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Chapter 12: voices of the night

There was never any want of promptness or of industry about Longfellow, though his time was apt to be at the mercy of friends or strangers. ‘Hyperion’ appeared in the summer of 1839, and on September 12, 1839, he writes the title of his volume, ‘Voices of the Night;’ five days later he writes, still referring to it:—

First, I shall publish a collection of poems. Then,—History of English Poetry.

Studies in the Manner of Claude Lorraine; a series of Sketches.

Count Cagliostro; a novel.

The Saga of Hakon Jarl; a poem.

It is to be noticed that neither of these four projects, except it be the second, seems to imply that national character of which he dreamed when the paper in ‘The North American Review’ was written. It is also to be noticed that, as often happens with early plans of authors, none of these works ever appeared, and perhaps not even the beginning was made. The title of ‘The Saga’ shows that his mind was still engaged [138] with Norse subjects. Two months after he writes, ‘Meditating what I shall write next. Shall it be two volumes more of “Hyperion;” or a drama of Cotton Mather?’ Here we come again upon American ground, yet he soon quits it. He adds after an interruption, ‘Cotton Mather? or a drama on the old poetic legend of Der Armer Heinrich? The tale is exquisite. I have a heroine as sweet as Imogen, could I but paint her so. I think I must try this.’ Here we have indicated the theme of the ‘Golden Legend.’ Meantime he was having constant impulses to write special poems, which he often mentioned as Psalms. One of these was the ‘Midnight Mass for the Dying Year,’ which he first called an ‘Autumnal Chant.’ Soon after he says, ‘Wrote a new Psalm of Life. It is “ The Village Blacksmith.” ’ It is to be noticed that the ‘Prelude,’ probably written but a short time before the publication of ‘Voices of the Night,’ includes those allusions which called forth the criticism of Margaret Fuller to the ‘Pentecost’ and the ‘bishop's caps.’ Yet after all, the American Jews still observe Whitsunday under the name of Pentecost, and the flower mentioned may be the Mitella diphylla, a strictly North American species, though without any distinctly ‘golden ring.’ It has a faint pink suffusion, while the presence of a more [139] marked golden ring in a similar and commoner plant, the Tiarella Pennsylvanica, leads one to a little uncertainty as to which flower was meant, a kind of doubt which would never accompany a floral description by Tennyson.

It is interesting to put beside this inspirational aspect of poetry the fact that the poet at one time planned a newspaper with his friends Felton and Cleveland, involving such a perfectly practical and business-like communication as this, with his publisher, Samuel Colman, which is as follows:1

Cambridge, July 6, 1839.
my dear Sir,—In compliance with your wishes I have ordered 2200 copies of Hyperion to be printed. I do it with the understanding, that you will give your notes for $250 each, instead of the sums mentioned in the agreement: and that I shall be allowed 50 copies instead of 25 for distribution. This will leave you 150, which strikes me as a very large number.

The first Vol. ( 212 pp. ) will be done to-day: and the whole in a fortnight, I hope. It is very handsome; and those who praise you for publishing handsome books, will have some reason for saying so.

Will you have the books, or any part of them [140] done up here?—and in the English style, uncut?—Those for the Boston market I should think you would.

With best regards to Mellen and Cutler,

Very truly yours in haste

P. S. By the way; I was shocked yesterday to see in the New York Review that Undine was coming out in your Library of Romance. This is one of the tales of the Wonderhorn. Have you forgotten? I intend to come to New York, as soon as I get through with printing Hyperion; and we will bring this design to an arrangement, and one more beside.

Addressed to Samuel Colman, Esq.

8 Astor House,

New York.

That was at a time when it was quite needful that American authors should be business-like, since American publishers sometimes were not. The very man to whom this letter was addressed became bankrupt six months later; half the edition of ‘Hyperion’ (1200 copies) was seized by creditors and was locked up, so that the book was out of the market for four months. ‘No matter,’ the young author writes in his diary, ‘I had the glorious satisfaction of writing it.’ Meanwhile the ‘Knickerbocker’ had not paid its contributors for three years, and the success [141] of ‘Voices of the Night’ was regarded as signal, because the publisher had sold 850 copies in three weeks.

