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Chapter 14: anti-slavery poems and second marriage

It is difficult now to realize what an event in Longfellow's life was the fact of his writing a series of anti-slavery poems on board ship and publishing them in a thin pamphlet on his return. Parties on the subject were already strongly drawn; the anti-slavery party being itself divided into subdivisions which criticised each other sharply. Longfellow's temperament was thoroughly gentle and shunned extremes, so that the little thin yellow-covered volume came upon the community with something like a shock. As a matter of fact, various influences had led him up to it. His father had been a subscriber to Benjamin Lundy's ‘Genius of Universal Emancipation,’ the precursor of Garrison's ‘Liberator.’ In his youth at Brunswick, Longfellow had thought of writing a drama on the subject of ‘Toussaint l'ouverture,’ his reason for it being thus given, ‘that thus I may do something in my humble way for the great cause of negro emancipation.’

Margaret Fuller, who could by no means be [164] called an abolitionist, described the volume as ‘the thinnest of all Mr. Longfellow's thin books; spirited and polished like its forerunners; but the subject would warrant a deeper tone.’ On the other hand, the editors of ‘Graham's Magazine’ wrote to Mr. Longfellow that ‘the word slavery was never allowed to appear in a Philadelphia periodical,’ and that ‘the publisher objected to have even the name of the book appear in his pages.’ His friend Samuel Ward, always an agreeable man of the world, wrote from New York of the poems, ‘They excite a good deal of attention and sell rapidly. I have sent one copy to the South and others shall follow,’ and includes Longfellow among ‘you abolitionists.’ The effect of the poems was unquestionably to throw him on the right side of the great moral contest then rising to its climax, while he incurred, like his great compeers, Channing, Emerson, and Sumner, some criticism from the pioneers. Such differences are inevitable among reformers, whose internal contests are apt to be more strenuous and formidable than those incurred between opponents; and recall to mind that remark of Cosmo de Medici which Lord Bacon called ‘a desperate saying;’ namely, that ‘Holy Writ bids us to forgive our enemies, but it is nowhere enjoined upon us that we should forgive our friends.’ [165]

To George Lunt, a poet whose rhymes Longfellow admired, but who bitterly opposed the anti-slavery movement, he writes his programme as follows:—

I am sorry you find so much to gainsay in my Poems on Slavery. I shall not argue the point with you, however, but will simply state to you my belief.

1. I believe slavery to be an unrighteous institution, based on the false maxim that Might makes Right.

2. I have great faith in doing what is righteous, and fear no evil consequences.

3. I believe that every one has a perfect right to express his opinion on the subject of Slavery, as on every other thing; that every one ought so to do, until the public opinion of all Christendom shall penetrate into and change the hearts of the Southerners on this subject.

4. I would have no other interference than what is sanctioned by law.

5. I believe that where there is a will there is a way. When the whole country sincerely wishes to get rid of Slavery, it will readily find the means.

6. Let us, therefore, do all we can to bring about this will, in all gentleness and Christian charity.

And God speed the time!

Life, II. 8.


Mr. Longfellow was, I think, not quite justly treated by the critics, or even by his latest biographer, Professor Carpenter,1 for consenting to the omission of the anti-slavery poems from his works, published by Carey and Hart in Philadelphia in November, 1845. This was an illustrated edition which had been for some time in preparation and did not apparently, like the nearly simultaneous edition of Harper, assume to contain his complete works. The Harper edition was published in February, 1846, in cheaper form and double columns, and was the really collective edition, containing the anti-slavery poems and all. As we do not know the circumstances of the case, it cannot positively be asserted why this variation occurred, but inasmuch as the Harpers were at that period, and for many years after, thoroughly conservative on the slavery question and extremely opposed to referring to it in any way, it is pretty certain that it must have been because of the positive demand of Longfellow that these poems were included by them. The criticism of the abolitionists on him was undoubtedly strengthened by the apostrophe to the Union at the close of his poem, ‘The Building of the Ship,’ in 1850, a passage which was described by William Lloyd Garrison in the ‘Liberator’ as ‘a eulogy dripping with the [167] blood of imbruted humanity,’2 and was quite as severely viewed by one of the most zealous of the Irish abolitionists, who thus wrote to their friends in Boston:—

Dublin [Ireland], April 28, 1850.
[After speaking about Miss Weston's displeasure with Whittier and her being unfair to him, etc., the letter adds—] Is it not a poor thing for Longfellow that he is no abolitionist— that his anti-slavery poetry is perfect dish water beside Whittier's—and that he has just penned a Paean on the Union? I can no more comprehend what there is in the Union to make the Yankee nation adore it —than you can understand the attractions of Royalty & Aristocracy which thousands of very good people in England look on as the source & mainstay of all that is great and good in the nation. . . .

