Longfellow The Poet Of The Household

( Originally Published 1916 )


LONGFELLOW cannot be classed among the world's greatest poets with Shakespeare, Browning, Tennyson, or Victor Hugo but he is probably more widely read than any of these poets of the first rank. Thomas Wentworth Higginson quotes from Professor Grovesnor of Amherst College an anecdote which shows the worldwide popularity of the author of Evangeline and Hiawatha. The professor was one of a party traveling from Constantinople to Marseilles when the talk at table turned upon poetry, and no less than six persons of six different nationalities repeated poems of Longfellow and declared that he was their favorite poet. The Russian lady who started the discussion, aptly ended it with this wise remark: "Do you suppose there is any other poet of any country, living or dead, from whom so many of us could have quoted? Not one. Not even Shakespeare, or Victor Hugo, or Homer."

Higginson follows this with figures from the British Museum catalogue of 1901, which gives under each author's name the record of every memoir, criticism, parody or translation of his works. In this test Longfellow stands first among American poets with 357 titles and the others follow in this order: Emerson (158), Holmes (135), Lowell (114), Whittier (104), Poe (103) and Whitman (64). Again in the first balloting by the hundred judges for candidates for the new Hall of Fame in the New York University, only 39 names secured a majority of these, and Longfellow was tenth in rank, the only American man of letters who exceeded him in votes being Emerson. These are all definite proofs of Longfellow's worldwide popularity.

Since Poe, in jealous rage over the superior popularity of Longfellow's work, lampooned his poems and derided his poetic ability, many critics have had their fling at the New England bard. It has been said that he had no genuine poetic inspiration, that many of his most popular poems are purely ethical and have no claim to rank as true poetry; that he was an imitator of many foreign poets and at best simply a wonderfully skilful adapter of other men's thoughts. Yet, in spite of all these attacks, which Longfellow never deigned to notice, his poems continued to be translated into foreign languages, while edition after edition was demanded in English-speaking countries. An editor of one of the great London weekly papers said not many years ago: "A stranger can hardly have an idea how familiar many of our working people, especially women, are with Longfellow. Thousands can repeat some of his poems who have never read a Iine of Tennyson and probably never heard of Browning. And the visitor to Westminster Abbey is impressed by the fact that in Poet's Corner, on a bracket near thé tomb of Chaucer and between the memorials to Cowley and Dryden, stands a fine marble bust of Longfellow, the gift of English and American admirers. Lowell, then our minister to England, was the chief speaker at the unveiling of this bust and in eloquent words, paid his tribute to Longfellow, the poet and the man.

Longfellow came of good old Yorkshire stock and he could trace his descent to four of the Mayflower pilgrims. He was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807, and he learned his letters at the early age of three. At thirteen, while a student in the Portland Academy, he composed his first poem, Venice, an Italian Song, and a little later his first verses appeared in print in the local newspaper. The youthful poet chose an American theme, The Battle of Lowell's Pond, and the verse would do credit to a maturer hand. Longfellow went to Bowdoin College, where he had Hawthorne for a classmate. There, while he did not excel in studies, he was an omnivorous reader and he showed keen interest in poetry and in books about the American Indian. One of his college exercises was a plea for the Indians, while his commencement oration was on Our Native Writers. Some critics have seen in this youthful appeal for the Red Man the germ of Hiawatha. During his college course Longfellow contributed a number of poems to the UNITED STATES LITERARY GAZETTE, a new semi-monthly literary periodical, and after graduation many of his poems will be found in the GAZETTE with the early verses of Bryant.

It is seldom that a young man enters college with a definite plan for life, but Longfellow had decided at this early age that he would choose a literary career. Law, medicine, theology did not appeal to him; but his father would not listen to his literary plans. Instead he insisted upon his studying law in his own office. There the youth of nineteen was offered the new position of professor of modern languages in Bowdoin College, with the privilege of a year's study in Europe. He gladly accepted it, but his stay abroad was prolonged to three years. One year he devoted to France, Spain and Italy; the remainder to study in Germany. He entered upon his duties at Bowdoin College when only twenty-two years of age. The results of Longfellow's European studies may be found in Outre-Mer, a series of prose sketches of his travels written in the style of Washington Irving. It is a remarkable fad that all his early work was in prose, Outre-Mer being followed by Hyperion, a rhetorical romance of a young lover's visit to Europe. This second prose work seemed to stimulate his long dormant poetical faculty and he wrote the poems which appeared in his first book of verse, Voices of the Night.

