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Chapter 5: first visit to Europe

Longfellow's college class (1825) numbered thirty-seven, and his rank in it at graduation was nominally fourth—though actually third, through the sudden death of a classmate just before Commencement. Soon after his graduation, an opportunity occurred to establish a professorship of modern languages in the college upon a fund given by Mrs. Bowdoin; and he, being then scarcely nineteen, and nominally a law student in his father's office, was sent to Europe to prepare himself for this chair, apparently on an allowance of six hundred dollars a year. The college tradition is that this appointment—which undoubtedly determined the literary tendencies of his whole life—was given to him in consequence of the impression made upon an examining committee by the manner in which he had translated one of Horace's odes. He accordingly sailed from New York for Europe on May 15, 1826, having stopped at Boston on the way, where he dined with Professor George Ticknor, then holding the professorship [46] at Harvard College to which Longfellow was destined to succeed at a later day. Professor Ticknor had himself recently returned from a German university, and urged the young man to begin his studies there, giving him letters of introduction to Professor Eichhorn, to Robert Southey, and to Washington Irving, then in Europe.

He sailed on the ship Cadmus, Captain Allen, and wrote to his mother from Havre that his passage of thirty days had been a dreary blank, and that the voyage was very tiresome because of the continual talking of French and broken English, adding, ‘For Frenchmen, you know, talk incessantly, and we had at least a dozen of them with us.’ In spite of this rather fatiguing opportunity, he was not at once at home in French, but wrote ere long, ‘I am coming on famously, I assure you.’ He wrote from Auteuil, where he soon went, ‘Attached to the house is an extensive garden, full of fruit-trees, and bowers, and alcoves, where the boarders ramble and talk from morning till night. This makes the situation an excellent one for me; I can at any time hear French conversation,—for the French are always talking. Besides, the conversation is the purest of French, inasmuch as persons from the highest circles in Paris are residing here, —amongst others, an old gentleman who was [47] of the household of Louis the Sixteenth, and a Madame de Sailly, daughter of a celebrated advocate named Berryer, who was the defender of Marshal Ney in his impeachment for treason. There is also a young student of law here, who is my almost constant companion, and who corrects all my mistakes in speaking or writing the French. As he is not much older than I am, I do not feel so much embarrassed in speaking to him as I do in speaking to others. These are some of the advantages which I enjoy here, and you can easily imagine others which a country residence offers over that of a city, during the vacation of the literary institutions at Paris and the cessation of their lectures.’

It is to be noticed from the outset that the French villages disappointed him as they disappoint many others. In his letters he recalls ‘how fresh and cheerful and breezy a New England village is; how marked its features—so diferent from the town, so peculiar, so delightful.’ He finds a French village, on the other hand, to be like a deserted town, having ‘the same paved streets, the same dark, narrow alleys without sidewalks, the same dingy stone houses, each peeping into its neighbor's windows, the same eternal stone walls, shutting in from the eye of the stranger all the beauty of the place and opposing an inhospitable barrier to the lover [48] of natural scenery.’ But when he finds himself among rural scenes, he has the delight felt by many an American boy since his days, as in the picture following:—

From Orleans I started on foot for Tours on the fifth of October. October is my favorite month of the twelve. When I reflected that if I remained in Paris I should lose the only opportunity I might ever enjoy of seeing the centre of France in all the glory of the vintage and the autumn, I ‘shut the book-lid’ and took wing, with a little knapsack on my back, and a blue cap,—not exactly like Quentin Durward, but perhaps a little more. More anon of him. I had gone as far as Orleans in the diligence because the route is through an uninteresting country.

I began the pedestrian part of my journey on one of those dull, melancholy days which you will find uttering a mournful voice in Sewall's Almanack: ‘Expect—much—rain —about—this—time!’ ‘Very miscellaneous weather, good for sundry purposes,’ —but not for a journey on foot, thought I. But I had a merry heart, and it went merrily along all day. At sundown I found myself about seven leagues on my way and one beyond Beaugency. I found the route one continued vineyard. On each side of the road, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but vines, save here and there a [49] glimpse of the Loire, the turrets of an old chateau, or spire of a village church. The clouds had passed away with the morning, and I had made a fine day's journey, cutting across the country, traversing vineyards, and living in all the luxury of thought which the occasion inspired. I recollect that at sunset I had entered a path which wound through a wide vineyard where the villagers were still at their labors, and I was loitering along, talking with the peasantry and searching for an auberge to pass the night in. I was presently overtaken by a band of villagers; I wished them a good evening, and finding that the girls of the party were going to a village at a short distance, I joined myself to the band. I wanted to get into one of the cottages, if possible, in order to study character. I had a flute in my knapsack, and I thought it would be very pretty to touch up at a cottage door, Goldsmith—like,—though I would not have done it for the world without an invitation. Well, before long, I determined to get an invitation, if possible. So I addressed the girl who was walking beside me, told her I had a flute in my sack, and asked her if she would like to dance. Now laugh long and loud! What do you suppose her answer was? She said she liked to dance, but she did not know what a flute was! What havoc that made among my romantic [50] ideas! My quietus was made; I said no more about a flute, the whole journey through; and I thought nothing but starvation would drive me to strike up at the entrance of a village, as Goldsmith did.