Yet Mr. Whittier himself, though thus contrasted with Longfellow, had written thanking him for his ‘Poems on Slavery,’ which in tract form, he said, ‘had been of important service to the Liberty movement.’ Whittier had also asked whether Longfellow would accept a nomination [168] to Congress from the Liberty Party, and had added, ‘Our friends think they could throw for thee one thousand more votes than for any other man.’4 Nor was Whittier himself ever a disunionist, even on anti-slavery grounds.

It is interesting to note that it was apparently the anti-slavery question which laid the foundation for the intimacy between Longfellow and Lowell. Lowell had been invited, on the publication of ‘A Year's Life,’ to write for an annual which was to appear in Boston and to be edited, in Lowell's own phrase, ‘by Longfellow, Felton, Hillard and that set.’5 Lowell subsequently wrote in the ‘Pioneer’ kindly notices of Longfellow's ‘Poems on Slavery,’ but there is no immediate evidence of any personal relations between them at that time. In a letter to Poe, dated at Elmwood June 27, 1844, Lowell says of a recent article in the ‘Foreign Quaterly Review’ attributed to John Forster, ‘Forster is a friend of some of the Longfellow clique here, which perhaps accounts for his putting L. at the top of our Parnassus. These kinds of arrangements do very well, however, for the present.’6 . . . It will be noticed that what Lowell had originally called a ‘set’ has now become a ‘clique.’ [169] It is also evident that he did not regard Longfellow as the assured head of the American Parnassus, and at any rate he suggests some Possible rearrangement for the future. Their real friendship seems to have begun with a visit by Longfellow to Lowell's study on October 29, 1846, when the conversation turned chiefly on the slavery question. Longfellow called to see him again on the publication of his second volume of poems, at the end of the following year, and Lowell spent an evening with Longfellow during March, 1848, while engaged on ‘The Fable for Critics,’ in which the younger poet praised the elder so warmly.

Longfellow's own state of mind at this period is well summed up in the following letter to his wife's younger sister, Mrs. Peter Thacher, then recently a mother.

Cambridge, Feb. 15, 1843.
my dear Margaret,—I was very much gratified by your brief epistle, which reached me night before last, and brought me the assurances of your kind remembrance. Believe me, I have often thought of you and your husband; and have felt that your new home, though remote from many of your earlier friends, was nevertheless to you the centre of a world of happiness. With your affection, and your ‘young Astyanax,’ [170] the ‘yellow house’ becomes a golden palace.

For my part, Life seems to be to me ‘a battle and a march.’ I am sometimes well,—sometimes ill, and always restless. My late expedition to Germany did me a vast deal of good; and my health is better than it has been for years. So long as I keep out of doors and take exercise enough, I feel perfectly well. So soon as I shut myself up and begin to study, I feel perfectly ill. Thus the Sphinx's riddle—the secret of health—is discovered. In Germany I led an out-of-door life; bathing and walking from morning till night. I was at Boppard on the Rhine, in the old convent of Marienberg, now a Bathing establishment. I travelled a little in Germany; then passed through Belgium to England. In London I staid with Dickens; and had a very pleasant visit. His wife is a gentle, lovely character; and he has four children, all beautiful and good. I saw likewise the raven, who is stuffed in the entry—and his successor, who stalks gravely in the garden.

I am very sorry, my dear Margaret, that I cannot grant your request in regard to Mary's Journal. Just before I sailed for Europe, being in low spirits, and reflecting on the uncertainties of such an expedition as I was then beginning, I burned a great many letters and private papers, [171] and among them this. I now regret it; but alas! too late.

Ah! my dear Margaret! though somewhat wayward and restless, I most affectionately cherish the memory of my wife. You know how happily we lived together; and I know that never again shall I be loved with such devotion, sincerity, and utter forgetfulness of self. Make her your model, and you will make your husband ever happy; and be to him as a household lamp irradiating his darkest hours.

