The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XII

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The Cambridge History of American Literature by William Peterfield Trent
Book II, Chapter XII: Longfellow

§ 1. Youthful Environment; Education.[edit]

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW was born in Portland, Maine, 27 February, 1807. In view of what America as a whole then was and of what he was destined to accomplish for the literature of the country, it is difficult to see how he could have been more fortunately circumstanced with respect to stock and environment. Both the Longfellows and his mother’s people, the Wadsworths, were well-to-do, and they represented the best New England, particularly Massachusetts, traditions, which, with the spread of Unitarianism, were losing some of their rigidity. Thus the child experienced little that was specially straitening, and he received a training well adapted to bring out the talents that soon manifested themselves. His native town furnished the influence of the sea and sea-faring men; the virgin District soon to be the State of Maine, afforded other impressive features of nature; and the frontier situation, even if it could not make strenuous a constitutionally gentle and refined disposition, at least inculcated feelings of sympathy with a pioneer, rugged, prevailingly practical population, which were to be of great use to a poet who in after years could point to his successful fulfilment of the threefold function of transmitter of Old World culture to the New, shaper into verse of aboriginal, colonial, and Revolutionary material, both legendary and historical, and lyric interpreter of the simple thoughts and feelings of an unsophisticated people. His career was well foreshadowed when he published anonymously at the age of thirteen, in a local newspaper, a Revolutionary battle-lyric.

§ 2. Bowdoin.[edit]

After a good schooling and an introduction to the best reading old and new, including Irving's Sketch Book, Longfellow, in the autumn of 1822, entered Bowdoin College as a sophomore, having Nathaniel Hawthorne as a classmate. Here, as at home, he continued to come under unpretentious, wholesome influences, to which were added those of rural seclusion. Before he graduated in 1825, he was writing verse rather copiously, and some of it was published in a literary journal just founded in Boston. As is not surprising, it was overpraised by a provincial public, but for a wonder, in view of the vogue of Byron, it was not stormily romantic. His success gave point to his plans for leading a literary life, but his more experienced father held out for the law, although he was willing to give his son a year of grace to be spent in less uncongenial studies at Harvard. This plan was abandoned because it was found feasible for Longfellow to fit himself to become the first incumbent of a chair of modern languages to be established at Bowdoin.

Travel and study in Europe were essential to such a design, and the middle of June, 1826, saw the youth of nineteen beginning at Havre a European sojourn of a little more than three years. Temperament and immaturity, combined doubtless with a shrewd perception of the fact that great erudition was not a prerequisite to successful language-teaching in Maine, made it natural that Longfellow should become rather a sentimental pilgrim than a delving student or a philosophical observer, and that he should make but slight use of Ticknor’s recommendation of Göttingen as a centre and source of the exact scholarship so much needed in America. German sentiment and romance were later to mean much to the poet; but Latin colour and picturesqueness meant more to the young traveller. France, Spain, where he met Irving, and Italy, from whose greatest writer his mature and declining years derived their chief solace, were in turn visited, their manners noted, their literatures studied, their languages in more than polite measure mastered. Then several months were given to Germany, including a little studying at Göttingen, and in August, 1829, the neophyte professor was back in America ready to take up the duties of his chair.

Those duties occupied him until his second visit to Europe, which took place nearly six years later. He was a conscientious and successful teacher and compiler of text-books, he lectured on literary history, he wrote for The North American Review essays flavoured with scholarship, he gave a pledge to society by taking to himself, in 1831, a wife, Mary Storer Potter, of Portland. Except for some verse translations from the Spanish and certain traces of the poet to be discovered in a series of travel-sketches, which appeared in a volume entitled Outre-Mer: a Pilgrimage beyond the Sea (1835), one might have been justified in supposing that without doubt the undergraduate whose heart was set on “future eminence in literature” would end his life as a distinguished academic personage, not as the most popular poet of his generation. His fate seemed sealed with his acceptance of the Smith Chair of Modern Languages at Harvard, in succession to Ticknor, and with his departure for Europe in April, 1835, in order that by study of the northern literatures he might the better qualify himself for his important post.

