James Russell Lowell Poetry
The Use of Nature and Emotion in Romantic Literature: Readings from Lowell, Holmes, and Irving
Romanticism is a literary movement that has been defining American culture for the past 200 years. Romantic literature is characterized by a focus on internal forces, emotion, morality, nature, and fantasy. James Lowell’s, “The First Snowfall”, and Oliver Holmes’s “Old Ironsides”, are examples of romantic poetry. Washington Irving’s, “The Devil and Tom Walker”, is a romantic short story about a man who sells his soul to the devil. These three works exemplify romantic themes of nature, emotion, and fantasy, ultimately presenting nature as being inherently connected to humans on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
In the poem “The First Snowfall,” nature is comforting a man by giving him a spiritual connection to his dead child. The soft whiteness reminds him of his innocent daughter. The snow is described as gently holding the grave, suggesting that it is comforting the little girl as well, possibly in the afterlife. As the man stands by a window and watches the peaceful environment, the snow is “Flake by flake, healing and hiding / The scar of our deep-plunged woe” (Lowell 272). The scar is the emotional pain he is burdened with, stemming from the death of his young child. Observing the beauty of tranquil nature is healing his sorrows because the man feels connected to his daughter through the natural world. Although the connection to nature in this poem is soft and healing, the link between humans and the environment it is deadly in another romantic work, “The Devil and Tom Walker”. In this short story, the trees are directly linked to the lives of the person whose name is carved on it. When the tree is chopped down by the Devil’s axe, the person dies. As the Devil explains this to Tom Walker, Tom “looked round, and found most of the tall trees marked with the name of some great man of the colony, and all more or less scored by the axe” (Irving 244). This very literal link between humans and the forest is central to the plot, because the Devil gains his power by chopping down the trees and taking his victims.
“Old Ironsides” deals with a connection to nature in a more positive way. The speaker and the Americans he represents are connected to a great warship because of a deep sense of patriotism and memories of the battles fought at sea. They want to send the warship into the ocean to give it a death of glory. Rather than retiring the ship, the speaker argues that “O, better that her shattered hulk / Should sink beneath the wave / Her thunders shook the mighty deep / And there should be her grave” (Holmes 271). The ship, a symbol of patriotism and courage, fought its battles among the waves and ocean winds, so the speaker suggests that the ship goes back to nature where its glory lives. This ship is so important because it is the embodiment of the American spirit, so they want to give it the best resting place possible. The best grave they can think of is “the mighty deep”. Holmes wants this emblem of courage to sink beneath the waves and go back to nature. “Old Ironsides” has an emotional connection to nature, while “The First Snowfall”, has a spiritual connection to nature. “The Devil and Tom Walker” has a more literal physical tie to the natural world. These three works all either have a central theme of emotion or a plot driven by emotional actions. The poem “The First Snowfall” is about the feelings of grief of a father whose child died. As the man stands at the window and looks outside, he thinks “I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn where a little headstone stood” (Lowell 273). He is remembering his daughter and grieving. There are painful emotions tied to memories of her, and the focus of the poem is his feelings and him trying to heal.
For its part, “Old Ironsides” is also an emotional poem, but it deals with the death of a ship rather than a person. The author’s purpose when writing this is to provoke feelings of patriotism and pride in the reader so they will agree that the ship should not be retired. Holmes evokes emotion by writing about the lasting legacy of the ship, saying “ Long has it waved on high / and many an eye has danced to see / that banner in the sky” (Holmes 271). There is an emotional attachment to the ship and the banner that represents it because of the memories of great battles fought and won by Americans. The poem explores the emotional responses to the ship, such as patriotism and pride. “The Devil and Tom Walker” also explores emotion, primarily fear. After selling his soul to the devil, Tom becomes a devout Christian because “Tom had a lurking dread that the devil, after all, would have his due.” (Irving 250). This is the point in the story where Tom becomes very paranoid, and his fear causes him to carry a bible everywhere he goes. The feeling of fear completely takes over his life. In his younger years, is greed was stronger than his fear of going to hell, but as he gets closer to death the fear intensifies. These works focus on emotions, specifically grief, pride, and fear, as a primary theme.
Many Romantic works feature fantasy elements because the real world is perceived as being too boring on its own. “The Devil and Tom Walker” is a clear example of a story with fantasy. Irving portrays the devil as a worldly physical being that lives on earth and directly interacts with people. As Tom was seeking out the devil to make the deal, he “met the black man one evening in his usual woodsman’s dress, with his axe on his shoulder, sauntering along the swamp and humming a tune” (Irving 248). Most works that mention God or the devil depict them in a distant spiritual way, but this story renders the devil in an unrealistically corporeal way. He is seen in this part of the story walking through the forest cutting down trees and interacting with humans directly. This characterization of Satan is a strong fantasy element in this story.
“The First Snowfall” has a different kind of fantasy element. As the father grieves his deceased child, he feels a connection to her and imagines that she is alive, giving her a kiss. The girl he imagines to be his dead child is his other daughter who is alive. The man says about his living daughter that she didn’t know “ my kiss was given to her sister / folded close under deepening snow” (Lowell 273). The fantasy element in this poem is imagination and spiritual connection to the dead. “Old Ironsides” also has imaginative elements. It remembers the past of a warship in a romanticized way that is far from realistic. The deck of the ship is described as the location for many epic battles, “Her deck, once red with heroes blood / where knelt the vanquished foe” (Holmes 271). Holmes is remembering the events of the war in a very unrealistic way. It portrays battle as a wonderful opportunity to be brave and “vanquish your foe”. In realistic works, war is much more painful. However, in this poem, sparking feelings of patriotism is more important than depicting war in a realistic way, adding to the fantasy elements shared by these works.
Romanticism, a 19th-century literature movement, explores themes of nature, emotion, and fantasy in their works. Nature is presented as a force that is connected to humans spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Many Romantic works are about emotion or have a plot that is driven by emotion. Fantasy, unrealistic elements in a story, is also present throughout Romantic literature.“The Devil and Tom Walker”, “The First Snowfall”, and “Old Ironsides”, are three works that exemplify these themes.