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Chapter 23: Longfellow as a poet

The great literary lesson of Longfellow's life is to be found, after all, in this, that while he was the first among American poets to create for himself a world-wide fame, he was guided from youth to age by a strong national feeling, or at any rate by the desire to stand for the life and the associations by which he was actually surrounded. Such a tendency has been traced in this volume from his first childish poetry through his chosen theme for a college debate, his commencement oration, his plans formed during a first foreign trip, and the appeal made in his first really original paper in the ‘North American Review.’ All these elements of aim and doctrine were directly and explicitly American, and his most conspicuous poems, ‘Evangeline,’ ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish,’ ‘Hiawatha,’ and ‘The Wayside Inn,’ were unequivocally American also. In the group of poets to which he belonged, he was the most travelled and the most cultivated, in the ordinary sense, while Whittier was the least so; and yet they are, as we have [259] seen, the two who—in the English-speaking world, at least—hold their own best; the line between them being drawn only where foreign languages are in question, and there Longfellow has of course the advantage. In neither case, it is to be observed, was this Americanism trivial, boastful, or ignoble in its tone. It would be idle to say that this alone constitutes, for an American, the basis of fame; for the high imaginative powers of Poe, with his especial gift of melody, though absolutely without national flavor, have achieved for him European fame, at least in France, this being due, however, mainly to his prose rather than to his poetry, and perhaps also the result, more largely than we recognize, of the assiduous discipleship of a single Frenchman, just as Carlyle's influence in America was due largely to Emerson. Be this as it may, it is certain that the hold of both Longfellow and Whittier is a thing absolutely due, first, to the elevated tone of their works, and secondly, that they have made themselves the poets of the people. No one can attend popular meetings in England without being struck with the readiness with which quotations from these two poets are heard from the lips of speakers, and this, while not affording the highest test of poetic art, still yields the highest secondary test, and one on which both these authors would doubtless have [260] been willing to rest their final appeal for remembrance.

In looking back over Longfellow's whole career, it is certain that the early criticisms upon him, especially those of Margaret Fuller, had an immediate and temporary justification, but found ultimate refutation. The most commonplace man can be better comprehended at the end of his career than he can be analyzed at its beginning; and of men possessed of the poetic temperament, this is eminently true. We now know that at the very time when ‘Hyperion’ and the ‘Voices of the Night’ seemed largely European in their atmosphere, the author himself, in his diaries, was expressing that longing for American subjects which afterwards predominated in his career. Though the citizen among us best known in Europe, most sought after by foreign visitors, he yet gravitated naturally to American themes, American friends, home interests, plans, and improvements. He always voted at elections, and generally with the same party, took an interest in all local affairs and public improvements, headed subscription papers, was known by sight among children, and answered readily to their salutations. The same quality of citizenship was visible in his literary work. Lowell, who was regarded in England as an almost defiant American, yet had a distinct liking, [261] which was not especially shared by Longfellow, for English ways. If people were ever misled on this point, which perhaps was not the case, it grew out of his unvarying hospitality and courtesy, and out of the fact vaguely recognized by all, but best stated by that keen critic, the late Mr. Horace E. Scudder, when he says of Longfellow: ‘He gave of himself freely to his intimate friends, but he dwelt, nevertheless, in a charmed circle, beyond the lines of which men could not penetrate. . . . It is rare that one in our time has been the centre of so much admiration, and still rarer that one has preserved in the midst of it all that integrity of nature which never abdicates.’1

