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.


§ 6. The Commemoration Ode

In the poems written in the decade after the war there is a greater depth of thought and a maturity of feeling. The cause which he served broadened into the issue of the life of a national democracy; and he was called upon to sing its victories and the sacrifice by which they were won. The odes are so noble in sentiment and so splendid in parts that one cannot forbear to regret that they do not bring an even more perfect beauty to their great theme. The far-fetched figure, the halting measure, the forced rhythm occasionally intrude on verse where the feeling demands all the majesty of poetic mastery. And yet, national anniversaries have rarely if ever aroused such pæans as these in which New England mourns her slain but passes on her heritage to the larger nation. Eloquence rises again and again to passionate melody, yet the feeling never loses the restraining guide of thought. Lowell never attains greater mastery than in the thoughtful analysis and noble beauty of the stanzas on Lincoln in the Commemoration Ode.

The war and its aftermath left Lowell’s poetic faculty somewhat spent. Now and then a theme would arouse his imagination to its earlier spontaneity. Chartres revisited summoned back the recollections of its first impressions and stirred him to search again the mysteries and confusions of faith. The death of Agassiz recalled the Cambridge of old and its brave spirits. But the visits of the Muse grew rarer, and Lowell came to find his most characteristic expression in the prose essay. As the close of the war relieved him from the pressing necessity of political writing, he naturally returned to literature.