or beside the fields, the birds that flit in the trees or perch in the fields or fly overhead, all appear as Bryant found them in his New England youth or in his later travels to the West, not as they appear in the English poetic tradition, not the lark and the nightingale but the bobolink and the chipping sparrow and the waterfowl wending their way from zone to zone in the boundless sky, not the rose but the yellow violet and the fringed gentian and the painted cup of the prairie. Bryant’s sure, accomplished verse in these poems provides the poetic equivalent of the calm and quiet that they celebrate.

Even as Bryant asserted the necessity of a native poetry grounded in native soil, however, he recognized, as Lowell would in the next generation, the barrenness of an American vision that rejects the long-cultivated charm of English traditions. Contrasting an English churchyard cemetery with its American counterpart in “The Burial-Place” (1821), Bryant laments the loss of intimacy with nature that the American graveyard, with its “naked row of graves,” presents. Nature herself rebukes this barrenness with the wild brier rose and strawberry that adorn, unbidden, the dull green spikes of grass about the headstones. Bryant retains the charms and intimacy of the English tradition in the fairies that inhabit even the winter woods of his New England, a presence rejected by Whitman and Dickinson and the American poets who follow them, just as it had been rejected by the Puritans who came before them. Even Bryant, in “The Painted Cup” (1842), acknowledges such imagery to be “the faded fancies of the elder world,” yet cannot completely accept fancy’s banishment, suggesting that such intimacy might be recovered in the traditions of America’s native Indians celebrated, though too often unconvincingly, throughout his poetry.

Bryant also had conflicted feelings about the clearing of the forests, for much as he valued them for the refuge they provide, so too did he believe in human progress. “The Fountain” (1839) presents a history of the American forest, as its silences are first broken by the Indian warrior and huntsman, only to be supplanted by the European woodsman, farmer, sportsman, soldier, and lover. Yet the city is not the culmination of Bryant’s vision, as in conclusion he looks to the return of nature in the long ages to come, the land itself sinking beneath the ocean or lifting high in geological upheaval, to become again the haunt of eagle and snake.

Bryant spent the majority of his life not in New England, but in New York City as a newspaper man. As editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post, Bryant advocated progressive causes from the abolition of slavery and the unionization of workers to the expansion of freedom of speech and the creation of parkland within the city. He turned to writing fiction, exploring similar themes to those of his poetry but without similar accomplishment. His poetic output diminished with the passing years even as recognition for his earlier poetic achievement increased. He became the elder figure of the group of poets here considered, for whom his example of unostentatious technical accomplishment, combined with a sensibility at once worldly and American, helped define their various accomplishments.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In contrast to Bryant, who wrote some of his best poetry as well as his theories of poetry while still in his teens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was slow in developing his poetic career. His first book of poems, Voices of the Night (1839), did not appear until he was in his thirties; Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), the poem that made him a figure in world literature, was published when he was forty. Life in his twenties, however, provided the foundation for his long career. After graduating from Bowdoin College, where he was a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow travelled to Europe. There he spent three years studying and traveling before returning to Bowdoin as a professor of modern languages. His studies expanded to include the literature of the Middle Ages while his craft developed through extensive work translating European poetry. After accepting a position at Harvard, he travelled again to Europe, focusing on northern languages and writers. When at last he settled down to writing his own poetry, he was thoroughly versed in the full European heritage, both technically and culturally.

Like Bryant, Longfellow rejected the Augustan heroic couplet of Pope, although not, like Bryant, in favor of blank verse. Instead he turned to a remarkable variety of verse forms, the result of his experience translating a wide range of European poets. Thus he has no characteristic verse form of his own, as almost all subsequent American poets have had. So successful was he at some of the forms he practiced that he is identified with them—most notably the long hexameter lines of Evangeline and “The Courtship of Miles Standish” (1863) and the short trochaic lines of The Song of Hiawatha (1855)—but he sought no form expressive of himself. Nor did he write songs of himself, as did Whitman and, in her very different way, Dickinson, but songs of other people, creating a poetic world peopled, like Shakespeare’s and Chaucer’s, with deftly sketched individuals.

Longfellow’s sensibility though does come through in his choice of characters and stories and the moral universe they inhabit. He often creates, as in “The Village Blacksmith” (1841) and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1863), admirable individuals presented in a common, direct language that immediately makes the language of Bryant or even Wordsworth seem old-fashioned and artificial. That the presentation of these characters is sometimes accompanied by sententious moral didacticism reflects a stage in American culture when the literary form most familiar to readers was the Protestant sermon.

