An Epistle To George William Curtis

A poem by James Russell Lowell

'De prodome,
Des qu'il s'atorne a grant bonte
Ja n'iert tot dit ne tot conte,
Que leingue ne puet pas retraire
Tant d'enor com prodom set faire.'

CRESTIEN DE TROIES, Li Romans dou
Chevalier au Lyon, 784-788.

1874

Curtis, whose Wit, with Fancy arm in arm,
Masks half its muscle in its skill to charm,
And who so gently can the Wrong expose
As sometimes to make converts, never foes,
Or only such as good men must expect,
Knaves sore with conscience of their own defect,
I come with mild remonstrance. Ere I start,
A kindlier errand interrupts my heart,
And I must utter, though it vex your ears,
The love, the honor, felt so many years.
Curtis, skilled equally with voice and pen
To stir the hearts or mould the minds of men,--
That voice whose music, for I've heard you sing
Sweet as Casella, can with passion ring,
That pen whose rapid ease ne'er trips with haste,
Nor scrapes nor sputters, pointed with good taste,
First Steele's, then Goldsmith's, next it came to you,
Whom Thackeray rated best of all our crew,--
Had letters kept you, every wreath were yours;
Had the World tempted, all its chariest doors
Had swung on flattered hinges to admit
Such high-bred manners, such good-natured wit;
At courts, in senates, who so fit to serve?
And both invited, but you would not swerve,
All meaner prizes waiving that you might
In civic duty spend your heat and light,
Unpaid, untrammelled, with a sweet disdain
Refusing posts men grovel to attain.
Good Man all own you; what is left me, then,
To heighten praise with but Good Citizen?

But why this praise to make you blush and stare,
And give a backache to your Easy-Chair?
Old Crestien rightly says no language can
Express the worth of a true Gentleman,
And I agree; but other thoughts deride
My first intent, and lure my pen aside.
Thinking of you, I see my firelight glow
On other faces, loved from long ago,
Dear to us both, and all these loves combine
With this I send and crowd in every line;
Fortune with me was in such generous mood
That all my friends were yours, and all were good;
Three generations come when one I call,
And the fair grandame, youngest of them all,
In her own Florida who found and sips
The fount that fled from Ponce's longing lips.
How bright they rise and wreathe my hearthstone round,
Divine my thoughts, reply without a sound,
And with them many a shape that memory sees,
As dear as they, but crowned with aureoles these!
What wonder if, with protest in my thought,
Arrived, I find 'twas only love I brought?
I came with protest; Memory barred the road
Till I repaid you half the debt I owed.

No, 'twas not to bring laurels that I came,
Nor would you wish it, daily seeing fame,
(Or our cheap substitute, unknown of yore,)
Dumped like a load of coal at every door,
Mime and hetæra getting equal weight
With him whose toils heroic saved the State.
But praise can harm not who so calmly met
Slander's worst word, nor treasured up the debt,
Knowing, what all experience serves to show,
No mud can soil us but the mud we throw.
You have heard harsher voices and more loud,
As all must, not sworn liegemen of the crowd,
And far aloof your silent mind could keep
As when, in heavens with winter-midnight deep,
The perfect moon hangs thoughtful, nor can know
What hounds her lucent calm drives mad below.
But to my business, while you rub your eyes
And wonder how you ever thought me wise.
Dear friend and old, they say you shake your head
And wish some bitter words of mine unsaid:
I wish they might be,--there we are agreed;
I hate to speak, still more what makes the need;
But I must utter what the voice within
Dictates, for acquiescence dumb were sin;
I blurt ungrateful truths, if so they be,
That none may need to say them after me.
'Twere my felicity could I attain
The temperate zeal that balances your brain;
But nature still o'erleaps reflection's plan,
And one must do his service as he can.
Think you it were not pleasanter to speak
Smooth words that leave unflushed the brow and cheek?
To sit, well-dined, with cynic smile, unseen
In private box, spectator of the scene
Where men the comedy of life rehearse,
Idly to judge which better and which worse
Each hireling actor spoiled his worthless part?
Were it not sweeter with a careless heart,
In happy commune with the untainted brooks,
To dream all day, or, walled with silent books,
To hear nor heed the World's unmeaning noise,
Safe in my fortress stored with lifelong joys?
I love too well the pleasures of retreat
Safe from the crowd and cloistered from the street;
The fire that whispers its domestic joy,
Flickering on walls that knew me still a boy,
And knew my saintly father; the full days,
Not careworn from the world's soul-squandering ways,
Calm days that loiter with snow-silent tread,
Nor break my commune with the undying dead;
Truants of Time, to-morrow like to-day,
That come unhid, and claimless glide away
By shelves that sun them in the indulgent Past,
Where Spanish castles, even, were built to last,
Where saint and sage their silent vigil keep,
And wrong hath ceased or sung itself to sleep.
Dear were my walks, too, gathering fragrant store
Of Mother Nature's simple-minded lore:
I learned all weather-signs of day or night;
No bird but I could name him by his flight,
No distant tree but by his shape was known,
Or, near at hand, by leaf or bark alone.
This learning won by loving looks I hived
As sweeter lore than all from books derived.
I know the charm of hillside, field, and wood,
Of lake and stream, and the sky's downy brood,
Of roads sequestered rimmed with sallow sod,
But friends with hardhack, aster, goldenrod,
Or succory keeping summer long its trust
Of heaven-blue fleckless from the eddying dust:
These were my earliest friends, and latest too,
Still unestranged, whatever fate may do.
For years I had these treasures, knew their worth,
Estate most real man can have on earth.
I sank too deep in this soft-stuffed repose
That hears but rumors of earth's wrongs and woes;
Too well these Capuas could my muscles waste,
Not void of toils, but toils of choice and taste;
These still had kept me could I but have quelled
The Puritan drop that in my veins rebelled.
But there were times when silent were my books
As jailers are, and gave me sullen looks,
When verses palled, and even the woodland path,
By innocent contrast, fed my heart with wrath,
And I must twist my little gift of words
Into a scourge of rough and knotted cords
Unmusical, that whistle as they swing
To leave on shameless backs their purple sting.

