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Chapter 11: Hyperion and the reaction from it

‘Outre-Mer’ had been published some time before, with moderate success, but ‘Hyperion’ was destined to attract far more attention. It is first mentioned in his journal on September 13, 1838, though in a way which shows that it had been for some time in preparation, and its gradual development is traceable through the same channel. One entire book, for instance, was written and suppressed, namely, ‘St. Clair's Day Book,’ the hero having first been christened Hyperion, then St. Clair, and then Paul Flemming. Its author wrote of it, ‘I called it “Hyperion,” because it moves on high among clouds and stars, and expresses the various aspirations of the soul of man. It is all modelled on this idea, style and all. It contains my cherished thoughts for three years.’1

The cordiality with which ‘Hyperion’ was received was due partly to the love story supposed to be implied in it, and largely to the new atmosphere of German life and literature which it opened to [125] Americans. It must always be remembered that the kingdom in which Germany then ruled was not then, as now, a kingdom of material force and business enterprise, but as Germans themselves claimed, a kingdom of the air; and into that realm Hyperion gave to Americans the first glimpse. The faults and limitations which we now see in it were then passed by, or visible only to such keen critics as Orestes A. Brownson, who wrote thus of it in ‘The Boston Quarterly Review,’ then the ablest of American periodicals except ‘The Dial:’ ‘I do not like the book. It is such a journal as a man who reads a great deal makes from the scraps in his table-drawer. Yet it has not the sincerity or quiet touches which give interest to the real journals of very common persons. It is overloaded with prettinesses, many of which would tell well in conversation, but being rather strown over than woven into his narrative, deform where they should adorn. You cannot guess why the book was written, unless because the author were tired of reading these morceaux to himself, for there has been no fusion or fermentation to bring on the hour of utterance. Then to me the direct personal relation in which we are brought to the author is unpleasing. Had he but idealized his tale, or put on the veil of poetry! But as it is, we are embarrassed by his extreme communicativeness, [126] and wonder that a man, who seems in other respects to have a mind of delicate texture, could write a letter about his private life to a public on which he had as yet established no claim. . . . Indeed this book will not add to the reputation of its author, which stood so fair before its publication.’2 This is the criticism of which Longfellow placidly wrote, ‘I understand there is a spicy article against me in the “Boston Quarterly.” I shall get it as soon as I can; for, strange as you may think it, these things give me no pain.’3

Mr. Howells, in one of the most ardent eulogies ever written upon the works of Longfellow, bases his admiration largely upon the claim ‘that his art never betrays the crudeness or imperfection of essay,’ —that is, of experiments.4 It would be interesting to know whether this accomplished author, looking back upon ‘Hyperion’ more than thirty years later, could reindorse this strong assertion. To others, I fancy, however attractive and even fascinating the book may still remain, it has about it a distinctly youthful quality which, while sometimes characterizing even his poetry, unquestionably marked his early prose. A later and younger [127] critic says more truly of it, I think, ‘Plainly in the style of Richter, with all the mingled grandeur and grotesqueness of the German romanticists, it is scarcely now a favorite with the adult reader; though the young, obedient to some vague embryonic law, still find in it for a season the pleasure, the thrilling melancholy, which their grandfathers found.’5 But Professor Carpenter, speaking from the point of view of the younger generation, does not fail to recognize that Paul Flemming's complaints cease when he reads the tombstone inscription which becomes the motto of the book; and I recall with pleasure that, being a youth nurtured on ‘Hyperion,’ I selected that passage for the text of my boyish autobiography written in the Harvard ‘Class Book’ at the juvenile age of seventeen. Dozens of youths were perhaps adopting the motto in the same way at the same time, and it is useless to deny to a book which thus reached youthful hearts the credit of having influenced the whole period of its popularity.