It is an obvious truth in regard to the literary works of Longfellow, that while they would have been of value at any time and place, their worth to a new and unformed literature was priceless. The first need of such a literature was no doubt a great original thinker, such as was afforded us in Emerson. But for him we should perhaps have been still provincial in thought and imitative in theme and illustration; our poets would have gone on writing about the skylark and the nightingale, which they might never have seen or heard anywhere, rather than about the bobolink and the humble-bee, which they knew. It [262] was Emerson and the so-called Transcendentalists who really set our literature free; yet Longfellow rendered a service only secondary, in enriching and refining it and giving it a cosmopolitan culture, and an unquestioned standing in the literary courts of the civilized world. It was a great advantage, too, that in his more moderate and level standard of execution there was afforded no room for reaction. The same attributes that keep Longfellow from being the greatest of poets will make him also one of the most permanent. There will be no extreme ups and downs in his fame, as in that of those great poets of whom Ruskin writes, ‘Cast Coleridge at once aside, as sickly and useless; and Shelley as shallow and verbose.’ The finished excellence of his average execution will sustain it against that of profounder thinkers and more daring sons of song. His range of measures is not great, but his workmanship is perfect; he has always ‘the inimitable grace of not too much;’ he has tested all literatures, all poetic motives, and all the simpler forms of versification, and he can never be taken unprepared. He will never be read for the profoundest stirring, or for the unlocking of the deepest mysteries; he will always be read for invigoration, for comfort, for content.

No man is always consistent, and it is not to [263] be claimed that Longfellow was always ready to reaffirm his early attitude in respect to a national literature. It is not strange that after he had fairly begun to create one, he should sometimes be repelled by the class which has always existed who think that mere nationality should rank first and an artistic standard afterwards. He writes on July 24, 1844, to an unknown Correspondent:—

I dislike as much as any one can the tone of English criticism in reference to our literature. But when you say, ‘It is a lamentable fact that as yet our country has taken no decided steps towards establishing a national literature,’ it seems to me that you are repeating one of the most fallacious assertions of the English critics. Upon this point I differ entirely from you in opinion. A national literature is the expression of national character and thought; and as our character and modes of thought do not differ essentially from those of England, our literature cannot. Vast forests, lakes, and prairies cannot make great poets. They are but the scenery of the play, and have much less to do with the poetic character than has been imagined. Neither Mexico nor Switzerland has produced any remarkable poet.

I do not think a ‘Poets' Convention’ would [264] help the matter. In fact, the matter needs no helping.

Life, II. 19, 20.

In the same way he speaks with regret, three years later, November 5, 1847, of ‘The prospectus of a new magazine in Philadelphia to build up “a national literature worthy of the country of Niagara—of the land of forests and eagles.” ’

One feels an inexhaustible curiosity as to the precise manner in which each favorite poem by a favorite author comes into existence. In the case of Longfellow we find this illustrated only here and there. We know that ‘The Arrow and the Song,’ for instance, came into his mind instantaneously; that ‘My Lost Youth’ occurred to him in the night, after a day of pain, and was written the next morning; that on December 17, 1839, he read of shipwrecks reported in the papers and of bodies washed ashore near Gloucester, one lashed to a piece of the wreck, and that he wrote, ‘There is a reef called Norman's Woe where many of these took place; among others the schooner Hesperus. Also the Sea-Flower on Black Rock. I must write a ballad upon this, also two others,— “ The Skeleton in Armor” and “Sir Humphrey Gilbert.” ’ A fortnight later he sat at twelve o'clock by his fire, smoking, when suddenly it came into his mind to write the [265] Ballad of the Schooner Hesperus, which he says, ‘I accordingly did. Then I went to bed, but could not sleep. New thoughts were running in my mind, and I got up to add them to the ballad. It was three by the clock. I then went to bed and fell asleep. I feel pleased with the ballad. It hardly cost me an effort. It did not come into my mind by lines, but by stanzas.’ A few weeks before, taking up a volume of Scott's ‘Border Minstrelsy,’ he had received in a similar way the suggestion of ‘The Beleaguered City’ and of ‘The Luck of Edenhall.’

