White sleep and silence

Another poet I’d never heard of: James Russell Lowell, who seems, nevertheless, to bestride the nineteenth century like a Colossus. He was born and died in the same big old house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, but between his birth in 1819 and his death in 1891, he travelled the world, wrote, edited and lectured, met kings, queens and presidents, outlived two wives and three of his four children, and more than once stood on the brink of suicide. He went to Harvard at 15 to study law and returned at 36 to lecture on languages. He never practiced law. He was an abolitionist who seemed to believe in white superiority, and a temperance advocate who drank heavily. He was one of the New England ‘Fireside Poets’, a group that also included the euphonious names of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, but he also served as America’s ambassador to Spain, then England. He edited journals: his first, The Pioneer, only lasted three issues, but in one of those appeared a short story called “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by one Edgar Allen Poe. A little later, he was the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, now in its 158th year. He knew Emerson and the Brownings and Leigh Hunt and Henry James. He was the grandcestor of poets Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell, and the godfather of Virginia Woolf. His achievements were many but his legacy is ambivalent. His poetic vocation was sincere, but his verse was often derivative. He was both praised and pilloried by his contemporaries, and is now largely forgotten. He said of himself, “I shall be popular by and by.”

Here are three stanzas of his poem “An Indian-Summer Reverie,” which runs to five pages. Notably, the unrhymable word ‘purple’ appears in the poem no fewer than six times, including the variant ‘purpler,’ though never at the end of a line. It's not great poetry but there are felicities here I'd be sorry to miss.

What visionary tints the year puts on,
When falling leaves falter through motionless air
Or numbly cling and shiver to be gone!
How shimmer the low flats and pastures bare,
As with her nectar Hebe Autumn fills
The bowl between me and those distant hills,
And smiles and shakes abroad her misty, tremulous hair!

How fuse and mix, with what unfelt degrees,
Clasped by the faint horizon’s languid arms,
Each into each, the hazy distances!
The softened season all the landscape charms;
Those hills, my native village that embay,
In waves of dreamier purple roll away,
And floating in mirage seem all the glimmering farms.

O’er yon bare knoll the pointed cedar shadows
Drowse on the crisp, gray moss; the ploughman’s call
Creeps faint as smoke from black, fresh-furrowed meadows;
The single crow a single caw lets fall;
And all around me every bush and tree
Says Autumn’s here, and Winter soon will be
Who snows his soft, white sleep and silence over all.