MOSTLY FORGOTTEN TODAY, James Russell Lowell lived and breathed New England. Much as Mark Twain became the voice and accent of the midwest – the frontier at the time, Lowell became the archetype of the Yankee dialect. And in the process, helped define the mindset of the region.
Born and living mainly his whole life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was one of the most influential figures in American literature, as well as political thought of the era. But like many others whose work doesn’t translate well to the modern era, he’s become increasingly forgotten.
From the beginning he wanted to be a poet, but his practical nature drove him to take up the law as a profession. But the artistic streak was too strong, and he abandoned his practice to live as a writer, a helluva gamble at the time.
His career mainly floundered, his poetry considered unremarkable even by his own admission, until he struck gold with the publication of The Biglow Papers, where he took on a Yankee persona and wrote under a pseudonym. In doing this he dispensed of pretense and expressed himself fully. And ironically finally found his success.
Today if you encounter Lowell at all, it’s likely through this poem, one of the best to put into words the mystery and magic of this enchanted time of night.
by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)
The moon shines white and silent
On the mist, which, like a tide
Of some enchanted ocean,
O’er the wide marsh doth glide,
Spreading its ghost-like billows
Silently far and wide.
A vague and starry magic
Makes all things mysteries,
And lures the earth’s dumb spirit
Up to the longing skies:
I seem to hear dim whispers,
And tremulous replies.
The fireflies o’er the meadow
In pulses come and go;
The elm-trees’ heavy shadow
Weighs on the grass below;
And faintly from the distance
The dreaming cock doth crow.
All things look strange and mystic,
The very bushes swell
And take wild shapes and motions,
As if beneath a spell;
They seem not the same lilacs
From childhood known so well.
The snow of deepest silence
O’er everything doth fall,
So beautiful and quiet,
And yet so like a pall;
As if all life were ended,
And rest were come to all.
O wild and wondrous midnight,
There is a might in thee
To make the charmed body
Almost like spirit be,
And give it some faint glimpses