James Russell Lowell’s (in)famous Morphy Banquet Poem

Let’s start with this (not so) innocent inquiry:

Feb-16-16
Premium Chessgames Member
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:

Fiske dedication James R Lowell nameplate

(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.

https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Book_of_the_First_American_Chess_Con.html?id=U9oWAAAAYAAJ

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.

From:

“James Russell Lowell’s Poem at the Monthly Banquet, Boston, May 31, 1859.”
New York Saturday Press. 14 Jun. 1859: p3.

https://pfaffs.web.lehigh.edu/node/58922

http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/cdm4/nysp_viewer2.php?ptr=206&CISOPTR=165&x=40&y=580&search=&DMTHUMB=1&s=25&col=spress

Let’s copy the original scan, if only to demonstrate that editorial embellishment was neither done, nor needed:

1059-06-05 -- NY Saturday Press p3 -- James Russell Lowell's Poem at Morphy Banquet - 11059-06-05 -- NY Saturday Press p3 -- James Russell Lowell's Poem at Morphy Banquet - 21059-06-05 -- NY Saturday Press p3 -- James Russell Lowell's Poem at Morphy Banquet - 31059-06-05 -- NY Saturday Press p3 -- James Russell Lowell's Poem at Morphy Banquet - 4

Here are a couple of photographs of our poet and benefactor, James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell (1860) James Russell Lowell (1868)

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:

1859.06.06-02_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle (1)

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:

1859.05.31-02_New_York_Times

NY Times 1859-05-31

1859-06-11 - NY Clipper (clip)

NY Clipper 1859-06-11

1859-06-11 - Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (clip)

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 1859-06-11

z

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6 thoughts on “James Russell Lowell’s (in)famous Morphy Banquet Poem

  1. 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 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 churis,

    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.

    <Schoenberg used only a small quote which I think made the poem seem worse than it was. If there had been quite a lot drunk that night then the poem might have gone down really well.

    Definitely better than its rep. Probably incomprehensible to people who have never heard of eg Oliver Wendell Holmes, RW Emerson; I had never heard of Agassiz. I knew about the Battle of Marengo, but I at first thought he was referring to the famous horse, Napoleon's horse, and that the reference was to knights.
    There is some good rhyming here. Laurel leaves are indeed poisonous, so this couplet,

    That a poison of jealousy, meanness, or quarrel,
    Is not always distilled from the leaves of the laurel,

    Is pretty good! Possibly not an original rhyme.

      • What is the situation with the update? I have a previous comment with the entire poem. Is that the set of corrects? Do you want me to use that?

        Sorry for neglecting to reply for so long here… it need be I’ll contact you on .

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