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The Mighty Oak Has Fallen: Lowell on Agassiz's Death

He had gone to Europe to write poetry, after years in the dusty classrooms of Harvard. Here he was, in Florence, reading the newspaper, fretting about the state of the world and America in particular, on a December day in 1873. Winter in Italy, it turned out, was still winter. James Russell Lowell, formerly the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard College, a distinguished editor and critic, had quit his job almost a year ago. He had leased his house to a friend and packed his bags to go abroad. France had been a pleasure, as always, but now he was in Florence, biding his time, waiting for inspiration to strike. His mood was down. He glanced casually at the paper before him, when suddenly it seemed that the earth around him was beginning to shake. Poetry was coming to him alright. But not because the muse had kissed him gently on his bearded lips:
Three tiny words grew lurid as I read,
And reeled commingling: Agassiz is dead.
As when, beneath the street’s familiar jar,
An earthquake’s alien omen rumbles far,
Men listen and forebode, I hung my head,
And strove the present to recall,
As if the blow that stunned were yet to fall.

Louis Agassiz was dead. Agassiz, who had brought to Lowell’s native country, to the cold, “parsimonious” New England air all that Lowell was now looking for in Europe: passion, culture, zest for knowledge, savoir vivre. His “large nature” had produced its own climate in America, transforming the damp landscape inhabited by the “gaunt sons of Calvin’s iron breed,” the shivering ghosts of an austere faith. Verse after verse, his pen dripping with grief, Lowell tried to come to terms with Agassiz’s incredible loss, a loss far greater than that of merely one person. Like Lincoln, Agassiz now belonged to the ages. But that was no consolation. Left behind was his friend Lowell, utterly bereft. “We count our rosary by the beads we miss.”

Lowell’s ode to the dead Agassiz was the only substantial work he produced during the two years he was away from home—a measure of how important Agassiz was to him. And his poem, which would later touch Agassiz’s widow Lizzie so deeply that she could hardly “speak of it,” was all about how important Agassiz had been to the nation. For Lowell and his contemporaries, Agassiz had been the world’s greatest scientist. Inventor of the Ice Age, climber of mountain peaks, dredger of the deep seas, describer of jellyfish, taxonomist of turtles—Agassiz had done it all. He had given America its greatest science museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology. At Harvard, he had assembled around him the best and brightest young men of his time, thus creating what became, arguably, the first America graduate school.

As Lowell remembered a last evening walk he took with Agassiz, his friend’s kind features bathed in the “Rembrandt light” of the declining day, the details of Agassiz’s incredible life came flooding back to him: vistas of the stately mountains of Switzerland, where Agassiz was born, sixty-six years ago; the shades of the great naturalists Oken, Cuvier, and Humboldt, who had mentored and befriended the young Agassiz; the pastures of “viny Neuchâtel,” where Agassiz first taught science to young Swiss boys; his arrival in the New World, where he decided to stay and where his children Alexander, Pauline, and Ida had soon joined him. Old World to the core, trained at the best universities of Europe, Agassiz seemed made for America. His God, Lowell insisted, was “very God.” Passionately devoted to the acquisition of knowledge, Agassiz was a Puritan without the Puritanism. His science was infused with the presence of the Divine, whose presence he had found in Swiss glaciers, American lakes, and the Amazonian rainforest.

At heart, Agassiz was a poet, of the unfettered, liberated, uncompromising kind Lowell had always wanted to be, too.

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