§ 3. Hyperion; Early Poems.[edit]

His second period of training in Europe, although shorter, rendered Longfellow a greater service than his first. As he was more mature, his genius was better prepared to receive a definitive bent, and his experiences determined that that bent should take an emotional rather than an emphatically intellectual direction. After a short visit to England he spent some months in Sweden and Denmark studying their literatures with results obvious to the reader of his later poetry. Then he went to Holland, where his wife fell ill and died in the autumn. This meant that the ensuing winter at Heidelberg saw no notable progress made by the young professor in his German studies, but did see a deep absorption of the spirit of German romanticism by the young widower and the future poet. The sentimental prose romance Hyperion and the collection of poems entitled Voices of the Night, both published in 1839, show what bereavement and the new environment, physical as well as mental and spiritual, had brought to the man entering his fourth decade. We track the footsteps of the naïve hero of Hyperion with less confiding delight than our grandfathers and grandmothers probably experienced, but then we are less sentimental and more widely travelled than they were, facts which of course do not warrant us in arrogating to ourselves a taste necessarily superior to theirs. Hyperion doubtless meant more to the author and his countrymen than a scholarly monograph would have meant, for what America needed just then, apparently, was some one who, like Longfellow, could carry on the work begun by Irving of interpreting the Old World to the New. The younger man was not only better endowed with the faculty of specific poetic utterance, but he was naturally more fully qualified than his predecessor to gratify the taste of a generation that was beginning to be affected by the work of the newer English romantic poets. Thus we are not surprised to find the Smith Professor writing poems on European subjects instead of grammars and histories of literature, and editing in place of textbooks a small collection of poems entitled The Waif (1843), a similar volume, The Estray (1847), and the comprehensive and useful Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845). Even the thirty-one volumes of the much later Poems of Places (1876–1879) with which Longfellow’s name is more or less associated, bear witness to the influence of the teacher-poet’s second sojourn in Europe both upon him and upon American culture.

§ 4. Harvard.[edit]

But the greatest influence of that sojourn, exhibited after he took up his duties at Harvard in December, 1836, is to be seen in the simple, wholesomely emotional, and unblushingly didactic poems with which Longfellow now began to win the hearts of his provincial readers. The Psalm of Life is perhaps the best known and the best chosen example of these “household poems,” shall we call them? With its companion pieces The Reaper and the Flowers, The Light of Stars, and Footsteps of Angels, it is undoubtedly amenable to some of the harsh criticism it has received from those persons who seem to imagine that taste thrives only on its own exigency. But it is hard to see how verses of subtler quality would have so sung themselves through the length and breadth of young America, or could have laid so broad and deep a foundation for the fame of the most heartily loved poet of his generation.

Long before that poet had reached the zenith of his reputation the professor had grown weary of his chair. At first he worked hard enough to justify weariness, particularly at the uncongenial task of supervising the instruction in the elementary language courses given by his assistants; but gradually, whatever enthusiasm he may have had for a scholarly, academic career wore itself out, and toward the end of his eighteen years of service—he resigned in 1854—he was almost querulous in his attitude toward a calling without the aid of which he would probably have remained a somewhat local and minor writer, his disposition scarcely prompting him to draw inspiration from Transcendentalism or the anti-slavery movement, and his genius not qualifying him to probe the heart or to wander in shadowland.

Whatever its irksomeness, however, his position at Harvard brought with it compensations. He soon secured a congenial habitat—the now famous Craigie House—he gathered about him a group of sympathetic friends, he became a distinguished figure in the most cultured community in America, the Cambridge of Lowell’s essay and of Colonel Higginson’s books, he added to his happiness and his income by a second marriage—to Miss Frances Elizabeth Appleton in 1843—and he found time and incentive to write whatever he had in his mind and heart to say. Reading his letters and his diaries, putting together the biographical details furnished by others, and constructing as best one can the man’s life and spirit from his writings, one is forced to the conclusion that except for a single great tragedy—the accidental burning to death of his wife in 1861—Longfellow’s is one of the most serenely fortunate careers ever led by a man of letters. Some of his critics have wished that it might have been otherwise, apparently supposing that, if he had been more unfortunate, his poetry would have been more to their liking. It is not, however, on record that any critic had deliberately wooed infelicity in order to qualify himself for a fuller enjoyment of Longfellow’s placid verses.

§ 5. Ballads.[edit]

