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Chapter 16: literary life in Cambridge

Let us now return from the history of Longfellow's academic life to his normal pursuit, literature. It seemed a curious transition from the real and genuine sympathy for human wrong, as shown in the ‘Poems on Slavery,’ to the purely literary and historic quality of the ‘Spanish Student’ (1843), a play never quite dramatic enough to be put on the stage, at least in English, though a German version was performed at the Ducal Court Theatre in Dessau, January 28, 1855. As literary work it was certainly well done; though taken in part from the tale of Cervantes ‘La Gitanilla,’ and handled before by Montalvan and by Solis in Spanish, and by Middleton in English, it yet was essentially Longfellow's own in treatment, though perhaps rather marred by taking inappropriately the motto from Robert Burns. He wrote of it to Samuel Ward in New York, December, 1840, calling it ‘something still longer which as yet no eye but mine has seen and which I wish to read to you first.’ He then adds, ‘At present, [189] my dear friend, my soul is wrapped up in poetry. The scales fell from my eyes suddenly, and I beheld before me a beautiful landscape, with figures, which I have transferred to paper almost without an effort, and with a celerity of which I did not think myself capable. Since my return from Portland I am almost afraid to look at it, for fear its colors should have faded out. And this is the reason why I do not describe the work to you more particularly. I am not sure it is worth it. You shall yourself see and judge before long.’ He thus afterwards describes it to his father: ‘I have also written a much longer and more difficult poem, called “The Spanish student,” — a drama in five acts; on the success of which I rely with some self-complacency. But this is a great secret, and must not go beyond the immediate family circle; as I do not intend to publish it until the glow of composition has passed away, and I can look upon it coolly and critically. I will tell you more of this by and by.’

Longfellow's work on ‘The Poets and Poetry of Europe’ appeared in 1845, and was afterwards reprinted with a supplement in 1871. The original work included 776 pages,1 the supplement adding 340 more. The supplement is [190] in some respects better edited than the original, because it gives the names of the translators, and because he had some better translators to draw upon, especially Rossetti. It can be said fairly of the whole book that it is intrinsically one of the most attractive of a very unattractive class, a book of which the compiler justly says that, in order to render the literary history of the various countries complete, ‘an author of no great note has sometimes been admitted, or a poem which a severer taste would have excluded.’ ‘The work is to be regarded,’ he adds, ‘as a collection, rather than as a selection, and in judging any author it must be borne in mind the translations do not always preserve the rhythm and melody of the original, but often resemble soldiers moving forward when the music has ceased and the time is marked only by the tap of the drum.’ It includes, in all, only ten languages, the Celtic and Slavonic being excluded, as well as the Turkish and Romaic, a thing which would now seem strange. But the editor's frank explanation of the fact, where he says ‘with these I am not acquainted,’ disarms criticism. This explanation implies that he was personally acquainted with the six Gothic languages of Northern Europe—Anglo-Saxon, Icelandish, Danish, Swedish, German, and Dutch—and the four Latin languages of the South of Europe— [191] French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. The mere work of compiling so large a volume in double columns of these ten languages was something formidable, and he had reason to be grateful to his friend Professor Felton, who, being a German student, as well as a Greek scholar, compiled for him all the biographical notes in the book. It is needless to say that the selection is as good as the case permitted or as the plan of the book allowed, and the volume has always maintained its place of importance in libraries. Many of the translations were made expressly for it, especially in the supplement; among these being Platen's, ‘Remorse,’ Reboul's, ‘The Angel and Child,’ and Malherbe's, ‘Consolation.’ It is to be remembered that Longfellow's standard of translation was very high and that he always maintained, according to Mrs. Fields, that Americans, French, and Germans had a greater natural gift for it than the English on account of the greater insularity of the latter's natures.2 It is also to be noted that he sometimes failed to find material for translation where others found it, as, for instance, amid the endless beauty of the Greek Anthology, which he called, ‘the most melancholy of books with an odor of dead garlands about it. Voices from the grave, cymbals of Bacchantes, songs of love, sighs, groans, [192] prayers,—all mingled together. I never read a book that made me sadder.’3

His fame at this time was widely established, yet a curious indication of the fact that he did not at once take even Cambridge by storm, as a poet, is in a letter from Professor Andrews Norton, father of the present Professor Charles E. Norton, to the Rev. W. H. Furness of Philadelphia. The latter had apparently applied to Mr. Norton for advice as to a desirable list of American authors from whom to make some literary selections, perhaps in connection with an annual then edited by him and called ‘The Diadem.’ Professor Norton, as one of the most cultivated Americans, might naturally be asked for some such counsel. In replying he sent Mr. Furness, under date of January 7, 1845, a list of fifty-four eligible authors, among whom Emerson stood last but one, while Longfellow was not included at all. He then appended a supplementary list of twenty-four minor authors, headed by Longfellow.4 We have already seen Lowell, from a younger point of view, describing Longfellow, at about this time, as the head of a ‘clique,’ and we now find Andrews Norton, from an older point of view, assigning him only the first place among authors of the second grade. It is curious [193] to notice, in addition, that Hawthorne stood next to Longfellow in this subordinate roll.

