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Chapter 3: first Flights in authorship

It is interesting to know that twice, during his college days, Longfellow had occasion to show his essentially American feeling; first, in his plea for the Indians on an Exhibition Day, and again, more fully and deliberately, in his Commencement Oration on ‘Our Native Writers.’ On Exhibition Day,—a sort of minor Commencement,—he represented, in debate, an American Indian, while his opponent, James W. Bradbury, took the part of an English emigrant. The conclusion of the exercise summed up the whole, being as follows:—

Is it thus you should spurn all our offers of kindness, and glut your appetite with the blood of our countrymen, with no excuse but the mere pretence of retaliation? Shall the viper sting us and we not bruise his head? Shall we not only let your robberies and murders pass unpunished, but give you the possession of our very fireside, while the only arguments you offer are insolence and slaughter? Know ye, the land is ours until you will improve it. Go, tell your [22] ungrateful comrades the world declares the spread of the white people at the expense of the red is the triumph of peace over violence. Tell them to cease their outrages upon the civilized world or but a few days and they shall be swept from the earth.

Alas! the sky is overcast with dark and blustering clouds. The rivers run with blood, but never, never will we suffer the grass to grow upon our war-path. And now I do remember that the Initiate prophet, in my earlier years, told from his dreams that all our race should fall like withered leaves when autumn strips the forest! Lo! I hear sighing and sobbing: 't is the death-song of a mighty nation, the last requiem over the grave of the fallen.

Every other Saturday, i. 21.

It is fair to conjecture that we may have in this boyish performance the very germ of ‘Hiawatha,’ and also to recall the still more youthful verses which appeared in the Portland ‘Gazette.’ He wrote in college not merely such verses, but some prose articles for the ‘American Monthly Magazine,’ edited in Philadelphia, by Dr. James McHenry, who in his letters praised the taste and talent shown in the article upon ‘Youth and Age.’ More important to the young poet, however, was his connection with a new semi-monthly periodical called the [23] ‘United States Literary Gazette.’ This was published in Boston and New York simultaneously, having been founded by the late Theophilus Parsons, but edited at that time by James G. Carter, of Boston, well known in connection with the history of public schools. Apparently Longfellow must have offered poems to the ‘Gazette’ anonymously, for one of his classmates records that when he met Mr. Carter in Boston the editor asked with curiosity what young man sent him such fine poetry from Bowdoin College. A modest volume of ‘Miscellaneous Poems, selected from the “United States literary Gazette,” ’ appeared in 1826,—the year after Longfellow left college,—and it furnished by far the best exhibit of the national poetry up to that time. The authors represented were Bryant, Longfellow, Percival, Dawes, Mellen, and Jones; and it certainly offered a curious contrast to that equally characteristic volume of 1794, the ‘Columbian Muse,’ whose poets were Barlow, Trumbull, Freneau, Dwight, Humphreys, and a few others, not a single poem or poet being held in common by the two collections.

This was, however, only a volume of extracts, but it is the bound volumes of the ‘Gazette’ itself—beginning with April 1, 1824—which most impress the student of early American [24] literature. There will always be a charm in turning over the pages where one sees, again and again, the youthful poems of Bryant and of Longfellow placed side by side and often put together on the same page, the young undergraduate's effusions being always designated by his initials and Bryant's with a perhaps more dignified ‘B.,’ denoting one whose reputation was to a certain extent already established, so that a hint was sufficient. Bryant's poems, it must be owned, are in this case very much better or at least maturer than those of his youthful rival, and are preserved in his published works, while Longfellow's are mainly those which he himself dropped, though they are reprinted in the appendix to Mr. Scudder's ‘Cambridge’ edition of his poems. We find thus in the ‘Literary Gazette,’ linked together on the same page, Longfellow's ‘Autumnal Nightfall’ and Bryant's ‘Song of the Grecian Amazon;’ Longfellow's ‘Italian Scenery’ and Bryant's ‘To a Cloud;’ Longfellow's ‘Lunatic Girl’ and Bryant's ‘The Murdered Traveller.’1 How the older poet was impressed by the work of the younger we cannot tell, but it is noticeable that in editing a volume of selected American poetry not long after, he assigns to Longfellow, as will presently be seen, a very small [25] space. It is to be remembered that Bryant had previously published in book form, in 1821, his earliest poems, and the ‘Literary Gazette’ itself, in its very first number, had pronounced him the first ‘original poet formed on this side of the Atlantic.’ ‘Our pleasure was equalled by our surprise,’ it says, ‘when we took up Bryant's poems, listened to the uncommon melody of the versification, wondered at the writer's perfect command of language, and found that they were American poems.’ ‘Though the English critics say of him,’ it continues, ‘that their poets must look to their laurels now that such a competitor has entered the ring, yet, let him remember that a few jousts in the ring never established the reputation of a knight.’2 It is a curious fact that the difference in actual quantity of poetic production between the older and younger poets should thus have been unconsciously suggested by the editor when Longfellow was but seventeen.