In 1842 a third visit was made to Europe, this time a short one for the sake of health. It was preceded by the Ballads and Other Poems (1841), and followed by the Poems on Slavery (1842). These justly enhanced his reputation, but the meritorious anti-slavery verses proved no prelude to active participation in the great conflict that was leading up to the Civil War. The prior volume with such pieces as The Village Blacksmith, God's Acre, Maidenhood, and the egregiously anabatic Excelsior, strengthened his hold upon the popular heart, and in the successful ballads proper, such as The Wreck of the Hesperus and The Skeleton in Armor, it gave him, in addition, some incentive to address his readers in narrative verse, the form of poetry in which, during his middle period, he made himself easily the chief American master. Neither in these earlier volumes, to which may be added The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1846), nor in Evangeline (1847) and succeeding tales in verse, did Longfellow show himself to be a consummate metrical and verbal artist of the highest order or a poet of sustained imaginative flight; nor was he, in compensation, one of those writers who produce a strong effect through their subtle knowledge of human character or their exceptional ability to describe and interpret nature or their profound understanding of a country or a period. Yet even in these particulars he was capable of exhibiting distinguished merit—witness his command of the simpler rhythms, his wide-reaching metrical experimentation, his feeling for the sea, his sympathetic attitude toward the Middle Ages displayed in The Golden Legend (1851), his presentation of the larger natural features of America in Evangeline—and in his lyrical appeal, especially through his semi-didactic poems of reflection and sentiment, as well as in his general narrative power, he was during his life, and he still remains, unapproached by any other American poet.

§ 6. Dramatic Writings.[edit]

The years immediately preceding his second marriage in 1843 were partly devoted to the composition of a poetical drama in three acts, The Spanish Student, which was published serially in 1842, and the next year was issued in book form. It is generally and justly regarded as a failure, since Longfellow exhibited neither in it nor in later poems cast in similar form—The New England Tragedies (1868), Judas Maccabaeus (1872), and Michael Angelo (1883),—the slightest trace of dramatic genius. A poet of literary derivation, so to phrase it, inspired by his own wide reading, and a useful transmitter of culture he could not help being from first to last, and his growing reputation naturally prompted him to undertake elaborate works in a form of art practised by preceding poets in every age. His countrymen were not exigent critics, and were inclined to resent it when he was accused, as by Poe and by Margaret Fuller, of unoriginality; latter-day readers are likely to skim, or else altogether to neglect the dramas that are protected from complete oblivion by the venerated and still venerable name. If they desire any justification for their conduct, such prudent readers may ejaculate “habent sua fata libelli,” or may recall the facts that Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote Irene and William Wordsworth, The Borderers.

§ 7. Evangeline.[edit]

In all probability, neither of these ominous dramatic productions was in Longfellow’s mind when he was writing The Spanish Student, or planning his presumptive masterpiece, Christus: A Mystery, which finally saw the light in 1872, more than twenty years after the first appearance of its second part, The Golden Legend, one of the most attractive and yet one of the least widely read of its author’s books. Poems Swedish and German, ominous in no bad sense, were in his mind when he wrote his sentimental idyllic narrative in hexameters, Evangeline, not perhaps the best of his longer poems, but certainly the most popular both at home and abroad. Hawthorne, from whom Longfellow secured the theme of the Acadian maiden’s vain search for her lover, might have made more of the pathetic story, but he would have done it for fewer readers. Other writers might have improved the local colour of the poem, still others might have laboured more heroically to keep the hexameters from making forays across the borders of prose, but it may be doubted whether any contemporary could have written, on the whole, a better Evangeline, at least one more suited to the taste of the period. Few of his contemporaries, however, have left behind a more negligible prose romance than the story of an impossible New England village which Longfellow published in 1849 under the title Kavanagh; A Tale.

§ 8. Miles Standish.[edit]

The end of the fifties saw the culmination of his genius in the appearance of The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems (1858). This narrative poem, another experiment in hexameters, seems to surpass Longfellow’s other successful achievements in the same category because it is more racy of New England, fuller of humour, superior in movement and in characterization. It is less popular than Evangeline, partly no doubt because it is less sweet, and it seems to have made less impression than its predecessor the Indian epic Hiawatha (1855)—another metrical experiment, this time in rhymeless trochaic tetrameters—partly because it is less ambitious and exotic. The popularity of Hiawatha is not undeserved, however, since novelty and quaintness may well be set over against facility and factitiousness, and since, being in a certain sense American, the poem may justly make more of a local appeal than such a work as The Golden Legend based on Der Arme Heinrich. Yet it may be doubted whether either Hiawatha or Miles Standish did as much to establish Longfellow as the most admired poet of his time as some of the unpretentious poems contained in the collection entitled The Seaside and the Fireside (1850), such poems, for example, as the tender Resignation, to say nothing of the patriotic close of The Building of the Ship.

§ 9. Hiawatha.[edit]

From the date of the tragic accident to his wife—July, 1861—to his death 24 March, 1882, at his home in Cambridge, Longfellow’s life takes on dignity without losing its quiet charm, and his genius—shall we say, mellows, or slowly abates in energy? There was no marked falling off in the number of published volumes, in the range of his interests, in his hold upon his intimate friends, such as Charles Eliot Norton and James Russell Lowell, in his endeavours, conscious and unconscious, to deserve the affectionate gratitude of his countrymen. Even in the South, for a time rent away from the rest of the country politically, and for a longer period estranged in sentiment, his was a Northern name not anathema to the rising generation, and in Great Britain he rivalled in popularity Tennyson himself. But, as might have been expected, these years saw the production of little, except for some excellent sonnets, that adds permanently to his fame as a poet.