Longfellow published two volumes of poetic selections, ‘The Waif’ (1845) and ‘The Estray’ (1846), the latter title being originally planned as ‘Estrays in the Forest,’ and he records a visit to the college library, in apparent search for the origin of the phrase. His next volume of original poems, however, was ‘The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems,’ published December 23, 1845, the contents having already been partly printed in ‘Graham's Magazine,’ and most of them in the illustrated edition of his poems published in Philadelphia. The theme of the volume appears to have been partly suggested by some words in a letter to Freiligrath which seem to make the leading poem, together with that called ‘Nuremberg,’ a portion of that projected series of travel-sketches which had haunted Longfellow ever since ‘Outre-Mer.’ ‘The Norman Baron’ was the result of a passage from Thierry, sent him by an unknown correspondent. One poem was suggested by a passage in Andersen's ‘Story of my Life,’ and one was written at Boppard on the Rhine. All the rest were distinctly American in character or origin. Another poem, ‘To the Driving Cloud,’ the chief of the Omaha Indians, was his first effort at hexameters and prepared the way [194] for ‘Evangeline.’ His translation of the ‘Children of the Lord's Supper’ had also served by way of preparation; and he had happened upon a specimen in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ of the hexameter translation of the ‘Iliad’ which had impressed him very much. He even tried a passage of ‘Evangeline’ rendered into English pentameter verse, and thus satisfied himself that it was far less effective for his purpose than the measure finally adopted.

There is no doubt that the reading public at large has confirmed the opinion of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes when he says, ‘Of the longer poems of our chief singer, I should not hesitate to select “Evangeline” as the masterpiece, and I think the general verdict of opinion would confirm my choice. From the first line of the poem, from its first words, we read as we would float down a broad and placid river, murmuring softly against its banks, heaven over it, and the glory of the unspoiled wilderness all around.’ The words ‘This is the forest primeval’ have become as familiar, he thinks, as the ‘Arma virumque cano’ which opened Virgil's ‘Aeneid,’ and he elsewhere calls the poem ‘the tranquil current of these brimming, slow-moving, soulsatisfying lines.’ The subject was first suggested to Longfellow by Hawthorne, who had heard it from his friend, the Rev. H. L. Conolly, and the [195] outline of it will be found in ‘The American Note-Books’ of Hawthorne, who disappointed Father Conolly by not using it himself. It was finished on Longfellow's fortieth birthday.

It was a striking illustration of the wide popularity of ‘Evangeline,’ that even the proper names introduced under guidance of his rhythmical ear spread to other countries and were taken up and preserved as treasures in themselves. Sumner writes from England to Longfellow that the Hon. Mrs. Norton, herself well known in literature, had read ‘Evangeline,’ not once only, but twenty times, and the scene on Lake Atchafalaya, where the two lovers pass each other unknowingly, so impressed her that she had a seal cut with the name upon it. Not long after this, Leopold, King of the Belgiums, repeated the same word to her and said that it was so suggestive of scenes in human life that he was about to have it cut on a seal, when she astonished him by showing him hers.

The best review of ‘Evangeline’ ever written was probably the analysis made of it by that accomplished French traveller of half a century ago, Professor Philarete Chasles of the College Le France, in his ‘Etudes sur la Litterature et les Moeurs des Anglo-Americains du XIX. Siecle,’ published in 1851. It is interesting to read it, and to recognize anew what has often [196] been made manifest—the greater acuteness of the French mind than of the English, when discussing American themes. Writing at that early period, M. Chasles at once recognized, for instance, the peculiar quality of Emerson's genius. He describes Longfellow, in comparison, as what he calls a moonlight poet, having little passion, but a calmness of attitude which approaches majesty, and moreover a deep sensibility, making itself felt under a subdued rhythm. In short, his is a slow melody and a reflective emotion, both these being well suited to the sounds and shadows of our endless plains and our forests, which have no history. He is especially struck with the resemblance of the American poet to the Scandinavians, such as Tegner and Oehlenschlaeger. He notices even in Longquotes one of the Northern poems and then one of Longfellow's to show this analogy. It is worth while to put these side by side. This is from Oehlenschlaeger:—

Tilgiv tvungne
Trael af Elskov!
At han dig matter
Astsaeld findet. . . . etc.

The following is by Longfellow-

Fuller of fragrance, than they
And as heavy with shadows and night-dews, [197]
Hung the heart of the maiden.
The calm and magical moonlight
Seemed to inundate her soul.

