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.


§ 5. The Biglow Papers

It was perhaps this spirit of reform which Lowell had sought to express in his Prometheus and which he had in mind when in another letter to Briggs he declares “I am the first who has endeavoured to express the American Idea, and I shall be popular by and by.” Popularity came first, however, when fervour was linked with wit and humour in The Biglow Papers with their racy Yankee dialect and their burning zeal against the aggressiveness of the slave-holding South.

The art of these verses has no resemblance to the art of Keats, and their gospel of reform is not a glorious song of consolation; but their rapid fire of wit and common sense was perhaps a better expression of Lowell’s temperament than any of his more studied measures. Certainly no poems have ever more distinctly revealed the New England temper. When collected they were imbedded in a paraphernalia of apparatus in which the wit is often laboured, and some of them are no more than clever journalism; but the best have become a lasting part of our popular literature. If this is due in part to their vernacular homeliness, and in part to their wit, it is also due to the moral fire of their democracy. As Horace Scudder insisted, there is a connection between them and another popular success of a different kind, The Vision of Sir Launfal. There “it is the holy zeal which attacks slavery issuing in this fable of a beautiful charity.”

In 1850 Lowell wrote to Briggs:

  • I begin to feel that I must enter a new year of apprenticeship. My poems have thus far had a regular and natural sequence. First, Love and the mere happiness of existence beginning to be conscious of itself, then Freedom—both being the sides which Beauty presented to me—and now I am going to try more after Beauty herself. Next, if I live, I shall present Life as I have seen it.
  • But, as often, Life proved a jealous mistress who would not yield the field to Beauty. Change and bereavement followed, and his professorship and editorship gave little incentive for verse. The moral exaltation which had seemed the promise of America found itself involved with all the turmoil of emotions that accompany terrific war. For these, Hosea’s dialect was scarcely an adequate vehicle of expression, and the second series of Biglow Papers, if not inferior in skill, somehow lacks the entire sufficiency of the first; even when, as in the tenth paper, both the pathos and valour of the great conflict sound through the verse. The passions that the war aroused were too overpowering for poetry except the brief expression of dominant feeling, as in the fine stanza written in October, 1861.
  • God, give us peace! not such as lulls to sleep,
  • But sword on thigh, and brow with purpose knit!
  • And let our Ship of State to harbor sweep,
  • Her ports all up, her battle-lanterns lit,
  • And her leashed thunders gathering for their leap!