February 25, 2012

Lowell: better in conception than execution

"Amid infinite interruptions," wrote James Russell Lowell on February 25, 1845, "I have at last managed to finish a poem for you which is better in conception than in execution." Lowell, living in Philadelphia at the time, addressed the poem "The Ghost-Seer" to his good friend Charles Frederick Briggs, then editing a newspaper called The Broadway Journal. Typical for Lowell, the poem did not meet his own expectations: "I intended it to be one of the best I have ever written, but have a sort of notion that it is rather flat. It certainly is so (as all poems must be) compared with the conception." He suggested, for example, that it was too long. He might have been right; here are excerpts:

Ye who, passing graves by night,
Glance not to the left or right,
Lest a spirit should arise,
Cold and white, to freeze your eyes,
Some weak phantom, which your doubt
Shapes upon the dark without
From the dark within, a guess
At the spirit's deathlessness,
Which ye entertain with fear
In your self-built dungeon here,
Where ye sell your God-given lives
Just for gold to buy you gyves, —
Ye without a shudder meet
In the city's noonday street,
Spirits sadder and more dread
Than from out the clay have fled,
Buried, beyond hope of light,
In the body's haunted night!

The living, Lowell suggests, experience a sort of walking death as sin follows at their heels and are further harried by poverty and suffering. Lowell was, no doubt, inspired in part by spiritualism (he toyed with Swedenborgianism for several years) and, further, by his studies of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy. He describes the temptation of deadly sins like Envy and Pride. Perhaps the worst experience is that of a poet, whose nature compels him to empathize with those who suffer:

Who is he that skulks, afraid
Of the trust he has betrayed,
Shuddering if perchance a gleam
Of old nobleness should stream
Through the pent, unwholesome room,
Where his shrunk soul cowers in gloom,
Spirit sad beyond the rest
By more instinct for the best?
'Tis a poet who was sent
For a bad world's punishment,
By compelling it to see
Golden glimpses of To Be,
By compelling it to hear
Songs that prove the angels near;
Who was sent to be the tongue
Of the weak and spirit-wrung,
Whence the fiery-winged Despair
In men's shrinking eyes might flare.

Lowell almost certainly had himself in mind; at the time, he was a contributing editor for the abolitionist newspaper The Pennsylvania Freeman. As he wrote against the suffering of enslaved people, he also witnessed his wife's decay due to disease.

But enough! Oh, do not dare
From the next the veil to tear,
Woven of station, trade, or dress,
More obscene than nakedness,
Wherewith plausible culture drapes
Fallen Nature's myriad shapes!
Let us rather love to mark
How the unextinguished spark
Still gleams through the thin disguise
Of our customs, pomps, and lies,
And, not seldom blown to flame,
Vindicates its ancient claim.