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.


§ 7. Lowell as Critic

Mrs. Browning, in one of her letters to her husband, complains of the Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, which she has just been reading, that Lowell is saying over again the same things that every one knows. There is, no doubt, a certain truth in the charge, even when applied to his maturer essays. Lowell introduces no new principle or methods into literary criticism and he makes no search after novelties. In these respects and in the part that his essays have played in changing the direction of literary criticism, they may be regarded as less important than those which Matthew Arnold was writing during the same decade. But this is mainly due to the fact that Arnold’s literary criticism was a part of a definite propaganda. When he gave up poetry and turned to prose, it was with the pronounced intention of getting at the British public, of entering on controversy, of preaching a new gospel, that of Culture, which was to have its main ally in criticism. Lowell’s increasing use of prose was made from no such incentive. The great cause to which he had been devoted had been won. It was in part as a relief from controversy and propaganda that he turned from political subjects to the leisurely appreciation of his favourite authors. The essays have no reforms to propose. They are the summing up of many hours spent in his library and his class-room.

The influence of the college makes itself felt in various ways. Agassiz in science and Child in letters were among Lowell’s colleagues, and his years as a professor had given him both an opportunity for wide reading and an acquaintance with the sterner exactions of scholarship. In some cases, as in the careful review of Richard Grant White’s edition of Shakespeare, the criticism is precise and textual. In all cases the reflections about the great masters formed through years of intimacy have undergone the seasoning discipline of a broad and adequate scholarship. Lowell did not write on a subject unless he knew a good deal about it, nor did he fail to avail himself of the best that scholarship had accumulated; and such habits have not been matters of course among literary critics. Not only Lowell’s thoroughness and accuracy, but his very freedom from the bias of propaganda and from the desire for novelty give his criticism an enduring sanity, a sanity which is happily united with a rich and discriminating sympathy.

Lowell’s essays indeed may be warmly defended from any charge of ineffectuality. If he did not proclaim a definite evangel, yet scarcely less potently than Arnold he preached the gospel of culture. To a nation torn by war and largely engaged in the indispensable work of economic reconstruction, he taught by both precept and example the value of criticism. In the renewed task of making a nation, he turned confidently to literature as the record of human activity that contains most that is vital for the spirit. The cause of culture, indeed, called for a different service in the two countries. For Arnold in England, literature was to be given a renewed allegiance in the face of industrialism and science, and literature itself was to be directed away from the dangers of romanticism into a wiser and better poised criticism of conduct. For Lowell in the United States, the nation was to be reminded of the value for it of the great traditions of the old world and the need of linking both conduct and letters to the best that the past could offer.

One example may further suggest the different tasks of literary criticism in the two countries. It was unnecessary for Arnold to preach the value of medieval art. The Middle Ages were still very much present in England, and they had been summoned for various purposes by Scott, Carlyle, Tennyson, Ruskin, and Morris. In the United States, the Middle Ages are as remote as Persia or Egypt, and their significance for us discernible mainly through literature. Lowell took occasion later to defend his land against the implication in Ruskin’s remark that he could not live in a country that had neither castles nor cathedrals. But for “our past well-nigh desolate of æsthetic stimulus” his essays were supplying the past of Milton and Spenser, of Chaucer and Dante. The essays on the two medieval poets are among his best and have done their part in stimulating among thoughtful Americans a study and appreciation of the great centuries of human progress that preceded Columbus’s discovery.

The personal essay as a literary form seems to require maturity of mind, breadth of experience and reading, a responsive humour, and intensity and discrimination in taste. These qualities Lowell brought to his essay writing, whether the subject be drawn from nature or society or the world of books. Nowhere else, unless in his letters, is his personality more fully and charmingly revealed. The essays are full of good things. Allusion and quotation, epigram and description, whimsical epithet and graphic phrase crowd one another along the page, but all move in the train of Wit and Wisdom, our constant companions along the way.