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.


§ 4. Union of Art and Morality

Some union of art and morality, of Keats and Carlyle, Poe and Emerson—that was the poet’s endeavour. He wrote to Briggs in 1846:

  • Then I feel how great is the office of Poet, could I but even dare to hope to fill it. Then it seems as if my heart would break in pouring out one glorious song that should be the gospel of Reform, full of consolation and strength to the oppressed, yet falling gently and restoringly as dew on the withered youth-flowers of the oppressor. That way my madness lies.
  • It is easy to smile at this youthful fervency, as Lowell himself smiled a year or two later in The Fable for Critics.

  • There is Lowell, who’s striving Parnassus to climb
  • With a whole bale of isms tied together with rhyme.
  • The top of the hill he will ne’er come nigh reaching
  • Till he learns the distinction ’twixt singing and preaching.
  • But, with most nineteenth-century poets, Lowell was a preacher as well as a singer. Poverty, tyranny, doubt, industrialism, are the themes that for England distracted the attention of the Muse; in the United States, the mid-century vision of beauty was clouded by the presence of slavery. And if Lowell was conscious that the isms, even that of the anti-slavery cause, burdened his climb up Parnassus, there was never any doubt of the imperative nature of the summons of moral reform.

    The American reader should indeed have a special sympathy for this avowal of high purpose; for is not this gospel of reform the better genius of our nation? The material advance which has conquered a continent has made us self-confident, disregardful of the past, and careless of reflection, but it has inspired us with a faith in our power to rebuild and move on. The evils which beset us do not daunt us, and the virtues we possess we would fain impose upon others. We believe in propaganda, we are uneasy without some cause to further, some improvement to promote. If we ever determine what the American idea is, we shall evangelize the world.