The First Lowell Poet: Percival Lowell

by Jonathan Hobratsch

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

  1. Alfred Corn says:

    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.


    1. historymonocle says:

      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.


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