American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

LOWELL, JAMES RUSSELL (1819-1891). James Russell Lowell, poet, literary and social critic, editor, abolitionist, scholar of comparative literature, Harvard professor, diplomat, and consummate traveler, frequently crossed the Atlantic to visit Britain and the Continent. On 12 July 1851, he sailed from Boston in the bark Sultana on his first trip to Europe. As he relates in the section “At Sea” in Leaves from My Journal in Italy and Elsewhere (published as part of Fireside Travels, 1854), he found the five-week voyage tedious and exasperating, especially the twelve-day calm experienced in mid-Atlantic. The sea’s repetitive action put him in mind of William Wordsworth’s “Ecclesiastical Sonnets” (1837, published as “Ecclesiastical Sketches” in 1822) and the organ music of J. S. Bach.

The monotony was broken by the appearance of a finback whale and by the crew’s harpooning a sunfish. Near the Azores, Lowell was so impressed with Portuguese men-of-war and flying fish that he conjectured how Pedro Calderbn, renowned Spanish playwright of the Golden Age, would have rendered such creatures. He was particularly taken with the beauty of a bioluminescent trail of a shoal of fish, with sails by moonlight, and with a cloudless sunrise in midocean. He also took great delight in conjecturing when or whether a sail, an island, or the new shore of the Old World might appear on the ocean-horizon.

In the section “In the Mediterranean” in Leaves from My Journal, Lowell wrote warmly and with humor of the chief mate on his voyage, who, he declared, was the best thing he had seen and learned from at sea.

Aspects of the sea, especially its hazards, appear as themes in several of Lowell’s poems. In “The Sirens” (1841) Lowell writes of the uninviting nature of the sea, where “A cold and lonely grave,/ A restless grave” and “The leaden eye of the sidelong shark” and other dangers ever await the unwary mariner. “On Board the ’76” (1865), a poem about a ship crippled in a sea battle, has a vivid description of the damage that pirate* cannon have inflicted on a ship’s rudder, scuppers, sails, shrouds, and spars. However, “The Voyage to Vinland” (1868) treats the “unpathwayed seas” as a place of opportunity and exploration, where the doughty Biorn, the son of Heriulf, sees a ship that leads “every way to man’s desire,/ And ocean the wide gate to manful luck.” Poems such as “Seaweed” (1859), “Bon Voyage” (1888), and “The Flying Dutchman” (1869) also include sea themes. [See also GHOSTS AND GHOST SHIP LEGENDS; SEA IMAGERY IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY]

Brendan A. Rapple