Give my best regards to him. I should like very much to visit you; but know not how I can bring it about. Kiss ‘young Astyanax’ for me, and believe me ever affectionately your brother

Meanwhile a vast change in his life was approaching. He had met, seven years before in Switzerland, a maiden of nineteen, Frances Elizabeth Appleton, daughter of Nathan Appleton, a Boston merchant; and though his early sketch of her in ‘Hyperion’ may have implied little on either side, it was fulfilled at any rate, after these years of acquaintance, by her consenting to become his wife, an event which took place on the 13th of July, 1843, and was thus announced by him in a letter to Miss Eliza [172] A. Potter of Portland, his first wife's elder sister.

Cambridge, May 25, 1843.
my dear Eliza,— I have been meaning for a week or more to write you in order to tell you of my engagement, and to ask your sympathies and good wishes. But I have been so much occupied, and have had so many letters to write, to go by the last steamers, that I have been rather neglectful of some of my nearer and dearer friends; trusting to their kindness for my excuse.

Yes, my dear Eliza, I am to be married again. My life was too lonely and restless;—I needed the soothing influences of a home;—and I have chosen a person for my wife who possesses in a high degree those virtues and excellent traits of character, which so distinguished my dear Mary. Think not, that in this new engagement, I do any wrong to her memory. I still retain, and ever shall preserve with sacred care all my cherished recollections of her truth, affection and beautiful nature. And I feel, that could she speak to me, she would approve of what I am doing. I hope also for your approval and for your father's. . . . Think of me ever as

Very truly your friend


The lady thus described was one who lives in the memory of all who knew her, were it only by her distinguished appearance and bearing, her ‘deep, unutterable eyes,’ in Longfellow's own phrase, and her quiet, self-controlled face illumined by a radiant smile. She was never better described, perhaps, than by the Hungarian, Madame Pulszky, who visited America with Kossuth, and who wrote of her as ‘a lady of Junonian beauty and of the kindest heart.’8 Promptly and almost insensibly she identified herself with all her husband's work, a thing rendered peculiarly valuable from the fact that his eyes had become overstrained, so that he welcomed an amanuensis. Sometimes she suggested subjects for poems, this being at least the case with ‘The Arsenal at Springfield,’ first proposed by her within the very walls of the building, a spot whose moral was doubtless enhanced by the companionship of Charles Sumner, just then the especial prophet of international peace. She also aided him effectually in his next book, ‘The Poets and Poetry of Europe,’ in which his friend Felton also cooperated, he preparing the biographical notices while Longfellow made the selections and also some of the translations.

I add this letter from his betrothed, which [174] strikes the reader as singularly winning and womanly. This also is addressed to the elder sister of the first Mrs. Longfellow.

Boston, June 5, 1843.
dear Miss Potter,—Accept my warmest thanks for the very kind manner in which you have expressed an interest in our happiness. It is all the more welcome in coming from a stranger upon whom I have no past claim to kindle a kindly regard, and touches my heart deeply. Among the many blessings which the new world I have entered reveals to me, a new heritage of friends is a choice one. Those most dear to Henry, most closely linked with his early associations, I am, naturally, most anxious to know and love,—and I trust an opportunity will bring us together before long.

But I should feel no little timidity in being known to you and his family; a dread that loving him as you do I might not fulfil all the exactions of your hearts; were not such fears relieved by the generous determination you have shown to approve his choice,—upon faith in him. To one who has known him so long and so well, I need not attempt to speak of my happiness in possessing such a heart, —nor of my infinite gratitude to the Giver of every good gift for bestowing upon me the power of rendering [175] him once more happy in the hope of a home,— so sacred and dear to his loving nature by blessed memories to which I fervently pray to be found worthy to succeed. Receive again my thanks for your kind sympathy, with the assurance of my warm regards, —which I trust will not always be imprisoned in words, and with kindest remembrances to my other Portland friends,

I remain sincerely and gratefully yrs

Henry sends his most affectionate regards and hopes, thoa faintly, to be soon able to visit his home, and talk over his future with you all.9

It is pleasant to record in connection with this sweet and high-minded letter, that a copy of ‘Hyperion’ itself lies before me which is inscribed on the first page in pencil to ‘Miss Eliza A. Potter, from her affectionate friend and brother, the Author.’ That he preserved through life a warm friendliness toward all the kindred of his first wife is quite certain.

1 Beacon Biographies (Longfellow ), p. 17.

2 Garrison's Memoirs, III. 280.

3 Weston Mss., Boston Public Library.

4 Life, II. 20.

5 Scudder's Lowell , i. 93.

6 Correspondence of R. W. Griswold, p. 151.

7 Ms.

8 White, Red, and Black, II. 237.

9 Ms.

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