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Chapter 18: birds of passage

Longfellow had always a ready faculty for grouping his shorter poems in volumes, and had a series continuing indefinitely under the name of ‘Birds of Passage,’ which in successive ‘flights’ were combined with longer works. The first was contained in the volume called ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish’ (1858); the second in ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn’ (1863); flight the third appeared in connection with ‘Aftermath’ (1873); flight the fourth in ‘Masque of Pandora and Other Poems’ (1875), and flight the fifth in ‘Keramos and Other Poems’ (1878). These short poems stand representative of his middle life, as ‘Voices of the Night’ and ‘Ballads’ did for the earlier; and while the maturer works have not, as a whole, the fervor and freshness of the first, they have more average skill of execution.

The ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn’ was the final grouping of several stories which had accumulated upon him, large and small, and finally demanded a title-page in common. Some of them [214] had been published before and were grouped into a volume in 1863, which, making itself popular, was followed by two more volumes, finally united into one. We have what is not usually the case, the poet's own account of them, he having written thus to a correspondent in England: ‘ “ The Wayside Inn” has more foundation in fact than you may suppose. The town of Sudbury is about twenty miles from Cambridge. Some two hundred years ago, an English family by the name of Howe built there a country house, which has remained in the family down to the present time, the last of the race dying but two years ago. Losing their fortune, they became innkeepers; and for a century the Red-Horse Inn has flourished, going down from father to son. The place is just as I have described it, though no longer an inn. All this will account for the landlord's coat-of-arms, and his being a justice of the peace, and his being known as “the Squire,” —things that must sound strange in English ears. All the characters are real. The musician is Ole Bull; the Spanish Jew, Israel Edrehi, whom I have seen as I have painted him,’ etc., etc.

Other participants in the imaginary festivities are the late Thomas W. Parsons, the translator of Dante, who appears as the poet; the theologian being Professor Daniel Treadwell of Harvard [215] University, an eminent physicist, reputed in his day to be not merely a free thinker, but something beyond it; the student being Henry Ware Wales, a promising scholar and lover of books, who left his beautiful library to the Harvard College collection; and the Sicilian being Luigi Monti, who had been an instructor in Italian at Harvard under Longfellow. Several of this group had habitually spent their summers in the actual inn which Longfellow described and which is still visible at Sudbury. But none of the participants in the supposed group are now living except Signor Monti, who still resides in Rome, as for many years back, with his American wife, a sister of the poet Parsons. All the members of the group were well known in Cambridge and Boston, especially Ole Bull, who was at seventy as picturesque in presence and bearing as any youthful troubadour, and whose American wife, an active and courageous philanthropist, still vibrates between America and India, and is more or less allied to the Longfellow family by the marriage of her younger brother, Mr. J. G. Thorp, to the poet's youngest daughter. The volume has always been popular, even its most ample form; yet most of the individual poems are rarely quoted, and with the exception of ‘Paul Revere's Ride’ and ‘Lady Wentworth’ they are not very widely read. [216] These two are, it is to be observed, the most essentially American among them. The book was originally to have been called ‘The Sudbury Tales,’ and was sent to the printer in April, 1863, under that title, which was however changed to ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn,’ through the urgency of Charles Sumner.

It is the common fate of those poets who live to old age, that their critics, or at least their contemporary critics, are apt to find their later work less valuable than their earlier. Browning, Tennyson, and Swinburne, to mention no others, have had to meet this fate, and Longfellow did not escape it. Whether it is that the fame of the earlier work goes on accumulating while the later has not yet been tested by time, or that contemporary admirers have grown older and more critical when they are introduced to the later verses, this is hard to decide. Even when the greatest of modern poets completed in old age the dream of his youth, it was the fashion for a long time to regard the completion as a failure, and it took years to secure any real appreciation to the second part of ‘Faust.’ This possibility must always be allowed for, but the fact remains that the title which Longfellow himself chose for so many of his poems, ‘Birds of Passage,’ was almost painfully suggestive of a series of minor works of which [217] we can only say that had his fame rested on those alone, it would have been of quite uncertain tenure. A very few of them, like ‘Keramos,’ ‘Morituri Salutamus,’ and ‘The Herons of Elmwood,’ stand out as exceptions, and above all of these was the exquisite sonnet already printed in this volume, ‘The Cross of Snow,’ recording at last the poet's high water-mark, as was the case with Tennyson's ‘Crossing the Bar.’ Apart from these, it may be truly said that the little volume called ‘Flower de Luce’ was the last collection published by him which recalled his earlier strains. His volume ‘Ultima Thule’ appeared in 1880, and ‘In the Harbor,’ classed as a second part to it, but issued by others after his death. With these might be placed, though not with any precision, the brief tragedy of ‘Judas Maccabaeus,’ which had been published in the ‘Three Books of Song,’ in 1872; and the unfinished fragment, ‘Michael Angelo,’ which was found in his desk after death. None of his dramatic poems showed him to be on firm ground in respect to this department of poesy, nor can they, except the ‘Golden Legend,’ be regarded as altogether successful literary undertakings. It is obvious that historic periods differ wholly in this respect; and all we can say is that while quite mediocre poets were good dramatists in the Elizabethan [218] period, yet good poets have usually failed as dramatists in later days. Longfellow's efforts on this very ground were not less successful, on the whole, than those of Tennyson and Swinburne; nor does even Browning, tried by the test of the actual stage, furnish a complete exception.

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