Apart from the personal romance which his readers attached to it, the book had great value as the first real importation into our literature of the wealth of German romance and song. So faithful and ample are its local descriptions that a cheap edition of it is always on sale at [128] Heidelberg, and every English and American visitor to that picturesque old city seems to know the book by heart. Bearing it in his hand, the traveller still climbs the rent summit of the Gesprengte Thurm and looks down upon the throng in the castle gardens; or inquires vainly for the ruined linden-tree, or gives a sigh to the fate of Emma of Ilmenau, and murmurs solemnly,—as a fat and red-faced Englishman once murmured to me on that storied spot,—‘That night there fell a star from heaven!’ There is no doubt that under the sway of the simpler style now prevailing, much of the rhetoric of ‘Hyperion’ seems turgid, some of its learning obtrusive, and a good deal of its emotion forced; but it was nevertheless an epoch-making book for a generation of youths and maidens, and it still retains its charm. The curious fact, however, remains— a fact not hitherto noticed, I think, by biographers or critics—that at the very time when the author was at work on ‘Hyperion,’ there was a constant reaction in his mind that was carrying him in the direction of more strictly American subjects, handled under a simpler treatment. He wrote on September 13, 1838, ‘Looked over my notes and papers for “Hyperion.” Long for leisure to begin once more.’ It is impossible to say how long a preparation this implies; it may have been months or years. Yet [129] the following letter to a young girl, his wife's youngest sister, shows how, within less than a year previous, his observation had been again turned towards the American Indians as a theme.

Cambridge, October 29, 1837.
My dear Margaret,—I was very much delighted with your present of the slippers. They are too pretty to be trodden under foot; yet such is their destiny, and shall be accomplished, as soon as may be. The colors look beautifully upon the drab ground; much more so than on the black. Don't you think so? I should have answered your note, and sent you my thanks, by Alexander on Wednesday last; but when I last saw him, I had not received the package. Therefore you must not imagine from my delay, that I do not sufficiently appreciate the gift. . . .

There is nothing very new in Boston, which after all is a gossiping kind of Little Peddlington, if you know what that is; if you don't, you must read the story. People take too much cognizance of their neighbors; interest themselves too much in what no way concerns them. However, it is no great matter.

There are Indians here: savage fellows;— one Black-Hawk and his friends, with naked shoulders and red blankets wrapped about their [130] bodies:—the rest all grease and Spanish brown and vermillion. One carries a great war-club, and wears horns on his head; another had his face painted like a grid-iron, all in bands:— another is all red, like a lobster; and another black and blue, in great daubs of paint laid on not sparingly. Queer fellows!—One great champion of the Fox nation had a short pipe in his mouth, smoking with great self-complacency as he marched out of the City Hall: another was smoking a cigar! Withal, they looked very formidable. Hard customers. . . .

Very truly yours

H. W. L.6

Note, again, how this tendency to home themes asserts itself explicitly in Longfellow's notice of Hawthorne's ‘Twice-Told Tales’ at about the same time in ‘The North American Review,’ (July, 1837):—

‘One of the most prominent characteristics of these tales is, that they are national in their character. The author has wisely chosen his themes among the traditions of New England; the dusty legends of “the good Old Colony times, when we lived under a king.” This is the right material for story. It seems as natural to make tales out of old tumble-down [131] traditions, as canes and snuff-boxes out of old steeples, or trees planted by great men. The puritanical times begin to look romantic in the distance. Who would not like to have strolled through the city of Agamenticus, where a market was held every week, on Wednesday, and there were two annual fairs at St. James's and St. Paul's? Who would not like to have been present at the court of the Worshipful Thomas Gorges, in those palmy days of the law, when Tom Heard was fined five shillings for being drunk, and John Payne the same, “for swearing one oath” ? Who would not like to have seen the time, when Thomas Taylor was presented to the grand jury “for abusing Captain Raynes, being in authority, by thee-ing and thou-ing him;” and John Wardell likewise, for denying Cambridge College to be an ordinance of God; and when some were fined for winking at comely damsels in church; and others for being common-sleepers there on the Lord's day? Truly, many quaint and quiet customs, many comic scenes and strange adventures, many wilt and wondrous things, fit for humorous tale, and soft, pathetic story, lie all about us here in New England. There is no tradition of the Rhine nor of the Black Forest, which can compare in beauty with that of the Phantom Ship. The Flying Dutchman of the Cape, and the Klabotermann [132] of the Baltic, are nowise superior. The story of Peter Rugg, the man who could not find Boston, is as good as that told by Gervase of Tilbury, of a man who gave himself to the devils by an unfortunate imprecation, and was used by them as a wheelbarrow; and the Great Carbuncle of the White Mountains shines with no less splendor, than that which illuminated the subterranean palace in Rome, as related by William of Malmesbury. Truly, from such a Fortunatus's pocket and wishing-cap, a talebearer may furnish forth a sufficiency of “perylous adventures right espouventables, briefly compyled and pyteous for to here.” ’

