previous next

Chapter 9: illness and death of Mrs. Longfellow

This series of happy travelling narratives was suddenly interrupted by the following letters, now first printed, to the father of the young wife.

Rotterdam, Dec. 1, 1835.
my dear Sir,—I trust that my last letter to my father has in some measure prepared your mind for the melancholy intelligence which this will bring to you. Our beloved Mary is no more. She expired on Sunday morning, Nov. 29, without pain or suffering, either of body or mind, and with entire resignation to the will of her heavenly Father. Though her sickness was long, yet I could not bring myself to think it dangerous until near its close. Indeed, I did not abandon all hope of her recovery till within a very few hours of her dissolution, and to me the blow was so sudden, that I have hardly yet recovered energy enough to write you the particulars of this solemn and mournful event. When I think, however, upon the goodness and purity of her life, and the holy and peaceful [108] death she died, I feel great consolation in my bereavement, and can say, ‘Father, thy will be done.’

Knowing the delicate state of Mary's health, I came all the way from Stockholm with fear and trembling, and with the exception of one day's ride from Kiel to Hamburg we came the whole distance by water. Unfortunately our passage from Hamburg to Amsterdam in the Steamboat was rather rough, and Mary was quite unwell. On the night of our arrival the circumstance occurred to which I alluded in my last, [the premature birth of a child] and which has had this fatal termination. . . . In Amsterdam we remained three weeks; and Mary seemed to be quite restored and was anxious to be gone. To avoid a possibility of fatigue we took three days to come to this place—a distance of only forty miles; and on our arrival here Mary was in excellent spirits and to all appearances very well. But alas! the same night she had a relapse which caused extreme debility, with a low fever, and nervous headache. This was on the 23d October. In a day or two she was better, and on the 27th worse again. After this she seemed to recover slowly, and sat up for a the first time on the 11th, though only for a short while. This continued for a day or two longer, till she felt well enough to sit up for nearly an hour. And [109] then she was seized with a violent rheumatism, and again took to her bed from which she never more arose.

During all this she was very patient, and generally cheerful, thoa at times her courage fainted and she thought that she should not recover,— wishing only that she could see her friends at home once more before she died. At such moments she loved to repeat these lines [by Andrews Norton], which seemed to soothe her feelings:—

Father! I thank thee! may no thought
     E'er deem thy chastisements severe.
But may this heart, by sorrow taught,
     Calm each wild wish, each idle fear.

On Sunday, the 22nd, all her pain had left her, and she said she had not felt so well during her sickness. On this day, too, we received a letter from Margaret, which gave her great pleasure, and renovated her spirits very much. But still from day to day she gained no strength. In this situation she continued during the whole week—perfectly calm, cheerful and without any pain. On Friday another letter came front Margaret, and she listened to it with greatest delight. A few minutes afterwards a letter from you and Eliza was brought in, which I reserved for the next day. When I went to her on Saturday morning I found her countenance much [110] changed, and my heart sank within me. Till this moment I had indulged the most sanguine hopes;—but now my fears overmastered them. She was evidently worse, though she felt as well As usual. The day passed without change; and towards evening, as she seemed a little restless and could not sleep, I sat down by her bedside, and read your letter and Eliza's to her. O, I shall never forget how her eyes and her whole countenance brightened, and with what a heavenly smile she looked up into my face as I read. My own hopes revived again to see that look; but alas! this was the last gleam of the dying lamp. Towards ten o'clock she felt a slight oppression in the chest, with a difficulty of breathing. I sat down by her side and tried to cheer her; and as her respiration became more difficult, she said to me, ‘Why should I be troubled; If I die God will take me to himself.’ And from this moment she was perfectly calm, excepting for a single instant, when she exclaimed, ‘O, my dear Father; how he will mourn for me.’ A short time afterwards she thanked Clara for her kindness, and clasping her arms affectionately round my neck, kissed me, and said, ‘Dear Henry, do not forget me!’ and after this, ‘Tell my dear friends at home that I thought of them at the last hour.’ I then read to her from the Church Litany the prayers [111] for the sick and dying; and as the nurse spoke of sending for Dr. Bosworth, the Episcopal clergyman, Mary said she should like to see him, and I accordingly sent. He came about one o'clock, but at this time Mary became apparently insensible to what was around her; and at half-past 1 she ceased to breathe.