The popularity of the ‘Voices of the Night,’ though not universal, was very great. Hawthorne wrote to him of these poems, ‘Nothing equal to some of them was ever written in this world,—this western world, I mean; and it would not hurt my conscience much to include the other hemisphere.’2 Halleck also said of the ‘Skeleton in Armor’ that there was ‘nothing like it in the language,’ and Poe wrote to Longfellow, May 3, 1841, ‘I cannot refrain from availing myself of this, the only opportunity I may ever have, to assure the author of the “Hymn to the night,” of the “Beleaguered City,” and of the “Skeleton in Armor” of the fervent admiration with which his genius has inspired me.’

In most of the criticisms of Longfellow's earlier poetry, including in this grouping even the ‘Psalm of Life,’ we lose sight of that fine remark of Sara Coleridge, daughter of the poet, who said to Aubrey de Vere, ‘However inferior the bulk of a young man's poetry may be to that of the poet when mature, it generally possesses some passages with a special freshness of their own and an inexplicable charm to be found in [142] them alone.’ Professor Wendell's criticisms on Longfellow, in many respects admirable, do not seem to me quite to recognize this truth, nor yet the companion fact that while Poe took captive the cultivated but morbid taste of the French public, it was Longfellow who called forth more translators in all nations than all other Americans put together. If, as Professor Wendell thinks, the foundation of Longfellow's fame was the fact that he introduced our innocent American public to ‘the splendors of European civilization,’3 how is it that his poems won and held such a popularity among those who already had these splendors at their door? It is also to be remembered that he was, if this were all, in some degree preceded by Bryant, who had opened the doors of Spanish romance to young Americans even before Longfellow led them to Germany and Italy.

Yet a common ground of criticism on Longfellow's early poems lay in the very simplicity which made them, then and ever since, so near to the popular heart. Digby, in one of his agreeable books, compares them in this respect to the paintings of Cuyp in these words: ‘The objects of Cuyp, for instance, are few in number and commonplace in their character—a bit of land and water, a few cattle and figures in [143] no way remarkable. His power, says a critic, reminds me of some of the short poems of Longfellow, where things in themselves most prosaic are flooded with a kind of poetic light from the inner soul.’4 It is quite certain that one may go farther in looking back upon the development of our literature and can claim that this simplicity was the precise contribution needed at that early and formative period. Literature in a new country naturally tends to the florid, and one needs only to turn to the novels of Charles Brockden Brown, or even Bancroft's ‘History of the United States,’ to see how eminently this was the case in America. Whatever the genius of Poe, for instance, we can now see that he represented, in this respect, a dangerous tendency, and Poe's followers and admirers exemplified it in its most perilous form. Take, for instance, such an example as that of Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers of Georgia, author of ‘Eonchs of Ruby,’ a man of whom Bayard Taylor wrote in 1871, speaking of that period thirty years earlier, ‘that something wonderful would come out of Chivers.’5 It is certain that things wonderful came out of him at the very beginning, for we owe to him the statement that ‘as the irradiancy [144] of a diamond depends upon its diaphanous translucency, so does the beauty of a poem upon its rhythmical crystallization of the Divine Idea.’ One cannot turn a page of Chivers without recognizing that he at his best was very closely allied to Poe at his worst. Such a verse as the following was not an imitation, but a twin blossom:—

On the beryl-rimmed rebecs of Ruby
     Brought fresh from the hyaline streams,
She played on the banks of the Yuba
     Such songs as she heard in her dreams,
Like the heavens when the stars from their eyries
     Look down through the ebon night air,
Where the groves by the Ouphantic Fairies
     Lit up for my Lily Adair,
For my child-like Lily Adair,
     For my heaven-born Lily Adair,
For my beautiful, dutiful Lily Adair.

