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Chapter 24: Longfellow as a man

Longfellow always amused himself, as do most public men, with the confused and contradictory descriptions of his personal appearance: with the Newport bookseller who exclaimed, ‘Why, you look more like a sea captain than a poet!’ and a printer who described him as ‘a hale, portly, fine-looking man, nearly six feet in height, well proportioned, with a tendency to fatness; brown hair and blue eyes, and bearing the general appearance of a comfortable hotelkeeper.’ More graphic still, and on the whole nearer to the facts, is this description by an English military visitor who met him at a reception in Boston in 1850. I happened upon the volume containing it amid a pile of literary lumber in one of the great antiquarian bookstores of London:—

‘He was rather under the middle size, but gracefully formed, and extremely prepossessing in his general appearance. His hair was light-colored, and tastefully disposed. Below a fine forehead gleamed two of the most beautiful eyes [279] I had ever beheld in any human head. One seemed to gaze far into their azure depths. A very sweet smile, not at all of the pensively-poetical character, lurked about the well-shaped mouth, and altogether the expression of Henry Wordsworth [sic] Longfellow's face was most winning. He was dressed very fashionably— almost too much so; a blue frock coat of Parisian cut, a handsome waistcoat, faultless pantaloons, and primrose-colored ‘kids’ set off his compact figure, which was not a moment still; for like a butterfly glancing from flower to flower, he was tripping from one lady to another, admired and courted by all. He shook me cordially by the hand, introduced me to his lady, invited me to his house, and then he was off again like a humming bird.’1

A later picture by another English observer is contained in Lord Ronald Gower's ‘My Reminiscences.’ After a description of a visit to Craigie House, in 1878, he says: ‘If asked to describe Longfellow's appearance, I should compare him to the ideal representations of early Christian saints and prophets. There is a kind of halo of goodness about him, a benignity in his expression which one associates with St. John at Patmos saying to his followers and brethren, “Little children, love one another!” . . . Longfellow [280] has had the rare fortune of being thoroughly appreciated in his own country and in other countries during his lifetime; how different, probably, would have been the career of Byron, of Keats, or of Shelley, had it been thus with them! It would be presumptuous for me, and out of place, to do more here than allude to the universal popularity of Longfellow's works wherever English is spoken; I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that his works are more popular than those of any other living poet. What child is there who has not heard of “Excelsior,” or of “Evangeline,” of “Miles Standish,” or of “Hiawatha” ? What songs more popular than “The Bridge,” and “I know a maiden fair to see” ? Or who, after reading the “Psalm of life,” or the “Footsteps of Angels,” does not feel a little less worldly, a little less of the earth, earthy? The world, indeed, owes a deep debt of gratitude to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. ... Bidding me note the beauty of the autumnal tints that make America in the “ fall” look as if rainbows were streaming out of the earth, Longfellow presented me with a goodly sample of the red and golden leaves of the previous autumn, which, although dry and faded, still glowed like gems; these leaves I brought away with me, and they now form a garland round the [281] poet's portrait; a precious souvenir of that morning passed at Craigie House.’2

Lord Ronald, Gower then quotes the words used long since in regard to Longfellow by Cardinal Wiseman,—words which find an appropriate place here.

‘ “Our hemisphere,” said the Cardinal, “cannot claim the honor of having brought him forth, but he still belongs to us, for his works have become as household words wherever the English language is spoken. And whether we are charmed by his imagery, or soothed by his melodious versification, or elevated by the moral teachings of his pure muse, or follow with sympathetic hearts the wanderings of Evangeline, I am sure that all who hear my voice will join with me in the tribute I desire to pay to the genius of Longfellow.” ’3

‘We have but one life here on earth,’ wrote Longfellow in his diary; ‘we must make that beautiful. And to do this, health and elasticity of mind are needful, and whatever endangers or impedes these must be avoided.’ It is not often that a man's scheme of life is so well fulfilled, or when fulfilled is so well reflected in his face and bearing, tinged always by the actual [282] mark of the terrible ordeal through which he had passed. When Sydney Dobell was asked to describe Tennyson, he replied, ‘If he were pointed out to you as the man who had written the Iliad, you would answer, “I can well believe it.” ’ This never seemed to be quite true of Tennyson, whose dark oriental look would rather have suggested the authorship of the Arab legend of ‘Antar’ or of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam. But it was eminently true of the picturesqueness of Longfellow in his later years, with that look of immovable serenity and of a benignity which had learned to condone all human sins. In this respect Turgenieff alone approached him, in real life, among the literary men I have known, and there is a photograph of the Russian which is often mistaken for that of the American.

