HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Vision of Sir Launfal And Other Poems
Author: James Russell Lowell
Publisher: Dodo Press, republished in 2007
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Ages 12 and up
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Lowell, James Russell. The Vision of Sir Launfal And Other Poems (originally published in 1848; republished in 1905 by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. MA). James Russell Lowell (February 22, 1819 – August 12, 1891) was an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat, who was associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers. They were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets. These poets usually used conventional forms and meters in their poetry, making them suitable for families entertaining at their fireside. After graduating from Harvard College in 1838, he published his first collection of poetry in 1841 and married Maria White in 1844. He and his wife soon became involved in the movement to abolish slavery, and Lowell used poetry to express his anti-slavery views, taking a job in Philadelphia, PA, as the editor of an abolitionist newspaper. After moving back to Cambridge, Lowell was one of the founders of a journal called The Pioneer, which lasted only three issues. He gained notoriety in 1848 with the publication of A Fable for Critics, a book-length poem satirizing contemporary critics and poets. The same year, he published The Biglow Papers, which increased his fame. He went on to publish several other poetry collections and essay collections throughout his literary career. Lowell accepted a professorship of languages at Harvard in 1854 and continued to teach there for twenty years.
Poetry has never been my favorite form of literature, but I do enjoy a good poetic narrative, and Lowell’s 1848 poem The Vision of Sir Launfal is just that, a long romantic story suggested by the Arthurian legends and one of his most popular poems, drawing from the mythology of the Romancers, in which the San Greal, or Holy Grail, was the cup out of which Jesus partook of the last supper with his disciples. It was supposedly brought into England by Joseph of Arimathea, and remained there, an object of pilgrimage and adoration, for many years in the keeping of his lineal descendants. It was incumbent upon those who had charge of it to be chaste in thought, word, and deed; but when one of the keepers broke this condition, the Holy Grail disappeared. From that time it was a favorite enterprise of the knights of Arthur’s court, such as, to go in search of it. In this parable-poem, Sir Launfal decides not to take a journey in search of the Holy Grail after he learns, during the course of a long dream, that the real meaning of the Grail is charity. In the legends, Sir Galahad was at last successful in finding it, as may be read in the seventeenth book of the Romance of King Arthur. Tennyson made Sir Galahad the subject of one of the most exquisite of his poems, and his writings strongly influenced Lowell.
When I was in seventh grade, we were required to memorize a couple of short sections from the poem, and they have always been a favorite of mine.
“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….
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?”
Lowell’s second series of Poems from 1848 also contains “Columbus,” “An Indian Summer Reverie,” “To the Dandelion,” and “The Changeling.” Among his other works are Fireside Travels (1864), The Cathedral (1869), Among My Books (1870) and Letters (1894).