Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Fable for James Russell Lowell

It was on this day in 1819 that James Russell Lowell was born. Over the next 72 years, he would lead a diverse life — as a professor, a poet, an editor, a critic, an ambassador, and as an ardent abolitionist. His most famous connection to Poe comes from his book-length satirical poem A Fable for Critics,* in which he writes:

There comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge,
Who talks like a book of iambs and pentameters,

In a way to make people of common sense damn metres,

Who has written some things quite the best of their kind,
But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind,

Who — But hey-day! What's this? Messieurs [Cornelius] Mathews and Poe,

You mustn't fling mud-balls at
Longfellow so (But, more on him in a few days)...

Poe did not leave this mention unanswered. He reviewed A Fable for Critics (rather late) in March 1849 for the Southern Literary Messenger. Unfortunately, Poe proves Lowell's characterization to be accurate by spending far too much time writing about the Fable's structure and poetic meter: "Mr. L. should not have meddled with the anapaestic [sic] rhythm; it is exceedingly awkward in the hands of one who knows nothing about it and who will persist in fancying that he can write it by ear." He also spends too much time judging Lowell's abolitionism rather than looking at the poem independently. Reading the review, I keep thinking, "Lighten up, Poe! It's a joke!" Having read A Fable for Critics, I have to say, I always laugh like crazy, regardless of what meter he used — though I'd agree with Poe that Lowell's attempt at a "plot" is weak.

It's easy to assume from this information that Lowell hated Poe and Poe hated Lowell. But, as is often the case, things are quite a bit more complicated than that.

Poe actually liked Lowell's poetry. For one example, well before Lowell's potshot against him, Poe wrote that he was surprised Rufus Griswold didn't dedicate more space to Lowell in the ground-breaking anthology The Poets and Poetry of America in 1842 (Griswold actually gave Lowell less space by the 1851 edition). A bit earlier, in the December 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine, Poe ranked Lowell to "at least the second or third place among the poets of America. We say this on account of the vigor of his imagination — a faculty to be first considered in all criticism upon poetry" (though, even here, he notes that Lowell doesn't quite have an ear for meter).

I believe Poe appreciated Lowell because of similar aesthetic theories (very disparate from Lowell's close friend Longfellow's theories, but more on that in an upcoming entry). Besides the spirits and sadness in some of Lowell's works which Poe undoubtedly appreciated, Lowell placed the aesthetic beauty of a poem as its foremost quality. He also believed that the poet held a special role because he had an insight that the general population lacked. Poe must have agreed; he once wrote, a writer must "explain the unexplainable."

Lowell and Poe had a falling out for a couple of reasons. For one, Lowell was a New Englander (Elmwood, at right, is where he lived the majority of his life, from birth to death, in Cambridge, MA) and, like many New Englanders, was an abolitionist — a quick turn-off to Southerners like Poe ("Out from the land of bondage 'tis decreed our slaves shall go," Lowell wrote in the poem "On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves Near Washington" in 1845). Additionally, Lowell was sucked into that dreaded idea that poetry should teach lessons (like Longfellow believed) or that poetry could be used for social reform (like Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed). Poe hated both didacticism and Transcendentalism, and the snot-nosed Boston literary culture that embraced Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell.

This dislike of New England came to a head in the mid-1840s, when Poe paid special critical attention to Lowell's good friend and neighbor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Too endeared by Longfellow to look at Poe's criticism objectively, he took his neighbor's side in the conflict. And that endearment is what led to the quote from A Fable for Critics above.

Even amidst the beginnings of the "Longfellow War," however, in 1843 Lowell was the first to publish Poe's now-famous story "The Tell-Tale Heart" in his short-lived journal Pioneer. The journal only lasted three issues and, upon its cancellation, Poe lamented it as "a most severe blow to the cause—the cause of a Pure Taste." In fact, the prospectus for the Pioneer sounds strikingly like the prospectus for Poe's dream-project The Stylus. Around this time, Lowell also referred to Poe as having "that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius.” Lowell later helped Poe find his way to a role at the Broadway Journal because of his connection to a very good friend named Charles Frederick Briggs (to whom A Fable for Critics was dedicated). Shortly after, Lowell helped set-up a prestigious speaking engagement for Poe in Boston in late 1845. Of course, Poe's "Messenger Star" poem turned out to be... well, that will be a post for another day, perhaps.

In the meantime — if I haven't bored you too much already — here's a great example of Lowell's more typical poetry, an excerpt from "To the Dandelion":

Dear common flower, that grow'st beside the way,

Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,
First pledge of blithesome May,
Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold,
High-hearted buccaneers, o'erjoyed that they
An Eldorado in the grass have found.

Or, perhaps, an excerpt from "The Syrens":

The sea is lonely, the sea is dreary,
The sea is restless and uneasy;
Thou seekest quiet, thou art weary,
Wandering thou knowest not whither;
Our little isle is green and breezy,

Come and rest thee! O come hither!
Come to this peaceful home of ours
Where evermore
The low west-wind creeps panting up the shore
To be at rest among the flowers;
Full of rest, the green moss lifts,
As the dark waves of the sea
Draw in and out of rocky rifts,
Calling solemnly to thee
With voice deep and hollow,
"To the shore
Follow! O follow!
To be at rest forevermore!
For evermore!"

Happy birthday, James Russell Lowell.*

Above: Your fearless blogger paying his respects at the grave of James Russell Lowell, Mount Auburn Cemetery


* I had difficulty finding a full version of the Fable online so I started transposing it from an 1888 edition I own (you're welcome).

**My apologies for the extra-long entry. Poe and Lowell intertwine so much and, from there, branch out into so many other stories; the number of tags on this post has to be a record-breaker. And, of course, I am a big fan of Lowell (not just Poe)!

1 comment:

Literary Birthdays blog said...

An absolutely lovely article about JR Lowell. It is so good I have to reference it in LitBirthdays.