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Chapter 21: the Loftier strain: Christus

After all, no translation, even taken at its best, can wholly satisfy an essentially original mind. Longfellow wrote in his diary, November 19, 1849, as follows: ‘And now I long to try a loftier strain, the sublimer Song whose broken melodies have for so many years breathed through my soul in the better hours of life, and which I trust and believe will ere long unite themselves into a symphony not all unworthy the sublime theme, but furnishing “some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery.” ’

This of course refers to the great poetic design of his life, ‘Christus, a Mystery,’ of which he wrote again on December 10, 1849, ‘A bleak and dismal day. Wrote in the morning The Challenge of Thor as prologue or Introitus to the second part of Christus.’ This he laid aside; just a month from that time he records in his diary, ‘In the evening, pondered and meditated the sundry scenes of “Christus.” ’ Later, he wrote some half dozen scenes or more of [237] ‘The Golden Legend’ which is Part Second of ‘Christus,’ representing the mediaeval period. He afterwards wished, on reading Kingsley's ‘Saint's Tragedy,’ that he had chosen the theme of Elizabeth of Hungary in place of the minor one employed (Der Arme Heinrich), although if we are to judge by the comparative interest inspired by the two books, there is no reason for regret. At any rate his poem was published— the precursor by more than twenty years of any other portion of the trilogy of ‘Christus.’ The public, and even his friends, knew but little of his larger project, but ‘The Golden Legend’ on its publication in 1851 showed more of the dramatic quality than anything else he had printed, and Ruskin gave to it the strong praise of saying, ‘Longfellow in his “Golden Legend” has entered more closely into the temper of the monk, for good or for evil, than ever yet theological writer or historian, though they may have given their life's labor to the analysis.’1 It is to be noted that the passage in the book most criticised as unjust is taken from a sermon of an actual Italian preacher of the fifteenth century. But its accuracy or depth in this respect was probably less to the general public than its quality of readableness or that which G. P. R. James, the novelist, described as ‘its resemblance [238] to an old ruin with the ivy and the rich blue mould upon it.’ If the rest of the long planned book could have been as successful as for the time being was the ‘Golden Legend,’ the dream of Longfellow's poetic life would have been fulfilled.

In view of such praise as Ruskin's, the question of anachronism more or less is of course quite secondary. Errors of a few centuries doubtless occur in it. Longfellow himself states the period at which he aims as 1230. But the spire of Strassburg Cathedral of which he speaks was not built until the fifteenth century, though the church was begun in the twelfth, when Walter the Minnesinger flourished. ‘The Lily of Medicine,’ which Prince Henry is reading when Lucifer drops in, was not written until after 1300, nor was St. John Nepomuck canonized until after that date. The Algerine piracies did not begin until the sixteenth century. There were other such errors; yet these do not impair the merit of the book. Some curious modifications also appear in later editions. In the passage where the monk Felix is described in the first edition as pondering over a volume of St. Augustine, this saint disappears in later editions, while the Scriptures are substituted and the passage reads:— [239]

Wherein amazed he read
A thousand years in thy sight
Are but as yesterday when it is past
And as a watch in the night;

and in the next line ‘downcast’ is substituted for ‘cast down,’ in order to preserve the rhyme. A very curious modification of a whole scene is to be found where the author ventured in the original edition (1851) to introduce a young girl at the midnight gaudiolum or carnival of the monks, she being apparently disguised as a monk, like Lucifer himself. This whole passage or series of passages was left out in the later editions, whether because it was considered too daring by his critics or perhaps not quite daring enough to give full spirit to the scene.

