While walking the dog some unseasonal lines jangled in my head:
“And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays.”
I remember when students were expected to memorize poetry, often many lines of it, and to declaim them in front of the class. I was ham enough in seventh grade to turn James Russell Lowell’s chestnut into an Americanized “The Charge of the Light Brigade,”complete with noble gestures. To this day I have never read all of "The Vision of Sir Launfal," but a dozen lines of it stick in my head more indelibly than most of my computer passwords. The difference, of course, is rhythm. Lowell’s verse is steady as a metronome.
Back home, I read more Lowell online. Sorry to say, I own no volumes of his verse, nor of Whittier’s, nor Bryant’s, nor Longfellow’s – all of whom reside with Lowell in my portable library. I also happened on the tribute to Lowell published in 1892, the year after the poet’s death, by Henry James. All of us should so fortunate as to be eulogized by James:
“His America was a country worth hearing about, a magnificent conception, an admirably consistent and lovable object of allegiance. If the sign that, in Europe, one knew him best by was his intense national consciousness, one felt that this consciousness could not sit lightly on a man in whom it was the strongest form of piety. Fortunately for him, and for his friends, he was one of the most whimsical, one of the wittiest, of human beings, so that he could play with his patriotism and make it various. All the same, one felt in it, in talk, the depth of passion that hums through much of his finest verse—-almost the only passion that, to my sense, his poetry contains, the accent of chivalry, of the lover, the knight ready to do battle for his mistress.”
Who can imagine a poet today being celebrated for his essential Americanness? Or one notable for his ability to “play with his patriotism and make it various”? Such sentiments would embarrass the sophisticates among us. James’ encomium for Lowell is minor by anyone’s judgment, but moving and linguistically generous. He spared nothing coming to the job. We can think of Henry James as a machine for manufacturing metaphors, but that limits him, for he was simultaneously many other sorts of machine, and all the while human. What he says of Lowell may be said rightly of James: “He had no experimental sympathies, and no part of him was traitor to the rest.”