Let’s start with this (not so) innocent inquiry:
||offramp: I want to see the entirety of that poem about Paul Morphy that the book
<Grandmasters of Chess> derides.
Doing a google search quickly reveals that the author of said poem was the then well-known poet hailing from parts of the country quite familiar to me… James Russell Lowell, a professor at Harvard, in attendance that Tuesday night, May 31, 1859.
Now, I had encountered that name before, in a nameplate of a book donated to Harvard library. One which was otherwise difficult to find on the web, and yet invaluably useful to me. But which book? I couldn’t remember immediately, but a small bit of researching yielded this:
(Click on either image to enlarge)
Please notice the date the library received the donation of this invaluable, and historic, volume – Nov. 11, 1859. Our good professor made this handsome volume, chockfull of Morphy’s triumphal games, as well as Paulsen’s blindfold feats, available to all the students at Harvard as soon as the book was published. Very, very generous.
So, if this kind and generous man were to write a sour verse or two about Morphy, likely due to the general euphoria all chess -lovers had (especially American ones), then we should be equally kind in our assessment.
Now, I will come back, hopefully, and provide a little more content to this article, but here is the answer to <offramp>’s original request – the poem, in unedited and unabridged, unadulterated form:
James Russell Lowell's Poem at the Morphy Banquet. Boston, May 31, 1859. [Dr. O. W. Holmes in the Chair.] As I rise, Mr. Autocrat, grim with despair, And bow to you smiling complacently there, May I ask, while I cant my drained mind for its dregs, What's the good of a chair that tilts folks on their legs, When they feet, from the top of their skulls to the floor, As sure as a gimlet to turn out a bore? Can I hope, fishing out my dried jokes from my pocket, Cause I rise like a stick, I may come down a rocket? Has a man any right, who comes after some folks, To dream of succeess with his verses or jokes? Will Fancy's aid him, or Thought's mining gnomes, Who speaks after Emerson, rhymes after Holmes, Two wizards from whom, if it had any nous, An earthquake might learn how to bring down a house? When Harvard has men here, savans of such fame, They'd give Nature a bishop and then win the game, What can I hope to say, seeing those all around On whose speech wisdom waits as the echo on mound, Whose silence is not the dull thought-sleep of churls, But the shell of the secret that's mother of pearl? Is not Agassix here, with his great dome of thought, The State house where Nature's own statutes seen wrought. Who, give but a scale, can construct you the shark, That turned up his sidelong pig-eye at the Ark, With a hope that his jaws, as they shut with a slam, Might sandwich a leg or a shoulder of Ham, And who'd make a green turtle (he talks so persua- sively) rush off to pot for the good of his race? Is not Pierce there beside him, whose soul all ears, For the rhythmical cadence of balancing spheres, Who traces God's footprints on star-sands that beach Lone gulfs of the Infinite baffling thought's reach. Who on night's golden rosary, planet impearied, Tells his aves and credos each least bead a world. And who, the first term of the problem but given, Could predict every move on the chesboard of Heaven? I confess since you said to me "James, you'll be there, And be really to answer a call from the chair?" I have tried my poor skull with perpetual scratch, To as little avail as an old sulphur match, The ingredient was wanting, whatever it is (You know, Mr. Chairman) that goes with a fizz. One should have a percussion-cap over his hair, when come down on like this by old cocks in the chair, To go on with a pop at the very first hint, Nor wait to shake priming nor pick at the flint; Whereas my brain's planned like an ancient queen's-arm That thinks before starting and then does no harm, Except to the lad who contrives to unhitch the rusty old trigger and stands at the breach; As we bards on compulsion are floored oftentimes By the heavy recoil of our lead-laden rhymes- Once I thought, "for a change in the programme, suppose, You give give them a bit of palaver in prose? For, though morphine should chance to surcharge the oration, 'Twould be all the better and suit the occasion,' But