James Russell Lowell and England

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IN his later years James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was considered America's major man of letters of the age. However, posterity has been less kind to him. Today he is little read and is generally regarded as not being in quite the same league as such fellow New England luminaries as Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, or Hawthorne. It is often adduced that, a man of many talents and interests, he spread himself too widely with the resultant sum of the parts being somewhat lacking. Still, this Cambridge, Massachusetts uomo universale attained high prominence as poet, literary and social critic, editor, abolitionist, scholar of comparative literature, Harvard professor, and diplomat.

In addition, Lowell was an avid traveller in Europe, on the Continent as well as in England where he lived for many years. From May 1880 to May 1885 Lowell was also America's Minister to the Court of St. James. As a New England brahmin and academic it is natural that Lowell's intellectual development and tastes drew greatly on the cultural heritage of the mother country. However, though an authority on and devotee of England's literature, Lowell throughout his life maintained distinctly ambivalent feelings about many aspects of this nation's society and inhabitants.

Before his diplomatic position in England, Lowell over the years made a number of trips to the country. In 1851, having already embarked on a successful career as man of letters, he paid his first visit to Europe in the company of his family. After several months travelling about the Italian Lakes, Switzerland, Germany, and France, the Lowells crossed the Channel and spent a fortnight visiting London, Oxford, and Cambridge and making a quick tour of the north of England and Scotland. Lowell also made a trip to Bath to visit Waiter Savage Landor about whom he wrote an essay three and a half decades later. In July 1855 on a year long trip to Europe Lowell stayed a month in England where he met Thackeray, the Brownings, and Leigh Hunt and visited such sites as Winchester, Salisbury, and Stonehenge which he declared was 'one of the best things I have seen -- very solemn and strange'. In 1872 Lowell departed once again to Europe where he remained for two years. From Dublin, which he found 'Hogarthian', he travell ed to England and toured widely. He was welcomed effusively at Chester by Charles Kingsley, then a Canon of the Cathedral. At Lichfield, Lowell wrote that he 'had a most amusing evening in the smoking-room, listening to the talk of the city magnates, full of Philisterei, if you will, but with a full Shakespearian flavor and a basis of English good sense that pleased me'. By autumn the Lowells were settled in Paris where they remained seven months. In May 1873 during a four day visit to England from Paris, Lowell met Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, G. H. Lewes, Thomas Hughes, Leslie Stephen, and John Ruskin. The latter, Lowell declared, gave him 'the impression of a man of sentiment who seeks refuge from a sense of his own weakness in strong opinions (or at any rate the vehement assertion of them) as men reassure themselves by talking aloud in the dark'. The following month on another trip he received an honorary Doctor of Canon Law from Oxford, an honour derided by Swinburne about whose poetry Lowell had been less than kind. In June 1874 on a brief trip to England Lowell received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Cambridge. A month later he was back in America.

In May 1880 Lowell, after three years as American Minister in Spain, arrived in London and took up his appointment as American Minister (the U.S. and Britain only exchanged Ministers; it was only in the next decade that they were raised to Ambassadors). Unlike his experiences in Spain, Lowell's work in England was more complex. While some of this work involved such traditional diplomatic activity as catering to compatriots stranded, penniless, or in some other difficulty in England, much was also devoted to two troublesome affairs. …