March 10, 2010

Dark without & within

James Russell Lowell was known as a boastful, loud, fun-loving intellectual. Throughout his life, however, he suffered many tragedies, struggled financially, and hid a deeper, darker side to his personality. After a rambunctious youth, which carried into his time as a student at Harvard, his marriage to Maria White in 1844 had a calming influence. She pulled him deep into the world of abolitionism (and, for a time, temperance) and seemed to stabilize his life.

The couple, however, faced much hardship. They had four children but three (Blanche, Rose, and Walter) died within a couple years of their birth. Only his daughter Mabel survived into adulthood. But Mabel's mother did not live to see her grow up. Maria White Lowell died in October 1853; she was 32.

Lowell was struck with an overwhelming grief. Cutting himself off from others, he sheltered himself at Elmwood, the family estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He lived with his father (now deaf) and his sister (who often went days without speaking a word). His private diaries from this period are riddled with the initials of his dead wife. On March 10, 1854, for example, he wrote: "Dark without & within. M.L. M.L. M.L."

Lowell's friends helped him publish a posthumous collection of Maria White's poems, including this sonnet:

I love thee — not because thy love for me,
Like a great sunrise, did o'ervault my day
With purple light, and wrought upon my way
The morning dew in fresh emblazonry;
Nor that thou seest all I fain would be,
And thus dost call me by mine angel's name,
While still my woman's heart beats free of blame
Beneath the shelter of thy charity.
Oh, no! for wearily upon my soul
Would weigh thy golden crown of unbought praise,
Did I not look beyond the hour's control,
To where those fruits of perfect virtue raise
Their bloom, that thou erewhile, with prophet eyes,
Didst name mine own, in groves of paradise.

*The gravestone pictured above marks the burial place at Mount Auburn Cemetery of Maria White Lowell, James Russell Lowell, and his second wife Frances Dunlap. And if you think this journal entry is dark, wait until you hear about the incident with the pistol...


  1. There is a beautiful monument of a morning glory on the west end of Greenbrier Path in Mount Auburn that has a portion of Maria White Lowell's "The Morning Glory Poem" inscribed on it.

    Also, this excerpt from Longfellow's diary on the funeral of M.W.L. is very moving.

    "Saturday, October 29, 1853

    A sad and tearful funeral. I walked with Parsons, the poet, at the end of the procession. It was a sad sight to see it winding down the woodland pathway, the western sky all red with sunset, the leafless trees, the silent sheet of water, the rustling leaves under our feet. It is a beautiful retired spot, on a wooded knoll. The coffin was once more opened for little Mabel to look again on her mother's face...Lowell leaned for a long time against a tree weeping. Then we returned home in the twilight."

  2. Jessica,

    Thank you for the haunting description of MWL's funeral; it is so vivid that reading it makes me feel as if I had been in attendance. Count on a romantic poet to wring one's heart.

  3. I'm sure Maria White Lowell will come up in this blog again. Technically, this entry wasn't even about her death, but about the impact her death had on Mr. Lowell who, I believe, has been misunderstood or oversimplified in modern times.

  4. I just had the privilege of being in Rome, and spending a day at the Non-Catholic cemetery, where little Walter Lowell is buried. I took some pictures, but the sun was bright and the stone is completely white, with letters hard to read, so my pictures are not that great. It does identify Walter as the only son of James Russell Lowell. I have a biography by Martin Duberman, but it does not say who decided upon the stone, the Lowell's or friends in Rome? I know, a rather obscure question, but my name is Walter, I like Lowell, and I'm the dead poet guy, so what do you expect! It is a rather nice grave and that whole cemetery is amazing...I am almost tempted to say I like it better than Mount Auburn, but that might just be the emotional influence of the two major Romantics buried there, Keats and Shelley.