Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Poem for June

From “The Vision of Sir Launfal”

And what is so rare as a day in June?
     Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
     And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
     An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, grasping blindly above it for light,
     Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
     Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
     The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there 's never a leaf or a blade too mean
     To be some happy creature's palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
     Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o'errun
     With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest, –
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

Even people who don’t know poetry—and who probably don’t know much about James Russell Lowell—may have heard the June line from “The Vision of Sir Launfal.” This is probably a bit of oral tradition at work; pick up a school primer from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and you’re likely to find an excerpt from the poem. Generations of American schoolchildren probably recited it and, in the way of recitations, remembered it instead of much more important things all their lives.

James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1819, the son of the Reverend Charles Lowell and Harriet Spence.  He graduated from Harvard in 1841 with a Law degree, but Lowell had no interest in pursuing a career in that field. Shortly after graduating  he published his first collection of poems, A Year’s Life (C. C. Little and J. Brown), inspired by the poet Maria White, whom he would marry three years later.

The most versatile of the New Englanders during the middle of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell was a vital force in the history of American literature and thought during his lifetime. His range and perspicacity in literary criticism are unequaled in nineteenth-century America. He did more than anyone before Mark Twain in elevating the vernacular to a medium of serious artistic expression, and The Biglow Papers (1848) ranks among the finest political satires in American literature. His public odes expressed a mind and an outlook that drew the praise of Henry Brooks Adams, William James, and William Dean Howells. His personal charm made him both an effective diplomat during the period of the emergence of the United States as a world power and one of its finest letter writers.

Lowell authored multiple poetry books, including The Vision of Sir Launfal (George Nichols, 1848) from which the above excerpt was taken. Along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, Lowell belongs to the group of writers called the Fireside Poets, or “schoolroom” poets, known for their conservative, traditional forms; strict attention to rhyme and meter; and moral, religious, and political themes.

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