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Chapter 1: Longfellow as a classic

The death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made the first breach in that well-known group of poets which adorned Boston and its vicinity so long. The first to go was also the most widely famous. Emerson reached greater depths of thought; Whittier touched the problems of the nation's life more deeply; Holmes came personally more before the public; Lowell was more brilliant and varied; but, taking the English-speaking world at large, it was Longfellow whose fame overshadowed all the others; he was also better known and more translated upon the continent of Europe than all the rest put together, and, indeed, than any other contemporary poet of the English-speaking race, at least if bibliographies afford any test. Add to this that his place of residence was so accessible and so historic, his [2] personal demeanor so kindly, his life so open and transparent, that everything really conspired to give him the highest accessible degree of contemporary fame. There was no literary laurel that was not his, and he resolutely declined all other laurels; he had wealth and ease, children and grandchildren, health and a stainless conscience; he had also, in a peculiar degree, the blessings that belong to Shakespeare's estimate of old age, —‘honor, love, obedience, troops of friends.’ Except for two great domestic bereavements, his life would have been one of absolutely unbroken sunshine; in his whole career he never encountered any serious rebuff, while such were his personal modesty and kindliness that no one could long regard him with envy or antagonism. Among all the sons of song there has rarely been such an instance of unbroken and unstained success.

Yet the fact that his death took place twenty years ago may justly raise the question how far this wave of success has followed his memory, or how far the passage of time has impaired his traditional influence; and here we must compare a variety of tests and standards to ascertain the result. Some analysis of this kind may well precede any new attempt to delineate his career.

The editor of one of the great London weeklies said to an American traveller not many years [3] ago, ‘A stranger can hardly have an idea of how familiar many of our working people, especially women, are with Longfellow. Thousands can repeat some of his poems who have never read a line of Tennyson and probably never heard of Browning.’ This passage I take from an admirable recent sketch by Professor Edwin A. Grosvenor of Amherst College, one of the most cosmopolitan of Americans, who spent seven years as professor of history at Robert College, Constantinople. He goes on to tell how, in the largest private library in the Ottoman Empire, the grand vizier showed him as his favorite book a large volume of Longfellow, full of manuscript comments in Turkish on the margin, adding that he knew some of the poems by heart. Professor Grosvenor was at one time— in 1879—travelling by steamer from Constantinople to Marseilles with a Russian lady who had been placed under his escort, and whose nationality could have been detected only by her marvellous knowledge of half a dozen languages beside her own. A party of passengers had been talking in French of Victor Hugo, when the Russian lady exclaimed in English to the last speaker, ‘How can you, an American, give to him the place that is occupied by your own Longfellow? Longfellow is the universal poet. He is better known, too, among foreigners, than [4] any one except their own poets!’ She then repeated the verses beginning, ‘I stood on the bridge at midnight,’ and added, ‘I long to visit Boston, that I may stand on the bridge.’ Then an English captain, returning from the Zulu war, said, ‘I can give you something better than that,’ and recited in a voice like a trumpet,—

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream.

Presently a gray-haired Scotchman began to recite the poem,—

There is no flock, however watched and tended,
But one dead lamb is there!

An American contributed ‘My Lost Youth,’ being followed by a young Greek temporarily living in England, who sang ‘Stars of the Summer Night.’ Finally the captain of the steamer, an officer of the French navy detailed for that purpose, whom nobody had suspected of knowing a word of English, recited, in an accent hardly recognizable, the first verse of ‘Excelsior,’ and when the Russian lady, unable to understand him, denied the fact of its being English at all, he replied, ‘Ah, oui, madame, ça vient de votre Longfellow’ (Yes, madam, that is from your Longfellow). Six nationalities had thus been represented, and the Russian lady said, as they rose from the table, ‘Do you suppose there is any other poet of any country, living or dead, [5] from whom so many of us could have quoted? Not one. Not even Shakespeare, or Victor Hugo, or Homer.’1

One has merely to glance at any detailed catalogue of the translations from Longfellow's works—as for instance that given in the appendix to this volume—to measure the vast extent of his fame. The list includes thirty-five versions of whole books or detached poems in German, twelve in Italian, nine each in French and Dutch, seven in Swedish, six in Danish, five in Polish, three in Portuguese, two each in Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, and Bohemian, with single translations in Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, Sanskrit, Marathi, and Judea-German—yielding one hundred versions altogether, extending into eighteen languages, apart from the original English. There is no evidence that any other English-speaking poet of the last century has been so widely appreciated.

