October 16, 2010

Elmwood: The house itself is dead

"I have written a poem of one hundred lines or so," wrote Thomas Bailey Aldrich in a letter dated October 16, 1891. The letter's recipient, Prof. George Edmund Woodberry, would have been very interested in the poem: it was dedicated to James Russell Lowell.

The poem, "Elmwood," was subtitled "In Memory of James Russell Lowell"; he had died only two months earlier. The title refers to Lowell's family home in Cambridge, which Aldrich rented in 1872 while Lowell traveled through Europe.

Here, in the twilight, at the well-known gate
I linger, with no heart to enter more.
Among the elm-tops the autumnal air
Murmurs, and spectral in the fading light
A solitary heron wings its way
Southward — save this no sound or touch of life.
Dark is that window where the scholar's lamp
Was used to catch a pallor from the dawn.

The poem is surprisingly personal and sad. At one point, the poem's narrative voice even trails off, leaving a thought unfinished. He pauses:

And listened to the crooning of the wind
In the wide Elmwood chimneys, as of old.
And then — and then...

He continues observing the now-silent home. "The vacant windows stare across the lawn," Aldrich writes. "The house itself is dead."

Woodberry, a prolific literary historian, elsewhere wrote how impressed he was by Lowell's varied career as a poet, critic, scholar, and diplomat. Woodberry noticed, however, that his works "have not been hitherto so much recognized as was right." He concluded that Lowell was "a great writer."

1 comment:

  1. James Russell Lowell was a god of poetry, and a beauty to look at, too. His work is long, long overdue for a "reawakening!" Love you, Jamesie!