Longfellow at this time was established as Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard College. He made his home in the historic Craigie House at Cambridge, where he lived for the remainder of his life. After eighteen years of service as professor he retired and devoted himself entirely to literature. His home life was ideal but marked by two tragedies. His first wife died suddenly during his second visit to Europe, while his second wife was fatally burned at her own fireside. Longfellow kept open house for years at Cambridge, entertaining everyone of note who visited the city. Howells in his Literary Friends and Acquaintance gives a very attractive picture of Longfellow's life in his later years at Cambridge an old age full of "honor, love, obedience, troops of friends." On his last visit to Europe he was given the Doctor's degree by Cam-bridge and Oxford and all London paid him high honors.

Anyone who takes up Longfellow's poems is sure to be impressed by the number of striking lines that he has contributed to our literature. He seemed to have the faculty of putting a fine thought into quotable form, and his early verses yield a richer harvest of these things than his later and maturer poems. In reading Voices of the Night, his first volume of verse, one comes upon a remarkable collection of lines which have passed into the body of current American speech. John Bartlett in his Familiar Quotations gives eight pages to selections from Emerson and eleven pages to extracts from Longfellow. Into his early poems, written with the enthusiasm of young manhood, he put so much of spiritual force that they are stamped upon the reader's memory. Here, for instance, is A Psalm of Life, with its splendid optimism cast in lines that have become household words, and here The Reaper and the Flowers or a Psalm of Death. Then follow the ballads, The Skeleton in Armor, with its superb vision of a Norse Viking's storm life, and the pathos of The Wreck of the Hesperus. Here also are The Village Blacksmith, Excelsior and Maidenhood. Four years later appeared a group of poems of which The Belfry of Bruges, The Arsenal at Springfield and The Old Clock on the Stairs were the most noteworthy. The Springfield Arsenal Longfellow inspected in company with Charles Sumner, and the poem that resulted from this visit is an eloquent plea for peace. These verses, which sum up the poet's creed, have special force at this time when more than half the civilized world is engaged in the most destructive war ever known:

Were half the power, that fills the world with terror,
Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,
Given to redeem the human mind from error,
There were no need of arsenals or forts:

The warrior's name would be a name abhorred!
And every nation, that should lift again
Its head against a brother, on its forehead
Would wear forevermore the curse of Cain!

Of all Longfellow's shorter poems the one which has probably had the widest appeal is that entitled Resignation, written after the death of his little daughter Fanny. In no other poem with which I am familiar is found the same pathos over the loss of a dear one, the same assurance of meeting in a better world the child who has gone before. Though almost as familiar as the best Psalms, two verses are quoted here to show the simplicity Longfellow's methods:

There is no flock, however watched and tended,
But one dead lamb is there!
There is no fireside, howsoe'er defended,
But has one vacant chair!

There is no Death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb of the life Elysian
Whose portal we call Death.

Three of Longfellow's longer poems are worth notice, not only because of their many beauties of thought and form but because they are distinctively American. These are Evangeline, Hiawatha and The Courtship of Miles Standish. The pathetic romance of the Acadian lovers, which Longfellow immortalized in hexameters in Evangeline, was suggested by a story told by a Catholic priest to Hawthorne and by him repeated to Longfellow, who begged permission to make a poem of it. It is the most perfect thing that Longfellow ever wrote. The Song of Hiawatha, perhaps, has had a greater vogue, as it pictures the life, the customs and the religious rites of the American Indian. The poet drew his materials from legends of the Ojibway tribe and he cast it in the form of the Kavalera, which gave great freedom of expression and free play of alliteration. The Courtship of Miles Standish, also told in hexameters, is full of fine pictures of Colonial life.

It is one of the ironies of the literary life that the poem on which Longfellow spent the most effort and regarded as his best made little impression on the great world of readers. This was Christus, a series of eloquent pictures of the life of the Savior. Another work on which Longfellow lavished much pains was a metrical translation of Dante which shared the fate of Christus.

Longfellow was a master of many forms of the poetical art, but he was especially skilful in handling the sonnet. Especially fine are the six sonnets on The Divine Comedy of Dante and the sonnet on The Cross of Snow a tribute to his wife, who met the cruelest of deaths by her own fireside.

Perhaps the best summing up of Long-fellow's influence is found in these lines by Thomas Wentworth Higginson: "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."

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