We know by Longfellow's own statement to Mr. W. C. Lawton,2 that it was his rule to do his best in polishing a poem before printing it, but afterwards to leave it untouched, on the principle that ‘the readers of a poem acquired a right to the poet's work in the form they had learned to love.’ He thought also that Bryant and Whittier hardly seemed happy in these belated revisions, and mentioned especially Bryant's ‘Water-Fowl,’

As darkly limned upon the ethereal sky,

where Longfellow preferred the original reading ‘painted on.’ It is, however, rare to find a poet who can carry out this principle of abstinence, at least in his own verse, and we know [266] too surely that Longfellow was no exception; thus we learn that he had made important alterations in the ‘Golden Legend’ within a few weeks of publication. These things show that his remark to Mr. Lawton does not tell quite the whole story. As with most poets, his alterations were not always improvements. Thus, in ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ he made the fourth verse much more vigorous to the ear as it was originally written,—

Then up and spoke an old sailor
Had sailed the Spanish Main,

than when he made the latter line read

Sailed to the Spanish Main,

as in all recent editions. The explanation doubtless was that he at first supposed the ‘Spanish Main’ to mean the Caribbean Sea; whereas it actually referred only to the southern shore of it. Still more curious is the history of a line in one of his favorite poems, ‘To a Child.’ Speaking of this, he says in his diary,3
Some years ago, writing an “Ode to a child,” I spoke of

The buried treasures of the miser, “Time.”

What was my astonishment to-day, in reading for the first time in my life Wordsworth's ode “On the power of sound,” to read

“All treasures hoarded by the miser, time.”

[267] As a matter of fact, this was not the original form of the Longfellow passage, which was,—

The buried treasures of dead centuries,

followed by

The burning tropic skies.

More than this, the very word ‘miser’ was not invariably used in this passage by the poet, as during an intermediate period it had been changed to ‘pirate,’ a phrase in some sense more appropriate and better satisfying the ear. The curious analogy to Wordsworth's line did not therefore lie in the original form of his own poem, but was an afterthought. It is fortunate that this curious combination of facts, all utterly unconscious on his part, did not attract the attention of Poe during his vindictive period.

It is to be noticed, however, that Longfellow apparently made all these changes to satisfy his own judgment, and did not make them, as Whittier and even Browning often did, in deference to the judgment of dull or incompetent critics. It is to be remembered that even the academic commentators on Longfellow still leave children to suppose that the Berserk's tale in ‘The Skeleton in Armor’ refers to a supposed story that the Berserk was telling; although the word ‘tale’ is unquestionably used in the sense of ‘tally’ or ‘reckoning,’ to indicate how much ale the [268] Norse hero could drink. Readers of Milton often misinterpret his line,

And every shepherd tells his tale,

in a similar manner, and the shepherd is supposed by many young readers to be pouring out a story of love or of adventure, whereas he is merely counting up the number of his sheep.

It will always remain uncertain how far Poe influenced the New England poets, whether by example or avoidance. That he sometimes touched Lowell, and not for good, is unquestionable, in respect to rhythm; but it will always remain a question whether his influence did not work in the other direction with Longfellow in making him limit himself more strictly to a narrow range of metrical structure. It was an admirable remark of Tennyson's that ‘every short poem should have a definite shape like the curve, sometimes a single, sometimes a double one, assumed by a severed tress, or the rind of an apple when flung to the floor.’4 This type of verse was rarely attempted by Longfellow, but he chose it most appropriately for ‘Seaweed’ and in some degree succeeded. Poe himself in his waywardness could not adhere to it when he reached it, and after giving us in the original form of ‘Lenore,’ as published in ‘The Pioneer,’ [269] perhaps the finest piece of lyric measure in our literature, made it over into a form of mere jingling and hackneyed rhythm, adding even the final commonplaceness of his tiresome ‘repetend.’ Lowell did something of the same in cutting down the original fine strain of the verses beginning ‘Pine in the distance,’ but Longfellow showed absolutely no trace of Poe, unless as a warning against multiplying such rhythmic experiments as he once tried successfully in ‘Seaweed.’ On the other hand, with all his love for Lowell, his native good taste kept him from the confused metaphors and occasional over-familiarities into which Lowell was sometimes tempted.

Perhaps the most penetrating remark made about Longfellow's art is that of Horace Scudder: ‘He was first of all a composer, and he saw his subjects in their relations, rather than in their essence.’ As a translator, he was generally admitted to have no superior in the English tongue, his skill was unvarying and absolutely reliable. Even here it might be doubted whether he ever attained the wonderful success sometimes achieved in single instances, as, for instance, in Mrs. Sarah Austen's ‘Many a Year is in its Grave,’ which, under the guise of a perfect translation, yet gives a higher and finer touch than that of the original poem of Ruckert. But [270] taking Longfellow's great gift in this direction as it was, we can see that it was somewhat akin to this quality of ‘composition,’ rather than of inspiration, which marked his poems.