Life, i.90, 91.

Thus, wherever he goes, his natural good spirits prevail over everything. Washington Irving, in his diary, speaks of Longfellow at Madrid as having ‘arrived safely and cheerily, having met with no robbers.’ Mrs. Alexander Everett, wife of the American minister at Madrid, writes back to America, ‘His countenance is itself a letter of recommendation.’ He went into good Spanish society and also danced in the streets on village holidays. At the Alhambra, he saw the refinement of beauty within the halls, and the clusters of gypsy caves in the hillside opposite. After eight months of Spain he went on to Italy, where he remained until December, and passed to Germany with the new year. He sums up his knowledge of the languages at this point by saying, ‘With the French and Spanish languages I am familiarly conversant so as to speak them correctly and write them with as much ease and fluency as I do the English. The Portuguese I read without difficulty. And with regard to my proficiency in the Italian, I have only to say that all at the hotel where I lodge [51] took me for an Italian, until I told them I was an American.’ He settled down to his studies in Germany, his father having written, with foresight then unusual, ‘I consider the German language and literature much more important than the Italian.’ He did not, however, have any sense of actual transplantation, as is the case with some young students, for although he writes to his sister (March 28, 1829), ‘My poetic career is finished. Since I left America I have hardly put two lines together,’ yet he sends to Carey & Lea, the Philadelphia publishers, to propose a series of sketches and tales of New England life. These sketches, as given in his note-book, are as follows:—

1. New England Scenery: description of Sebago Pond; rafting logs; tavern scene; a tale connected with the ‘Images.’

2. A New England Village: country squire; the parson; the little deacon; the farm-house kitchen.

3. Husking Frolic: song and tales; fellow who plays the fife for the dance; tale of the Quoddy Indians; description of Sacobezon, their chief.

5. Thanksgiving Day: its merry-making, and tales (also of the Indians).

7. Description of the White Mountains: tale of the Bloody Hand. [52]

10. Reception of Lafayette in a country village.

13. Down East: the missionary of Acadie.

Life, i. 165.

A few days after, he wrote from Gottingen to his father, ‘I shall never again be in Europe.’ We thus see his mind at work on American themes in Germany, as later on German themes in America, unconsciously predicting that mingling of the two influences which gave him his fame. His earlier books gave to studious Americans, as I can well recall, their first imaginative glimpses of Europe, while the poet's homeward-looking thoughts from Europe had shown the instinct which was to identify his later fame with purely American themes. It is to be noticed that whatever was artificial and foreign in Longfellow's work appeared before he went to Europe; and was the same sort of thing which appeared in all boyish American work at that period. It was then that in describing the Indian hunter he made the dance go round by the greenwood tree. He did not lay this aside at once after his return from Europe, and Margaret Fuller said of him, ‘He borrows incessantly and mixes what he borrows.’ Criticising the very prelude to ‘Voices of the Night,’ she pointed out the phrases ‘pentecost’ and ‘bishop's-caps’ as indications that he was not merely ‘musing [53] upon many things,’ but on many books which described them. But the habit steadily diminished. His very gift at translation, in which he probably exceeded on the whole any other modern poet, led him, nevertheless, always to reproduce old forms rather than create new ones, thus aiding immensely his popularity with the mass of simple readers, while coming short of the full demands of the more critical. To construct his most difficult poems was thus mainly a serene pleasure, and something as far as possible from that conflict which kept Hawthorne all winter, by his wife's testimony, with ‘a knot in his forehead’ while he was writing ‘The Scarlet Letter.’