It is curious to notice that Chasles makes the same criticism on ‘Evangeline’ that Holmes made on Lowell's ‘Vision of Sir Launfal;’ namely, that there is in it a mixture of the artificial and the natural. The result is, we may infer, that on the whole one still thinks of it as a work of art and does not—as, for instance, with Tolstoi's ‘Cossacks’—think of all the characters as if they lived in the very next street. Yet it is in its way so charming, he finds that although as he says, ‘There is no passion in it,’ still there is a perpetual air of youth and innocence and tenderness. M. Chasles is also impressed as a Catholic with the poet's wide and liberal comprehension of the Christian ideas. It is not, he thinks, a masterpiece (Il y a loin d'evangeline à un chef-d'oeuvre ),but he points out, what time has so far vindicated, that it has qualities which guarantee to it something like immortality. When we consider that Chasles wrote at a time when all our more sub-Stantial literature seemed to him to consist of uninteresting state histories and extensive collections of the correspondence of American presidents— a time when he could write sadly: ‘All America does not yet possess a humorist’ [198] (Toute l'amerique ne possede pas un humoriste), one can place it to the credit of Longfellow that he had already won for himself some sort of literary standing in the presence of one Frenchman. At the time of this complaint, it may be noticed that Mr. S. L. Clemens was a boy of fifteen. The usual European criticism at the present day is not that America produces so few humorists, but that she brings forth so many.

The work which came next from Longfellow's pen has that peculiar value to a biographer which comes from a distinct, unequivocal, low water mark in the intellectual product with which he has to deal. This book, ‘Kavanagh,’ had the curious fate of bringing great disappointment to most of his friends and admirers, and yet of being praised by the two among his contemporaries personally most successful in fiction, Hawthorne and Howells. Now that the New England village life has proved such rich material in the hands of Mary Wilkins, Sarah Jewett, and Rowland Robinson, it is difficult to revert to ‘Kavanagh’ (1849) without feeling that it is from beginning to end a piece of purely academic literature without a type of character, or an incident—one might almost say without a single phrase—that gives quite the flavor of real life. Neither the joys nor the griefs really reach the reader's heart for one [199] moment. All the characters use essentially the same dialect, and every sentence is duly supplied with its anecdote or illustration, each one of which is essentially bookish at last. It has been well said of it that it is an attempt to look at rural society as Jean Paul would have looked at it. Indeed, we find Longfellow reading aloud from the ‘Campaner Thal’ while actually at work on ‘Kavanagh,’ and he calls the latter in his diary ‘a romance.’5 When we consider how remote Jean Paul seems from the present daily life of Germany, one feels the utter inappropriateness of his transplantation to New England. Yet Emerson read the book ‘with great contentment,’ and pronounced it ‘the best sketch we have seen in the direction of the American novel,’ and discloses at the end the real charm he found or fancied by attributing to it ‘elegance.’ Hawthorne, warm with early friendship, pronounces it ‘a most precious and rare book, as fragrant as a bunch of flowers and as simple as one flower. . . . Nobody but yourself would dare to write so quiet a book, nor could any other succeed in it. It is entirely original, a book by itself, a true work of genius, if ever there was one.’ Nothing, I think, so well shows us the true limitations of American literature at that period as these curious phrases. It is [200] fair also to recognize that Mr. W. D. Howells, writing nearly twenty years later, says with almost equal exuberance, speaking of ‘Kavanagh,’ ‘It seems to us as yet quite unapproached by the multitude of New England romances that have followed it in a certain delicate truthfulness, as it is likely to remain unsurpassed in its light humor and pensive grace.’6

The period following the publication of ‘Evangeline’ seemed a more indeterminate and unsettled time than was usual with Longfellow. He began a dramatic romance of the age of Louis XIV., but did not persist in it, and apart from the story of ‘Kavanagh’ did no extended work. He continued to publish scattered poems, and in two years (1850) there appeared another volume called ‘The Seaside and the Fireside’ in which the longest contribution and the most finished—perhaps the most complete and artistic which he ever wrote—was called ‘The Building of the Ship.’ To those who remember the unequalled voice and dramatic power of Mrs. Kemble, it is easy to imagine the enthusiasm with which her reading of this poem was received by an audience of three thousand, and none the less because at that troubled time the concluding appeal to the Union had a distinct bearing on the conflicts of the time. For [201] the rest of the volume, it included the strong and lyric verses called ‘Seaweed,’ which were at the time criticised by many, though unreasonably, as rugged and boisterous; another poem of dramatic power, ‘Sir Humphrey Gilbert;’ and one of the most delicately imaginative and musical among all he ever wrote, ‘The Fire of Drift-Wood,’ the scene of which was the Devereux Farm at Marblehead. There were touching poems of the fireside, especially that entitled ‘Resignation,’ written in 1848 after the death of his little daughter Fanny, and one called ‘The Open Window.’ Looking back from this, his fourth volume of short poems, it must be owned that he had singularly succeeded in providing against any diminution of power or real monotony. Nevertheless his next effort was destined to be on a wider scale.

1 Mistakenly described by the Rev. Samuel Longfellow as ‘nearly four hundred pages.’ Life, II. 3.

2 Life, III. 370.

3 Life, III. 94.

4 Correspondence of R. W. Griswold, p. 162.

5 Life, II. 81.

6 North American Review, CIV. 534.

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