He could find it delightful

To lie
And gaze into a summer sky
And watch the trailing clouds go by
Like ships upon the sea.

But it is a vast step from this to Browning's mountain picture

Toward it tilting cloudlets prest
Like Persian ships to Salamis.

In Browning everything is vigorous and individualized. We see the ships, we know the nationality, we recall the very battle, and over these we see in imagination the very shape and movements of the clouds; but there is no conceivable reason why Longfellow's lines should not have been written by a blind man who knew clouds merely by the descriptions of others. The limitation of Longfellow's poems reveals his temperament. He was in his perceptions essentially of poetic mind, but always in touch with the common mind; as individual lives grow deeper, students are apt to leave Longfellow for Tennyson, just as they forsake Tennyson for Browning. As to action, the tonic of life, so far as he had [271] it, was supplied to him through friends,—Sumner in America; Freiligrath in Europe,—and yet it must be remembered that he would not, but for a corresponding quality in his own nature, have had just such friends as these. He was not led by his own convictions to leave his study like Emerson and take direct part as a contestant in the struggles of the time. It is a curious fact that Lowell should have censured Thoreau for not doing in this respect just the thing which Thoreau ultimately did and Longfellow did not. It was, however, essentially a difference of temperament, and it must be remembered that Longfellow wrote in his diary under date of December 2, 1859, ‘This will be a great day in our history; the date of a new Revolution,—quite as much needed as the old one. Even now as I write, they are leading old John Brown to execution in Virginia, for attempting to rescue slaves! This is sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.’

His relations with Whittier remained always kindly and unbroken. They dined together at the Atlantic Club and Saturday Club, and Longfellow wrote of him in 1857, ‘He grows milder and mellower, as does his poetry.’ He went to Concord sometimes to dine with Emerson, ‘and meet his philosophers, Alcott, Thoreau, and Channing.’ [272] Or Emerson came to Cambridge, ‘to take tea,’ giving a lecture at the Lyceum, of which Longfellow says, ‘The lecture good, but not of his richest and rarest. His subject “Eloquence.” By turns he was grave and jocose, and had some striking views and passages. He lets in a thousand new lights, side-lights, and cross-lights, into every subject.’ When Emerson's collected poems are sent him, Longfellow has the book read to him all the evening and until late at night, and writes of it in his diary: ‘Throughout the volume, through the golden mist and sublimation of fancy, gleam bright veins of purest poetry, like rivers running through meadows. Truly, a rare volume; with many exquisite poems in it, among which I should single out “Monadnoc,” “Threnody,” “The humble-bee,” as containing much of the quintessence of poetry.’ Emerson's was one of the five portraits drawn in crayon by Eastman Johnson, and always kept hanging in the library at Craigie House; the others being those of Hawthorne, Sumner, Felton, and Longfellow himself. No one can deny to our poet the merits of absolute freedom from all jealousy and of an invariable readiness to appreciate those classified by many critics as greater than himself. He was one of the first students of Browning in America, when the latter was known chiefly by his ‘Bells and [273] Pomegranates,’ and instinctively selected the ‘Blot in the 'Scutcheon’ as ‘a play of great power and beauty,’ as the critics would say, and as every one must say who reads it. He is an extraordinary genius, Browning, with dramatic power of the first order. ‘Paracelsus’ he describes, with some justice, as ‘very lofty, but very diffuse.’ Of Browning's ‘Christmas Eve’ he later writes, ‘A wonderful man is Browning, but too obscure,’ and later makes a similar remark on ‘The Ring and the Book.’ Of Tennyson he writes, as to ‘The Princess,’ calling it ‘a gentle satire, in the easiest and most flowing blank verse, with two delicious unrhymed songs, and many exquisite passages. I went to bed after it, with delightful music ringing in my ears; yet half disappointed in the poem, though not knowing why. There is a discordant note somewhere.’

