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Chapter 17: resignation of Professorship—to death of Mrs. Longfellow

On the last day of 1853, Longfellow wrote in his diary, ‘How barren of all poetic production and even prose production this last year has been! For 1853 I have absolutely nothing to show. Really there has been nothing but the college work. The family absorbs half the time, and letters and visits take out a huge cantle.’ Yet four days later he wrote, January 4, 1854, ‘Another day absorbed in the college. But why complain? These golden days are driven like nails into the fabric. Who knows but they help it to hold fast and firm?’ On February 22, he writes, ‘You are not misinformed about my leaving the professorship. I am ‘pawing to get free.’’ On his birthday, February 27, he writes, in the joy of approaching freedom, ‘I am curious to know what poetic victories, if any, will be won this year.’ On April 19 he writes, ‘At eleven o'clock in No. 6 University Hall, I delivered my last lecture—the last I shall ever deliver, here [203] or anywhere.’1 The following are the letters explaining this, and hitherto unpublished, but preserved in the Harvard College archives.

Cambridge, February 16, 1854.
Gentlemen,—In pursuance of conversations held with Dr. Walker, the subject of which he has already communicated to you,—I now beg leave to tender you my resignation of the ‘Smith Professorship of the French and Spanish Languages and Literatures,’ which I have held in Harvard College since the year 1835.

Should it be in your power to appoint my successor before the beginning of the next Term, I should be glad to retire at once. But if this should be inconvenient, I will discharge the duties of the office until the end of the present Academic Year.

I venture on this occasion, Gentlemen, to call your attention to the subject of the salaries paid to the several Instructors in this Department, and to urge, as far as may be proper, such increase as may correspond to the increased expenses of living in this part of the country at the present time.

With sentiments of the highest regard, and sincere acknowledgments of your constant courtesy [204] and kindness, during the eighteen years of my connection with the College,

I have the honor to be, Gentlemen,

Your Obt. Servt.

Henry W. Longfellow.2 To the President and Corporation of Harvard University.

[to President Walker.]

Cambridge, Feb. 16, 1854.
my dear Sir,—I inclose you my note to the Corporation. Will you be kind enough to look at it, before handing it to them; for if it is not in proper form and phrase, I will write it over again.

I also inclose the letters of Schele de Vere, and remain,

Very faithfully Yours

P. S. I have not assigned any reasons for my resignation, thinking it better to avoid a repetition of details, which I have already explained to you.

[to the President and Fellows of Harvard College.]

Gentlemen,—Having last Winter signified to you my intention of resigning my Professorship [205] at the close of the present College year, I now beg leave to tender you my resignation more formally and officially.

It is eighteen years since I entered upon the duties of this Professorship. They have been to me pleasant and congenial; and I hope I have discharged them to your satisfaction, and to the advantage of the College in whose prosperity I shall always take the deepest interest.

In dissolving a connection, which has lasted so long, and which has been to me a source of so much pleasure and advantage, permit me to express to you my grateful thanks for the confidence you have reposed in me, and the many marks of kindness and consideration which I have received at your hands.

With best wishes for the College and for yourselves, I have the honor to be, Gentlemen,

Your Obedient Servant

Henry W. Longfellow, Smith Professor of French and Spanish, and Professor of Belles Lettres.4 Cambridge, August 23, 1854.

[to President Walker.]

Nahant, Aug. 23, 1854.
my dear Sir,—I inclose you the Letter of resignation we were speaking of yesterday. I [206] have made it short, as better suited to College Records; and have said nothing of the regret, which I naturally feel on leaving you, for it hardly seems to me that I am leaving you; and little of my grateful acknowledgments; for these I hope always to show, by remaining the faithful friend and ally of the College.

I beg you to make my official farewells to the members of the Faculty at their next meeting, and to assure them all and each of my regard and friendship, and of my best wishes for them in all things.

With sentiments of highest esteem, I remain

Dear Sir,

Yours faithfully

His retirement was not a matter of ill health, for he was perfectly well, except that he could not use his eyes by candle-light. But friends and guests and children and college lectures had more and more filled up his time, so that he had no strength for poetry, and the last two years had been very unproductive. There was, moreover, all the excitement of his friend Sumner's career, and of the fugitive slave cases in Boston, and it is no wonder that he writes in his diary, with his usual guarded moderation, ‘I am not, [207] however, very sure as to the result.’ Meanwhile he sat for his portrait by Lawrence, and the subject of the fugitive slave cases brought to the poet's face, as the artist testified, a look of animation and indignation which he was glad to catch and retain. On Commencement Day, July 19, 1854, he wore his academical robes for the last time, and writes of that event, ‘The whole crowded church looked ghostly and unreal as a thing in which I had no part.’ He had already been engaged upon his version of Dante, having taken it up on February 1, 1853,6 after ten years interval; and moreover another new literary project had occurred to him ‘purely in the realm of fancy,’ as he describes it, and his freedom became a source of joy.

