February 22, 2010

Lowell's birthday verses

Though he has since faded into relative obscurity, James Russell Lowell was a well-known poet, critic, editor, scholar, abolitionist, and diplomat. During his lifetime he had a strong following, particularly in his native New England. On February 22, 1843, he celebrated his 24th birthday by writing a sonnet which read, in part:

Now have I quite passed by that cloudy If
That darkened the wild hope of boyish days,
When first I launched my slender-sided skiff
Upon the wide sea's dim, unsounded ways.

Perhaps Lowell's boyhood was long-gone at age 24, but he had a long way to go in life; he would live almost to the end of the century. His birthday (February 22, 1819) was on the anniversary of the birth of George Washington; it would continue to be celebrated for many years — often with help from other poets. One of his closest friends was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who celebrated Lowell's birthday in verse in 1859 (Holmes was also the only one of the Fireside Poets to outlive Lowell).

In his poem to Lowell, "At a Birthday Festival," Holmes wrote that "We will not speak of years to-night." Indeed, Lowell was only 40 years old that day. Holmes emphasized that each coming year would bring "floods" of life and song (e.g. poetry). The poem emphasizes friendship, optimism, and joy:

We will not speak of years to-night,—
  For what have years to bring
But larger floods of love and light,
  And sweeter songs to sing?

We will not drown in wordy praise
  The kindly thoughts that rise;
If Friendship own one tender phrase,
  He reads it in our eyes.

We need not waste our school-boy art
  To gild this notch of Time;—
Forgive me if my wayward heart
  Has throbbed in artless rhyme.

Enough for him the silent grasp
  That knits us hand in hand,
And he the bracelet's radiant clasp
  That locks our circling band.

Strength to his hours of many toil!
  Peace to his starlit dreams!
Who loves alike the furrowed soil,
  The music-haunted streams!

Sweet smiles to keep forever bright
  The sunshine on his lips,
And faith that sees the ring of light
  Round nature's last eclipse!

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