One very uncertain test of a man of genius is his ‘table-talk.’ Surrounded by a group of men who were such masters of this gift as Lowell, Holmes, and T. G. Appleton, Longfellow might well be excused from developing it to the highest extent, and he also ‘being rather a silent man,’ as he says of himself, escaped thereby the tendency to monologue, which was sometimes a subject of complaint in regard to the other three. Longfellow's reticence and self-control saved him [274] from all such perils; but it must be admitted, on the other hand, that when his brother collects a dozen pages of his ‘table-talk’ at the end of his memoirs, or when one reads his own list of them in ‘Kavanagh,’ the reader feels a slight inadequacy, as of things good enough to be said, but not quite worth the printing. Yet at their best, they are sometimes pungent and telling, as where he says, ‘When looking for anything lost, begin by looking where you think it is not;’ or, ‘Silence is a great peace-maker;’ or, ‘In youth all doors open outward; in old age they all open inward,’ or, more thoughtfully, ‘Amusements are like specie payments. We do not much care for them, if we know we can have them; but we like to know they may be had,’ or more profoundly still, ‘How often it happens that after we know a man personally, we cease to read his writings. Is it that we exhaust him by a look? Is it that his personality gives us all of him we desire?’ There are also included among these passages some thoroughly poetic touches, as where he says, ‘The spring came suddenly, bursting upon the world as a child bursts into a room, with a laugh and a shout, and hands full of flowers.’ Or this, ‘How sudden and sweet are the visitations of our happiest thoughts; what delightful surprises! In the midst of life's most trivial [275] occupations,—as when we are reading a newspaper, or lighting a bed-candle, or waiting for our horses to drive round,—the lovely face appears, and thoughts more precious than gold are whispered in our ear.’

The test of popularity in a poet is nowhere more visible than in the demand for autographs. Longfellow writes in his own diary that on November 25, 1856, he has more than sixty such requests lying on his table; and again on January 9, ‘Yesterday I wrote, sealed, and directed seventy autographs. To-day I added five or six more and mailed them.’ It does not appear whether the later seventy applications included the earlier sixty, but it is, in view of the weakness of human nature, very probable. This number must have gone on increasing. I remember that in 1875 r saw in his study a pile which must have numbered more than seventy, and which had come in a single day from a single high school in a Western city, to congratulate him on his birthday, and each hinting at an autograph, which I think he was about to supply.

At the time of his seventy-fourth birthday, 1881, a lady in Ohio sent him a hundred blank cards, with the request that he would write his name on each, that she might distribute them among her guests at a party she was to give on that day. The same day was celebrated by some [276] forty different schools in the Western States, all writing him letters and requesting answers. He sent to each school, his brother tells us, some stanza with signature and good wishes. He was patient even with the gentleman who wrote to him to request that he would send his autograph in his ‘own handwriting.’ As a matter of fact, he had to leave many letters unanswered, even by a secretary, in his latest years.

It is a most tantalizing thing to know, through the revelations of Mr. William Winter, that Longfellow left certain poems unpublished. Mr. Winter says: ‘He said also that he sometimes wrote poems that were for himself alone, that he should not care ever to publish, because they were too delicate for publication.’5 Quite akin to this was another remark made by him to the same friend, that ‘the desire of the young poet is not for applause, but for recognition.’ The two remarks limit one another; the desire for recognition only begins when the longing for mere expression is satisfied. Thoroughly practical and methodical and industrious, Longfellow yet needed some self-expression first of all. It is impossible to imagine him as writing puffs of himself, like Poe, or volunteering reports of receptions given to him, like Whitman. He said to Mr. Winter, again and again, ‘What you [277] desire will come, if you will but wait for it.’ The question is not whether this is the only form of the poetic temperament, but it was clearly his form of it. Thoreau well says that there is no definition of poetry which the poet will not instantly set aside by defying all its limitations, and it is the same with the poetic temperament itself.

1 Scudder's Men and Letters, p. 68.

2 The New England Poets, p. 141.

3 Life, II. 189.

4 Tennyson's Life, by his son, i. 507.

5 Life, III. 356.

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