We must always remember that Longfellow came forward at a time when cultivated Americans were wasting a great deal of superfluous sympathy on themselves. It was the general impression that the soil was barren, that the past offered no material and they must be European or die. Yet Longfellow's few predecessors had already made themselves heard by disregarding this tradition and taking what they found on the spot. Charles Brockden Brown, although his style was exotic and Godwinish, yet found his themes among American Indians and in the scenes of the yellow fever in Philadelphia. It was not Irving who invested the Hudson with romance, but the Hudson that inspired Irving. [133] When in 1786, Mrs. Josiah Quincy, then a young girl, sailed upon that river in a sloop, she wrote, ‘Our captain had a legend for every scene, either supernatural or traditional or of actual occurrence during the war, and not a mountain reared its head unconnected with some marvellous story.’ Irving was then but three years old, yet Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle or their prototypes were already on the spot waiting for biographers; and it was much the same with Cooper, who was not born until three years later. What was needed was self-confidence and a strong literary desire to take the materials at hand. Irving, Cooper, Dana, had already done this; but Longfellow followed with more varied gifts, more thorough training; the ‘Dial’ writers followed in their turn, and a distinctive American literature was born, this quality reaching a climax in Thoreau, who frankly wrote, ‘I have travelled a great deal—in Concord.’

And while thus Longfellow found his desire for a national literature strengthened at every point by the example of his classmate Hawthorne, so he may have learned much, though not immediately, through the warning unconsciously given by Bryant, against the perils of undue moralizing. Bryant's early poem, ‘To a Water-Fowl,’ was as profound in feeling and as perfect in structure as anything of Longfellow's, up to [134] the last verse, which some profane critic compared to a tin kettle of moralizing, tied to the legs of the flying bird. Whittier's poems had almost always some such appendage, and he used to regret in later life that he had not earlier been contented to leave his moral for the reader to draw, or in other words, to lop off habitually the last verse of each poem. Apart from this there was a marked superiority, even on the didactic side, in Longfellow's moralizing as compared with Bryant's. There is no light or joy in the ‘Thanatopsis;’ but Longfellow, like Whittier, was always hopeful. It was not alone that he preached, as an eminent British critic once said to me, ‘a safe piety,’ but his religious impulse was serene and even joyous, and this under the pressure of the deepest personal sorrows.

It is also to be observed that Longfellow wrote in this same number of ‘The North American Review’ (July, 1837) another paper which was prophetic with regard to prose style, as was the Hawthorne essay in respect to thought. It was a review of Tegner's ‘Frithiof's Saga’ which showed a power of description, brought to bear on Swedish life and scenery, which he really never quite attained in ‘Hyperion,’ because it was there sometimes vitiated by a slightly false note. A portion of it was used afterwards as a [135] preface to his second volume of poems (‘Ballads and Other Poems’), a preface regarded by some good critics as Longfellow's best piece of prose work. It was, at any rate, impossible not to recognize a fresh and vigorous quality in a descriptive passage opening thus; and I can myself testify that it stamped itself on the memories of young readers almost as vividly as the ballads which followed:—

‘There is something patriarchal still lingering about rural life in Sweden, which renders it a fit theme for song. Almost primeval simplicity reigns over that northern land,—almost primeval solitude and stillness. You pass out from the gate of the city, and, as if by magic, the scene changes to a wild, woodland landscape. Around you are forests of fir. Overhead hang the long, fan-like branches, trailing with moss, and heavy with red and blue cones. Under foot is a carpet of yellow leaves; and the air is warm and balmy. On a wooden bridge you cross a little silver stream; and anon come forth into a pleasant and sunny land of farms. Wooden fences divide the adjoining fields. Across the road are gates, which are opened by troops of children. The peasants take off their hats as you pass; you sneeze, and they cry, “God bless you.” The houses in the villages and smaller towns are all built of hewn [136] timber, and for the most part painted red. The floors of the taverns are strewn with the fragrant tips of fir boughs. In many villages there are no taverns, and the peasants take turns in receiving travellers. The thrifty housewife shows you into the best chamber, the walls of which are hung round with rude pictures from the Bible; and brings you her heavy silver spoons,—an heirloom,—to dip the curdled milk from the pan. You have oaten cakes baked some months before; or bread with aniseseed and coriander in it, or perhaps a little pine bark.’

1 Life, i. 353.

2 Boston Quarterly Review, January, 1840, III. 128.

3 Life, i. 354.

4 North American Review, CIV. 537.

5 Carpenter's Longfellow, p. 55.

6 Ms

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