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Chapter 6: marriage and life at Brunswick

It has been a source of regret to many that the memoirs of Longfellow, even when prepared by his brother, have given, perhaps necessarily, so little space to his early love and first marriage, facts which are apt to be, for a poet, the turning-points in his career. We know that this period in Lowell's life, for instance, brought what seemed almost a transformation of his nature, making an earnest reformer and patriot of a youth who had hitherto been little more than a brilliant and somewhat reckless boy. In Longfellow's serener nature there was no room for a change so marked, yet it is important to recognize that it brought with it a revival of that poetic tendency which had singularly subsided for a time after its early manifestation. He had written to his friend, George W. Greene, on June 27, 1830, that he had long ceased to attach any value to his early poems or even to think of them at all. Yet after about a year of married life, he began (December 1, 1832) the introduction to his Phi Beta Kappa poem, and [60] during the following year published a volume of poetical translations from the Spanish; thus imitating Bryant, then in some ways his model, who had derived so much of his inspiration from the Spanish muse. It is not unreasonable to recognize something of his young wife's influence in this rekindling of poetic impulse, and it is pleasant, in examining the manuscript lectures delivered by him at Bowdoin College and still preserved there, to find them accompanied by pages of extracts, here and there, in her handwriting. It will therefore be interesting to make her acquaintance a little farther.

Mary Storer Potter was the second daughter of the Hon. Barrett Potter and Anne (Storer) Potter of Portland, neighbors and friends of the Longfellow family. She had been for a time a schoolmate of Henry Longfellow at the private school of Bezaleel Cushman in Portland; and it is the family tradition that on the young professor's returning to his native city after his three years absence in Europe he saw her at church and was so struck with her appearance as to follow her home afterwards without venturing to accost her. On reaching his own house, however, he begged his sister to call with him at once at the Potter residence, and all the rest followed as in a novel. They were married September 14, 1831, she being then nineteen [61] years of age, having been born on May 12, 1812, and he being twenty-four.

It was a period when Portland was somewhat celebrated for the beauty of its women; and indeed feminine beauty, at least in regard to coloring, seems somewhat developed, like the tints of garden flowers, by the neighborhood of the sea. An oil painting of Mrs. Longfellow is in my possession, taken in a costume said to have been selected by the young poet from one of the highly illustrated annuals so much in vogue at that day. She had dark hair and deep blue eyes, the latter still represented in some of her nieces, although she left no children. Something of her love of study and of her qualities of mind and heart are also thus represented in this younger generation. She had never learned Latin or Greek, her father disapproving of those studies for girls, but he had encouraged her in the love of mathematics, and there is among her papers a calculation of an eclipse.

She had been mainly educated at the school, then celebrated, of Miss Cushing in Hingham. ‘My first impression of her,’ wrote in later years the venerable professor, Alpheus Packard,—who was professor of Latin and Greek at Bowdoin at the time of her marriage,—‘is of an attractive person, blooming in health and beauty, the graceful bride of a very attractive and elegant [62] young man.’ Some books from her girlish library now lie before me, dingy and time-worn, with her name in varying handwriting from the early ‘Mary S. Potter’ to the later ‘Mary S. P. Longfellow.’ They show many marked passages and here and there a quotation. The collection begins with Miss Edgeworth's ‘Harry and Lucy;’ then follow somewhat abruptly ‘Sabbath Recreations,’ by Miss Emily Taylor, and ‘The Wreath, a selection of elegant poems from the best authors,’ —these poems including the classics of that day, Beattie's ‘Minstrel,’ Blair's ‘Grave,’ Gray's ‘Elegy,’ Goldsmith's ‘Traveller,’ and some lighter measures from Campbell, Moore, and Burns. The sombre muse undoubtedly predominated, but on the whole the book was not so bad an elementary preparation for the training of a poet's wife. It is a touching accidental coincidence that one of the poems most emphatically marked is one of the few American poems in these volumes, Bryant's ‘Death of the Flowers,’ especially the last verse, which describes a woman who died in her youthful beauty. To these are added books of maturer counsel, as Miss Bowdler's ‘Poems and Essays,’ then reprinted from the sixteenth English edition, but now forgotten, and Mrs. Barbauld's ‘Legacy for Young Ladies,’ discussing beauty, fashion, botany, the uses of [63] history, and especially including a somewhat elaborate essay on ‘female studies,’ on which, perhaps, Judge Potter founded his prohibition of the classics. Mrs. Barbauld lays down the rule that ‘the learned languages, the Greek especially, require a great deal more time than a young woman can conveniently spare. To the Latin,’ she adds, ‘there is not an equal objection . . . and it will not,’ she thinks, ‘in the present state of things, excite either a smile or a stare in fashionable company.’ But she afterwards says, ‘French you are not only permitted to learn, but you are laid under the same necessity of acquiring it as your brother is of acquiring the Latin.’ Mrs. Barbauld's demands, however, are not extravagant, as she thinks that ‘a young person who reads French with ease, who is so well grounded as to write it grammatically, and has what I should call a good English pronunciation will by a short residence in France gain fluency and the accent.’ This ‘good English pronunciation’ of French is still not unfamiliar to those acquainted with Anglicized or Americanized regions of Paris.