Longfellow’s poetry, however, goes beyond Protestant moralizing to present the fuller sense of life that Longfellow found not in Puritan New England but in his travels in Europe. Evangeline, Longfellow’s quintessential American story, is not a story of Puritan New Englanders but of the French Acadians displaced by English tyranny from their communal world of farming and fiddle music and nut-brown ale. The America in which Evangeline travels in search of her lover is the rich world of Louisiana bayous and Michigan forests and western plains. Even Priscilla in “The Courtship of Miles Standish” rejects the stern Puritan demeanor of Miles Standish in favor of a suitor more open to her outspoken femininity.

The darker aspects of life are also present, if not dominant, in Longfellow’s poetry. The charm and vigor of Native American traditions are captured in The Song of Hiawatha, but so too are the famine and sickness that enter the poem in the form of two silent visitors to Hiawatha’s wigwam, who presage the death of Minnehaha even as Hiawatha searches desperately but fruitlessly for game in the exhausted forest. The two plays that comprise The New England Tragedies (1868), Longfellow’s most successful dramatic verse, present the Puritan persecution of the Quakers and the Salem witch trials in uncompromising if melodramatic form as the forest leaves drip blood and the fields of New England are made a vast potter’s field of death. In “The Broken Oar,” the poet walking on Iceland’s ocean shore finds carved the words “Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee,” and in recognition of his own weary toils throws his pen into the sea.

Longfellow, like the other four poets in this group, believed in liberal progress. Although the slim volume of poems he wrote on the issue of slavery is not the equal of Whittier’s poems on the same subject, it did prompt Whittier to suggest to Longfellow that he run for public office. Longfellow is similarly sympathetic to the plight of the American Indians, and not only in The Song of Hiawatha. In “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face,” written in response to the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, exactly a hundred years after the American Declaration of Independence, Longfellow concludes not with patriotic outrage at the deaths of General Custer and his men, but with an acknowledgement of the broken treaties that led to war:

  • Whose was the right and the wrong?
  • Sing it, O funeral song,
  • With a voice that is full of tears,
  • And say that our broken faith
  • Wrought all this ruin and scathe
  • In the Year of a Hundred Years.

But Longfellow’s more characteristic tones, even when he is challenging his society on behalf of peace, on behalf of the slave and the Indian, on behalf of the lives of women, are either vigorous, active, and healthy or warm and domestic. The seaside and the fireside provide the title for one of his collections of shorter poems, and much of his poetry is defined by the vigor of one or the warmth of the other. “Let us then be up and doing,” his poetry continually urges, at the same time affirming the family pleasures of “The Children’s Hour” (1859). Yet the cares and regrets and pains of life were not foreign to Longfellow. As much as the forest was a refuge for Bryant, the night was a respite for Longfellow from the strains of the day. In his finest shorter poems—“The Fire of Drift-Wood” (1848), “My Lost Youth” (1855), “The Cross of Snow” (1879)—Longfellow shows himself to be one acquainted, however patiently, with the night.

John Greenleaf Whittier

The most outspoken of the Fireside Poets on the socially progressive beliefs they all shared was John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). In a career the reverse of Bryant’s, Whittier was a newspaper editor in the cause of abolition first and a poet second. Frederick Douglass, in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), refers to Whittier as “the slave’s poet” and quotes the opening lines of Whittier’s “The Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother to her Daughter Sold into Southern Bondage.” Only when first the North and then the nation was won over, by sentiment or by force, to the abolition of slavery did Whittier turn his pen to the poems of his New England youth that won him a larger audience and fame.

Whittier’s poetry retains, even at its finest, the characteristics of his beginning, when he wrote verses for the poet’s corner of country newspapers. Whereas Bryant took Wordsworth and Renaissance blank verse for his chief poetic models and Holmes took the Augustan couplets of Pope and Dryden, Whittier took, at best, the Scottish country poet Robert Burns. More commonly he took the style of naïve newspaper verse and imitative folk balladry. Although admiring “the songs of Spenser’s golden days” and “Arcadian Sydney’s silvery phrase,” Whittier acknowledges that such are not his gifts. Rather,

  • The rigor of a frozen clime,
  • The harshness of an untaught ear,
  • The jarring words of one whose rhyme
  • Beat often Labor’s hurried time,
  • Or Duty’s rugged march through storm and strife, are here.

