Our country has seen three major Lowell poets: Robert Lowell, Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. They were not the first.
Soon after colonial Massachusetts governor John Winthrop death in 1649, his friend, Percival Lowell, then in his 70s, composed an elegy. This was unlikely his first poem, but it is the only poem I’ve seen by this Lowell. I present the poem below, after the biographical data.
Who is Percival Lowell?
Percival Lowell is the immigrant ancestor of nearly every significant Lowell in US history, including the three poets mentioned earlier. He is also my direct ancestor, as he certainly is for hundreds of other people.
Lowell was born in 1571 in Somerset, England. He was a successful merchant in Bristol, England for his company, Percival Lowle & Co. (not the original spelling of his last name). In 1639, Lowell, his family, and some of his employees (including two of my other ancestors, William Gerrish and Robert Dole), migrated from England to Newbury, Massachusetts. Percival Lowell was about 68 years old when he entered the New World.
It’s uncertain why a leading citizen of Bristol would leave England at his age, but he may have done so to be with his family or for the sake of adventure. Lowell died in 1665, at about the age of 94.
In addition to the poets, he is also the ancestor of Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, industrial revolutionary Francis Cabot Lowell, federal judge and continental delegate John Lowell and astronomer Percival Lowell.
Percival Lowell’s Poem
Elegy for John Winthrop
*spelling and capitlization has been updated by me, whenever it doesn’t ruin the rhythm.
You English Mattachusians all
Forbear sometime for sleeping,
Let everyone both great and small
Prepare themselves for weeping.
For he is gone that was our friend,
This tyrant Death hath wrought his end
Who was the very chief among
The chiefest of our peers
Who hath in peace maintain’d us long
The space of nineteen years,
And now he’s breathless, lifeless, dead,
Cold earth is now become his bed.
The Jews did for their Moses weep
Who was their governor,
Let us for Winthrop do the like,
Who was our conservator
With lines of gold in marble stone
With pens of steel engrave his name
O let the muses every one
In prose and verse extoll his fame,
Exceeding far those ancient sages
That ruled Greeks in former ages
O fightfull death and also cruel
Thou hast quite slain New England’s jewel:
Show us vile tyrant if thou can
tell where to find out such a man?
Me thinks I hear a spirit breathe
Non est inventus here beneath.
He was (we surely may say this)
Rara avis in terris,
Therefore let us give him his due,
To him is due this style,
He was an Israelite full true
Without all fraud or guile.
Let Winthrop’s name still famous be,
With us and our posterity.
What goods he had he did not spare,
The Church and Commonwealth
Had of his goods the greatest share,
Kept nothing for himself.
My tongue, my pen, my rustic art
Cannot express his true desert.
The nature of the pelican
Read stories what they say,
To her I would compare this man
If lawfully I may.
To Moses meek, to Abraham,
To Joseph and to Jonathan.
He was New England’s pelican
New England’s governor
He was New England’s Solomon
New England’s conservator.
Time and experience the best trial,
These two admit of no denial:
Let nineteen years then witness be
Of Winthrop’s true sincerity.
Such gifts of grace from God had he,
That more than man he seem’d to be.
But now he’s gone and clad in clay,
Grim death hath taken him away.
Death like a murdering Jesuit
Hath robbed us of our heart’s delight.
Let’s show our love to him by weeping
That cared for us when we lay sleeping
O that our dry eyes fountains were,
Our heads a living spring,
O that our sighs the clouds could tear,
And make an echo ring:
Let us sit down in sorrow fell
And now with tears ring out his knell.
Bright shining Phoebus hide thy face
Let misty clouds make dark thy sky,
Fair Cynthia count it no disgrace
To aid us with thy weeping eye.
O weep with us for Joshua
The loadstone of America.
My senses they are all too weak
His praises due to write or speak
Now I must leave it to their skill
Who can indite and write at will.
New England thou hast cause to mourn,
For that thy special friend is gone,
Yet see you mourn with moderation,
No cause you have of desperation,
They yet survive who may renew
Decayed and dying hopes in you
With honor due let us respect them,
No cause we have for to reject them,
They are to us as true directors
And under God our chief protectors.
Here you have Lowell’s loyalty,
Penned with his slender skill
And with it no good poetry,
Yet certainly good will.
Read these few verses willingly
And view them not with Momus’ eye,
Friendly correct what is amiss,
Accept his love that did write this.
— Percival Lowell
2 Comments Add yours
Good that he kept his day job. Most poets in that day at least got the meter and rhyme right. These days people don’t regard any of the Lowells, including Robert, as topnotch poets. Was there a fatal gene? Maybe Robert isn’t as bad as is said.
Yeah, I’m wondering what the appeal to JR Lowell and Amy Lowell were. They have poems, which I consider nice, but not necessarily thought-provoking.