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Chapter 13: third visit to Europe

The year 1841 was on the whole a rather dazzling period for the young poet. His first volume had been received with enthusiasm. His second volume was under way. He had a circle of friends always ready to criticise any new poem or to propose themes for other works; chief among the latter being his friend Samuel Ward, in New York, who suggested the ‘Phantom Ship,’ on the basis of a legend in Mather's ‘Magnalia,’ and urged the translation of Uhland's ‘Das Gluck von Edenhall’ and Pfizer's ‘Junggesell.’ A scrap of newspaper, bearing the seal of the State of New York with the motto ‘Excelsior,’ suggested the poem of that name. ‘The Skeleton in Armor’ was included within the book and was originally to have given the title to it. Prescott, the historian, said that this poem and the ‘Hesperus’ were the best imaginative poems since Coleridge's ‘Ancient Mariner.’ Reading the tenth chapter of Mark in Greek, Longfellow thought of ‘Blind Bartimeus.’ He wrote to his father [150] that he liked the last two poems in the volume best, and thought them perhaps as good as anything he had written,—these being ‘Maidenhood’ and ‘Excelsior.’ It was also in this year that he conceived the plan of the ‘Spanish Student’ and of ‘a long and elaborate poem by the holy name of “Christ,” the theme of which would be the various aspects of Christendom in the Apostolic, Middle, and Modern Ages.’ It shows the quiet persistence of the poet's nature that this plan, thus conceived in 1841, was brought to a final conclusion, more than thirty years after, in 1873, and under the very name originally conceived, that of ‘Christus.’ Thus much for this year of poetic achievement. His journals, as published by his brother, show the activity of social life which the year also included; and, above all, his regular academic work was of itself continuous and exhausting. In the schedule of university lectures, announced in the college catalogue for 1841-2, one finds the following entry: ‘On the French, Spanish, Italian, and German languages and literature, by Professor Longfellow.’ In the list of officers there appear only three instructors as doing the detailed work of instruction under this professor, and the lecturing was done entirely by him, occupying three hours a week, on the afternoons of Monday, Wednesday, and [151] Friday. He was designated in the catalogue as ‘Smith Professor of the French and Spanish languages and literature and Professor of Belles Lettres,’ whatever this last phrase may have been construed as including. He had also the supervision of his subordinates, the examination of written exercises, and the attendance upon faculty meetings; and it certainly is no cause for wonder that the following letters should have passed between him and the college authorities.

Gentlemen,—I respectfully beg leave to call your attention once more to the subject of my duties as Smith Professor in the University. You will recollect that when I entered upon my labors in the Department of Modern Languages, the special duties, which devolved upon me as Head of that Department, and Professor of Belles Lettres, were agreed upon by a Committee of the Corporation and myself. Native teachers having always been employed to instruct in the elements and pronunciation of the Modern Languages, the general supervision of the Department, instruction in some of the higher works of modern foreign literature, and certain courses of Lectures were assigned to me. This arrangement, so far as I know, proved satisfactory to all the parties concerned. [152]

You will also recollect, that in the Summer of 1838, two gentlemen, namely the French and the German Instructors, for reasons which it is unnecessary to specify, resigned. Another German teacher was immediately appointed; but as no suitable person occurred at the moment to fill the place of French Instructor, the appointment of one was postponed for a season, and I consented to take charge of the Classes in that language. I would respectfully remind you of the distinct understanding at the time, that this arrangement was to be only a temporary one, and to be given up as soon as a suitable appointment could be made. It so happened, however, that I continued to instruct in the French language during the whole year.

At the commencement of the present academical year, I proposed the name of a French gentleman, and this nomination was laid by the President before your honorable body. No appointment, however, was made; but on the contrary a vote was passed, requiring the Smith Professor to instruct all the French classes for the future.

I do not, of course, Gentlemen, call in question your right to modify the duties of my Professorship; and I have proceeded to organize. the classes, and commence the instruction in the, Elements of the French language, agreeably to [153] your vote. But I still entertain the [hope] that a different arrangement, and one more in harmony with the intent of a Professorship of Belles Lettres, and more advantageous to the University, may yet be made. The symmetry and completeness of the Department are at present destroyed. The organization introduced by Mr. Ticknor, and continued successfully to the great honor of the University is broken up. The French language has no native teacher. And I submit to you, Gentlemen, whether depriving the Department of the services of such a teacher will not justly be regarded by the public as lessening the advantages of a residence at the University.