Turning now to ‘The New England Tragedies,’ we find that as far back as 1839, before he had conceived of ‘Christus,’ he had thought of a drama on Cotton Mather. Then a suggestion came to him in 1856 from his German friend, Emanuel Vitalis Scherb, of whom he writes on March 16, 1856: ‘Scherb wants me to write a poem on the Puritans and the Quakers. A good subject for a tragedy.’ On March 25 and 26 we find him looking over books on the subject, especially Besse's ‘Sufferings of the Quakers;’ on April 2 he writes a scene of the play; on May 1 and 2 he is [240] pondering and writing notes, and says: ‘It is delightful to revolve in one's mind a new conception.’ He also works upon it in a fragmentary way in July and in November, and remarks, in the midst of it, that he has lying on his table more than sixty requests for autographs. As a background to all of this lie the peculiar excitements of that stormy summer of 1856, when his friend Sumner was struck down in the United States Senate and he himself, meeting with an accident, was lamed for weeks and was unable to go to Europe with his children as he had intended. The first rough draft of ‘Wenlook Christison,’ whose title was afterwards changed to ‘John Endicott,’ and which was the first of ‘The New England Tragedies,’ was not finished till August 27, 1857, and the work alternated for a time with that done on ‘Miles Standish;’ but it was more than ten years (October 10, 1868) before it was published, having first been written in prose, and only ten copies printed and afterwards rewritten in verse. With it was associated the second New England Tragedy, ‘Giles Corey’ of the Salem farms, written rapidly in February of that same year. The volume never made a marked impression; even the sympathetic Mr. Fields, the publisher, receiving it rather coldly. It never satisfied even its author, and the new poetic idea which occurred [241] to him on April 11, 1871, and which was to harmonize the discord of ‘The New England Tragedies’ was destined never to be fulfilled. In the mean time, however, he carried them to Europe with him, and seems to have found their only admirer in John Forster, who wrote to him in London: ‘Your tragedies are very beautiful— beauty everywhere subduing and chastening the sadness; the pictures of nature in delightful contrast to the sorrowful and tragic violence of the laws; truth and unaffectedness everywhere. I hardly know which I like best; but there are things in “Giles Corey” that have a strange attractiveness for me.’ Longfellow writes to Fields from Vevey, September 5, 1868: ‘I do not like your idea of calling the ‘Tragedies’ sketches. They are not sketches, and only seem so at first because I have studiously left out all that could impede the action. I have purposely made them simple and direct.’ He later adds: ‘As to anybody's “adapting” these ‘Tragedies’ for the stage, I do not like the idea of it at all. Prevent this if possible. I should, however, like to have the opinion of some good actor— not a sensational actor—on that point. I should like to have Booth look at them.’ Six weeks later, having gone over to London to secure the copyright on these poems, he writes: ‘I saw also Bandmann, the tragedian, who expressed [242] the liveliest interest in what I told him of the “Tragedies.” ’ Finally he says, two days later, ‘Bandmann writes me a nice letter about the “Tragedies,” but says they are not adapted to the stage. So we will say no more about that, for the present.’2

‘Christus: A Mystery’ appeared as a whole in 1872, for the first time bringing together the three parts (I. ‘The Divine Tragedy;’ II. ‘The Golden Legend,’ and III. ‘The New England Tragedies’). ‘The Divine Tragedy,’ which now formed the first part, was not only in some degree criticised as forming an anti-climax in being placed before the lighter portions of the great drama, but proved unacceptable among his friends, and was often subjected to the charge of being unimpressive and even uninteresting. On the other hand, we have the fact that it absorbed him more utterly than any other portion of the book. He writes in his diary on January 6, 1871, ‘The subject of “The Divine Tragedy” has taken entire possession of me, so that I can think of nothing else. All day pondering upon and arranging it.’ And he adds next day, ‘I find all hospitalities and social gatherings just now great interruptions.’ Yet he has to spend one morning that week in Boston at a meeting of stockholders; on another day Agassiz comes, broken [243] down even to tears by the loss of health and strength; on another day there is ‘a continued series of interruptions from breakfast till dinner. I could not get half an hour to myself all day long. Oh, for a good snow-storm to block the door!’ Still another day it is so cold he can scarcely write in his study, and he has ‘so many letters to answer.’ Yet he writes during that month a scene or two every day. We know from the experience of all poets that the most brilliant short poems may be achieved with wonderful quickness, but for a continuous and sustained effort an author surely needs some control over his own time.