Indeed, the beauty of his home life remained always visible. Living constantly in the same old house with its storied associations, surrounded by children and their friends, mingling with what remained of his earlier friends,—with his younger brother, a most accomplished and lovable person, forming one of his own family, and his younger sister living near him in a house of her own,—he was also easily the first citizen of the little University City. Giving readily his time and means to all public interests, even those [283] called political, his position was curiously unlike that of the more wayward or detached poets. Later his two married daughters built houses close by and bore children, and the fields were full of their playmates, representing the exuberant life of a new generation. He still kept his health, and as he walked to and fro his very presence was a benediction. Some of his old friends had been unfortunate in life and were only too willing to seek his door; and even his literary enterprises, as for instance the ‘Poems of Places,’ were mainly undertaken for their sakes, that they might have employment and support.

It is a curious but indisputable fact that no house in Cambridge, even in the tenfold larger university circle of to-day, presents such a constant course of hospitable and refined social intercourse as existed at Craigie House in the days of Longfellow. Whether it is that professors are harder worked and more poorly paid, or only that there happens to be no one so sought after by strangers and so able, through favoring fortune, to receive them, is not clear. But the result is the same. He had troops of friends; they loved to come to him and he to have them come, and the comforts of creature refreshment were never wanting, though perhaps in simpler guise than now. It needs but to turn the pages [284] of his memoirs as written by his brother to see that with the agreeable moderation of French or Italian gentlemen, he joined their daintiness of palate and their appreciation of choice vintages, and this at a time when the physiological standard was less advanced than now, and a judicious attention to the subject was for that reason better appreciated. His friends from Boston and Brookline came so constantly and so easily as to suggest afar greater facility of conveyance than that of today, although the real facts were quite otherwise. One can hardly wonder that the bard's muse became a little festive under circumstances so very favorable. His earlier circle of friends known as ‘the five of clubs’ included Professor Felton, whom Dickens called ‘the heartiest of Greek professors;’ Charles Sumner; George S. Hillard, Sumner's law partner; and Henry R. Cleveland, a retired teacher and educational writer. Of these, Felton was a man of varied learning, as was Sumner, an influence which made Felton jocose but sometimes dogged, and Sumner eloquent, but occasionally tumid in style. Hillard was one of those thoroughly accomplished men who fail of fame only for want of concentration, and Cleveland was the first to advance ideas of school training, now so well established that men forget their ever needing an advocate. He died young, and Dr. Samuel G. Howe, a man of worldwide [285] fame as a philanthropist and trainer of the blind, was put in to fill the vacancy. All these five men, being of literary pursuits, could scarcely fail of occasionally praising one another, and were popularly known as ‘the mutual admiration society;’ indeed, there was a tradition that some one had written above a review of Longfellow's ‘Evangeline’ by Felton, to be found at the Athenaeum Library, the condensed indorsement, ‘Insured at the Mutual.’ At a later period this club gave place, as clubs will, to other organizations, such as the short-lived Atlantic Club and the Saturday Club; and at their entertainments Longfellow was usually present, as were also, in the course of time, Emerson, Holmes, Lowell, Agassiz, Whittier, and many visitors from near and far. Hawthorne was rarely seen on such occasions, and Thoreau never. On the other hand, the club never included the more radical reformers, as Garrison, Phillips, Bronson Alcott, Edmund Quincy, or Theodore Parker, and so did not call out what Emerson christened ‘the soul of the soldiery of dissent.’

It would be a mistake to assume that on these occasions Longfellow was a recipient only. Of course Holmes and Lowell, the most naturally talkative of the party, would usually have the lion's share of the conversation; but Longfellow, with all his gentle modesty, had a quiet wit of [286] his own and was never wholly a silent partner. His saying of Ruskin, for instance, that he had ‘grand passages of rhetoric, Iliads in nutshells;’ of some one else, that ‘Criticism is double edged. It criticises him who receives and him who gives;’ his description of the contented Dutch tradesman ‘whose golden face, like the round and ruddy physiognomy of the sun on the sign of a village tavern, seems to say “Good entertainment here;” ’ of Venice, that ‘it is so visionary and fairylike that one is almost afraid to set foot on the ground, lest he should sink the city;’ of authorship, that ‘it is a mystery to many people that an author should reveal to the public secrets that he shrinks from telling to his most intimate friends;’ that ‘nothing is more dangerous to an author than sudden success, because the patience of genius is one of its most precious attributes;’ that ‘he who carries his bricks to the building of every one's house will never build one for himself;’ —these were all fresh, racy, and truthful, and would bear recalling when many a brilliant stroke of wit had sparkled on the surface and gone under. As a mere critic he grew more amiable and tolerant as he grew older, as is the wont of literary men; and John Dwight, then the recognized head of the musical brotherhood of Boston, always maintained that Longfellow was [287] its worst enemy by giving his warm indorsement to the latest comer, whatever his disqualifications as to style or skill.

Holmes said of him in a letter to Motley in 1873:—

‘I find a singular charm in the society of Longfellow,—a soft voice, a sweet and cheerful temper, a receptive rather than aggressive intelligence, the agreeable flavor of scholarship without any pedantic ways, and a perceptible soupcon of the humor, not enough to startle or surprise or keep you under the strain of over-stimulation, which I am apt to feel with very witty people.’

And ten years later, writing to a friend and referring to his verses on the death of Longfelfellow, printed in the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ he said: ‘But it is all too little, for his life was so exceptionally sweet and musical that any voice of praise sounds almost like a discord after it.’

Professor Rolfe has suggested that he unconsciously describes himself in ‘The Golden Legend,’ where Walter the Minnesinger says of Prince Henry:—

His gracious presence upon earth
Was as a fire upon a hearth;
As pleasant songs, at morning sung,
The words that dropped from his sweet tongue
Strengthened our hearts; or, heard at night,
Made all our slumbers soft and light.

[288] He also points out that this is the keynote of the dedication of ‘The Seaside and the Fireside,’ the volume published in 1849.
As one who, walking in the twilight gloom,
     Hears round about him voices as it darkens,
And seeing not the forms from which they come,
     Pauses from time to time, and turns and hearkens;

So walking here in twilight, O my friends!
     I hear your voices, softened by the distance,
And pause, and turn to listen, as each sends
     His words of friendship, comfort, and assistance.

Thanks for the sympathies that ye have shown!
     Thanks for each kindly word, each silent token,
That teaches me, when seeming most alone,
     Friends are around us, though no word be spoken.

In another age or country Longfellow would have been laurelled, medalled, or ennobled; but he has had what his essentially republican spirit doubtless preferred, the simple homage of a nation's heart. He had his share of foreign honors; and these did not come from Oxford and Cambridge only, since in 1873 he was chosen a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and in 1877 of the Spanish Academy. At home he was the honored member of every literary club or association to which he cared to belong. In the half-rural city where he spent his maturer life—that which he himself described in ‘Hyperion’ as ‘this leafy blossoming, and beautiful [289] Cambridge’—he held a position of as unquestioned honor and reverence as that of Goethe at Weimar or Jean Paul at Baireuth. This was the more remarkable, as he rarely attended public meetings, seldom volunteered counsel or action, and was not seen very much in public. But his weight was always thrown on the right side; he took an unfeigned interest in public matters, always faithful to the traditions of his friend Sumner; and his purse was always easily opened for all good works. On one occasion there was something like a collision of opinion between him and the city government, when it was thought necessary for the widening of Brattle Street to remove the ‘spreading chestnut-tree’ that once stood before the smithy of the village blacksmith, Dexter Pratt. The poet earnestly expostulated; the tree fell, nevertheless; but by one of those happy thoughts which sometimes break the monotony of municipal annals, it was proposed to the city fathers that the children of the public schools should be invited to build out of its wood, by their small subscriptions, a great armchair for the poet's study. The unexpected gift, from such a source, salved the offence, but it brought with it a penalty to Mr. Longfellow's household, for the kindly bard gave orders that no child who wished to see the chair should be excluded; and [290] the tramp of dirty little feet through the hall was for many months the despair of housemaids. Thenceforward his name was to these children a household word; and the most charming feature of the festival held on the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the settlement of Cambridge (December 28, 1880) was the reception given by a thousand grammar-school children to the gray and courteous old poet, who made then and there, almost for the only time in his life, and contrary to all previous expectations, a brief speech in reply.

On that occasion he thus spoke briefly, at the call of the mayor, who presided, and who afterwards caused to be read by Mr. George Riddle, the verses ‘From My Arm-Chair,’ which the poet had written for the children. He spoke as follows:—

my dear young friends,—I do not rise to make an address to you, but to excuse myself from making one. I know the proverb says that he who excuses himself accuses himself,and I am willing on this occasion to accuse myself, for I feel very much as I suppose some of you do when you are suddenly called upon in your class room, and are obliged to say that you are not prepared. I am glad to see your faces and to hear your voices. I am glad to have this [291] opportunity of thanking you in prose, as I have already done in verse, for the beautiful present you made me some two years ago. Perhaps some of you have forgotten it, but I have not; and I am afraid,—yes, I am afraid that fifty years hence, when you celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of this occasion, this day and all that belongs to it will have passed from your memory; for an English philosopher has said that the ideas as well as children of our youth often die before us, and our minds represent to us those tombs to which we are approaching, where, though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery moulders away.

Again, upon his seventy-fifth birthday, there were great rejoicings in the Cambridge schools, as indeed in those of many other cities far and wide.

Craigie House, his residence, has already been described. In this stately old edifice dwelt the venerable poet, who was usually to be found in his ample study, rich with the accumulations of literary luxury. One might find him seated with Coleridge's inkstand before him, perhaps answering one of the vast accumulations of letters from the school children of Western cities —an enormous mass of correspondence, which [292] was a little while a delight, and then became a burden. Before him was a carved bookcase containing a priceless literary treasure,—the various editions of his works, and, which was far more valuable, the successive manuscripts of each, carefully preserved and bound under his direction, and often extending to three separate copies: the original manuscript, the manuscript as revised for the printer, and the corrected proofs. More than once his friends urged him to build a fireproof building for these unique memorials, as Washington did for his own papers elsewhere; but the calm and equable author used to reply, ‘If the house burns, let its contents go also.’

The wonder of Mr. Longfellow's later years was not so much that he kept up his incessant literary activity as that he did it in the midst of the constant interruptions involved in great personal popularity and fame. He had received beneath his roof every notable person who had visited Boston for half a century; he had met them all with the same affability, and had consented, with equal graciousness, to be instructed by Emerson and Sumner, or to be kindly patronized—as the story goes—by Oscar Wilde. From that room had gone forth innumerable kind acts and good deeds, and never a word of harshness. He retained to the last his sympathy [293] with young people, and with all liberal and progressive measures. Indeed, almost his latest act of public duty was to sign a petition to the Massachusetts legislature for the relief of the disabilities still placed in that State upon the testimony of atheists.

Mr. Longfellow's general health remained tolerably good, in spite of advancing years, until within about three months of his death. After retiring to bed in apparent health one night, he found himself in the morning so dizzy as to be unable to rise, and with a pain in the top of his head. For a week he was unable to walk across the room on account of dizziness, and although it gradually diminished, yet neither this nor the pain in the head ever entirely disappeared, and there was great loss of strength and appetite. He accepted the situation at once, retreated to the security of his own room, refused all visitors outside of the family, and had a printed form provided for the acknowledgment of letters, leaving his daughters to answer them. During the last three months of his life he probably did not write three dozen letters, and though he saw some visitors, he refused many more. He might sometimes be seen walking on his piazza, or even in the street before the house, but he accepted no invitations, and confined himself mainly within doors. His seventy-fifth birthday, February [294] 27, was passed very quietly at home, in spite of the many celebrations held elsewhere. On Sunday, March 19, he had a sudden attack of illness, not visibly connected with his previous symptoms. It was evident that the end was near, and he finally died of peritonitis on Friday afternoon, March 24, 1882.

It will perhaps be found, as time goes on, that the greatest service rendered by Longfellow—beyond all personal awakening or stimulus exerted on his readers—was that of being the first conspicuous representative, in an eminently practical and hard-working community, of the literary life. One of a circle of superior men, he was the only one who stood for that life purely and supremely, and thus vindicated its national importance. Among his predecessors, Irving had lived chiefly in Europe, and Bryant in a newspaper office. Among his immediate friends, Holmes stood for exact science, Lowell and Whittier for reform, Sumner for statesmanship, Emerson for spiritual and mystic values; even the shy Hawthorne for public functions at home and abroad. Here was a man whose single word, sent forth from his quiet study, reached more hearts in distant nations than any of these, and was speedily reproduced in the far-off languages of the world. Considered merely as an antidote to materialism, such a life was of incalculable [295] value. Looking at him, the reign of the purely materialistic, however much aided by organizing genius, was plainly self-limited; the modest career of Longfellow outshone it in the world's arena. Should that reign henceforth grow never so potent, the best offset to its most arrogant claims will be found, for years to come, in the memory of his name. [296]

1 The Home Circle, London, October, 1850, III. 249.

2 My Reminiscences, by Lord Ronald Gower, American edition, II. 227, 228.

3 lb., American edition, II. 228.

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