"It is difficult to characterize this poet, or to do justice to his work in its various departments. His prose lacks the charm of Hawthorne and the neatness of Holmes; in poetry he is not a Druid like Bryant, nor a preacher like Whittier. The apparent ease of his verse has not made him profuse.
Nevertheless, any accusation of indolence or lack of moral purpose seems unjust, when we remember that Mr. Lowell [was], for forty years, critic, poet, teacher, editor, and man of affairs. It has been said that he might have achieved greatness in any one of these lines if he had shut himself up and given his mind to it; but such criticism is offset by the fact that these partial successes have enriched the mass of people, while consummate skill in one line would have satisfied only the critics. In short, where other men of letters have represented this or that theory or sentiment or 'section,' Mr. Lowell has been broadly American, and as long as we are interesting to ourselves or to other nations his works will have readers.
The pathos, the fun, the mimicry, the sensitiveness, the boastfulness, the stern justice, the many-sided facility of our national character, find alternate sympathy or criticism, but always a mirror, in Mr. Lowell's pages. To our shame be it said that foreigners have sometimes understood and appreciated him better than his own countrymen.
It has been urged that Mr. Lowell was born too late; that Boston, in the year 1819, was already too far advanced to give the bracing atmosphere necessary for his development. He had the misfortune, too, of being some years younger than Tennyson, and of reading his English contemporary instead of forming himself on classic models. Mr. Lowell has judged himself as severely as his critics have done, has winnowed his early poems, and written but sparingly in later years. The work of the law office opened by him in 1840, and very soon closed, was succeeded by labors equally exhausting though more congenial. In 1843, with Neal, Hawthorne, Poe, and Parsons for helpers, he began the task of editing The Pioneer; but his literary standard was high, and only three numbers were published. His first collection of poems, A Year's Life (1841), was followed in 1844 by The Legend of Brittany, Miscellaneous Poems and Sonnets. Already Mr. Lowell had announced his anti-slavery views, and had allied himself with Wendell Phillips and other agitators. A series of Conversations on the Old Poets was the result of an attempt to interest the public in English literature, but the criticism was very much hampered by the dialogue, and the work was never popular.
The Present Crisis, whose verses throb with patriotism and with hatred of oppression, was printed in a volume of poems in 1848. The Vision of Sir Launfal, A Fable for Critics, and The Biglow Papers, appeared in the same year. The first of these is the most sustained of the author's works, and contains exquisite descriptions and poetical fancies; Fable for Critics comments shrewdly on the literary characters of the day; the Biglow Papers is a dramatic reproduction of thought and dialect in New England. The Mexican War and the extension of slavery are the principal themes touched by its keen satire.
In 1855, Mr. Lowell was appointed to succeed Mr. Longfellow in the professorship of Polite Letters at Harvard. He accepted the position, and at once went abroad for special study. After his return he seems to have devoted himself very persistently to the duties of his chair. In 1867, the second series of the Biglow Papers appeared, followed, in 1869, by a collection of poems entitled Under the Willows. The Commemoration Ode, recited in Cambridge, in 1865, in honor of the Harvard alumni who fell during the Civil War, is full of elevated feeling, and contains a noble tribute to the memory of President Lincoln. Mr. Lowell was editor of The Atlantic Monthly from its foundation in 1857 [until] 1862; his editorial connection with the North American Review extended from 1863 to 1872. In these magazines were printed many of the articles that make up the volumes entitled Among my Books (in two series) and My Study Windows."
— English & American Literature, Shaw & Backus, p.440