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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow




Reading Books

How different from this gossip is the divine Dante, with which I begin the morning! I write a few lines every day before breakfast. It is the first thing I do, the morning prayer, the key-note of the day.... I really have but a few moments to devote to it daily; yet daily a stone, small or great, is laid upon the pile.

As to intellectual matter, I have not done much since I left you. A half-dozen poems on Slavery, written at sea, and a translation of sixteen cantos of Dante, is all I have accomplished in that way. I agree with you entirely in what you say about translations. It is like running a ploughshare through the soil of one's mind; a thousand germs of thought start up (excuse this agricultural figure), which otherwise might have lain and rotted in the ground. Still, it sometimes seems to me like an excuse for being lazy, like leaning on another man's shoulder.

I am just beginning the publication of a volume of specimens of foreign poetry, being a selection of the best English translations from the Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. The object of the book is to bring together in one volume what is now scattered through a hundred, and not easily got at.

I shall write the introductions. Most of the translations, of course, will be by other hands.

11th. Wrote a sonnet on Autumn.

12th. Began a poem on a clock, with the words, `Forever, never' as the burden; suggested by the words of Bridaine, the old French missionary, who said of eternity, `C'est une pendule dont le balancier dit et reditsans cesse ces deux mots seulement dans le silence des tombeaux, Toujours, jamais! Famais, toujours! Et pendant ces efroyables revolutions, un reprouve s'ecrie, "tuelle heure est-il?" et la voix d'un autre miserable lui repond, "L'Eternite." '

13th. Walked in the garden and tried to finish the Ode to a Child; but could not find the exact expressions I wanted, to round and complete the whole.

14th. Felt more than ever today the difference between my ideal home-world of Poetry, and the outer, actual, tangible Prose world. When I go out of the precincts of my study, down the village street to college, how the scaffoldings about the Palace of Song come rattling and clattering down!

16th. Before church, wrote The Arrow and the Song, which came into my mind as I stood with my back to the fire, and glanced on to the paper with arrowy speed. Literally an improvisation.

19th. After all, old Chateaubriand is a glowing writer. His description of the French, in the Etudes Historiques, is graphic and true. Niagara is also well sketched, ...

27th. In the evening the Club supped here; the first time we have been together for many months. A pity these meetings should be so interrupted, as much good comes of our discussions and friendly comparison of opinions.

11th. In a newspaper a high-strung article on Festus; with introduction stating that `the Age is still waiting for its Poet' one who should be hailed by acclamation as the Seer of this nineteenth century. Was ever a poet acknowledged by his age as its poet? Do the critics expect his advent heralded by signs and wonders? Or will he, too, come `like a thief in the night'? In the evening began reading The Wandering Jew. Large canvas, and bold strokes with a coarse brush.

9th. Tried a pipe, after long abstinence. Not very pleasant. Decidedly, the calm, dull husbanding of one's nervous energies though less conducive to swift intellectual effort, is more so to happiness. Let us be calm and happy, rather than excitable and nervous-minded. In the evening, Fichte's Lectures on the Nature of the Scholar, very interesting, with its doctrine of the `Divine Idea,' which is like Swedenborg. It dwells more or less with every one, and to it must every scholar conform himself.

25th. Authors and artists of every kind have one element of unhappiness in their lot, namely, the disproportion between their designs and their deeds. Even the greatest cannot execute one tenth part of what they conceive.

11th. I am in despair at the swift flight of time, and the utter impossibility I feel to lay hold upon anything permanent. All my hours and days go to perishable things. College takes half the time; and other people, with their interminable letters and poems and requests and demands, take the rest. I have hardly a moment to think of my own writings, and am cheated of some of life's fairest hours. This is the extreme of folly; and if I knew a man, far off in some foreign land, doing as I do here, I should say he was mad.



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