Elmwood, Cambridge, Massachusetts


When Thomas Oliver, Lieutenant Governor and president of George III’s provincial council, built his house in Cambridge about 1767, he did not dream that within nine years he would have to abandon it because of his allegiance to the same George III. But so it proved. He was a Tory, and his neighbors would not suffer him to remain among them. On September 2, 1774, he wrote his resignation of the offices he held, adding the statement, ” My house at Cambridge being surrounded by five thousand people, in compliance with their command, I sign my name.” At his request, made to General Gage and the admiral of the English fleet, troops were not sent to Cambridge, according to plan. ” But for Thomas Oliver’s intercession,” Edward Everett Hale says, ” Elmwood would have been the battle-ground of the First Encounters.”

After his summary departure the house was used as a hospital by the Continental Army. When the government sold it at auction it became the property first of Arthur Cabot, then of Elbridge Gerry, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Massachusetts from 1810 to 1812, and Vice-President under Madison.

The next occupant was Rev. Charles Lowell, pastor of the West Church of Boston. He bought the property just in time to make it ready for his son, James Russell Lowell, who was born February 22, 1819.

As a boy James never wearied of rambling over the old house and the ten acres of ground, all that was left of the original ninety-five acres. Many of his poems contain references to the memories of these early years. “The First Snowfall,” ” Music,” and ” A Year’s Life ” are, in part, autobiographical. Lines on ” The Power of Music ” told of the days when he was his father’s companion in the chaise, on the way to make a Sunday exchange of pulpits with a neighboring minister:

” When, with feuds like Ghibelline and Guelf, Each parish did its music for itself,

A parson’s son, through tree-arched country ways, I rode exchange oft in dear old days, Ere yet the boys forgot, with reverent eye, To doff their hats as the black coat went by, Ere skirts expanding in their apogee Turned girls to bells without the second e; Still in my teens, I felt the varied woes Of volunteers, each singing as he chose, Till much experience left me no desire To learn new species of the village choir.”

Life at Elmwood was interrupted by college days, but he returned to the Cambridge house with his wife, Maria Lowell. The oldest children were born here. Here, too, came the first great sorrow of the parents, the death of their first born. At that time Mrs. Lowell found comfort in writing ” The Alpine Sheep,” a poem that has helped many parents in a like time of bereavement.

The next great sorrow came during the Civil War, when the death from wounds was announced first of General Charles Russell Lowell, then of James Jackson Lowell, and finally of William Lowell Putnam, all be-loved nephews. In the Biglow Papers, Second Series, the poet referred to these three soldiers. Leslie Stephen called the lines ” the most pathetic that he ever wrote ” in which he spoke of the three likely lads,

“whose comin’ step they’ ‘s ears thet won’t, No, not lifelong, leave off awaitin’.”

During the closing year of the war, one of the students who attended his lectures on Dante at Harvard College wrote of a visit to his preceptor :

” I found the serene possessor of Elmwood in good spirits, ate a Graham biscuit and drank some delicious milk with him and his wife, then enjoyed a very pleas-ant conversation. He read some of Shakspeare’s sonnets, to make me think better of them, and succeeded. . . . He gave me a very welcome copy of Macaulay’s essays and poems, and the little visit was another oasis in school life’s dearth of home sociability. Mabel, his only child, was not there at supper, but came home some time after : ‘ salute your progenitor!’ and the answer was a daughter’s kiss.”

After spending years abroad, part of the time as Minister to Spain, then as Minister to England, Lowell returned to Elmwood. To a friend who congratulated him on being at home again, he said, ” Yes, it is very nice here; but the old house is full of ghosts.” His cousin, as quoted by Dr. Hale, says of these closing six years of the poet’s life :

” The house was haunted by sad memories, but at least he was once more among his books. The library, which filled the two rooms on the ground floor to the left of the front door, had been constantly growing, and during his stay in Europe he had bought rare works with the intention of leaving them to Harvard College. Here he would sit when sad or unwell and read Calderon, the Nightingale in the Study,’ whom he always found a solace. Except for occasional attacks of the gout, his life had been singularly free from sickness, but he had been at home only a few months when he was taken ill, and, after the struggle of a strong man to keep up as long as possible, he was forced to go to bed. In a few days his condition became so serious that the physician feared he would not live; but he rallied, and, although too weak to go to England, as he had planned, he appeared to be comparatively well. When taken sick, he had been preparing a new edition of his works, the only full collection that had ever been made, and he had the satisfaction of publishing it soon after his recovery. This was the last literary work he was destined to do, and it rounded off fittingly his career as a man of letters.”

He died in August, 1891, when he was seventy-two years old.

Elmwood remains in the possession of the Lowell heirs. The ten acres of the poet’s boyhood days have been reduced to two or three, but the house is much the same as when the poet lived in it.