There is no one of Mr. Longfellows writings which may be said to have so dominated his literary life. The study of Dante and the translation of the Divina Commedia subtended a wider arc in time, but from the nature of things the interpretation of a great work was subordinate to the development of a theme which was interior to the poets thought and emotion. Yet even in point of time, that which elapsed between the first conception of Christus and its final accomplishment was scarcely less than that which extended from the day when Mr. Longfellow opened Dante to the end of his life,for so long did he live in companionship with the great seer.
The first indication of actual work upon the subject does not appear until the end of 1849, when he seems to have decided to take up first the second division. He had dismissed his volume of poems, The Seaside and the Fireside, another stone rolled over the hilltop! and proceeded in his diary, November 19: And now I long to try a loftier strain, the sublimer Song whose broken melodies have for so many years breathed through my soul in the better hours of life, and which I trust and believe will ere long unite themselves into a symphony not all unworthy the sublime theme, but furnishing some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery. On December 10th, he wrote: A bleak and dismal day. Wrote in the morning The Challenge of Thor as Prologue or Introitus to the second part of Christus. This he laid aside, taking it up again ten years later, when he proposed to write the Saga of King Olaf. It is probable that he had in mind the opposition of northern paganism to the Christianity of sacerdotalism, and the supremacy of the latter. But the theme of the drama was constantly before him in one shape or another. In his diary, under date of January 10, 1850, he records: In the evening, pondered and meditated upon sundry scenes of Christus. In such meditation one tastes the delight of the poetic vision, without the pain of putting it into words. The scheme of his first venture had evidently been more or less determined upon, for a few weeks later he notes: February 28. And so ends the winter and the vacation. Not quite satisfactorily to me. Yet something I have done. Some half dozen scenes or more are written of The Golden Legend, which is Part Second of Christus; and the whole is much clearer in my mind as to handling, division, and the form and pressure of the several parts. It is to be noted that already in 1839 there had crossed his mind the notion of writing a drama based upon the legend of Der Arme Heinrich, and that he had perceived the value of Elsie. I have a heroine, he says, as sweet as Imogen, could I but paint her so.
The Golden Legend was published near the close of 1851, but the author gave no intimation of the relation which the work held to a larger plan. He had taken for the core of his poem the story of Der Arme Heinrich as told by Hartmann von der Aue, a minnesinger of the twelfth century, to be found in Mailáths Altdeutsche Gedichte, published in Stuttgart in 1809, and it was not till after the book was issued that he caught sight of Jacobus de Voragines Legenda Aurea. His own account of his work may be read in brief in a letter which he wrote to an English correspondent at this time. I am glad to know, he says, that you find something to like in The Golden Legend. I have endeavored to show in it, among other things, that through the darkness and corruption of the Middle Ages ran a bright, deep stream of Faith, strong enough for all the exigencies of life and death. In order to do this I had to introduce some portion of this darkness and corruption as a background. I am sure you will be glad to know that the monks sermon is not wholly of my own invention. The worst passage in it is from a sermon of Fra Gabriella Barletta, an Italian preacher of the fifteenth century. The Miracle Play is founded on the Apocryphal Gospels of James and the Infancy of Christ. Both this and the sermon show how sacred themes were handled in the days of long ago.
It is a strong illustration of the importance which Mr. Longfellow attached to The Golden Legend as a portion of a larger, more inclusive work, that we find him regretting, while his book was in full tide of success, that he had not taken a theme more fit to his purpose which had been chosen by another poet. We stayed at home, he writes, April 2, 1852, reading The Saints Tragedy, the story of St. Elizabeth of Hungary put into dramatic form with great power. I wish I had hit upon this theme for my Golden Legend, the mediæval part of my Trilogy. It is nobler and more characteristic than my obscure legend. Strange that while I was writing a dramatic poem illustrating the Middle Ages, Kingsley should have been doing the same, and that we should have chosen precisely the same period, about 1230. His poem was published first, but I never saw it, or a review of it, till two days ago. Whether or not Mr. Longfellow would have wrought at the other theme with any more satisfaction to himself, The Golden Legend has taken its place as a faithful exponent of the phase of Christianity which it described. Longfellow, says a competent authority, in his Golden Legend has entered more closely into the temper of the monk, for good and for evil, than ever yet theological writer or historian, though they may have given their lifes labor to the analysis.
Christus was, however, pressing upon the poets mind; the completion of the second division only made him more desirous of fulfilling the noble theme. The Golden Legend had been published a few weeks when he wrote in his diary one Sunday: Dec. 28, 1851. The weather, which has been intensely cold, suddenly changes to rain; and avalanches of snow thunder from the college-roofs all sermon-time. A grand accompaniment to Mr. Ellis, who was preaching about the old prophets,an excellent discourse. Ah me! how many things there are to meditate upon in this great world! And all this meditation,of what avail is it, if it does not end in some action? The great theme of my poem haunts me ever; but I cannot bring it into act.
It was nearly a score of years before another number of the Trilogy was ready, though it is probable that Mr. Longfellow was in the neighborhood of The New England Tragedies when he was diverted for the time by the attractive theme of The Courtship of Miles Standish. As far back as 1839 he had thought of a drama on Cotton Mather. It is curious that he should have mentioned that and a drama on the old poetic legend of Der Arme Heinrich in the same sentence as possible themes, a couple of years before the conception of Christus came to him. In the spring of 1856 he was contemplating a tragedy which should take in the Puritans and the Quakers, and preparing for it by looking over books on the two sects, particularly, he says, Besses Sufferings of the Quakers,a strange record of violent persecution for merest trifles. He notes on April 2d of that year: Wrote a scene in my new drama, The Old Colony, just to break ground, and a month later: May 1. At home all day pondering the New England Tragedy, and writing notes and bits of scenes. He was still experimenting on it in July and in November, but then he seems to have made a new start and to have begun The Courtship of Miles Standish as a drama.
On the 27th of August, 1857, he had finished the first rough draft of Wenlock Christison, and later resumed his Miles Standish as an idyl. For a while this poem excluded the tragedy, but he took up the latter when the Courtship was completed and began a revision. On the 17th of August, 1858, he notes: The morning, as usual, worm-eaten with the writing of letters. I am now going to try a scene in Wenlock Christison. I write accordingly scene second of act first. Just as I finish the bells ring noon. There is a distant booming of cannon. F. comes in and says, The Queens message has arrived by the Atlantic cable. December 13. I have been at work on Wenlock Christison, moulding and shaping it.
It was ten years after this that The New England Tragedies emerged from the printing-office. Ten copies at first were printed to guard against accident to the manuscript copy, as the author was about leaving home for a considerable absence in Europe. In October of the same year, 1868, the book was published simultaneously in Boston and London. It would seem as if this whole division of the Trilogy caused the poet great doubt, and that he held back from publication out of distrust of his work. He makes but little reference to it in his diary, recording once that he read a portion to Mr. Fields, who received it rather coldly. In this case more emphatically than in the case of The Golden Legend, the relation of the part to the whole was uppermost in the poets mind. It may be that he intended at first to wait until he could write the first part before publishing the third, but finally gave out the modern portion, as before, with no intimation of its place in a larger plan. But The New England Tragedies had no such intrinsic attractiveness as The Golden Legend, and in absence of any explanation of the authors ulterior design was taken on its own ground with comparative indifference. The title of Wenlock Christison given to the former of the two tragedies was changed, when the book was published, to John Endicott.
Although Mr. Longfellow projected a third drama, the scene to be laid among the Moravians of Bethlehem, by which he hoped to be able to harmonize the discord of The New England Tragedies and thus give a not unfitting close to the work, he never wrote this drama, and it is most probable that Mr. Longfellow finally regarded the Tragedies as satisfying the requirements of the Trilogy, and was thenceforth impelled by an increased desire to complete his task by the preparation of the first and most difficult number. In the latter part of 1870 he began to make essays in it, and early in January, 1871, he writes in his diary: The subject of The Divine Tragedy has taken entire possession of me. All day pondering upon and arranging it.
The Divine Tragedy was published thus at the close of 1871, and in the autumn of 1872 Christus appeared as a complete work. It is an interesting illustration of the place which the work held in his mind that he should now incorporate in it the poem of Blind Bartimeus, which, when he wrote, he was disposed to refer in imagination to a monk of the middle ages. The design of the poet now stood revealed.