It is a curious fact, never yet quite explained, that an author's favorite work is rarely that whose popular success best vindicates his confidence. This was perhaps never more manifest than in the case of Longfellow's ‘Christus’ as a whole, and more especially that portion of it on which the author lavished his highest and most consecrated efforts, ‘The Divine Tragedy.’ Mr. Scudder has well said that ‘there is no one of Mr. Longfellow's writings which may be said to have so dominated his literary life’ as the ‘Christus,’ and it shows his sensitive reticence that the portion of it which was first published, ‘The Golden Legend’ (1851), gave to the reader no suggestion of its being, as we now [244] know that it was, but a portion of a larger design. Various things came in the way, and before ‘The Divine Tragedy’ appeared (1871) he had written of it, ‘I never had so many doubts and hesitations about any book as about this.’ On September 11 in that year he wrote in Nahant, ‘Begin to pack. I wish it were over and I in Cambridge. I am impatient to send “ The Divine Tragedy” to the printers.’ On the 18th of October he wrote: ‘The delays of printers are a great worry to authors;’ on the 25th, ‘Get the last proof sheet of “The Divine Tragedy;” ’ on the 30th, ‘Read over proofs of the ‘Interludes’ and “Finale,” and am doubtful and perplexed;’ on November 15, ‘All the last week, perplexed and busy with final correction of “The Tragedy.” ’ It was published on December 12, and he writes to G. W. Greene, December 17, 1871, ‘ “The Divine Tragedy” is very successful, from the booksellers' point of view—ten thousand copies were published on Tuesday last and the printers are already at work on three thousand more. That is pleasant, but that is not the main thing. The only question about a book ought to be whether it is successful in itself.’

It is altogether probable that in the strict views then prevailing about the very letter of the Christian Scriptures, a certain antagonism [245] may have prevailed, even toward the skill with which he transferred the sacred narratives into a dramatic form, just as it is found that among certain pious souls who for the first time yield their scruples so far as to enter a theatre, the mere lifting of the curtain seems to convey suggestions of sin. Be this as it may, we find in Longfellow's journal this brief entry (December 30): ‘Received from Routledge in London, three notices of “The Tragedy,” all hostile.’ He, however, was cheered by the following letter from Horace Bushnell, then perhaps the most prominent among the American clergy for originality and spiritual freedom:—

Hartford, December 28, 1871.
dear Sir,—Since it will be a satisfaction to me to express my delight in the success of your poem, you cannot well deny me the privilege. When I heard the first announcement of it as for coming, I said, ‘Well, it is the grandest of all subjects; why has it never been attempted?’ And yet I said inwardly in the next breath: ‘What mortal power is equal to the handling of it?’ The greater and the more delightful is my surprise at the result. You have managed the theme with really wonderful address. The episodes, and the hard characters, and the partly imaginary characters, you had [246] your liberty in; and you have used them well to suffuse and flavor and poetize the story. And yet, I know not how it is, but the part which finds me most perfectly, and is, in fact, the most poetic poetry of all, is the prose-poem,—the nearly rhythmic transcription of the simple narrative matter of the gospels. Perhaps the true account of it may be that the handling is so delicately reverent, intruding so little of the poet's fine thinking and things, that the reverence incorporate promotes the words and lifts the ranges of the sentiment; so that when the reader comes out at the close, he finds himself in a curiously new kind of inspiration, born of modesty and silence.

I can easily imagine that certain chaffy people may put their disrespect on you for what I consider your praise. Had you undertaken to build the Christ yourself, as they would require of you, I verily believe it would have killed you, that is, made you a preacher.

With many thanks, I am yours,

It would not now be easy to ascertain what these hostile notices of ‘The Divine Tragedy’ were, but it would seem that for some reason the poem did not, like its predecessors, find its [247] way to the popular heart. When one considers the enthusiasm which greeted Willis' scriptural poems in earlier days, or that which has in later days been attracted by semi-scriptural prose fictions, such as ‘The Prince of the House of David’ and ‘Ben Hur,’ the latter appearing, moreover, in a dramatic form, there certainly seems no reason why Longfellow's attempt to grapple with the great theme should be so little successful. The book is not, like ‘The New England Tragedies,’ which completed the circle of ‘Christus,’ dull in itself. It is, on the contrary, varied and readable; not merely poetic and tender, which was a matter of course in Longfellow's hands, but strikingly varied, its composition skilful, the scripture types well handled, and the additional figures, Helen of Tyre, Simon Magus, and Menahem the Essenian, skilfully introduced and effectively managed. Yet one rarely sees the book quoted; it has not been widely read, and in all the vast list of Longfellow translations into foreign languages, there appears no version of any part of it except the comparatively modern and mediaeval ‘Golden Legend.’ It has simply afforded one of the most remarkable instances in literary history of the utter ignoring of the supposed high water-mark of a favorite author.

1 Modern Painters, vol. v. chap. XX.

2 Life, III. 123, 125.

3 Life, III. 192, 193.

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