Awkward rhymes, awkward rhythms, awkward phrasing and syntax—all the faults for which these lines seek pardon are in them displayed. The four-beat octosyllabic lines, Whittier’s favorite meter, are either end-stopped or clumsily enjambed, while the final hexameter fails completely, its late caesura confounding both the meter and the sense.

Yet Whittier’s journalistic background, however untutored in prosody, gives him a forceful plainness capable of speaking directly to the pulse and heart of his reader. In “Massachusetts to Virginia” (1843), an editorial in verse written in reply to the demand of Virginians that Massachusetts return fugitive slaves or face war, Whittier pointed to the rugged New England coast to exemplify New England’s character, which Virginia should heed:

  • Wild are the waves which lash the reefs along St. George’s bank,—
  • Cold on the shore of Labrador the fog lies white and dank;
  • Through storm, and wave, and blinding mist, stout are the hearts which man
  • The fishing-smacks of Marblehead, the sea-boats of Cape Ann.

In lines similarly forceful, Whittier castigated the “Clerical Oppressors” (1835) of the southern churches who countenanced slavery in the name of Christ and, in “Ichabod” (1850), withered Daniel Webster for his support of the Fugitive Slave Bill.

Whittier’s opposition to slavery grew out of his Quaker background. The Quakers had themselves been oppressed in both Old and New England and had early set themselves opposed to slavery, a history Whittier presents in “The Pennsylvania Pilgrim” (1872). He also edited an edition (1871) of the Journal of John Woolman, the 18th-century Quaker whose fortitude in going against the norms of his society when prompted by his conscience, the “inner light” of Quakerism, made him an early beacon not just in the movement to abolish slavery but to bring progressive reforms of every kind, from pacifism to animal rights. Whittier’s poetry repeatedly celebrates such courage, often in direct and affecting language, as when in “Cassandra Southwick” (1843) the sea captains of Boston refuse to carry a condemned Quaker woman into slavery, or when in “Mable Martin: A Harvest Idyl” (1857/1875) the prosperous farmer rebukes his neighbors for mocking the daughter of a woman hanged for witchcraft.

“The Pennsylvania Pilgrim” is notable for its positive depiction of community, in strong contrast to Emersonian self-reliance. The same is true of “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl” (1866), Whittier’s finest achievement and perhaps the single finest poem of the Fireside Poets. Like “Telling the Bees” (1858), Whittier’s most successful shorter poem, “Snow-Bound” re-creates the rural New England life of Whittier’s youth, a way of life already largely anachronistic in the aftermath of the Civil War and the coming of industrialism, but nevertheless relevant for the criticism it implicitly makes of the post-Civil War world that follows it. The snowstorm and farm are perfectly captured, but it is the small community that waits out the storm around the fire that most matters. Each individual has her or his place in the household; each is to be valued and remembered with love: the father with his tales of the north woods; the mother whose childhood hearth survived the Indian attack on Concheco; the bachelor uncle unschooled in books but knowledgeable of nature,

  • Strong only on his native grounds,
  • The little world of sights and sounds
  • Whose girdle was the parish bounds;

the self-sacrificing maiden aunt, “The sweetest woman ever Fate/Perverse denied a household mate”; the boyish school-teacher who will come to be one of freedom’s apostles in the education of those freed from bondage after the Civil War; the strange religious enthusiast Harriet Livermore, whose temper and eccentricities made her “not unfeared” but who was nevertheless an equal child of God; the beautiful sisters outlived by the poet; the younger brother who with the poet shovels a tunnel to the barn to feed the waiting livestock. Here too is no “Song of Myself,” but generous commemoration of good people and good lives.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

That Oliver Wendell Holmes is remembered as a poet at all is probably a consequence of his close social relationship with the other poets of this group and the fame of three short lyrics: “Old Ironsides” (1836), “The Chambered Nautilus” (1858), and “The Deacon’s Masterpiece: or The Wonderful ‘One-Hoss Shay’” (1858). Holmes’s more lasting contribution to American literature was in prose, the wry conversational essays of boardinghouse urbanity first published in the Atlantic and the collected in The Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table (1858), The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860), and The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872), into which Holmes interpolated many of his poems. In addition, he was a genial yet dignified presence at dinners and gatherings in honor of various occasions, appearances for which much of his verse was written. He was by profession a medical man, a doctor and professor of medicine at Harvard, and some of his important writing, on the contagiousness of childbed fever or on the inefficacy of homeopathic medicine, doesn’t come under the category of belles-lettres literature at all. His medical experience informs three novels still of interest for the clinical, rather than moral, approach they take to human suffering and aberration. One of these, Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (1861), put forward the idea of the New England Brahmin, an aristocracy not of inherited wealth or prestige but of inherited learning, a generally liberal and progressive class to which not just the author, but the author’s son, the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., belonged.