With Bryant and Longfellow, it would therefore seem, the permanent poetic literature of the nation began. ‘The Rivulet’ and ‘The Hymn of the Moravian Nuns’ appeared in the ‘Gazette’ collection, and have never disappeared from the poetic cyclopedias. The volume included fourteen of Longfellow's youthful effusions, [26] only six of which he saw fit to preserve; dropping behind him, perhaps wisely, the ‘Dirge Over a Nameless Grave,’ ‘Thanksgiving,’ ‘The Angler's Song,’ ‘Autumnal Nightfall,’ ‘A Song of Savoy,’ ‘Italian Scenery,’ ‘The Venetian Gondolier,’ and ‘The Sea Diver.’ He himself says of those which he preserved that they were all written before the age of nineteen, and this is obvious from the very date of the volume. Even in the rejected poems the reader recognizes an easy command of the simpler forms of melody, and a quick though not profound feeling for external nature. Where he subsequently revises these poems, however, the changes are apt to be verbal only, and all evidently matters of the ear. Thus in reprinting ‘The Woods in Winter,’ he omits a single verse, the following:—

On the gray maple's crusted bark
     Its tender shoots the hoarfrost nips;
Whilst in the frozen fountain—hark!
     His piercing beak the bittern dips.

It shows the gradual development of the young poet's ear that he should have dropped this somewhat unmelodious verse. As a rule he wisely forbore the retouching of his early poems. He also contributed to the ‘Gazette’ three articles in prose, quite in Irving's manner, including a few verses. All these attracted some [27] attention at the time. Mr. Parsons, the proprietor of the magazine, was thoroughly convinced of the vigor and originality of the young man's mind, and informed him that one of his poems, ‘Autumnal Nightfall,’ had been attributed to Bryant, while his name was mentioned in the ‘Galaxy’ on a level with that of Bryant and Percival. The leadership of Bryant was of course unquestioned at that period, and Longfellow many years after acknowledged to that poet his indebtedness, saying, ‘When I look back upon my early years, I cannot but smile to see how much in them is really yours. It was an involuntary imitation, which I most readily confess.’

Still more interesting as a study in the ‘Literary Gazette’ itself are three prose studies, distinctly after the manner of Irving, and headed by a very un-American title, ‘The Lay Monastery.’ There is a singular parallelism between this fanciful title and the similar transformation in verse, at about the same time, in the ‘Hymn of the Moravian Nuns’ at the consecration of Pulaski's banner. As in that poem a plain Moravian sisterhood, who supported their house by needlework, gave us an imaginary scene amid a chancel with cowled heads, glimmering tapers, and mysterious aisles, so the solitary in this prose article leads us into the society of an old [28] uncle whose countenance resembles that of Cosmo on the medallions of the Medici, who has been crossed in love, and who wears a brocade vest of faded damask, with large sprigs and roses. The author thus proceeds in his description of the imaginary uncle and the marvellous surroundings:—

When my uncle beheld my childish admiration for his venerable black-letter tome, he fondly thought that he beheld the germ of an antique genius already shooting out within my mind, and from that day I became with him as a favored wine. Time has been long on the wing, and his affection for me grew in strength as I in years; until at length he has bequeathed to me the peculiar care of his library, which consists of a multitude of huge old volumes and some ancient and modern manuscripts. The apartment which contains this treasure is the cloister of my frequent and studious musings. It is a curious little chamber, in a remote corner of the house, finished all round with painted panellings, and boasting but one tall, narrow Venetian window, that lets in upon my studies a ‘dim, religious light,’ which is quite appropriate to them.

