Littell's Living Age/Volume 1/Issue 1/H. W. Longfellow

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Littell's Living Age
Volume 1, Issue 1 : H. W. Longfellow

Only one name now remains, that of the most accomplished of the brotherhood, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But we have some doubts whether he can be fairly considered an indigenous specimen. His mind was educated in Europe. At eighteen years of age he left America, and spent four years in travelling through Europe, lingering to study for a part of the time at Gottingen. On his return he was appointed professor of modern languages in Bowdoin College; but at the end of a few years he went into Sweden and Denmark, to acquire a knowledge of the literature and languages of the Northern nations. When he again returned, he accepted the professorship of the French and Spanish languages in Harvard College, Cambridge, which he now holds. We must not be surprised to find his poetry deeply colored by these experiences, and cultivated by a height of refinement far above the taste of his countrymen. But America claims him, and is entitled to him; and has much reason to be proud of this ripe and elegant scholar. He is unquestionably the first of her poets, the most thoughtful and chaste; the most elaborate and finished. Taking leave of the others, with a just appreciation of the last mentioned two or three, and coming suddenly upon Longfellow’s lyrics, is like passing out of a ragged country into a rich Eastern garden, with the music of birds and falling waters singing in our ears at every step. His poems are distinguished by severe intellectual beauty, by dulcet sweetness of expression, a wise and hopeful spirit, and complete command over every variety of rhythm. They are neither numerous nor long; but of that compact texture which will last for posterity. His translations from the continental languages are admirable; and in one of them, from the Swedish of Bishop Tegner, he has successfully rendered into English, the “inexorable hexameters” of the original.

We believe nearly all Mr. Longfellow’s poems have been reprinted in England; and we hope they may be extensively diffused, and received with the honorable welcome they deserve From the “Prelude to the Voices of the Night,” we take a few stanzas of exquisite grace and tenderness.

Beneath some patriarchal tree
   I lay upon the ground;
His hoary arms uplifted he,
And all the broad leaves over me
Clapped their little hands in glee,
   With one continuous sound:

A slumberous sound—a sound that brings
   The feelings of a dream—
As of innumerable wings,
As when a bell no longer swings,
Faint the hollow murmur rings
   O’er meadow, lake, and stream.

And dreams of that which cannot die,
   Bright visions came to me,
As lapped in thought I used to lie,
And gaze into the summer sky,
When the sailing clouds went by,
   Like ships upon the sea;

Dreams that the soul of youth engage
   Ere Fancy has been quelled;
Old legends of the monkish page,
Traditions of the saint and sage,
Tales that have the rime of age,
   And chronicles of Eld.

And loving still these quaint old themes,
   Even in the city’s throng
I feel the freshness of the streams,
That, crossed by shades and sunny gleams,
Water the green land of dreams,
   The holy land of song.

Therefore, at Pentecost, which brings
   The spring, clothed like a bird,
When nestling buds unfold their wings,
And bishop’s-caps have golden rings,
Musing upon many things,
   I sought the woodlands wide.

The green trees whispered low and mild;
   It was a sound of joy!
They were my playmates when a child,
And rocked me in their arms so wild!
Still they looked at me and smiled,
   As if I were a boy;

And ever whispered mild and low,
   “Come, be a child once more!”
And waved their long arms to and fro,
And beckoned solemnly and slow
Oh, I could not choose but go
   Into the woodlands hoar.

Into the blithe and breathing air,
   Into the solemn wood,
Solemn and silent everywhere!
Nature with folded hands seemed there,
Kneeling at her evening prayer!
   Like one in prayer I stood.

The artful modulation of these lines is not less worthy of critical notice than the pathos of the emotion which literally gushes like tears through them.