Yet although just two of the thirteen volumes of The Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1892) are devoted to poetry, Holmes took seriously the writing of verse. An American heir to the 18th-century intellectual polish of Alexander Pope, he delighted in toying playfully within traditional forms, only occasionally, as in the patriotic “Old Ironsides,” writing with the earnestness of feeling of the romantic poets either in England or America. “The Spectre Pig” (1830), a parody of popular ballads written, like “Old Ironsides,” when Holmes was a student, shows his playful sensibility in its fancy of a slaughtered pig, the favorite of the butcher’s children, come back to haunt the sleeping butcher:

  • Back flew the bolt, up rose the latch,
  • And open swung the door,
  • And little mincing feet were heard
  • Pat, pat along the floor.

In “Urania: A Rhymed Lesson” (1846), delivered to the Boston Mercantile Library Association, the poet advises the young:

  • Have a good hat; the secret of your looks
  • Lives with the beaver in Canadian brooks;
  • Virtue may flourish in an old cravat,
  • But man and nature scorn the shocking hat.

He also counsels (without apparent moral judgment):

  • If the wild filly, “Progress,” thou wouldst ride,
  • Have young companions ever at thy side;
  • But would thou stride the stanch old mare, “Success,”
  • Go with thine elders, though they please thee less.

Although a New Englander to the core, who felt he must have Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) always on his study’s shelf, Holmes rejected the Calvinism of Mather and Jonathon Edwards in favor of a more human and more loving theology. Critics have taken “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” as Holmes’s ironic judgment of how a theological doctrine that had lasted a hundred years in the United States “went to pieces all at once.” More directly, Holmes attacked the doctrine of Edwards in “Wind-Clouds and Star-Drifts” (1872), declaring that in no barbarous past age

  • Could hate have shaped a demon more malign
  • Than him the dead men mummied in their creed
  • And taught their trembling children to adore!

“Wind-Clouds and Star-Drifts,” Holmes’s only extended poem in blank verse, takes the form of a meditation by a young astronomer on the spiritual implications of modern science. Holmes was himself fond of astronomy, turning often in his writing to the heavens as they are revealed by the telescope, at once full of beauty and indicative of the progress of humanity’s understanding.

Although his genial intelligence brought Holmes more and more to the pro forma platitudes of birthday poems, anniversary toasts, and versified society speeches (he wrote poems for forty-three consecutive reunions of his Harvard graduating class), at his best he expressed a growing nation’s belief in the progress of not just material comfort, but of knowledge, beauty, and love. “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,” Holmes famously prays in “The Chambered Nautilus,” in lines memorized by generations of uncomprehending schoolchildren. A humane man of science dedicated to ending the ignorance that brought women in childbirth to their deaths as much as he was dedicated to the elegant and witty toast, Holmes remained loyal to the most old-fashioned of verse forms, yet sought through them to refine the world, to make it a world of good humor, fellowship, and quiet love.

James Russell Lowell

Throughout his life, James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) struggled with alternating periods of accomplishment and inertia. The resulting unevenness and incompleteness of his achievement, scattered among essays, literary criticism, conversations, letters, and poetry, led him to lament in an 1884 letter to Charles Eliot Norton, his friend and publisher, “I feel my life has been mainly wasted—that I have thrown away more than most men ever had; but I have never been able to shake off the indolence (I know not whether to call it intellectual or physical) that I inherited from my father.” In the 20th century his great-grandnephew Robert Lowell could express this same thought through such volumes of poetry as Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), but in the 19th century James Russell Lowell sought vainly to overcome rather than simply give expression to his condition. Only when he was able to accommodate his depressive tendencies into his poetry toward the end of his career did Lowell succeed in creating poems that point toward the 20th century in ways that the poetry of his fellow Fireside Poets could not.