I have now under my charge 115 students in French, and 30 in German. Of course, with so many pupils my time is fully occupied. I can exercise but little superintendence over the Department; and have no leisure for the prosecution of those studies, which are absolutely requisite for the proper discharge of the duties originally prescribed to me. When the labor of mastering the Literature of even a single nation is considered,—the utter impossibility of my accomplishing anything, under the present arrangement,—in the various fields of Foreign Literature, over which my Professorship ranges, will be at once apparent. An object of greater importance is clearly sacrificed to one of less. I [154] am required to withdraw from those literary studies and instructions, which had been originally marked out for me, and to devote my time to Elementary Instruction. Now if my labors are of any importance to the College it is to the former class of duties, that the importance belongs. The latter can be performed as well, perhaps better, by an instructor, employed and paid in the usual way. In point of fact, my office as Professor of Belles Lettres is almost annihilated, and I have become merely a teacher of French. To remedy this, Gentlemen, I make to you the following propositions:—

I. That I should be wholly separated from the Department of Modern Languages, and be only Professor of Belles Lettres.

II. That I should reside, as now, in Cambridge.

III. That I should not be a member of the Faculty.

IV. That my duties be confined to lecturing during the Autumn Term; and the rest of the year be at my own disposal, as in the case of the Professor of History.

V. In consideration of which I relinquish one half of my present income from the College, and receive only one thousand dollars per annum. Respectfully submitted, & c., &c.


The committee to which was referred the memorial of Professor Longfellow reports:—

That in conformity with his wishes, one of two modifications of his existing duties may be admitted consistently with the interest of the University, both being predicated upon the plan of substituting a native of France as a principal teacher of the French language.

1. That Professor Longfellow's services should be limited to public lectures and oral instruction & relief from all other teaching, & to continue the general superintendence of the Department and to continue his lectures both terms and receive a salary of One Thousand dollars.

2. That he perform the above and give instruction by hearing recitations of the advance Classes in French, in both terms, and also of all the surplus of the Students in French, when their numbers shall exceed One Hundred & to receive a salary of Fifteen hundred dollars. The committee submit it to the wisdom of the board, which of these modifications is preferable.

For the Committee,

26 Oct. 1839.
Josiah Quincy. 2

At a later period came the following:–

Gentlemen,—I am reluctantly compelled by the state of my health to ask leave of absence [156] from the College for six months from the first of May next. In this time I propose to visit Germany, to try the effect of certain baths, by means of which, as well as by the relaxation and the sea-voyage, I hope to re-establish my health. My medical attendant advises this course as more efficacious than any treatment I can receive at home.

I shall be able, before leaving, to deliver all the lectures of the Spring Term; and on my return in November, those of the Autumn Term before its close; and it is in reference to the necessary arrangements for this, that I make thus early my application for leave of absence. The general supervision of the Department will be undertaken by Professor Felton, without any charge to the College;—the classes will lose none of their lectures;—and I trust the interests of the College will not suffer.

I would repeat in conclusion that the state of my health is the sole reason of my making this request.

I am, Gentlemen,

Your Obt Sert

Henry W. Longfellow.3 Harvard University, January 24, 1842.
To the President and Fellows of Harvard University.


He sailed on April 23, 1842, and although his health gained during the summer, was yet obliged to ask for an extension of time, as follows:—

Marienberg, September 3, 1842.
my dear Sir [Hon. Josiah Quincy],—When I left you in the Spring, I thought by this time I should have recovered my health and be setting my face homeward. In this I have been disappointed. My recovery has been slower than I expected; and though considerably better than when I arrived here, I am yet far from being well. The Doctor urges me very strongly to remain longer. He thinks it of the utmost importance to my future health, for years to come, that I should do so. He says, that if I look forward to a life of intellectual labor, in his opinion ‘it is absolutely necessary I should give up all thought of returning home before next Summer, devoting the time to reestablishing my health, and avoiding all severe study.’ I quote these words from a written opinion which he gave me this morning; and in consequence of which I have determined to ask leave of absence until that time, unless the state of my department in College should absolutely demand my return.

