LOWELL'S ESSAYS (SECOND SERIES).*
THE volume before us is a continuation of the series of critical essays, the first collection of which was published by Mr. Lowell Amory my Book% (Second Series.) By J. Boswell Lowell. London Sampson Low and Co.
some years since. The author's name is by this time familiar to all readers, as that of one of the most accomplished of the American men of literature. For a man of Literature he is in every sense of the word, and in none of his works, except perhaps in the delightful Biglow Papers, can we forget that we are reading Mr. Lowell's thoughts, as he sits in his study, amongst numbers of well- chosen books, and meditates .gravely, pathetically, humorously, or cynically, as the mood takes him.
Before proceeding to detailed notice of these essays, we must warn our readers against accepting without considerable caution Mr. Lowell's verdicts, which are frequently based upon very insufficient grounds, and occasionally seem to proceed from an utter ignorance of what he is talking about. The following description of Mrs. Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, for instance, is so very far from true, that the only way we can possibly account for it is that Mr. Lowell has half-forgotten the book :-
" The physically-intense school, as we should feel inclined to call it, of which Mrs. Browning's Aurora LeiFh is the worst example, whose muse is a fast young lady, with the lavish and somewhat overpowering ornament of the deme-monde, and which pushes expression to the last gasp of sensuous exhaustion."
This is an astonishing criticism of a long semi-philosophical poem, written by one of the most pure poetesses that England has ever possessed, though no doubt a poetess who could scream and gasp when the mood was on her. It is this tendency of our author's to express an opinion or a theory on in- sufficient ground, which vitiates, to a great extent, the value of his criticism. The great distinction to be made between the pre- sent volume and the ones that have preceded it is the absence of the light, humorous tone and continual discursiveness, that used to render Mr. Lowell such pleasant reading for a vacant hour.
Formerly, whether instructed or not, one was certain of being amused ; and certain of the essays, such as that "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners," were as genial and lightly touched as any of Ella or Eliana. But now, with advancing years, Mr. Lowell has grown grave, and even ponderous, and heaps authority upon authority, and fact upon fact, till neither the interest of the subject nor the grace of the writing is sufficient to prevent weariness. In a dedication almost too humble to sound quite natural, this work is inscribed to Emerson, to whom, no doubt, the author owes much of his style. Whether the influence of a peculiar mind like Emerson's, with very marked traits of individuality, has been an advantageous one to Mr. Lowell, we are disposed to doubt ; had he remained the genial humourist, and amusing social writer and poet that he was at the beginning of his career, he would probably have had a more lasting and general popularity.
Certainly another book like the Biglow Papers would have been worth many volumes such as this.
The first essay, comprising nearly half the volume, is on Dante, the others on Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats. Of the one on Dante there is little to be said in praise, if we except the industry which the author has shown in endeavouring to ascertain the correct dates and general details of the poet's life. The biography is told at length, and overweighted with a large quantity of unimportant or irrelevant matter. Here, for instance, there are several pages devoted to an enume- ration of the various editions of the poet ; there, a disquisi- tion on Greek art, a subject which Mr. Lowell had better have left alone, and interspersed with the biographical details, the critical passages have little unity or coherence. The biography is hardly a trustworthy one, in many minor points ; for instance, Mr. Lowell suppresses all mention of the letter Dante wrote to the Seigniory of Florence, before the election of Henry VII. (of Luxemburg), petitioning them for a remission of his sentence ; which letter (according to the memoir prefixed to Cary's translation), he afterwards repudiated, and broke out into fresh invectives against the governing body. Of the personal allusions in the Inferno to Dante's enemies and political personages generally, Mr. Lowell also makes but little mention, although the poem is full of them, and they throw no little light upon the bitter animosity which was one of the poet's most noticeable characteristics. Our author, as is but natural, considers Longfellow's the beat translation that exists, though it is generally thought inferior to that of Carr Mr. Lowell's estimate of Dante is as high a one as could be well held even by the most enthusiastic. He quotes with approbation Ruskin's verdict, "The central man of the world, as representing in perfect balance, the intellectual, moral, and imaginative facul-
ties, is Dante ;" and in the following quotation sums up the general idea of the poet.— "Underlying Dante, the metaphysician, statesman, and theologian, was always Dante the poet, irradiating and vivifying, gleaming through in a picturesque phrase, or touching things unexpectedly with that
ideal light which softens and subdues like distance in the landscape. The stern outline of his system wavers and melts away before the eye of the reader in a mirage of imagination that lifts from beyond the sphere of vision, and hangs in serener air images of infinite suggestion, projected from worlds not realised, but substantial to faith, hope, and aspiration. Beyond the horizon of speculation floats, in the passionless splendour of the empyrean, the city of our God, the Rome whereof Christ is a Roman, the city of refuge, even in this life, for souls purified by sorrow and self-denial, transhumanised to the divine abstraction of pure contemplation."
Mr. Lowell tries to show with, we think, but indifferent success, that the Hell of Dante was " a condition of the soul," and that the concrete conceptions of it in the inferno were only the types under which he sought to bring home this truth to men's minds. 6, The age," says our author, "necessitated gross and revolting types, therefore Dante used them." Whether this notion can be substantiated after a long study of the Commedia we cannot say, but to the general reader, the Inferno is not a state of mental torture caused by the inevitable consequences of wrong- doing ; but a place of intense bodily torment, varied in every way that a fierce, vindictive imagination could depict. It would be an interesting consideration to inquire how much of Dante's contempt of this life and devotion to the future one, were owing to the ingratitude of his country and the power of his enemies. Very probably had he never been exiled from Florence, he might have been little more than one of the many stirring figures in the politics of that time, straying now into a little poetry, now into a little philosophy, in the intervals of public business.
Of the essay on Spenser there is not much to require notice, the best portion of it being the introductory sketch of English poetry between the times of Chaucer and Elizabeth. The de- scription of Spenser's life is dull, and the long disquisi- tions on the various merits of his poetry differ in no essen- tial respect from the common opinion of it. While acknow- ledging the unreality of the imaginative world in which Spenser dwelt, and through the medium of which he looked at life, "yet," says our author, "whoever can endure unmixed delight, whoever can tolerate music, and painting, and poetry all in one, whoever wishes to be rid of thought and let the busy anvils of the brain be silent for a while, let him read in the Faerie Queene ; there is the land of pure heart's-ease, where no ache or sorrow of spirit can enter." Were this the case, how many of us would buy a cheap edition, and forget all our troubles!—but it is only Mr. Lowell's semi-Oriental manner of saying that he likes Spenser when he wants to be idle, and in this we quite agree with him.
The essay on Wordsworth is, taking it altogether, quite the most interesting and the best of the five. Here Mr. Lowell has not been led away by personal liking into any extravagant eulogy, but seems to have formed an impartial and most discerning esti- mate of the poet's worth. There is little in Wordsworth's life to render a biography interesting, his history is more the history of the development of a mind than the life of a man. That Mr. Lowell somewhat overrates the influence of Wordsworth on English poetry is probable, but the following extract, from the latter portion of the essay, is a most clear-sighted, original criticism " His longer poems (miscalled epical) have no more intimate bond of union than their more or less immediate relation to his own personality. Of character, other than his own, ho had but a faint conception, and all the personages of 'The Excursion' that are not Wordsworth, are the merest shadows of himself upon mist ; for his self-concentrated nature was incapable of projecting itself into the consciousness of other men, and seeing the springs of action at their source in the recesses of individual character. Tho best parts of these longer poems are bursts of impassioned soliloquy, and his fingers were always clumsy at the cal/ida junctura. The stream of narration is sluggish, if varied sometimes by pleasing reflec- tions (vir•idesque placido aequore syloas); we are forced to do our own rowing, and only when the current is hemmed in by some narow gorge nt.the poet's personal consciousness do we feel ourselves snatched along on the smooth, but impetuous rush of unmistakable inspiration We recognise two voices in him, as Stephano did in Caliban. These are Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch. If the prophet cease from dictating, the amanuensis, rather than be idle, employs himself in jotting down some anecdotes of his master ; how ho one day went out and saw an old woman, and the next day, did not ; and so came home and dictated some verses on this ominous phenomenon ; and how another day he saw a cow. These marginal annotations have been carelessly taken up into the text, have been religiously held by the pious to bo orthodox scrip- tUre, and by dexterous exegesis have been made to yield deeply oracular meanings. Presently the real prophet takes up the word again, and speaks as one divinely inspired, the voice of a higher and invisible power."
If this metaphor be carried, as often is the case with our author, somewhat too far, it is yet a most masterly description of what all readers of Wordsworth must have felt over and over again.
The essay on Milton is really a criticism of Professor Masson's
biography of that poet, extended to a somewhat unreasonable length, and opens with a complaint, in Mr. Lowell's most sarcastic manner, upon the length of time the work has been in completion:
"If a hasty person,'" says he, " be one who thinks eleven years rather long to have his button held by a biographer ere he begins his next sentence, I take to myself the sting of Mr. Masson's covert sarcasm. I confess with shame a pusillanimity that is apt to flag if a 'to be con- tinued' do not redeem its promise before the lapse of a quinquenninm."
The whole of the first few pages of this essay are moat amusing, and make us regret that Mr. Lowell did not confine himself to the humorous style in which his first books were written. After being very hard upon Mr. Masson for his attempts at humour, which certainly, as quoted by our author, do seem rather cumbrous, Mr. Lowell picks out what is undoubtedly the greatest fault of Professor Masson's work, namely, " that is not so much a life of Milton, as a work out of which a careful reader may sift the main facts of the poet's biography." From this, he proceeds to detailed criticism, whither it would be tedious to follow him.
Indeed, this notice is more fit for a magazine, where we suppose it originally appeared, than for a collection of finished reviews.
The last essay in the book is the one on Keats, and is, in some respects, the worst. Mr. Lowell evidently has but little sympathy with Keats's poetry, as is only natural in such an ardent admirer of Dante and Milton. He does not seem to have grasped the meaning of that passionate nature, to whom beauty in any form was an excitement like wine to ordinary men, and he tells the short, sad story of the poet's life briefly and unsympathetically. This memoir was originally written as a preface to an American edition of Keats's poems, where it might as well have remained.