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Chapter 19: last trip to Europe

On May 27, 1868, Longfellow sailed from New York for Liverpool in the steamer Russia, with a large family party, including his son and his son's bride, his three young daughters, his brother and two sisters, with also a brotherin-law, the brilliant Thomas G. Appleton. On arrival they went at once to the English lakes, visiting Furness Abbey, Corby Castle, and Eden Hall, where he saw still unimpaired the traditional goblet which Uhland's ballad had vainly attempted to shatter. At Morton, near Carlisle, while staying with a friend he received a public address, to which he thus replied, in one of the few speeches of his life—

Mr. President and Gentlemen,—Being more accustomed to speak with the pen than with the tongue, it is somewhat difficult for me to find appropriate words now to thank you for the honor you have done me, and the very kind expressions you have used. Coming here as a stranger, this welcome makes me feel that I am not a stranger; for how can a man be a stranger [220] in a country where he finds all doors and all hearts open to him? Besides, I myself am a Cumberland man,—I was born in the County of Cumberland, in the State of Maine, three thousand miles from here,—and you all know that the familiar name of a town or country has a homelike sound to our ears. ... You can think then how very grateful it is to me—how very pleasant—to find my name has a place in your memories and your affections. For this kindness I most heartily thank you, and I reciprocate all the good wishes which you have expressed for perpetual peace and amity between our two nations.’1

He received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at Cambridge, and the scene was thus described by a London reporter:—

‘Amid a score or so of Heads of Houses and other Academic dignitaries conspicuous by their scarlet robes, the one on whom all eyes were turned was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The face was one which would have caught the spectator's glance, even if not called to it by the cheers which greeted his appearance in the red robes of an Ll. D. Long, white, silken hair and a beard of patriarchal whiteness enclosed a fresh-colored countenance, with fine-cut features and deep-sunken eyes, overshadowed by massive eyebrows. [221] In a few well-rounded Latin sentences, Mr. Clark, the Public Orator, recited the claims of the distinguished visitor to the privilege of an honorary degree. The names of Hiawatha and Evangeline sounded strangely amid the sonorous periods.’2

Another journalist wrote that the orator ‘drew a picture of the function of poetry to solace the ills of life and draw men from its low cares ad excelsiora. This point was caught at once by the undergraduates and drew forth hearty cheering. The degree was then conferred.’3

Arriving in London he received a deluge of cards and invitations; visited Windsor by invitation of the Queen, and was received in one of the galleries of the castle; called by request upon the Prince of Wales; and was entertained at dinner by Mr. Bierstadt, the landscape painter, who had several hundred people to meet him. Mr. Longfellow had stipulated that there should be no speeches, but after dinner there were loud calls for Mr. Gladstone, who said in reply, according to the reporters, that ‘they must be permitted to break through the restrictions which the authority of their respected host had imposed upon them, and to give expression to the feelings which one and all entertained on [222] this occasion. After all, it was simply impossible to sit at the social board with a man of Mr. Longfellow's world-wide fame, without offering him some tribute of their admiration. There was perhaps no class of persons less fitted to do justice to an occasion of this character than those who were destined to tread the toilsome and dusty road of politics. Nevertheless, he was glad to render his tribute of hearty admiration to one whom they were glad to welcome not only as a poet but as a citizen of America.’4

Mr. Longfellow replied that ‘they had taken him by surprise, a traveller just landed and with Bradshaw still undigested upon his brain, and they would not expect him to make a speech. There were times, indeed, when it was easier to speak than to act; but it was not so with him, now. He would, however, be strangely constituted if he did not in his heart respond to their kind and generous welcome. In the longest speech he could make, he could but say in many phrases what he now said in a few sincere words,—that he was deeply grateful for the kindness which had been shown him.’5

After visiting the House of Lords with Mr. R. C. Winthrop, on one occasion, he was accosted by a laboring man in the street, who asked permission to speak with him, and recited a verse [223] of ‘Excelsior,’ before which the poet promptly retreated. Passing to the continent, the party visited Switzerland, crossed by the St. Gothard Pass to Italy, and reached Cadenabbia, on the Lake of Como. They returned to Paris in the autumn; then went to Italy again, staying at Florence and Rome, where they saw the Abbe Liszt and obtained that charming sketch of him by Healy, in which the great musician is seen opening the inner door and bearing a candle in his hand. In the spring they visited Naples, Venice, and Innsbruck, returning then to England, where Longfellow received the degree of D. C. L. at Oxford; and they then visited Devonshire, Edinburgh, and the Scottish lakes. He again received numberless invitations in London, and wrote to Lowell, ‘It is only by dint of great resolution that I escaped a dozen public and semi-public dinners.’ At the very last moment before sailing, he received a note from Mr. E. J. Reed, the chief constructor to the British Navy, who pronounced his poem ‘The Building of the Ship’ to be the finest poem on shipbuilding that ever was or ever would be written. He reached home September 1, 1869. In his letters during this period, one sees the serene head of a family, the absolutely unspoiled recipient of praise, but not now the eager and enthusiastic young pilgrim of romance. Yet he [224] writes to his friend Ferguson that if he ‘said his say’ about York Cathedral, his friends would think him sixteen instead of sixty; and again tells his publisher Fields that he enjoys Lugano—never before visited—to the utmost, but that ‘the old familiar place saddened’ him.6 Many a traveller has had in later life the same experience.

1 Life, III. 111.

2 Life, III. 111, 112.

3 Ib. 112.

4 Life, III. 114.

5 Ib. 114, 115.

6 Life, III. 122.

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