Among the maturer books of Mary Potter was Worcester's ‘Elements of History,’ then and now a clear and useful manual of its kind, and a little book called ‘The Literary Gem’ [64] (1827), which was an excellent companion or antidote for Worcester's History, as it included translations from the German imaginative writers just beginning to be known, Goethe, Richter, and Korner, together with examples of that American literary school which grew up partly in imitation of the German, and of which the ‘Legend of Peter Rugg,’ by William Austin, is the only specimen now remembered. With this as a concluding volume, it will be seen that Mary Potter's mind had some fitting preparation for her husband's companionship, and that the influence of Bryant in poetry, and of Austin, the precursor of Hawthorne, in prose, may well have lodged in her mind the ambition, which was always making itself visible in her husband, towards the new work of creating an American literature. It is in this point of view that the young wife's mental training assumed a real importance in studying the atmosphere of Longfellow's early days. For the rest, she was described by her next-door neighbor in Brunswick, Miss Emeline Weld, as ‘a lovely woman in character and appearance, gentle, refined, and graceful, with an attractive manner that won all hearts.’1

Longfellow's salary at Bowdoin College was eight hundred dollars, as professor of modern [65] languages, with an additional hundred as librarian. From the beginning he took the lead among American teachers in this department, the difficulty among these being that they consisted of two classes,—Americans imperfectly acquainted with Europe and foreigners as imperfectly known in America. Even in the selection of mere tutors the same trouble always existed, though partially diminished, as time went on, by those refugees from revolutionary excitements in Europe, especially from Germany and Italy, who were a real addition to our university circles. Even these were from their very conditions of arrival a somewhat impetuous and unmanageable class, and in American colleges —as later during the Civil War in the American army—the very circumstances of their training made them sometimes hard to control as subordinates. It was very fortunate, when they found, as in Longfellow, a well-trained American who could be placed over their heads.

There were also text-books and readers to be prepared and edited by the young professor, one of which, as I well remember, was of immense value to students, the ‘Proverbes Dramatiques,’ already mentioned, a collection of simple and readable plays, written in colloquial French, and a most valuable substitute for the previous Racine and Corneille, the use [66] of which was like teaching classes to read out of Shakespeare. Thus full of simple and congenial work, Longfellow went to housekeeping with his young wife in a house still attractive under its rural elms, and thus described by him:—

‘June 23 [1831]. I can almost fancy myself in Spain, the morning is so soft and beautiful. The tessellated shadow of the honeysuckle lies motionless upon my study floor, as if it were a figure in the carpet; and through the open window comes the fragrance of the wild brier and the mock orange. The birds are carolling in the trees, and their shadows flit across the window as they dart to and fro in the sunshine; while the murmur of the bee, the cooing of doves from the eaves, and the whirring of a little humming-bird that has its nest in the honeysuckle, send up a sound of joy to meet the rising sun.’

1 Every Other Saturday, i. 20.

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