How slow Time comes! Gone who so swift as he?
Add but a year, 'tis half a century
Since the slave's stifled moaning broke my sleep,
Heard 'gainst my will in that seclusion deep,
Haply heard louder for the silence there,
And so my fancied safeguard made my snare.
After that moan had sharpened to a cry,
And a cloud, hand-broad then, heaped all our sky
With its stored vengeance, and such thunders stirred
As heaven's and earth's remotest chambers heard,
I looked to see an ampler atmosphere
By that electric passion-gust blown clear.
I looked for this; consider what I see--
But I forbear, 'twould please nor you nor me
To check the items in the bitter list
Of all I counted on and all I mist.
Only three instances I choose from all,
And each enough to stir a pigeon's gall:
Office a fund for ballot-brokers made
To pay the drudges of their gainful trade;
Our cities taught what conquered cities feel
By ædiles chosen that they might safely steal;
And gold, however got, a title fair
To such respect as only gold can bear.
I seem to see this; how shall I gainsay
What all our journals tell me every day?
Poured our young martyrs their high-hearted blood
That we might trample to congenial mud
The soil with such a legacy sublimed?
Methinks an angry scorn is here well-timed:
Where find retreat? How keep reproach at bay?
Where'er I turn some scandal fouls the way.

Dear friend, if any man I wished to please,
'Twere surely you whose humor's honied ease
Flows flecked with gold of thought, whose generous mind
Sees Paradise regained by all mankind,
Whose brave example still to vanward shines,
Cheeks the retreat, and spurs our lagging lines.
Was I too bitter? Who his phrase can choose
That sees the life-blood of his dearest ooze?
I loved my Country so as only they
Who love a mother fit to die for may;
I loved her old renown, her stainless fame,--
What better proof than that I loathed her shame?
That many blamed me could not irk me long,
But, if you doubted, must I not be wrong?
'Tis not for me to answer; this I know.
That man or race so prosperously low
Sunk in success that wrath they cannot feel,
Shall taste the spurn of parting Fortune's heel;
For never land long lease of empire won
Whose sons sate silent when base deeds were done.



POSTSCRIPT, 1887

Curtis, so wrote I thirteen years ago,
Tost it unfinished by, and left it so;
Found lately, I have pieced it out, or tried,
Since time for callid juncture was denied.
Some of the verses pleased me, it is true,
And still were pertinent,--those honoring you.
These now I offer: take them, if you will,
Like the old hand-grasp, when at Shady Hill
We met, or Staten Island, in the days
When life was its own spur, nor needed praise.
If once you thought me rash, no longer fear;
Past my next milestone waits my seventieth year.
I mount no longer when the trumpets call;
My battle-harness idles on the wall,
The spider's castle, camping-ground of dust,
Not without dints, and all in front, I trust.
Shivering sometimes it calls me as it hears
Afar the charge's tramp and clash of spears;
But 'tis such murmur only as might be
The sea-shell's lost tradition of the sea,
That makes me muse and wonder Where? and When?
While from my cliff I watch the waves of men
That climb to break midway their seeming gain,
And think it triumph if they shake their chain.
Little I ask of Fate; will she refuse
Some days of reconcilement with the Muse?
I take my reed again and blow it free
Of dusty silence, murmuring, 'Sing to me!'
And, as its stops my curious touch retries,
The stir of earlier instincts I surprise,--
Instincts, if less imperious, yet more strong,
And happy in the toil that ends with song.

Home am I come: not, as I hoped might be,
To the old haunts, too full of ghosts for me,
But to the olden dreams that time endears,
And the loved books that younger grow with years;
To country rambles, timing with my tread
Some happier verse that carols in my head,
Yet all with sense of something vainly mist,
Of something lost, but when I never wist.
How empty seems to me the populous street,
One figure gone I daily loved to meet,--
The clear, sweet singer with the crown of snow
Not whiter than the thoughts that housed below!
And, ah, what absence feel I at my side,
Like Dante when he missed his laurelled guide,
What sense of diminution in the air
Once so inspiring, Emerson not there!
But life is sweet, though all that makes it sweet
Lessen like sound of friends' departing feet,
And Death is beautiful as feet of friend
Coming with welcome at our journey's end;
For me Fate gave, whate'er she else denied,
A nature sloping to the southern side;
I thank her for it, though when clouds arise
Such natures double-darken gloomy skies.
I muse upon the margin of the sea,
Our common pathway to the new To Be,
Watching the sails, that lessen more and more,
Of good and beautiful embarked before;
With bits of wreck I patch the boat shall bear
Me to that unexhausted Otherwhere,
Whose friendly-peopled shore I sometimes see,
By soft mirage uplifted, beckon me,
Nor sadly hear, as lower sinks the sun,
My moorings to the past snap one by one.

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