Studies For Two Heads

A poem by James Russell Lowell


Some sort of heart I know is hers,--
I chanced to feel her pulse one night;
A brain she has that never errs,
And yet is never nobly right;
It does not leap to great results,
But, in some corner out of sight
Suspects a spot of latent blight,
And, o'er the impatient infinite,
She hargains, haggles, and consults.

Her eye,--it seems a chemic test
And drops upon you like an acid;
It bites you with unconscious zest,
So clear and bright, so coldly placid;
It holds you quietly aloof,
It holds,--and yet it does not win you;
It merely puts you to the proof
And sorts what qualities are in you:
It smiles, but never brings you nearer,
It lights,--her nature draws not nigh;
'Tis but that yours is growing clearer
To her assays;--yes, try and try,
You'll get no deeper than her eye.

There, you are classified: she's gone
Far, far away into herself;
Each with its Latin label on,
Your poor components, one by one,
Are laid upon their proper shelf
In her compact and ordered mind,
And what of you is left behind
Is no more to her than the wind;
In that clear brain, which, day and night,
No movement of the heart e'er jostles,
Her friends are ranged on left and right,--
Here, silex, hornblende, sienite;
There, animal remains and fossils.

And yet, O subtile analyst,
That canst each property detect
Of mood or grain, that canst untwist
Each tangled skein of intellect,
And with thy scalpel eyes lay bare
Each mental nerve more fine than air,--
O brain exact, that in thy scales
Canst weigh the sun and never err,
For once thy patient science fails,
One problem still defies thy art;--
Thou never canst compute for her
The distance and diameter
Of any simple human heart.


Hear him but speak, and you will feel
The shadows of the Portico
Over your tranquil spirit steal,
To modulate all joy and woe
To one subdued, subduing glow;
Above our squabbling business-hours,
Like Phidian Jove's, his beauty lowers,
His nature satirizes ours;
A form and front of Attic grace,
He shames the higgling market-place,
And dwarfs our more mechanic powers.

What throbbing verse can fitly render
That face so pure, so trembling-tender?
Sensation glimmers through its rest,
It speaks unmanacled by words,
As full of motion as a nest
That palpitates with unfledged birds;
'Tis likest to Bethesda's stream,
Forewarned through all its thrilling springs,
White with the angel's coming gleam,
And rippled with his fanning wings.

Hear him unfold his plots and plans,
And larger destinies seem man's;
You conjure from his glowing face
The omen of a fairer race;
With one grand trope he boldly spans
The gulf wherein so many fall,
'Twixt possible and actual;
His first swift word, talaria-shod,
Exuberant with conscious God,
Out of the choir of planets blots
The present earth with all its spots.

Himself unshaken as the sky,
His words, like whirlwinds, spin on high
Systems and creeds pellmell together;
'Tis strange as to a deaf man's eye,
While trees uprooted splinter by,
The dumb turmoil of stormy weather;
Less of iconoclast than shaper,
His spirit, safe behind the reach
Of the tornado of his speech,
Burns calmly as a glowworm's taper.

So great in speech, but, ah! in act
So overrun with vermin troubles,
The coarse, sharp-cornered, ugly fact
Of life collapses all his bubbles:
Had he but lived in Plato's day,
He might, unless my fancy errs,
Have shared that golden voice's sway
O'er barefooted philosophers.
Our nipping climate hardly suits
The ripening of ideal fruits: 0
His theories vanquish us all summer,
But winter makes him dumb and dumber;
To see him mid life's needful things
Is something painfully bewildering;
He seems an angel with clipt wings
Tied to a mortal wife and children,
And by a brother seraph taken
In the act of eating eggs and bacon.
Like a clear fountain, his desire
Exults and leaps toward the light,
In every drop it says 'Aspire!'
Striving for more ideal height;
And as the fountain, falling thence,
Crawls baffled through the common gutter,
So, from his speech's eminence,
He shrinks into the present tense,
Unkinged by foolish bread and butter.

Yet smile not, worldling, for in deeds
Not all of life that's brave and wise is;
He strews an ampler future's seeds,
'Tis your fault if no harvest rises;
Smooth back the sneer; for is it naught
That all he is and has is Beauty's?
By soul the soul's gains must be wrought,
The Actual claims our coarser thought,
The Ideal hath its higher duties.

Reader Comments

Tell us what you think of 'Studies For Two Heads' by James Russell Lowell

comments powered by Disqus