Nothing exemplifies the productive side of Lowell’s disposition more than the year 1848, in which he published Poems: Second Series, A Fable for Critics, The Biglow Papers, and The Vision of Sir Launfal. Yet other than a second series of the Biglow Papers in 1867, he would not publish another volume of verse until 1869. The four volumes of 1848 show a range of abilities both remarkable and unfocused. Poems: Second Series presents Lowell’s early tendencies toward reformist didacticism and conventional expression. The Vision of Sir Launful, an Arthurian poem in the mode of Tennyson, has been called by one critic “perhaps the most disorganized poem ever written,” yet the sophistication of its versification already suggests the prosodic practices of the 20th century, although this was probably not the reason it became a schoolroom staple. A Fable for Critics, however, has outlived The Vision of Sir Launfal in the classroom for its playful yet telling assessments in heroic verse of Lowell’s literary contemporaries. The Biglow Papers is a complex work of ventriloquism in which two Yankee types, Parson Wilbur and Hosea Biglow—one in long-winded prose and the other in concise, if sometimes nearly unreadable, dialect verse—convey Lowell’s opposition to the Mexican War and his dismissal of the politicians responsible for it. Neither A Fable for Critics nor The Biglow Papers was begun with a consciousness of serious effort by Lowell, as The Vision of Sir Launfal had been, but both have proved more endearing and more enduring.

During the Civil War friends persuaded Lowell to return to The Biglow Papers for a second series, this time in support of the North’s war effort. This second series, although it retains the political character of the first, goes considerably beyond it in developing the Yankee dialect voice as a vehicle not just for satire but for poetry. Still, however, the voice is not Lowell’s own. In “Fitz Adam’s Story” (1867), a fragment of an incomplete project, Lowell creates a Yankee character closer to himself who in turn tells, secondhand, the story of Deacon Bitters and the devil, a tale whose slightness, in contrast to Lowell’s keen New England verse, is part of its humor. More substantial are the odes in irregular verse Lowell produced on various public occasions in praise of those—Washington, Lincoln, the goddess of freedom, and so on—who founded and sustained America’s national character.

These odes, though, are only half modern. They retain the flavor of shopworn public oratory even as they strive to a new prosodic freedom. Only in “Under the Willows” (1869), “The Cathedral” (1870), and a handful of slighter late poems does Lowell’s full genius emerge, indolent in “Under the Willows,” tinged with uncertainty and doubt in “The Cathedral.” The former, in seemingly effortless blank verse, blends the bobolink and the oriole with musings on the limitations of America’s Puritan heritage to produce American literature’s truest pastoral poem, neither romantic in attitude nor Puritanically severe (both qualities Lowell the critic rejected in Thoreau), but genially appreciative of a summer afternoon. The blank verse of “The Cathedral” is sometimes more labored, but the level of thought is raised as Lowell, visiting the cathedral at Chartres, turns over in his mind the gulf between himself and an old woman fingering her rosary beads, coming to question both his American Protestant heritage and modernity itself, without giving in to any thought that the gulf he feels can or even should be closed. The poem is neither full of intensity nor lacking in conviction, but rather thankful to “benignant nature” for

  • A force of sympathy, or call it lack
  • Of character firm-planted, loosing me
  • From the pent chamber of habitual self
  • To dwell enlarged in alien modes of thought.

Lowell, more than any of contemporaries, not only brings his readers without fanfare into the dilemmas of modern existence but also suggests the too often neglected reserves of humanity we can draw on to overcome them.

Further Reading

The most balanced assessments of the Fireside Poets remain those poised between contemporary reverence and modern rejection; for all but Whittier this poise can be found in the introductions written for the American Writers series published by the American Book Company included in the list below.

Allen, Gay Wilson. American Prosody. New York: American Book, 1935.Find this resource:

Arms, George. The Fields Were Green. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1948.Find this resource:

Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little Brown, 1963.Find this resource:

Bendixen, Alfred, and Stephen Burt, eds. The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England: 1815–1865. New York: Dutton, 1936.Find this resource:

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture from Revolution through Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Clark, Harry Hayden, and Norman Foerster, eds. James Russell Lowell: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes. New York: American Book, 1947.Find this resource:

Duffey, Bernard. Poetry in America; Expression and Its Values in the Times of Bryant, Whitman, and Pound. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

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Waggoner, Hyatt H. American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. Overall, the assessment is positive.Find this resource: