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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) had been Hawthorne's fellow collegian at Bowdoin College, became a professor in his Alma Mater and later in Harvard, whence, after some years of a professorial work, he retired and devoted himself to literature. His quality was decidedly academic, as befitted a son of Cambridge. Perhaps the first feature to be here noted concerning him is the influence which he had as a promoter of American culture, a service generally overshadowed by his immense popularity as a poet. In the respect noted he was a lineal successor to Irving, whom he also resembled in his equal treatment of foreign and native themes and legends alike. Such an academic influence as his, broadened and deepened by generous travel abroad to prepare him for his Harvard chair, was certainly needed in the decade after 183o. By his "Poets and Poetry of Europe" he familiarized Americans with the literature and lore of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and even of old Anglo-Saxon days. His "Outre Mer," a book of travel, has kept a place for itself until to-day. When he came to write his Indian legend of "Hiawatha," his familiarity with the then little known literature of the Northland enabled him to borrow the curious meter, style of imagery, and treatment of the Finnish epic, "Kalevala." As a critic proper, Longfellow possessed more learning than Poe, but was less truly critical, nor had he the satire and penetration of Lowell. But it is as the great poet of sympathy, as America's most popular poet, that Longfellow must be chiefly considered and in the scope of this brief sketch it is impossible to give a systematic account of all his familiar poems. His poetical works include: "The Voices of the Night," "Ballads and other Poems," "Poems on Slavery," "The Spanish Student," "The Belfry of Bruges," "Evangeline," "The Golden Legend," "Hiawatha," "The Courtship of Miles Standish," "Tales of a Wayside Inn," "Flower de Luce," "Christus," "Three Books of Song," "Aftermath," "The Mask of Pandora," "Keramos." Longfellow's conspicuous note as a poet was from the heart and not the head. He touched his readers with such tender poems of common sentiment as "The Reaper and the Flowers," "The Beleaguered City," "The Old Clock on the Stairs," and the "Wreck of the Hesperus." He sang, too, like Whittier, inspiring songs of labor such as "The Ropewalk" and the now hackneyed "Village Blacksmith," personification of honest toil. He idealized ambition in "Excelsior," and taught the lesson of existence in "The Psalm of Life." His national hymn, "The Ship of State," deserves rank as an achievement of poetic allegory beside Schiller's "Song of the Bell." This spiritual symbolism was also admirably attained in "Keramos, the Song of the Potter and His Wheel." Long-fellow's mastery of poetic narrative was revealed particularly in the "Tales of a Wayside Inn," which range from the charming story of "The Birds of Chillingworth" "those little feathered minstrels of the air"—to the noble medieval legend of "Robert of Sicily," who in his pride is transformed into a poor court jester while an angel takes his place for a reformatory spell upon the throne. The same gift enabled him to treat at such elaborate length his two notable American epics, "Evangeline," which depicts the woes of the cruelly dispersed Arcadians in Gabriel's long and futile pursuit of his wandering sweet-heart, and "The Courtship of Miles Standish," which tells how that sturdy but Cupid-fearing warrior sent John Alden as his proxy to woo the fair Priscilla. Said Pris-cilla: "Why do you not speak for yourself, John?" and the poem ends with the mild clerk and not the fierce warrior as its real hero. In "Hiawatha" he achieved the poetical apotheosis of the American Indian; not such a roman-tic idealization as that of Cooper's Uncas nor such a heroic idealization as Simm's Yemassee Chieftain, Sanutee, but an idealization of the Indian's religious spirit, his sense of the Grand Manitou, his feeling for the mystery and beauty of nature, and his appreciation of those gifts of his native soil, as embodied in the myth of the birth of the maize. But perhaps Longfellow's best, rip-est, most scholarly achievement in poetry was his translation of Dante's "Divina Commedia," published in 1867. How deeply he lingered throughout this long labor of love under the spell of the stern Florentine may be seen in those sonnets inspired by his work and effectively mirroring on their surface this "medioeval miracle of song." Longfellow's translation is in many respects, such as the metrical and onomatopoetic, superior to that of Doctor Carey.
Two tales in prose by him are "Kavanagh" and "Hyperion," the latter of which with its scenes laid in Europe, is an expression of the ideals of his heart. The serenity of his poetic work as a whole was reflected in his life and especially in his old age. As he himself said in his poem for the fiftieth anniversary of the graduation of his class, the beautiful "Morituri Salutamus :
"`And as the evening twilight fades away,
No figure in American literature has gathered unto itself such a wealth of affection as that given to him, and England herself paid her first tribute of memorial honor to an American writer by placing his bust in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.