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Lowell, James Russell

Lowell, James Russell

James Russell Lowell

1819 - 1891

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) is one of the group of authors sometimes called the Fireside Poets or the Schoolroom Poets, a group which also included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Because of their conservative approach to verse and the often blatant morality in their poetry, the very qualities that made them popular in their day, they have been out of favor throughout much of the twentieth century. Nevertheless members of the group like Lowell and Whittier, both ardent abolitionists, may not have seemed so conservative in the nineteenth century.

Lowell's contribution to Arthurian literature is his poem "The Vision of Sir Launfal." First published in 1848, "The Vision of Sir Launfal" tells the story of Launfal, who is initially a haughty nobleman. The night before he is to begin a quest for the Holy Grail he has a dream vision in which he sets out on the quest. His first act is to toss a gold piece scornfully to a beggar. When he returns in the winter he has been chastened by his own suffering on the quest and shares his crust of bread with the beggar in a true spirit of charity and brings him a drink from a stream in a wooden cup. The beggar is transformed into Christ and the bread and wine into his body and blood. The wooden cup is the Grail that Launfal has sought. Having learned his lesson, he opens his hall and shares his bounty with anyone who wishes it.

Lowell's poem is particularly interesting as a democratization of the Grail story. Important in this regard is the "Author's Note" prefatory to the poem. In this note, Lowell says that he opens the Grail quest to others besides Arthur's knights and places it in a time other


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