Everything about that apartment is old and decaying. The table, of oak inlaid with maple, is worm-eaten and somewhat loose in the [29] joints; the chairs are massive and curiously carved, but the sharper edges of the figures are breaking away; and the solemn line of portraits that cover the walls hang faded from black, melancholy frames, and declare their intention of soon leaving them forever. In a deep niche stands a heavy iron clock that rings the hours with hoarse and sullen voice; and opposite, in a similar niche, is deposited a gloomy figure in antique bronze. A recess, curtained with tapestry of faded green, has become the cemetery of departed genius, and, gathered in the embrace of this little sepulchre, the works of good and great men of ancient days are gradually mouldering away to dust again.

United States literary Gazette, i. 348.

In view of this essentially artificial and even boyish style, it is not strange that one of his compositions should have been thus declined by the eminently just and impartial editor of the ‘North American Review,’ Jared Sparks.

dear Sir,—I return the article you were so good as to send me. In many respects it has a good deal of merit, but on the whole I do not think it suited to the ‘Review.’ Many of the thoughts and reflections are good, but they want maturity and betray a young writer. The style, too, is a little ambitious, although not without [30] occasional elegance. With more practice the author cannot fail to become a good writer; and perhaps my judgment in regard to this article would not agree with that of others whose opinion is to be respected; but, after all, you know, we editors have no other criterion than our own judgment.3

Nevertheless the young aspirant felt more and more strongly drawn to a literary life, and this found expression in his Commencement oration on ‘Our Native Writers.’ His brother and biographer, writing of this address in later years, says of it, ‘How interesting that [theme] could be made in seven minutes the reader may imagine,’ and he does not even reprint it; but it seems to me to be one of the most interesting landmarks in the author's early career, and to point directly towards all that followed.

Our native writers

To an American there is something endear— ing in the very sound,—Our Native Writers. Like the music of our native tongue, when heard in a foreign land, they have power to kindle up within him the tender memory of his home and fireside; and more than this, they foretell that whatever is noble and attractive in our national [31] character will one day be associated with the sweet magic of Poetry. Is, then, our land to be indeed the land of song? Will it one day be rich in romantic associations? Will poetry, that hallows every scene,—that renders every spot classical,—and pours out on all things the soul of its enthusiasm, breathe over it that enchantment, which lives in the isles of Greece, and is more than life amid the ‘woods, that wave o'er Delphi's steep’? Yes!—and palms are to be won by our native writers!—by those that have been nursed and brought up with us in the civil and religious freedom of our country. Already has a voice been lifted up in this land,—already a spirit and a love of literature are springing up in the shadow of our free political institutions.

But as yet we can boast of nothing farther than a first beginning of a national literature: a literature associated and linked in with the grand and beautiful scenery of our country,— with our institutions, our manners, our customs, —in a word, with all that has helped to form whatever there is peculiar to us, and to the land in which we live. We cannot yet throw off our literary allegiance to Old England, we cannot yet remove from our shelves every book which is not strictly and truly American. English literature is a great and glorious monument, built [32] up by the master-spirits of old time, that had no peers, and rising bright and beautiful until its summit is hid in the mists of antiquity.