It is easy to guess that Longfellow, in his North American Review article, drew from Dr. Chivers and his kin his picture of those ‘writers, turgid and extravagant,’ to be found in American literature. He farther says of them: ‘Instead of ideas, they give us merely the signs of ideas. They erect a great bridge of words, pompous and imposing, where there is hardly a drop of thought to trickle beneath. Is not he who thus apostrophizes the clouds, “ Ye posters of the wakeless air! ” quite as extravagant as the Spanish poet, who calls a star a [145] “burning doubloon of the celestial bank” ?’6 It is a curious fact that this exuberant poet Chivers claimed a certain sympathy7 with the Boston ‘Dial’ and with the transcendental movement, which had a full supply of its own extravagances; and it is clear that between these two rhetorical extremes there was needed a voice for simplicity. Undoubtedly Bryant had an influence in the same direction of simplicity. But Bryant seemed at first curiously indifferent to Longfellow. ‘Voices of the Night’ was published in 1839, and there appeared two years after, in 1841, a volume entitled ‘Selections from the American Poets,’ edited by Bryant, in which he gave eleven pages each to Percival and Carlos Wilcox, nine to Pierpont, eight to himself, and only four to Longfellow. It is impossible to interpret this proportion as showing that admiration which Bryant seems to have attributed to himself five years later when he wrote to him of the illustrated edition of his poems, ‘They appear to be more beautiful than on former readings, much as I then admired them. The exquisite music of your verse dwells more than ever on my ear.’8 Their personal relation [146] remained always cordial, but never intimate, Longfellow always recognizing his early obligations to the elder bard and always keeping by him the first edition of Bryant's poems, published in 1821. Both poets were descended from a common pilgrim ancestry in John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, whose story Longfellow has told.9

Thus much for first experiences with the world of readers. The young professor's academical standing and services must be reserved for another chapter. But he at once found himself, apart from this, a member of a most agreeable social circle, for which his naturally cheerful temperament admirably fitted him. It is indeed doubtful if any Harvard professor of to-day could record in his note-books an equally continuous course of mild festivities. There are weeks when he never spends an evening at home. He often describes himself as ‘gloomy,’ but the gloom is never long visible. He constantly walks in and out of Boston, or drives to Brookline or Jamaica Plain; and whist and little suppers are never long omitted. Lowell was not as yet promoted to his friendship because of youth, nor had he and Holmes then been especially brought together, but Prescott, Sumner, Felton, and others constantly appear. [147] He draws the line at a fancy ball, declining to costume himself for that purpose; and he writes that he never dances, but in other respects spends his evenings after his own inclination. Two years later, however, he mentions his purpose of going to a subscription ball ‘for the purpose of dancing with elderly ladies,’ who are, he thinks, ‘much more grateful for slight attentions than younger ones.’

It is curious to find the fact made prominent by all contemporary critics, in their references to the young professor, that he was at this time not only neat in person, but with a standard of costume which made him rather exceptional. To those accustomed to the average dress of instructors in many colleges up to this day, this spirit of criticism may afford no surprise. His brother tells us that ‘good Mrs. Craigie thought he had somewhat too gay a look,’ and ‘had a fondness for colors in coats, waistcoats, and neckties.’ It will be remembered that in ‘Hyperion’ he makes the Baron say to Paul Flemming, ‘The ladies already begin to call you Wilhelm Meister, and they say that your gloves are a shade too light for a strictly virtuous man.’ He wrote also to Sumner when in Europe: ‘If you have any tendency to curl your hair and wear gloves like Edgar in “Lear,” do it before your return.’ It is a curious fact that he wrote of himself [148] about the same time to his friend, George W. Greene, in Rome: ‘Most of the time am alone; smoke a good deal; wear a broad-brimmed hat, black frock coat, a black cane.’10

Of the warmth of heart which lay beneath this perhaps worldly exterior, the following letter to his youthful sister-in-law gives evidence:—

Friday evening [1837].
My good, dear Madge,— you do not know how sorry I am, that I cannot see you. But for a week past I have hardly left my chamber. I have been so ill as to give up all College duties, Lectures, &c.; and am very happy to get through—(as I trust I shall) without a fever, which I have been expecting for several days past. To-night I am better and have crawled off the sofa, to write you half a dozen lines.

My dear little child; I am truly delighted to know you are in Boston. It is an unexpected pleasure to me. Of course you mean to stay all summer; and I shall see you very often. Write me immediately; and tell me everything about everybody. I shall come and kiss you to death, as soon as my bodily strength will permit.

Till then very truly
my little dear,

Yr. Brother Henry.

1 From the Chamberlain Collection of Autographs, Boston Public Library.

2 Life, i. 349.

3 Literary History of America, p. 384.

4 The Lover's Seat, London, i. 36.

5 Passages from the Correspondence of Rufus W. Griswold, p. 46.

6 North American Review, XXXIV. 75.

7 Passages from the Correspondence of Rufus W. Griswold, p. 46.

8 Life, II. 31.

9 Bigelow's Life of Bryant, p. 3.

10 Life, i. 256, 304.

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