Page images




JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 22, 1819, in the old colonial house now known as Elmwood. The birthday of Washington not only recalls a great historic figure, but reminds us of the quality of great citizenship. It is singularly appropriate that a child born on that day in the historic mansion so closely associated with Revolutionary times, should become the most honored representative of the noblest conception of American democracy both at home and abroad.

Few poets are blessed with the charming conditions that surrounded his childhood. His education would satisfy the most exacting requirements of Dr. Holmes, for it was begun more than a hundred years before the poet's birth. His father, Dr. Charles Lowell, was a learned clergyman of Boston. His mother, Harriet Traill Spense, delighted in the family tradition that


traced her descent to Sir Patrick Spens of the wellknown ballad. From this gifted and poetry-loving mother the son inherited a passion for old ballads and romances as deep and abiding as that of Sir Walter Scott. For old songs crooned over the cradle, and winter-evening legends of the chimney corner heard in childhood are far different in effect from a mythology learned in books.

This favored child had another opportunity that Dr. Holmes considers of first importance. He had "tumbled about in a library," in this case a library of more than four thousand well-chosen volumes. Better still, his sister Martha, eight years his senior, used to read him to sleep with the poetry of Spenser and Shakespeare.

Of the old college town of his boyhood, Lowell gives us an account in the essay, Cambridge Thirty Years Ago. "It was fortunate for him that what was quaint, picturesque, and characteristic in the old life. had not wholly disappeared. Perhaps it is due to the haze of distance, but there is something idyllicsome tinge of romance as one looks back the rural Yankee of sixty years ago, when men's faces and speech had not become as like as pebbles. Plenty of people in old Cambridge spoke the old chimney-corner English now becoming extinct. The


[ocr errors]

home life, the dress and manners of the elders, had not changed greatly from the time of Bunyan."

Like other Cambridge boys of his time, he studied with Mr. Wells, a thoroughly educated Englishman, whose school for boys was the nearest residence to Elmwood parsonage. At sixteen he entered Harvard College. Here, according to his own account, he read nearly everything he could find -novels, poetry, drama everything except the text-books. His classmates, discerning his abilities, made him editor of "Harvardiana," and elected him class poet. But his neglect of the required studies, and the fact that he could seldom get to morning prayers, which were held at sunrise, led toward the close of his senior year to his rustication. This meant that he must reside at Concord until Commencement. It meant, too, no class poet, no good-by suppers, no vacation rambles, but regular study in the house of the Rev. Barzillai Frost. The class poem composed during this exile was, however, printed for circulation among the students, and, out of deference to his father, the Faculty relented so far as to grant Lowell his degree.

Lowell's life during the decade after his graduation was marked by few important outward events. was a time of preparation, of ventures into new fields


« PreviousContinue »