I assure you, that I do this with the greatest reluctance. I have no desire to remain here; on the contrary a very strong desire to be at home [158] and at work. Still I wish to return in good health and spirits, and not to lead a maimed life. I fear, and the physician positively asserts, that if I go back now I shall thwart the whole object of my journey, and that if I hope to be well I must go on with the baths.

I have therefore concluded to remain here until I receive an answer from you; promising myself that when I once escape from this hospital I will never enter another until that final one appointed for all the poets.

Will you have the goodness to say to your daughter , Miss Quincy, that I left her package for Mr. Graham at its address in Havre; and presume it reached him safely. In coming through France it was not in my power to go into Brittany, and avail myself of your letter of introduction to him; the place of his residence lying too far out of my route. From Paris I came through Belgium to this ancient city of Boppard, where I have remained stationary since the first of June.

With kind remembrances to Mrs. Quincy and your family,

Very truly yours

It is interesting to note the manner in which this appeal was met by the economical college. [159]

Sir,—I perceive with great regret, by your letter of the 3d Inst. that, although you have followed with due precision the prescriptions of the German Doctor who
corpus recenti
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convalescence is not yet attained, but that the water spirit has announced that another year is required in order to obtain the full benefit of his draughts and ablutions. The fact is a source of great sorrow to your friends and of no less embarrassment to the Corporation of the College. The granting the leave of six months absence was effected, not without difficulty. Doubts were expressed concerning the possibility of your realizing your expectations, within the period you specified; and the objections were surmounted only on your assurance that you would return in October, and that the benefit of your instructions should not be lost, by any [class] of the college, according to the arrangements you made. It was on this fact, and on this assurance alone, that assent of the Corporation was obtained. By the proposition you now make the present Senior class will be deprived of the advantages, on which they have a right to calculate and have been taught to expect.

Under the circumstances of the case, the Corporation do not feel themselves willing absolutely [160] to withhold their assent to your protracting your absence as you propose; at the same time they are compelled by their sense of duty & I am authorized to state, that they, regarding themselves, not as proprietors, but as trustees, of the funds under their control, cannot deem themselves justified in paying the salary of the Professorship to a Professor, not resident & not performing its duties. They value your services very highly, and are therefore willing, if you see fit to remain another year in Europe, to keep the Professorship open for your return; but I am directed to say that, in such case, your salary must cease, at the end of the current quarter— viz. on the 30 of November next.

The obligation thus imposed on the Corporation, it is very painful to them to fulfil, but they cannot otherwise execute the trust they have undertaken, conformably to their sense of duty.

And now, Sir, permit me to express my best wishes for your health; the high sense I entertain of your talents and attainments and the unaltered esteem & respect with which I am, most truly.

Your friend and hle St

Josiah Quincy.5 Cambridge. 30 Sep. 1842.


Longfellow spent his summer at the water-cure in Marienberg, with some diverging trips, as those to Paris, Antwerp, and Bruges. In Paris he took a letter to Jules Janin, now pretty well forgotten, but then the foremost critic in Paris, who disliked the society of literary men, saying that he never saw them and never wished to see them; and who had quarrelled personally with all the French authors, except Lamartine, whom he pronounced ‘as good as an angel.’ In Bruges the young traveller took delight in the belfry, and lived to transmit some of its charms to others. At Antwerp he had the glories of the cathedral, the memory of Quintin Matsys, and the paintings of Rubens. His home at Marienberg was in an ancient cloister for noble nuns, converted into a water-cure, then a novelty and much severer in its discipline than its later copies in America, to one of which, however, Longfellow himself went later as a patient,—that of Dr. Wesselhoeft at Brattleboro, Vermont. He met or read German poets also,—Becker, Herwegh, Lenau, Auersberg, Zedlitz, and Freiligrath, with the latter of whom he became intimate; indeed reading aloud to admiring nuns his charming poem about ‘The Flowers' Revenge’ (Der Blumen Rache ). He just missed seeing Uhland, the only German poet then more popular than Freiligrath; he visited camps of 50,000 troops [162] and another camp of naturalists at Mayence. Meantime, he heard from Prescott, Sumner, and Felton at home; the ‘Spanish Student’ went through the press, and his friend Hawthorne was married. He finally sailed for home on October 22, 1842, and occupied himself on the voyage in writing a small volume of poems on slavery.

1 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. IX. 318.

2 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. IX. 336.

3 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. x. 363.

4 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XI. 153.

5 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XI. 187.

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