Of the many causes which have hitherto retarded the growth of polite literature in our country, I have not time to say much. The greatest, which now exists, is doubtless the want of that exclusive attention, which eminence in any profession so imperiously demands. Ours is an age and a country of great minds, though perhaps not of great endeavors. Poetry with us has never yet been anything but a pastime. The fault, however, is not so much that of our writers as of the prevalent modes of thinking which characterize our country and our times. We are a plain people, that have had nothing to do with the mere pleasures and luxuries of life: and hence there has sprung up within us a quicksightedness to the failings of literary men, and an aversion to everything that is not practical, operative, and thoroughgoing. But if we would ever have a national literature, our native writers must be patronized. Whatever there may be in letters, over which time shall have no power, must be ‘born of great endeavors,’ and those endeavors are the offspring of liberal patronage. Putting off, then, what Shakespeare calls ‘the visage of the times,’ —we must become hearty well-wishers to our native authors: [33] —and with them there must be a deep and thorough conviction of the glory of their calling,—an utter abandonment of everything else,—and a noble self-devotion to the cause of literature. We have indeed much to hope from these things;—for our hearts are already growing warm towards literary adventurers, and a generous spirit has gone abroad in our land, which shall liberalize and enlighten.

In the vanity of scholarship, England has reproached us that we have no finished scholars. But there is reason for believing that men of mere learning—men of sober research and studied correctness—do not give to a nation its great name. Our very poverty in this respect will have a tendency to give a national character to our literature. Our writers will not be constantly toiling and panting after classical allusions to the Vale of Tempe and the Etrurian river, nor to the Roman fountains shall—

The emulous nations of the West repair
To kindle their quenched urns, and drink fresh spirit there.

We are thus thrown upon ourselves: and thus shall our native hills become renowned in song, like those of Greece and Italy. Every rock shall become a chronicle of storied allusions; and the tomb of the Indian prophet be as hallowed as the sepulchres of ancient kings, or the damp vault and perpetual lamp of the Saracen monarch. [34]

Having briefly mentioned one circumstance which is retarding us in the way of our literary prosperity, I shall now mention one from which we may hope a happy and glorious issue: It is the influence of natural scenery in forming the poetical character. Genius, to be sure, must be born with a man; and it is its high prerogative to be free, limitless, irrepressible. Yet how is it moulded by the plastic hand of Nature! how are its attributes shaped and modulated, when a genius like Canova's failed in the bust of the Corsican, and amid the splendor of the French metropolis languished for the sunny skies and vine-clad hills of Italy? Men may talk of sitting down in the calm and quiet of their libraries, and of forgetting, in the eloquent companionship of books, all the vain cares that beset them in the crowded thoroughfares of life; but, after all, there is nothing which so frees us from the turbulent ambition and bustle of the world, nothing which so fills the mind with great and glowing conceptions, and at the same time so warms the heart with love and tenderness, as a frequent and close communion with natural scenery. The scenery of our own country, too, so rich as it is in everything beautiful and magnificent, and so full of quiet loveliness or of sublime and solitary awe, has for our eyes enchantment, for our ears an impressive and unutterable [35] eloquence. Its language is in high mountains, and in the pleasant valleys scooped out between them, in the garniture which the fields put on, and in the blue lake asleep in the hollow of the hills. There is an inspiration, too, in the rich sky that ‘brightens and purples’ o'er our earth, when lighted up with the splendor of morning, or when the garment of the clouds comes over the setting sun.

Our poetry is not in books alone. It is in the hearts of those men, whose love for the world's gain,—for its business and its holiday, —has grown cold within them, and who have gone into the retirements of Nature, and have found there that sweet sentiment and pure devotion of feeling can spring up and live in the shadow of a low and quiet life, and amid those that have no splendor in their joys, and no parade in their griefs.

Thus shall the mind take color from things around us,—from them shall there be a genuine birth of enthusiasm,—a rich development of poetic feeling, that shall break forth in song. Though the works of art must grow old and perish away from earth, the forms of nature shall keep forever their power over the human mind, and have their influence upon the literature of a people.

We may rejoice, then, in the hope of beauty [36] and sublimity in our national literature, for no people are richer than we are in the treasures of nature. And well may each of us feel a glorious and high-minded pride in saying, as he looks on the hills and vales,—on the woods and waters of New England,—

This is my own, my native land.

First printed from the original Ms. in Every other Saturday, i. 116.

1 United States Literary Gazette, i. 237, 267, 286.

2 Literary Gazette, i. 8.

3 Life, i. 60.

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