§ 10. Tales of a Wayside Inn.[edit]

True, he added considerably to the mass of his narrative poetry by the three series of Tales of a Wayside Inn, the first of which appeared under its own name in 1863, the second and third of which were included respectively in Three Books of Song (1872—along with Judas Maccabaeus), and in Aftermath (1874), but save for the spirited Paul Revere's Ride and the Saga of King Olaf, of the first series, these tales in verse have made only a mild impression. This is about all that may justly be said with regard to the twelve poems collected in Flower-de-luce (1867); it is more than should be said of The New England Tragedies, the third part of Christus, consisting of John Endicott and Giles Cory of the Salem Farms. These, with the first part of the ambitious trilogy, The Divine Tragedy (1871), constitute what may best be ambiguously denominated “efforts.”

§ 11. Translations.[edit]

Longfellow was more fortunately employed when he put himself in the company of Cowper and Bryant, and sought solace for his private woes in an extensive piece of poetical translation. Perhaps his true genius as a translator, seen early in the Coplas de Manrique (1833), is better exemplified in his numerous renderings of lyrics, particularly, as in Uhland’s The Castle by the Sea, from the German, than in the faithful, meritorious version of The Divine Comedy, which appeared in three volumes between 1867 and 1870; but, despite a certain lack of metrical charm resulting from the facile character of the rhymeless lines printed in threes, the version of the masterpiece to which Longfellow gave so many years of love and study seems worthy of his pains and of the praise it has received from other admirers of Dante.

§ 12. Sonnets.[edit]

After the appearance of the translation of Dante and of the Christus, two works de longue haleine which show that the retired professor of nearly twenty years’ standing was not open to the charge of idleness, Longfellow had still about a decade to live and to continue his writing. Some of the titles of his collections of verse have been already given; others are The Masque of Pandora, and Other Poems (1875), Kéramos; and Other Poems (1878), Ultima Thule (1880), and In the Harbour (1882—posthumously). The first of these volumes contained one of the most dignified and impressive of all his poems, one of the best occasional poems in American literature, the Morituri Salutamus, written for the semi-centennial of the poet’s class at Bowdoin. It also contained A Book of Sonnets, fourteen in all, considerably extended in number in later editions of the poetical works. Some notable sonnets had been published with the translation of Dante, and to these Longfellow’s later achievements in the same form are worthy pendants. High praise has been given to them by many critically minded readers of a later generation, who have wished, in default of admiration for Longfellow’s earlier work, to combine patriotism with acumen in their praise of a poet whose reputation seemed to require rather delicate handling. Both the sonnets and their American encomiasts are fortunately unamenable to comments lacking in amiability, although it is open to doubt whether even such a pathetic sonnet as The Cross of Snow, written at the close of the poet’s life in memory of his unfortunate second wife, will ever mean to the great public what The Bridge and The Day is Done have meant. It is perhaps more to the purpose to express satisfaction that the poet was capable of making the double appeal—to the reader who thinks he knows what to think and to the reader who knows he knows how to feel.

§ 13. Rank and Place.[edit]

It may be gathered from this brief survey of a long life and a productive career that Longfellow’s reputation, in the opinion of the present writer, was amply deserved in the poet’s day, and rested in the main on his gifts as a story-teller in verse, on his power to transplant to American literature some of the colour and melody and romantic charm of the complex European literatures he had studied, and, more especially, on his skill in expressing in comparatively artless lyrics of sentiment and reflection homely and wholesome thoughts and feelings which he shared with his countrymen of all classes throughout a broad land the occupation of which proceeded apace during his own span of years. Whatever he accomplished beyond this as teacher and editor and writer of prose, and as self-conscious poet seeking success in the more elaborate traditional forms of his art, is worthy, to say the least, of as much praise as the similar work of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors among American poets, and is not clearly doomed to a speedier death than the elaborate productions of his contemporaries and successors among the British poets. His place is not with the few eminent poets of the world, or even of his century, as the admiration of the mass of his countrymen and the critical lucubrations of some of them might be held to imply; but it is, legitimately and permanently, in the forefront of the small band of important writers in verse and in prose who during the first century of the republic’s existence laid firmly and upon more or less democratic lines the foundations of a native literature.