Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 1. Miscellaneous Quality of Lowell’s Work

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.


§ 1. Miscellaneous Quality of Lowell’s Work

NEITHER Lowell’s poetry nor prose has that obvious unity of effect which characterizes the work of so many nineteenth century writers. His work does not recall, even in the minds of its admirers, a group of impressions so distinct and fixed as those summoned by the poetry of Whittier, Poe, or Whitman, or by that of Swinburne, Morris, or Browning, or by the prose of Thoreau or Emerson, of Ruskin or Arnold. His work, indeed, does not have the marks of a dominant or of a peculiar personality; nor does it add to literature a new group of ideas or a new departure in workmanship. Though its volume is large, and though a number both of his poems and his essays have won a wide familiarity, there is difficulty in summarizing their qualities of form or matter in a way that will indicate with justice his importance in American literature.

This somewhat miscellaneous appeal made by his writing may be ascribed in part, no doubt, to a lack of literary power that prevented him from winning the triumphs that belong to the great conquests of the imagination, but it is also due in large measure to the variety of responses which his rich personality made to the changing movements of American life. Other writers were surer of their message or of their art, but perhaps the career of no other affords a more varied and interesting commentary on the course of American letters, or responds as constantly to the occasions and needs of the nation’s experience. It is impossible to consider him apart from his time and environment, or to judge his writing apart from its value for the United States. It has left something for posterity, but its best energy was expended in the mainfold tasks which letters must perform as a builder of national civilization. It is this service which makes him an eminent and in some ways our most representative man of letters.