the muse jogged my elbow with counsel averse, And Weller-like, whispered me, "You can do worse." So verse I've begun with, though where I bring up Is a matter, at present, betwixt lip and cup; I am more in dark as to where I am bound Than the good prophet, Jonah of old, when he found He was being dead-headed (some comfort, at least) By the whale's alimentary canal, for the East-- First instance on record, and last, too, I guess, of the Belly Transit performed with success. Then what am I here for? I came with the rest, To take a good stare at our eminent guest, For we've an owl's notion, what looks make us wise, As is wit, like potatoes, were bred by the eyes; Besides, I had also come right to expect Met-a-Morphy-sis here which I would not neglect; I might come as a bore, and believe me a scion Of the lion's own stock if I drink with the lion. A true dinner-speech, I conceive, is a way Of gracefully having your nothing to say, And when you have said it, or knowing 'tis said, And so without bother just shutting your head; I know I've said mine, and will give up the ghost After one little mouthful of rhyme-buttered toast. I give you the men, wheresoe'er born and bred, Who win in the tough race of life by a head, Who prove the time's coming, howe'er far away, When the forehead that's broadest will carry the day, And chiefly our guest, who has shown that the wreath Need not turn us so often, the head underneath, That a poison of jealousy, meanness, or quarrel, Is not always distilled from the leaves of the laurel, I give you the man who can think out and dare His bloodless Marengos on twelve inches square, Yet so modest, the conquered all feel that they meet With a Morphy -- and not mortifying defeat.
“James Russell Lowell’s Poem at the Monthly Banquet, Boston, May 31, 1859.”
New York Saturday Press. 14 Jun. 1859: p3.
Let’s copy the original scan, if only to demonstrate that editorial embellishment was neither done, nor needed:
Here are a couple of photographs of our poet and benefactor, James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell, Harvard Class of ’38, Smith Professor of French and Spanish. Best known today not for his chess prowess, but rather, for his poetry.
He did more than anyone before Mark Twain in elevating the vernacular to a medium of serious artistic expression, and The Biglow Papers (1848) ranks among the finest political satires in American literature.
More can be read here… http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/james-russell-lowell
Let’s extract a small snippet as a quote here of the Philadelphia Ledger article on the banquet:
One poet let fly a dozen stanzas, the most remarkable feature of which was how so many words could be strung on such a slender thread of idea.
Here is the entire Ledger article, as contained in the June 6th, 1859 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
To finish, here is a thumbnail sketch of the banquet,
June 2, 1859 pg 5: Morphy banquet Boston. 140 includes Chief Justice Shaw, ex-Judge Thomas, Pres Walker, ex-Pres Sparks, Profs Agassiz, Longfellow, Peirce, Lowell, Parker, Huntington of Harvard, Sen Wilson, Mayor Lincoln, Rev T Starr King, James T Fields, EP Whipple, Josiah Quincy Jr. Germaania Band. Dr OW Holmes chair, spoke. Morphy speech given. Praises intellectual aristocracy around him, chess should never be object of life but good relaxation which sharpens brain better than cards; toasts lit and sci men Boston. Edward Everett could not attend, sent ltr. Chief Justice Shaw speech given, chess uses many same skills as law. Harvard Pres Walker speech given. Prof Jared Sparks speaks, says knows nothing of chess, alludes to Franklin's morals. Prof Agassiz speech given. Prof Joel Parker speech welcomes Morphy to legal profession. Prof Benj Pierce speech, said to make math his occupation had to abandon chess as diversion but as developed by Morphy a trancendenta science. Poems read Rev T Starr King, Sen Wilson, Hon Josiah Quincy Jr, Prof Huntington, Mayor Lincoln, Charles Hale of Boston Advert. Dr JB Upham spoke, Prof Lowell and James T Fields read poems.
from the useful site of NY Tribune summaries: http://www.vuse.vanderbilt.edu/~spin/nytrib.html
Not all the reviews of the Boston banquet were quite so negative:
NY Times 1859-05-31
NY Clipper 1859-06-11
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 1859-06-11