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Chapter 4: literature as a pursuit

Longfellow graduated at Bowdoin College in June, 1825. There was in his mind, apparently, from the first, that definiteness of purpose which is so often wanting when a student takes his first college degree. There was for him no doubt or hesitation: it must be literature or nothing; and this not merely from a preference for the pursuit, but from an ambition, willingly acknowledged, to make a name in that direction. He writes to his friend, George W. Wells, ‘Somehow, and yet I hardly know why, I am unwilling to study any profession. I cannot make a lawyer of any eminence, because I have not a talent for argument; I am not good enough for a minister,—and as to physic, I utterly and absolutely detest it.’ Even a year before this, he had written to his father a letter of some moment, dated March 13, 1824, containing the following ominous passage: ‘I am curious to know what you do intend to make of me,— whether I am to study a profession or not; and if so, what profession. I hope your ideas upon [38] this subject will agree with mine, for I have a particular and strong prejudice for one course of life, to which you, I fear, will not agree. It will not be worth while for me to mention what this is until I become more acquainted with your own wishes.’1

This letter remaining for some months unanswered, there followed another which at last stated his own personal desire. It was written to his father and dated December 5, 1824.

I take this early opportunity to write to you, because I wish to know fully your inclination with regard to the profession I am to pursue when I leave college.

For my part I have already hinted to you what would best please me. I want to spend one year at Cambridge for the purpose of reading history and of becoming familiar with the best authors in polite literature; whilst at the same time I can be acquiring a knowledge of the Italian language, without an acquaintance with which I shall be shut out from one of the most beautiful departments of letters. The French I mean to understand pretty thoroughly before I leave college. After leaving Cambridge I would attach myself to some literary periodical publication, by which I could maintain myself and still enjoy the advantages of reading. Now, I [39] do not think that there is anything visionary or chimerical in my plan thus far. The fact is—and I will not disguise it in the least, for I think I ought not—the fact is, I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature; my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centres in it. There may be something visionary in this, but I flatter myself that I have prudence enough to keep my enthusiasm from defeating its own object by too great haste. Surely there never was a better opportunity offered for the exertion of literary talent in our own country than is now offered. To be sure, most of our literary men thus far have not been professedly so until they have studied and entered the practice of Theology, Law, or Medicine. But this is evidently lost time. I do believe that we ought to pay more attention to the opinion of philosophers, that “nothing but Nature can qualify a man for knowledge.”

Whether Nature has given me any capacity for knowledge or not, she has at any rate given me a very strong predilection for literary pursuits, and I am almost confident in believing that, if I can ever rise in the world, it must be by the exercise of my talent in the wide field of literature. With such a belief, I must say that I am unwilling to engage in the study of law.


Again on December 31 he writes to his father, by way of New Year's gift, ‘Let me reside one year at Cambridge; let me study belles-lettres, and after that time it will not require a spirit of prophecy to predict with some degree of certainty what kind of a figure I could make in the literary world. If I fail here, there is still time enough left for the study of a profession; and while residing at Cambridge, I shall have acquired the knowledge of some foreign languages which will be, through life, of the greatest utility.’

The answer of the father is too characteristic to be omitted, whether for its views as to personal standards or as to poetic structure. Most youthful poets of that day had to face a critical method based strictly upon the versification of Pope, and their parents regarded all more flowing measures as having a slight flavor of the French Revolution.

‘The subject of your first letter is one of deep interest and demands great consideration. A literary life, to one who has the means of support, must be very pleasant. But there is not wealth enough in this country to afford encouragement and patronage to merely literary men. And as you have not had the fortune (I will not say whether good or ill) to be born rich, you must adopt a profession which will afford you subsistence [41] as well as reputation. I am happy to observe that my ambition has never been to accumulate wealth for my children, but to cultivate their minds in the best possible manner, and to imbue them with correct moral, political, and religious principles,—believing that a person thus educated will with proper diligence be certain of attaining all the wealth which is necessary to happiness. With regard to your spending a year at Cambridge, I have always thought it might be beneficial; and if my health should not be impaired and my finances should allow, I should be very happy to gratify you. . . . In the “Advertiser” of the 18th, I observe some poetry from the “U. S. Literary Gazette,” which from the signature, I presume to be from your pen. It is a very pretty production, and I read it with pleasure. But you will observe that the second line of the sixth verse has too many feet. “Beneath the dark and motionless beech.” I think it would be improved by substituting lonely for motionless. I suggest this for your consideration. I have the pleasure of hearing frequently from home. They complain that they have not heard a word from you since you left. This is unpardonable.’

On January 24, 1825, the son wrote to his father again:—

From the general tenor of your last letter [42] it seems to be your fixed desire that I should choose the profession of the law for the business of my life. I am very much rejoiced that you accede so readily to my proposition of studying general literature for one year at Cambridge. My grand object in doing this will be to gain as perfect a knowledge of the French and Italian languages as can be gained without travelling in France and Italy,—though, to tell the truth, I intend to visit both before I die. . . . I am afraid you begin to think me rather chimerical in many of my ideas, and that I am ambitious of becoming a ‘rara avis in terris.’ But you must acknowledge the usefulness of aiming high,—at something which it is impossible to overshoot —perhaps to reach. The fact is, I have a most voracious appetite for knowledge. To its acquisition I will sacrifice everything. . . . Nothing delights me more than reading and writing. And nothing could induce me to relinquish the pleasures of literature, little as I have yet tasted them. Of the three professions I should prefer the law. I am far from being a fluent speaker, but practice must serve as a talisman where talent is wanting. I can be a lawyer. This will support my real existence, literature an ideal one.

I purchased last evening a beautiful pocket edition of Sir William Jones's Letters, and have [43] just finished reading them. Eight languages he was critically versed in; eight more he read with a dictionary; and there were twelve more not wholly unknown to him. I have somewhere seen or heard the observation that as many languages as a person acquires, so many times is he a man.

Life, i. 57, 58.

It was undoubtedly an important fact to the young poet to be brought thus early in contact with Sir William Jones and his twenty-eight languages. It is the experience of all that the gift of learning a variety of tongues is something which peculiarly belongs to youth. In Southern Europe, in Russia, in the East, it is a common thing to encounter mere children who with next to no schooling will prattle readily in three or four languages with equal inaccuracy but with equal ease; while a much older person may acquire them by laborious study and yet never feel at home. One can hardly doubt Longfellow's natural readiness in that direction; he was always being complimented, at any Rate—though this may not count for much— upon his aptness in pronouncing foreign tongues, and the ease with which his own compositions lent themselves to translation may very possibly have some obscure connection with his own gifts in this respect. His college training can have [44] had little bearing upon it, since there is no evidence that his classmate Hawthorne, doubtless a man of higher genius, showed any such capacity.

1 Life, i. 50.

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