Especially is this relative superiority noticeable in that wonderful literary cyclopaedia, the vast and many-volumed catalogue of the British Museum. There, under each author's name, is found not merely the record of his works in every successive edition, but every secondary or relative book, be it memoir, criticism, attack, parody, or translation; and it is always curious [6] to consider the relative standing of American and English authors under this severe and inexorable test. The entries or items appearing in the interleaved catalogue under the name of Tennyson, for instance, up to September, 1901, were 487; under Longfellow, 357; then follow, among English-writing poets, Browning (179), Emerson (158), Arnold (140), Holmes (135), Morris (117), Lowell (114), Whittier (104), Poe (103), Swinburne (99), Whitman (64). The nearest approach to a similar test of appreciation in the poet's own country is to be found in the balloting for the new Hall of Fame, established by an unknown donor on the grounds of the New York University with the avowed object of creating an American Westminster Abbey. The names of those who were to appear in it were selected by a board of one hundred judges carefully chosen from men of all occupations and distributed over every State in the Union; and these balloted for the first hundred occupants of the Hall of Fame. Only thirty-nine names obtained a majority of votes, these being taken, of course, from men of all pursuits; and among these Longfellow ranked tenth, having eighty-five votes, and being preceded only by Washington, Lincoln, Webster, Franklin, Grant, Marshall, Jefferson, Emerson, and Fulton. Besides Emerson and Longfellow, only two literary [7] men were included, these being Irving with eighty-four votes and Hawthorne with seventy-three.

It is a well-known fact that when the temporary leader in any particular branch of literature or science passes away, there is often visible a slight reaction, perhaps in the interest of supposed justice, when people try to convince themselves that his fame has already diminished. Such reactions have notably occurred, for instance, in the cases of Scott, Byron, Wordsworth, and even of Burns, yet without visible or permanent results, while the weaker fame of Southey or of Campbell has yielded to them. It is safe to say that up to the present moment no serious visible reaction has occurred in the case of Longfellow. So absolutely simple and truthful was his nature and so clear the response of the mass of readers, that time has so far left his hold upon them singularly unaffected. During a recent visit to England, the author of this volume took some pains, in every place he visited in city or country, to inquire of the local bookseller as to the demand for Longfellow's poems, and the answer was always in substance and sometimes in express words, ‘He is a classic,’ —in other words, his books had a steady and trustworthy sale. I always found his poems on the shelves, and this was true of no other American [8] poet. Several editions of his works, single or collective, had recently appeared in London. Poems newly set to music had lately been published at the music stalls, and familiar citations from his poems were constantly heard in public speeches. Inquiries similar to mine were made a few years since in the book-stores of Switzerland and Germany by my friend, Professor W. J. Rolfe, who found without difficulty the German and English text of single or collected poems by Longfellow at Nuremberg, Cologne, Strasburg, Lucerne, Interlaken, and elsewhere.

Another form of obtaining statistics bearing on the relative position of Longfellow among English-writing poets would be to inspect books of selections made in Great Britain out of this class. I find two such lying near at hand; the first is ‘Pen and Pencil Pictures from the Poets,’ published by William P. Nimmo at Edinburgh, containing fifty-six poems in all, each with a full-page illustration, generally by Scottish artists. Of these selections, six are taken from Longfellow, five each from Wordsworth and Thomson, and three each from Shakespeare, Burns, and Moore. Of other American poets Bryant and Willis alone appear, each with one contribution. Another such book is ‘Words from the Poets; selected for the use [9] of parochial schools and libraries.’ To this the leading contributors are Wordsworth (twenty-one), Longfellow (eighteen), Cowper (eleven), and Tennyson (nine), the whole number of contributors being forty-three. Such statistics could be easily multiplied; indeed, it will be readily admitted that no American poet can be compared to Longfellow in the place occupied by his poems in the English market. Readily admitting that this is not the sole or highest standard, it must at least be recognized as one of the side tests by which that standard may be determined.

Some occasional expressions of distrust as to Longfellow's permanent fame have been based wholly upon his virtues. Many still cling to Dryden's maxim, ‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied.’ Those who grew up during the period when the Lake poets of England were still under discussion can well recall that the typical poet was long supposed to be necessarily something of a reprobate, or at any rate wild and untamable; so that Byron and Shelley gained in fame by the supposition that the domestic and law-abiding gifts were far from them. The prominence of Wordsworth was developed in spite of this tradition, and even when the report cheered some of his would-be admirers that he had once been intoxicated at the university, [10] it was damped by the opinion expressed by Theodore Hook that ‘Wordsworth's conceptions of inebriation were no doubt extremely limited.’ The popular impression in such matters is too deep to be easily removed; and yet every test continues to prove that the hold taken on the average human heart by Longfellow is far greater than that held, for instance, by Poe or Whitman. This was practically conceded by those poets themselves, and it is this fact which in reality excited the wrath of their especial admirers. No man ever sacrificed less for mere fame than Longfellow, no man ever bore attack or jealousy with more of manly self-respect and sweetness; he simply lived his own life, and worked out his own literary method; all that he asked was to be taken for what he was worth, and the world's praise was the answer to his request. The continuance of this hold on men surely affords a sufficient reason for the renewed study of this poet's life, training, and career.

1 N. Y. Independent, October 22, 1896.

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