He had been anxious for some years to carry out his early plan of works upon American themes. He had, as will be remembered, made himself spokesman for the Indians on the college platform. His list of proposed subjects had included as far back as 1829, ‘Tales of the Quoddy Indians,’ with a description of Sacobezon, their chief. After twenty-five years he wrote in his diary (June 22, 1854), ‘I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians which seems to be the right one and the only. It is to weave together their [208] beautiful traditions into a whole. I have hit upon a measure, too, which I think the right one and the only one for the purpose.’ He had to draw for this delineation not merely upon the Indians seen in books, but on those he had himself observed in Maine, the Sacs and Foxes he had watched on Boston Common, and an Ojibway chief whom he had entertained at his house. As for the poetic measure, a suitable one had just been suggested to him by the Finnish epic of ‘Kalevala,’ which he had been reading; and he had been delighted by its appropriateness to the stage character to be dealt with and the type of legend to be treated. ‘Hiawatha’ was begun on June 25, 1854, and published on November 10 of that year. He enjoyed the work thoroughly, but it evidently seemed to him somewhat tame before he got through, and this tendency to tameness was sometimes a subject of criticism with readers; but its very simplicity made the style attractive to children and gave a charm which it is likely always to retain. With his usual frankness, he stated at the outset that the metre was not original with him, and it was of course a merit in the legends that they were not original. The book received every form of attention; it was admired, laughed at, parodied, set to music, and publicly read, and his fame unquestionably rests far more securely on this [209] and other strictly American poems than on the prolonged labor of the ‘Golden Legend.’ He himself writes that some of the newspapers are ‘fierce and furious’ about ‘Hiawatha,’ and again ‘there is the greatest pother over “Hiawatha.” ’ Freiligrath, who translated the poem into German, writes him from London, ‘Are you not chuckling over the war which is waging in the “Athenaeum” about the measure from “Hiawatha” ?’ He had letters of hearty approval from Emerson, Hawthorne, Parsons, and Bayard Taylor; the latter, perhaps, making the best single encomium on the book in writing to its author, ‘The whole poem floats in an atmosphere of the American “Indian summer.” ’ The best tribute ever paid to it, however, was the actual representation of it as a drama by the Ojibway Indians on an island in Lake Huron, in August, 1901, in honor of a visit to the tribe by some of the children and grandchildren of the poet. This posthumous tribute to a work of genius is in itself so picturesque and interesting and has been so well described by Miss Alice Longfellow, who was present, that I have obtained her consent to reprint it in the Appendix to this volume.

Longfellow's next poem reverted to hexameters once more, inasmuch as ‘Evangeline’ had thoroughly outlived the early criticisms inspired by [210] this meter. The theme had crossed his mind in 1856, and he had begun to treat it in dramatic form and verse, under the name it now bears; but after a year's delay he tried it again under the name of Priscilla, taking the name, possibly, from an attractive English Quakeress, Priscilla Green, whose sweet voice had charmed him in a public meeting, ‘breaking now and then,’ as he says, ‘into a kind of rhythmic charm in which the voice seemed floating up and down on wings.’ It has been thought that he transferred in some degree the personality of this worthy woman to the heroine of his story, their Christian names being the same; but he afterwards resumed the original title, ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish.’ He wrote it with great ease between December, 1857, and March, 1858, and perhaps never composed anything with a lighter touch or more unmingled pleasure. Twenty-five thousand copies were sold or ordered of the publishers during the first week, and ten thousand in London on the first day. In both theme and treatment the story was thoroughly to his liking, and vindicated yet further that early instinct which guided him to American subjects. Longfellow was himself descended, it will be remembered, from the very marriage he described, thus guaranteeing a sympathetic treatment, while the measure is a shade crisper and more elastic than that of ‘Evangeline,’ [211] owing largely to the greater use of trochees. It is almost needless to say that no such effort can ever be held strictly to the classic rules, owing to the difference in the character of the language. With German hexameters the analogy is closer.

On July 10, 1861, Mrs. Longfellow died the tragic death which has been so often described, from injuries received by fire the day before. Never was there a greater tragedy within a household; never one more simply and nobly borne. It was true to Lowell's temperament to write frankly his sorrow in exquisite verse; but it became Longfellow's habit, more and more, to withhold his profoundest feelings from spoken or written utterance; and it was only after his death that his portfolio, being opened, revealed this sonnet, suggested by a picture of the western mountain whose breast bears the crossed furrows.

The cross of snow

in the long, sleepless watches of the night,
     A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
     The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
     Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
     The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West [212]
     That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
     Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes l>And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

July 10, 1879.

1 Life, II. 262, 263, 265, 266, 268.

2 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XX. 345.

3 Ib. 347.

4 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XXI. 249.

5 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XXI. 249.

6 Life, II. 248.

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