James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell (1819-91)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 5, 373–374.

This writer and diplomat, whose poem The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848) became known to generations of American schoolchildren, corresponded with EBB as early as 1842 and with RB as late as 1885. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into one of New England’s most prominent families, on 22 February 1819, son of the Rev. Charles Lowell and Harriet (née Spence) Lowell. He attended Harvard, was a mediocre student despite his affinity for literature, and graduated in 1838 notwithstanding a misconduct suspension in his final year. After pondering various careers, he entered Harvard Law School, but by the time he had completed his work there and gained admission to the bar, he had already begun contributing prose and verse to various magazines. He became engaged to the intellectually-gifted Maria White in 1840 (they did not marry until 1844), and she exerted much influence upon his life and work until her death in 1853. Lowell’s first book, A Year’s Life and Other Poems, appeared in 1841. Two years later he and a friend, Robert Carter, launched a literary magazine known as The Pioneer, but it survived for only three monthly issues. In the mid-1840’s he published a volume entitled Poems and another book, Conversations on Some of the Old Poets. At about this time he became involved in the anti-slavery movement, especially as a writer for the Pennsylvania Freeman and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. The year 1848 was a highly productive one, in which Lowell published A Fable for Critics, the previously-mentioned Vision of Sir Launfal, and a second series of Poems. Appearing in book form were his Biglow Papers, previously serialized in the Boston Courier. These consisted of nine “letters” in Yankee dialect criticizing U.S. policy in connection with the annexation of Texas and the war against Mexico. Lowell’s wife, Maria, died in 1853, leaving him with a daughter, Mabel. Four years later he married his daughter’s governess, Frances Dunlap. Lowell became editor of the newly-established Atlantic Monthly in 1857, and of the North American Review in 1863. Both magazines served as vehicles for presentation of his views during the Civil War era. Meanwhile Lowell was a professor of modern languages at Harvard, working in this capacity for 20 years beginning in 1856. He continued publishing poetical works and essays, then embarked on a diplomatic career, becoming Minister to Spain in 1877 and to Britain in 1880. His second wife died in 1885, and he retired from the diplomatic service later in the same year. Having become highly popular in England, Lowell now treated that country as a second home; but he died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the same house where he was born, on 12 August 1891.

A copy of Lowell’s first book, A Year’s Life and Other Poems (1841), reached EBB via John Kenyon shortly after publication. She thanked the author in her letter of 31 March 1842 (no. 937), mentioning “our mutual friend Mr. Kenyon.” On 13 December of the same year Lowell sent a belated acknowledgment, told of his plan to establish a magazine (The Pioneer) in Boston, and asked: “Might I hope to print a poem of yours every now & then? I cannot afford to pay for it now, for I am poor.” EBB sent some poems (Reconstruction, D394, 506, and 932), but there was time for only one of them—“The Maiden’s Death”—to be published in the short-lived Pioneer. At about this time, an apparently jealous Cornelius Mathews, EBB’s other young American correspondent, offered a discordant comment about Lowell. In a letter of 30 March 1843, saying that he meant to keep EBB “advised on all these American points,” Mathews called Lowell “the most amusing specimen of mature & rampant conceit I ever happened to encounter … overtly treacherous—not a little selfish withal, so that one should have a caution in their dealings.” In her reply, on 28 April, EBB wrote: “You surprise & disappoint me in your sketch of the Boston poet,—for the letter he wrote to me struck me as frank & honest.” The extent to which Mathews’ outburst influenced EBB is not really known. Her next contact with Lowell was when he sent her an inscribed copy of his Poems (1844), (Reconstruction, A1490), and she returned “an expression of cordial thanks” in July of that year. In February 1845 Lowell inscribed to EBB a copy of his Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, a work which EBB and RB criticized between themselves later that year. RB, on 19 December 1845, commented that Lowell “would propound his doctrine to the class always to be found, of spirits instructed up to a certain height and there resting.” On the following day EBB responded: “How right you are about Mr. Lowell!– He has a refined fancy & is graceful for an American critic, but the truth is, otherwise, that he knows nothing of English poetry—or the next thing to nothing,” and she called Lowell’s effort “a curious proof of the state of literature in America.” She admitted that Lowell had shown kindness toward her, and that she had shown some ingratitude toward him, but then concluded: “When one’s conscience grows too heavy, there is nothing for it but to throw it away!——” A year later, on 23 December 1846, while the new Mrs. Browning was in Pisa, Italy, she sent Lowell a manuscript of her “Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (Reconstruction D805). This poem then appeared in the 1848 issue of The Liberty Bell, a Boston anti-slavery annual with which Lowell was connected. Also in 1848 (April) Lowell wrote generously of RB in the North American Review, saying that “he appears to have a wider range and greater freedom of movement than any other of the younger English poets.” The Brownings met the Lowells when both couples were in London in 1852. Some months afterward, on 20 May 1853, EBB wrote favourably of Lowell in a letter to Mary Russell Mitford. After referring to him and Ralph Waldo Emerson as “the best poets in America,” she went on to say of Lowell: “I think highly of him—& I liked him personally & his interesting wife [Maria], when we met in London.”

Years later, RB had numerous contacts with Lowell and his second wife in London, Lowell then having been made U.S. Minister to Great Britain. Also, Lowell was acquainted with RB’s American expatriate friend Mrs. Katharine Bronson and was a frequent guest at her home in Venice while visiting that city in 1881. Correspondence between RB and Lowell dealt with matters such as international copyright arrangements and, of course, poetry. A note from Lowell dated 5 November 1882 relates to a third party’s query or comment about RB’s “How They Brought the Good News” (1845). Not surprisingly, Lowell acquired and owned a number of volumes of RB’s works. Those listed in Reconstruction (Section M) range chronologically from Paracelsus (1835) to Pacchiarotto (1876).


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