Thus all the hopes I had so fondly cherished of returning home with my dear Mary in happiness and renovated health have in the providence of God ended in disappointment and sorrow unspeakable. All that I have left to me in my affliction is the memory of her goodness, her gentleness, her affection for me—unchangeable in life and in death—and the hope of meeting her again hereafter, where there shall be no more sickness, nor sorrow, nor suffering, nor death. I feel, too, that she must be infinitely, oh, infinitely happier now than when with us on earth, and I say to myself,—

Peace! peace! she is not dead, she does not sleep!
She has awakened from the dream of life.

With my most affectionate remembrance to Eliza and Margaret, and my warmest sympathies with you all, very truly yours,

On the 2d of December the young husband left Rotterdam for Heidelberg. There he spent [112] the winter, like Paul Flemming of ‘Hyperion,’ and buried himself in ‘old dusty books.’ He met many men who interested him, Schlosser, Gervinus, and Mittermaier, and also Bryant, the poet, from his own country, whom he saw for the first time. An added sorrow came to hi in the death of his brother-in-law and dearest friend, George W. Pierce, ‘He the young and strong,’ as he afterwards wrote in his ‘Footsteps of Angels;’ but in accordance with the advice of his friend Ticknor he absorbed himself in intellectual labor, taking the direction of a careful study of German literature This he traced from its foundations down to Jean Paul Richter, who was for him, as for many other Americans of the same period, its high-water mark, even to the exclusion of Goethe. It will be remembered that Longfellow's friend, Professor Felton, translated not long after, and very likely with Longfellow's aid or counsel, Menzel's ‘History of German Literature,’ in which Goethe is made quite a secondary figure.

It is also to be noticed that George Bancroft, one of the half dozen men in America who had studied at a German University, wrote about the same time a violent attack on Goethe in the Boston ‘Christian Examiner,’ in which he pronounced him far inferior to Voltaire, ‘not in genius and industry only, but still more in morality.’ [113] He says of him farther, ‘He imitates, he reproduces, he does not create and he does not build up. . . . His chances at popularity are diminishing. Twaddle will not pass long for wisdom. The active spirit of movement and progress finds in his works little that attracts sympathy.’1 It is to be remembered in the same connection that Longfellow, in 1837, wrote to his friend, George W. Greene, of ‘Jean Paul Richter, the most magnificent of the German prose writers,’2 and it was chiefly on Richter that his prose style was formed.

In June he left Heidelberg for the Tyrol and Switzerland, where the scene of ‘Hyperion’ was laid. He called it ‘quite a sad and lonely journey,’ but it afterwards led to results both in his personal and literary career. He sailed for home in October and established himself in Cambridge in December, 1836. The following letter to his wife's sister was written after his return.

Cambridge, Sunday evening.
my dear Eliza,—By tomorrow's steamboat I shall send you two trunks, containing the clothes which once belonged to your sister. What I have suffered in getting them ready to send to you, I cannot describe. It is not necessary, [114] that I should. Cheerful as I may have seemed to you at times, there are other times, when it seems to me that my heart would break. The world considers grief unmanly, and is suspicious of that sorrow, which is expressed by words and outward signs. Hence we strive to be gay and put a cheerful courage on, when our souls are very sad. But there are hours; when the world is shut out, and we can no longer hear the voices, that cheer and encourage us. To me such hours come daily. I was so happy with my dear Mary, that it is very hard to be alone. The sympathies of friendship are doubtless something—but after all how little, how unsatisfying they are to one who has been so loved as I have been! This is a selfish sorrow, I know: but neither reason nor reflection can still it. Affliction makes us childish. A grieved and wounded heart is hard to be persuaded. We do not wish to have our sorrow lessened. There are wounds, which are never entirely healed. A thousand associations call up the past, with all its gloom and shadow. Often a mere look or sound—a voice—the odor of a flower—the merest trifle is enough to awaken within me deep and unutterable emotions. Hardly a day passes, that some face, or familiar object, or some passage in the book I am reading does not call up the image of my beloved [115] wife so vividly, that I pause and burst into tears,—and sometimes cannot rally again for hours.

And yet, my dear Eliza, in a few days, and we shall all be gone, and others sorrowing and rejoicing as we now do, will have taken our places: and we shall say, how childish it was for us to mourn for things so transitory. There may be some consolation in this; but we are nevertheless children. Our feelings overcome

Farewell. Give my kind regards to all, and believe me most truly and affectionately, your friend,

1 Christian Examiner , July, 1839, XXVI. 363-367.

2 Life, i. 259.

3 Ms. letter.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
July, 1839 AD (1)
1837 AD (1)
December, 1836 AD (1)
December 1st, 1835 AD (1)
December 2nd (1)
November 29th (1)
October 23rd (1)
October (1)
June (1)
22nd (1)
11th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: