Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (18071882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW, whose descent is traced from William Longfellow of Byfield, Massachusetts, an English immigrant of the third quarter of the seventeenth century, was the son of Stephen and Zilpha (Wadsworth) Longfellow. He was born in a house still standing at the corner of Fore and Hancock streets, Portland, Maine, February 27, 1807. He was trained for college at the Portland Academy, and in 1821 entered Bowdoin College (founded but twenty years before), was graduated in 1825, and immediately received an invitation to teach the modern languages in his Alma Mater, with leave of absence for travel and study in Europe.
He sailed for France in May, 1826, where he spent the rest of that year. Early in 1827 he went to Spain for eight months. A year followed in Italy; and after six months in Germany, he returned to America in the summer of 1829. In September of that year he entered upon his duties at Brunswick as Professor of Modern Languages. In September, 1831, he was married to Mary Storer Potter, second daughter of Judge Barrett Potter of Portland. His study and his writing during his residence at Brunswick made him at last feel restricted in opportunity; and he was casting about for some more congenial position, when he received, in December, 1834, an invitation to succeed Mr. George Ticknor as Smith Professor of Modern Languages in Harvard University, and at once accepted the offer with enthusiasm.
The invitation gave an intimation that he might, if he chose, spend a year or eighteen months in Europe for the purpose of perfecting himself in German; and in April, 1835, he made a second journey of study and observation. He spent the remainder of the year in England, the Scandinavian countries, and Holland, where he was detained by the illness of his wife, who died at the end of November in Rotterdam. Thence he passed to Germany, where he wintered in Heidelberg, occupying himself closely in study. Near the end of June, he went to the Tyrol, spent the summer in Switzerland, and by slow stages made his way to Havre, whence he sailed for home in October, 1836.
In December of this year he established himself in Cambridge, and took up his college duties. In the summer of 1837 he found quarters in the historic house which had been Washingtons headquarters during the siege of Boston, where he had for a while as co-tenant Dr. Joseph Worcester, the lexicographer. The house at the time was owned and occupied by Mrs. Andrew Craigie, widow of a commissary officer in the American army, who bore the distinguished title Apothecary-general. Here Mr. Longfellow lived during the remainder of his life, except that he had also for many years a summer cottage at Nahant. In 1843 he became owner of the estate through the gift of Mr. Nathan Appleton of Boston, whose daughter, Frances Elizabeth, he married July 13 of that year.
Mr. Longfellow held his professorship in Harvard University from 1836 to 1854, when he resigned the position. Once only, in 1842, did he take a long vacation of six months, which he spent mainly at Marienberg on the Rhine, for the sake of its waters. In July, 1861, he met with a terrible loss in the distressing death, by fire, of his wife. He led after this a somewhat secluded life; but in May, 1868, he went to Europe for a fourth time, with members of his family, and remained abroad, receiving academic honors and everywhere accorded such distinction as his great fame won him and his sensitive nature would permit him to receive. He returned to his home in September, 1869, and died March 24, 1882, leaving two sons and three daughters.
Besides the degree of Doctor of Laws conferred on him by his Alma Mater, Bowdoin College, Mr. Longfellow received the same decoration from Harvard University and from Cambridge, England, the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford, and was member, among other societies, of the Royal Spanish Academy.
In such brief terms may be recorded the external incidents of the life of a man whose name is probably more widely known both in America and in Europe than that of any other American man of letters. The more important and distinguishing record of his life lies in a statement respecting his literary career, and especially the succession of his poetical writings, for his services to his countrymen were only incidentally through his academic avocation; his real vocation was that of a poet, and in that word must be included the notion of an interpreter.
Setting aside the boyish verses on the Battle of Lovells Pond with their faint echo of Moore, the first disclosure of poetic gift was in the period when he was closing his college course and immediately after, in the winter which intervened between his appointment at Bowdoin and his first European visit. About twenty-five poems were published in various journals at this time; and seven of them the poet included under the heading Earlier Poems in his first collection of original verse, Voices of the Night, a dozen years later. In this group of early poems, there are a few touches which indicate the spark of poetic fire; but for the most part they are derivative, imitative, and merely exercises upon a slender poetic reed. Their chief value is in showing how the authors mind, before he travelled or partook freely of the larger literature, turned instinctively to subjects and to modes of treatment which permitted the artistic use of the reflected forms of nature and human life; he was seeking for color and richness and decorative grace rather than penetrating to the elemental significance.
During this brief period of poetic activity, Mr. Longfellow wrote and printed probably as much prose which has not been preserved. In truth, he was seeking expression through literary form, and was conscious rather of the literary spirit than of a controlling poetic power. It was during his last year in college that he wrote to his father:
I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature; my whole soul burns ardently for it, and every earthly thought centres in it. There may be something visionary in this, but I flatter myself that I have prudence enough to keep my enthusiasm from defeating its own object by too great haste. Surely there never was a better opportunity offered for exertion of literary talent in our own country than is now offered. To be sure, most of our literary men thus far have not been profoundly so, until they have studied and entered the practice of theology, law, or medicine. I do believe that we ought to pay more attention to the opinion of philosophers, that nothing but nature can qualify a man for knowledge. Whether Nature has given me any capacity for knowledge or not, she has, at any rate, given me a very strong predilection for literary pursuits; and I am almost confident in believing that if I can rise in the world, it must be by the exercise of my talent in the wide field of literature. With such a belief, I must say that I am unwilling to engage in the study of the law. Let me reside one year at Cambridge; let me study belles-lettres, and after that time it will not require a spirit of prophecy to predict with some degree of certainty what kind of a figure I could make in the literary world.
In this interesting letter there is the note of a young man pleading with his father, and using the argument which he thinks may prevail; but there is, more distinct than any assumed bravado, an eagerness to try the calling which answers most completely the demands of his nature. Through all the vicissitudes of his professional life, he seems never to have missed the road which his intellectual and emotional endowment pointed out. His life-long friend, Mr. George Washington Greene, in the moving dedication to the poet prefixed to his The Life of Nathanael Greene, recalls a day spent by the two young men in Naples in 1828, when, under the splendor of an Italian sunset, and with the beautiful bay of Naples spread out before them, they reflected on the pageant of history, and then turned their thoughts in upon themselves and their own purposes in life.
We talked and mused by turns, says Greene, till the twilight deepened and the stars came forth to mingle their mysterious influences with the overmastering magic of the scene. It was then that you unfolded to me your plans of life, and showed me from what deep cisterns you had already learned to draw. From that day, the office of literature took a new place in my thoughts. I felt its forming power as I had never felt it before, and began to look with a calm resignation upon its trials, and with true appreciation upon its rewards.
There is no corresponding record by the poet himself to which we can turn for the expansion of these words; but there are hints in his letters as well as suggestions from his studies at this time, which make it pretty certain that the entrance he then found into the literatures of Southern Europe through the medium of a quick acquaintance with the several languages was the disclosure to him of the interpreting power of literature; and it is interesting to note that one of the indications at this time of his own adventures in literature pointed to the use of the native, familiar material of New England life. In the midst of his enthusiastic absorption of foreign art, literature, and life, he wrote to Carey & Lea, the Philadelphia publishers, proposing a series of sketches and tales of New England life. He was qualifying himself for the post of an instructor in modern languages; but neither in his purpose then, nor in his pursuit of this calling afterward at Brunswick and Cambridge, could he be regarded as taking an academic attitude. He taught by methods which were designed to initiate the student as early as possible into an apprehension of the interesting revelation of life which literature held; and his choice of forms of literature for translation into the English tongue led him straight to those poems which embodied human experience in its most sympathetic guise.
There was a period of a little more than ten years from the time when Mr. Longfellow returned from Europe which was marked by literary production and the work of a teacher, blended and interchanged, but expressive of a single controlling passion. Just before his return after a three years absence, he wrote to his father: My poetic career is finished. Since I left America I have hardly put two lines together. Both his note-book and his letters show that his mind was occupied mainly with plans for work in prose. In fact, the new world opened to him by his introduction to historic and contemporaneous romantic literature pressed for expression. There was an outlet through teaching, and there was an outlet through writing; and in his eagerness to give form to the impressions crowding upon him, he used his profession for the opportunities it gave him, and wrote lectures and articles for periodicals in which he sought to classify and arrange the wealth which his study and sojourn in foreign lands had heaped before him. Yet the artistic impulse native to his genius impelled him to use his material in more artistic form. Shortly after his return to America, he began the publication in Buckinghams The New England Magazine of a series entitled The Schoolmaster, in which a slight framework of fictitious assumption of personality is employed in which to set pictures of foreign life. The series continued for eighteen months, and then was recast and enlarged to be published in book form in 1833, under the title of Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea. It was in effect the harvest of his first years of travel. In 1839 appeared Hyperion, which followed upon his second residence abroad, and in its form and treatment was more distinctly a work of constructive art. The material which he had amassed was now more completely mastered, and in the freedom of his mastery he employed it for an ulterior artistic purpose, interfusing a lyrical and romantic strain of human sentiment. The book marks the close of what may be regarded as the poets period of training for his distinct vocation.
Yet, during this entire period, he had not failed to exercise himself in poetic form as well as in the poetical treatment of the prose form. His function as an interpreter of foreign literature, both as teacher and writer, drew him into metrical versions of the poems which formed for him so essential a part of that literature. His first book, indeed, aside from school-manuals, was his translation of Coplas de Manrique; and his two prose volumes were lighted by lyrics in which his own poetic genius was a transparent medium for the beauty of the originals. As his first great discovery of himself was in the loss of himself in large study and observation, so his appropriation of European literary art was the occasion for a fineness of literary expression quite beyond his earlier independent poetic trials. These translations have a quality which make them distinctively his, while still faithful rescripts of the originals.
The period of this special form of production extended beyond the decade of which we have been writing, and culminated with the publication of The Poets and Poetry of Europe in 1843, an anthology which contained a number of his own translations. From 1830 until 1843 he wrote more than sixty such poems, and in this last year made his first experiments in the translation of Dante. But the most prolific years were, precisely, those from 1829 to 1839, when he was most busily engaged in assimilating and ordering all that material for art which had been put into his possession by his acquaintance with foreign literature and life.
It was when he had discharged his obligation to this inheritance by the publication of Hyperion that he began almost simultaneously his long and noble career as a poet, singing in his own voice the songs which were the overflow of his native genius, enriched and expanded by the years of study and experiment. In the flush of his intellectual manhood, established in what promised to be a permanent position in Harvard College, and with his days of wandering over, he turned again to poetry. He was still a student, but the urgency of the student mood was passed; the riches of human thought had become in a measure his possession; his personal experience had been enlarged and deepened; he no longer saw principally the outside of the world; youth with its surrender to the moment had gone, and manhood with its hours of reflection had come. So we may interpret the poets mood as it discloses itself in the verses which introduce his first volume of original poetry.
The conclusion of one period of his intellectual growth, as instanced in the writing of Hyperion, melts into the beginning of a new period, which is indicated by the several Psalms, so called by himself, written and published at the end of 1838 and during 1839. In the latter year Mr. Longfellow gathered these recent poems with those belonging to earlier stages into a volume to which he gave the title Voices of the Night. It comprised three groups of poems,those recently written and published in the Knickerbocker Magazine; a selection from his poems published in periodicals during and immediately after his college days; and translations, together with a Prelude and an Envoi. The publication seems to have been a sudden thought coming to him in the exhilaration of his busy life. He writes in his diary, under date of September 11, 1839: I have taken to the Greek poets again, and mean to devote one hour every morning to them. Began to-day with Anacreon. What exquisite language! Why did I ever forget my Greek? and the next day he notes: I mean to publish a volume of poems under the title of Voices of the Night. As old Michael Drayton says,
The success of the volume was marked: and the tone in which the author speaks of it in his diary and letters, as well as the joyousness which pervades his life at this period, indicates how sincere was this new birth of song, and what promise it gave of endurance. Nevertheless, he was not so conscious of his destiny that he could not outline, a few days later, a plan of literary work which embraced a history of English poetry, a novel, a series of sketches, and only one poem, which may have been a paraphrase of Scandinavian verse. This efflorescence of intellectual life was, however, only a sign of his activity. It serves to show how natural and progressive was his growth: he had not broken with his past, but he did not distinctly see how almost entirely his literary productiveness was thereafter to be confined to verse. For it is to be noted that after the publication of Voices of the Night the succession of volumes of poetry was broken only by Kavanagh, and the collection of his scattered papers under the title of Drift Wood. Kavanagh, published in 1849, at the close of another decade, appears to have been the final form taken by his art of various fancies which had been floating in his mind since the period of his first beginnings in literature. It laid their ghost, we may think; and after that the man of letters ceased to be, and the poet was firmly sealed.
The years immediately following the publication of Voices of the Night may be regarded as those of the greatest spontaneity in Mr. Longfellows poetic work. The title of the next volume of verse, Ballads and other Poems, hints at the direction his mind was taking. I have broken ground in a new field, he writes to Mr. Greene, January 2, 1840, namely, ballads; beginning with the Wreck of the Schooner Hesperus, on the reef of Normans Woe, in the great storm of a fortnight ago. I shall send it to some newspaper. I think I shall write more. The national ballad is a virgin soil here in New England; and there are great materials. Besides, I have a great notion of working upon the peoples feelings. I am going to have it printed on a sheet with a coarse picture on it. I desire a new sensation and a new set of critics. Nat. Hawthorne is tickled with the idea. Felton laughs and says, I would nt. The familiar story of his invention of Excelsior is most suggestive of the poetic glow which his mind now experienced. The Spanish Student was another experiment in literary art struck out of his enthusiasm for Spanish literature, in which his work as a teacher had been engaging him. The volume of Poems on Slavery was the contribution which his patriotism, under stress of indignation, made to the rising tide of anti-slavery sentiment; but though he never lessened in his strong hostility to slavery, he kept his expression for letters, and conversation, and public acts; in his art he was commanded by less polemic influences.
The first publication of The Spanish Student was in 1842, during the authors absence in Europe. The Poems on Slavery were written on the return voyage. Mr. Longfellow was now thirty-five years old; and as he turned back after his six months vacation and faced homeward, he wrote the autobiographical sonnet, published after his death, entitled Mezzo Cammin. In this he declares:
With the familiarity which Mr. Longfellow now had with great art and the consciousness he possessed of his own poetic power, he could scarcely have been content with brief swallow-flights of song. Conceptions of great works often lie unwrought for many years in the mind of the poet; and Mr. Longfellows habit of jotting down impulses and momentary resolutions in his note-book lets us partly into the secret of the magnum opus which dominated his life. The possibly vague aspiration of his youth to build some tower of song with lofty parapet clearly took somewhat positive shape at this time. There is an entry in his journal, under date of November 8, 1841, which indicates how intensely and how comprehensively the conception of Christus possessed him at the outset:
This evening it has come into my mind to undertake a long and elaborate poem by the holy name of Christ; the theme of which would be the various aspects of Christendom in the Apostolic, Middle, and Modern Ages.
It was not till 1873 that the work as it now stands was published; and during those thirty-two years, which represent almost the whole of Mr. Longfellows productive period, the subject of the trilogy seems never to have been long absent from his mind. The theme in its majesty was a flame by night and a pillar of cloud by day, which led his mind in all its onward movement; and he esteemed the work which he had undertaken as the really great work of his life. His religious nature was profoundly moved by it, and the degree of doubt which attended every step of his progress marked the height of the endeavor which he put forth. There was nothing violent or eccentric in this sudden resolution. The entry in his journal, his biographer states, is the only one for that year; but his correspondence and the dates of his poems indicate clearly enough that the course of his mental and spiritual life was flowing in a direction which made this resolve a most rational and at the same time inspiring expression of his personality. He had been singing those psalms of life, triumphant, sympathetic, aspiring, which showed how strong a hold the ethical principle had of him; he had been steeping his soul in Dante; he had been moved by the tender ecclesiasticism of The Children of the Lords Supper, and in recording a passage in the life of Christ had fancied himself a monk of the Middle Ages; while the whole tenor of his life and thought had shown how strong a personal apprehension he had of the divine in humanity.
It was nine years from this resolution before he attacked the work in earnest, beginning then, as is well known, with the second part, and publishing it independently and without explanation of his full design, as The Golden Legend; but it is fair to suppose that the scheme itself in its entirety was one of those spiritual cinctures which bind the days of man, each to each. It is not at all improbable also that the exactions of his professional occupation had something to do with breaking the continuity of his poetical labor, and making him shrink from a task which called for great absorption of power. Certain it is that when in the winter of 184546 he was engaged upon his most sustained flight of verse up to this time, the poem of Evangeline, his diary bears witness to the impatience of the distractions of his daily life incident to his position, which constantly withheld him from a task which gave him the greatest delight.
The three poemsEvangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and The Courtship of Miles Standishhave superficially a more distinct place as expression of the larger sweep of Mr. Longfellows poetical genius, but they bear no such relation to his more intimate life as the Christus. They serve well to emphasize that ardent interest in American themes which was early illustrated by his eagerness to write of New England life, when he was in the flush of his enthusiasm for the art which Europe opened to his view. They illustrate also his technical skill and his instinctive sense of fitness of form. Regarding his period of poetical production as not far from sixty years, these three poems occupy, roughly speaking, the midway decade, and they are in the minds of most the central pieces about which the poets shorter poems are grouped. Yet those shorter poems which have become most securely imbedded in the memories and affections of readers, those songs which he breathed into the air and found again in the heart of a friend, were freely sent forth with no long intervals up to the very end of his life. Perhaps the longest interval was during that withdrawal which followed the tragedy of his domestic life.
When he began to lift his head after the calamity which befell him in the death of his wife, he felt the need, says his biographer, of some continuous and tranquil occupation for his thoughts; and after some months he summoned the resolution to take up again the task of translating Dante. This was no new study with him; in one form or another it had been a familiar pursuit since he made his first adventure in European literature, and his first collection of poems, Voices of the Night, contained examples of translation from Dante; but now he pushed the work through to completion, and in the final publication in three volumes left on record a notable expression of an important phase of his intellectual endowment. As translation was one of the earliest signs of his appropriation of the art disclosed to him in foreign literature, after he had completed the tale of his greater works he resumed with distinct pleasure this form of communion with other poets. Indeed, throughout his life he recognized the gracious part which this exercise of translation played in the intellectual life. He found in such work a gentle stimulus to his poetic faculties, and resorted to it when wishing to quicken his spirit. I agree with you entirely, he writes to Freiligrath, November 24, 1843, in what you say about translations. It is like running a ploughshare through the soil of ones 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 mans shoulder.
It is when one enlarges the conception of the word translation that one perceives how well it expresses a pervasive element of Mr. Longfellows art. He was a consummate translator because the vision and faculty divine which he possessed was directed toward the reflection of the facts of nature and society rather than toward the facts themselves. He was like one who sees a landscape in a Claude Lorraine glass; by some subtle power of the mirror everything has been composed for him. Thus, when he came to use the rich material of history, of poetry, and of other arts, he saw these in forms already existing; and his art was not so much a reconstruction out of crude material as a representation, a rearrangement in his own exquisite language of what he found and admired. He was first of all a composer, and he saw his subjects in their relations rather than in their essence. To tell over again old tales, to reproduce in forms of delicate fitness the scenes and narratives which others had invented,this was his delight; for in doing this he was conscious of his power, and he worked with ease.
The Divine Tragedy was finished in 1870. It marks a characteristic of the poet that he must have always by him some comprehensive task; and on the day when he finished Judas Maccabeus, which was in a sense an offshoot of The Divine Tragedy, he recorded in his diary: A new subject comes into my mind. This was, no doubt, the subject of Michael Angelo. Two months later he wrote: February 26, 1872. I have more definitely conceived the idea of a dramatic poem on Michael Angelo, which has been vaguely hovering in my thoughts for some time. Can I accomplish it? In May he finished his first draft, but the poem never was completed. The author kept it by him, occasionally touching it, writing new scenes, rejecting portions, and seemingly reluctant to have it leave his desk. He wrote upon the first page, A Fragment; and a fragment it remains, even though it has the smoothness and apparent roundness of a finished work. It is possible, also, that in calling it a fragment Mr. Longfellow had in mind the fact that the time of the poem embraced but a small fraction of the artists life; and this consideration may have led him to throw aside the concluding scene of Michael Angelos death-bed as indicating too positive and final a close. It is certain that there is but slight attempt at the development of a drama, with its crises and denouement; the form adopted was that of a dramatic poem which permitted expansion and contraction within the natural limits of three major parts, and depended for its value in construction upon the skilful selection of scenes, chronological in their sequence, and yet indicative of the relations subsisting between the principal characters introduced.
There is an interest, however, attaching to this work which grows out of its place in Mr. Longfellows history. It was found in his desk and published after his death, ten years from the time when it was first composed, and bearing the marks of his occasional revision. When Michael Angelo holds discourse from the vantage-ground of age with the volatile Benvenuto Cellini, his counsel to the younger man is mingled with pathetic reflections upon his own relation to art. He cannot leave Rome for Florence; he is under the spell which affects one like malaria,
Malaria of the mind
Out of this tomb of the majestic Past;
The fever to accomplish some great work
That will not let us sleep. I must go on
Until I die.
So he speaks; and to Benvenutos reminder of the memories which cluster about the pleasant city upon the Arno, he replies, musing:
The caution against mistaking a poets dramatic assumption for his own character and expression is of less force when applied to one in whom the dramatic power was but slightly developed; and the whole poem of Michael Angelo, taken in connection with the time and circumstances of its composition, may fairly be regarded as in some respects Longfellows apologia. Michael Angelo rehearsing his art is dramatically conceived, and there is no lapse into the poets own speech; for all that, and because of that, the reader is always aware of the presence of Longfellow, wise, calm, reflective, musing over the large thoughts of life and art. I want it, the poet says in his diary, for a long and delightful occupation; and he treated himself to the luxury of keeping the work by him, brooding over it, shaping it anew, adding, changing, discarding.
Quickened are they that touch the Prophets bones, he says in his Dedication; and it may easily be believed that with no great scheme of verse haunting him, with no sense of incompleted plans, he would linger in the twilight of his poetic life over the strong figure of the artist thus called up before him, and be kindled with a new poetic glow as he contemplated the great artist. For Michael Angelo in the poem is the virile character of the robust Italian seen in a softened, mellow light. We are not probably far astray when we say that Longfellow, in building this poem and reflecting upon its theme during the last ten years of his life, was more distinctly declaring his artistic creed than in any other of his works, and that the discussions which take place in the poem, more especially Michael Angelos utterances on plastic or graphic art, had a peculiar interest for him as bearing upon analogous doctrines of the art of poetry.
The great sculptor is made to speak in his old age of
The fever to accomplish some great work
That will not let us sleep.
If there was any such fever in Mr. Longfellows case,and possibly the writing of Michael Angelo is an evidence,there certainly was from the beginning of his career a most healthy and normal activity of life, which stirred him to the achievement of great works in distinction from the familiar, frequent exercise of the poetic faculty.
We have but one life here on earth, he writes 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. This last entry lets a little light into the poets temperament. That calm sweetness of spirit, which is so apparent in Longfellow, was an acquisition as well as an endowment. He deliberately chose and refrained according to a law in his members, and took clear cognizance of his nature and its tendencies. In a word, he was a sane man. There was a notable sanity about all his mode of life, and his attitude towards books and Nature and men. It was the positive which attracted him, the achievement in literature, the large, seasonable gifts of the outer world, the men and women themselves who were behind the deeds and words which made them known. The books which he read, as noted in his journals, were the generous books; he wanted the best wine of thought, and he avoided criticism. He basked in sunshine; he watched the sky, and was alive to the great sights and sounds, and to all the tender influences of the seasons. In his intercourse with men, this sanity appeared in the power which he showed of preserving his own individuality in the midst of constant pressure from all sides; he gave of himself freely to his intimate friends, but he dwelt, nevertheless, in a charmed circle, beyond the lines of which men could not penetrate. Praise did not make him arrogant or vain; criticism, though it sometimes wounded him, did not turn him from his course. It is rare that one in our time has been the centre of so much admiration, and still rarer that one has preserved in the midst of it all an integrity of nature which never abdicates.