It is always to be borne in mind that, as Mr. Scudder has pointed out in his admirable paper on ‘Longfellow and his Art,’ the young poet was really preparing himself in Europe for his literary work as well as for his professional work, and half consciously. This is singularly confirmed by his lifelong friend, Professor George W. Greene, who, in dedicating his ‘The Life of Nathanael Greene’ to his friend, thus recalls an evening spent together at Naples in 1828:—

‘We wanted,’ he says, ‘to be alone, and yet to feel that there was life all around us. We went up to the flat roof of the house where, as [54] we walked, we could look down into the crowded street, and out upon the wonderful bay, and across the bay to Ischia and Capri and Sorrento, and over the house-tops and villas and vineyards to Vesuvius. The ominous pillar of smoke hung suspended above the fatal mountain, reminding us of Pliny, its first and noblest victim. A golden vapor crowned the bold promontory of Sorrento, and we thought of Tasso. Capri was calmly sleeping, like a sea-bird upon the waters; and we seemed to hear the voice of Tacitus from across the gulf of eighteen centuries, telling us that the historian's pen is still powerful to absolve or to condemn long after the imperial sceptre has fallen from the withered hand. There, too, lay the native island of him whose daring mind conceived the fearful vengeance of the Sicilian Vespers. We did not yet know Niccolini; but his grand verses had already begun their work of regeneration in the Italian heart. Virgil's tomb was not far off. The spot consecrated by Sannazaro's ashes was near us. And over all, with a thrill like that of solemn music, fell the splendor of the Italian sunset.’1

As an illustration of this obvious fact that Longfellow, during this first European visit, while nominally training himself for purely educational work, was fitting himself also for a [55] literary career, we find from his letter to his father, May 15, 1829, that while hearing lectures in German and studying faithfully that language, he was, as he says, ‘writing a book, a kind of Sketch-Book of scenes in France, Spain, and Italy.’ We shall presently encounter this book under the name of ‘Outre-Mer.’ He connects his two aims by saying in the same letter, ‘One must write and write correctly, in order to teach.’ Again he adds, ‘The further I advance, the more I see to be done. The more, too, I am persuaded of the charlatanism of literary men. For the rest, my fervent wish is to return home.’ His brother tells us that among his note-books of that period, we find a favorite passage from Locke which reappears many years after in one of his letters and in his impromptu address to the children of Cambridge, in 1880: ‘Thus the ideas as well as the children of our youth often die before us, and our minds represent to us those tombs to which we are approaching; where, though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery moulders away.’2 He also included a quotation from John Lyly's ‘Endymion,’ which ten years later furnished the opening of his own ‘Hyperion.’ [56] ‘Dost thou know what a poet is? Why, fool, a poet is as much as one should say—a poet.’ When we consider what he had just before written to his sister, it only furnishes another illustration of the fact, which needs no demonstration, that young authors do not always know themselves.

He reached home from Europe, after three years of absence, on August 11, 1829, looking toward Bowdoin College as his abode, and a professorship of modern languages as his future position. Up to this time, to be sure, the economical college had offered him only an instructorship. But he had shown at this point that quiet decision and firmness which marked him in all practical affairs, and which was not always quite approved by his more anxious father. In this case he carried his point, and he received on the 6th of September this simple record of proceedings from the college:—

In the Board of Trustees of Bowdoin College, Sept. 1st, 1829: Mr. Henry W. Longfellow having declined to accept the office of instructor in modern languages.

Voted, that we now proceed to the choice of a professor of modern languages.

And Mr. H. W. Longfellow was chosen.

Thus briefly was the matter settled, and he was launched upon his life's career at the age of [57] twenty-two. Of those who made up his circle of friends in later years, Holmes had just graduated from Harvard, Sumner was a Senior there, and Lowell was a schoolboy in Cambridge. Few American colleges had at that time special professors of modern languages, though George Ticknor had set a standard for them all. Longfellow had to prepare his own text-books—to translate ‘L'Homond's Grammar,’ to edit an excellent little volume of French ‘Proverbes Dramatiques,’ and a small Spanish Reader, ‘Novelas Españolas.’ He was also enlisted in a few matters outside, and drew up the outline of a prospectus for a girls' high school in Portland, such high schools being then almost as rare as professorships of modern languages. He was also librarian. He gave a course of lectures on French, Spanish, and Italian literature, but there seems to have been no reference to German, which had not then come forward into the place in American education which it now occupies. As to literature, he wrote to his friend, George W. Greene, ‘Since my return I have written one piece of poetry, but have not published a line. You need not be alarmed on that score. I am all prudence now, since I can form a more accurate judgment of the merit of poetry. If I ever publish a volume, it will be many years first.’ It was [58] actually nine years. For the North American Review he wrote in April, 1831, an essay on ‘The Origin and Progress of the French Language.’ He afterwards sent similar papers to the same periodical upon the Italian and Spanish languages and literatures, each of these containing also original translations. Thus he entered on his career as a teacher, but another change in life also awaited him.

1 Scudder's Men and Letters, 28, 29.

2 Locke, Essay on the Human Understanding, bk. II. ch. 10, ‘Of Retention.’

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