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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Frederick Johnson (1836–1931)
 
THE POET Longfellow was born February 27th, 1807, in the town of Portland, Maine; and died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1882. He came of the best New England ancestry, tracing his descent in one line back to John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of the original Plymouth Colony, whose marriage he celebrates in the ‘Courtship of Miles Standish.’ He graduated from Bowdoin in 1825, in the same class with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Even in his boyhood he evinced the refinement, the trustworthy, equable judgment, and the love for the quietly beautiful in literature, which were his most strongly marked characteristics through life. Such elements are sure to develop, and it was safe to send the young Longfellow at nineteen for a three-years’ stay in Europe. His nature had no affinity for evil in any form; partly from the lack of emotional intensity, and partly from natural sympathy with all that was beautiful and of good report. He acquired during his tour of Europe a knowledge of the French, German, Italian, and Spanish languages, and a general literary acquaintance with the best writers in them. He had shown in college some aptitude for versification and for languages, and went abroad to fit himself for the position of professor of modern languages in Bowdoin. His industrious devotion to true culture throughout life is evidence of an overmastering bent. In 1829 he returned to America and took the professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin. In 1831 he married Mary Potter.  1
  In 1835 he published ‘Outre Mer,’ a sketchy account of his years abroad, in a form evidently suggested by Irving’s ‘Sketch Book,’ though by no means rivaling Irving’s quaint and charming humor. From 1831 he contributed a number of articles on literary subjects to the North American Review; and in 1833 he published his first poetical work, ‘Coplas’ (couplets or verses) ‘de Manrique,’—translations of Spanish verse. His gradually increasing reputation as a writer and enthusiastic instructor led to his appointment in 1835 as professor of modern languages at Harvard,—then as now on the lookout for young scholars likely to add to the reputation of the University. Before entering upon his new duties he went abroad to perfect his knowledge of the Teutonic languages. He was accompanied by his young wife, who died at Rotterdam in 1835. In 1836 he settled at Cambridge, living in the well-known Craigie House, which had been occupied by Washington when the headquarters of the army were near Boston. In 1843 he made his third voyage to Europe; and in the same year he married Frances Appleton, and the Craigie House—thenceforward to be one of the literary landmarks of America—became his home. His environment was an ideal one; and though he was somewhat burdened with the drudgery of his professorship, he added almost yearly to his reputation as a poet.  2
  He published ‘Voices of the Night’ in 1839; ‘Ballads and Other Poems,’ 1841; ‘Poems on Slavery,’ 1842; ‘The Spanish Student,’ 1843; ‘Belfry of Bruges,’ 1846; ‘Evangeline,’ 1847; ‘Seaside and Fireside,’ 1850; ‘The Golden Legend,’ 1851; and the prose works ‘Hyperion’ (1839) and ‘Kavanagh’ (1849), which last add very little if anything to his reputation. Finally, in 1854 he felt justified in resigning his position, that his literary activity might be uninterrupted. He was succeeded by Lowell, and it is doubtful if a like fitness of succession could be discovered in academic annals. He remained the first literary figure in America till his death in 1882, and his European reputation was but little inferior to that which he enjoyed in his own country. He received the degree of LL. D. from Harvard in 1859 and in 1868 from Cambridge, England, and the D. C. L. from Oxford in the same year.  3
  The peaceful and prosperous tenor of his life was disturbed by one terrible misfortune. His wife met her death in 1861 from the accidental burning of her dress. Otherwise his career was of almost idyllic tranquillity. He had the happy capacity of being cheered by appreciative praise and unaffected by adverse criticism. He attracted numerous friends, among them Felton, Sumner, Agassiz, Lowell, Hawthorne. His nature was so well balanced that he is his own best biographer; and appears to better advantage in his letters and diary, published by his brother, than in any of the lives that have appeared.  4
  If we judge from his diary, Longfellow was never subject to overmastering impulses, but always acted with foresight,—not from selfish calculation, but from a sane and temperate judgment. He was as trustworthy at nineteen as if years of experience had molded his character and settled his principles of conduct. In fact, he negatives the theory of original sin,—the flower of Puritanism disproves the cherished Puritan dogma. This quality of radical goodness of heart is reflected in his verse. The ardor of soul, the deep dejection and despair, the rebellion, of the revolutionary natures are entirely unknown to him. He is the poet of the well-disposed, the virtuous and intelligent New-Englander; in whose land there is found only a mild and colorless beauty untormented by cyclones or active volcanoes, and nature is not altogether favorable, nor entirely hostile, to humanity. To Hawthorne, New England was full of a quaint mystery; in Longfellow’s world there was no hell, and hardly room for a picturesque old-fashioned Devil. This is not so much due to superficial observation as to the fact that he simply avoided or ignored the places where “Satan shows his cloven foot and hides his titled name.” Even in Longfellow’s antislavery poems there is no hint of consuming indignation. His mark is charm and grace rather than power. In his own words, he is not one of—
            “the bards sublime,
  Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of time.”
  5
  He does not appeal to the great elemental passions, but rather to the pathetic sense of the transitoriness of familiar and everyday scenes, to the conviction that the calm joys of home are after all the surest foretaste of happiness allowed to man, and that the performance of duty is as noble in the humble sphere as in the elevated one: in a word, to a range of feelings that are based on reality, though they exist in the more superficial part of our natures. Therefore, Longfellow, though a man of general culture, does not write for the literary public. His relation is to the great body of readers, though his personal intimacies seem to have been almost exclusively with literary or academic people. Sympathy with the broadly human is one of the marks of the true poet. To put simple things into graceful and intelligible poetic form requires genius; for thousands try to do it every day, and fail for lack of the special gift. Longfellow succeeded; and those who say that his themes and method are alike commonplace forget that the touch which illuminates the commonplace is the most delicate in art.  6
  In consequence of this characteristic of simplicity and graceful melody, many of Longfellow’s lyrics have become general favorites. ‘Resignation,’ ‘The Skeleton in Armor,’ ‘My Lost Youth,’ ‘The Old Clock on the Stairs,’ ‘The Arrow and the Song,’ the ‘Psalm of Life,’ ‘Excelsior,’ ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ ‘The Arsenal at Springfield,’ ‘The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,’ and many others, have a secure lodgment in the popular memory. They are known to more people than are familiar with an equal number of the lyrics of Wordsworth. Longfellow’s clientele is larger than that of any other modern poet except Burns. ‘The Building of the Ship’—long enough to be called an ode—has had as much effect in developing a sense of nationality as anything ever written: not excepting the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s reply to Hayne. It has been recited so many times that it has become a national document. In form it is a frank imitation of Schiller’s ‘Song of the Bell,’ and in tone it possesses the dithyrambic quality of the true ode. If we possessed a national song, of the reach and stirring power of Longfellow’s ode, we might be less patient with the clumsy disguises in which selfishness masquerades as Americanism. It is one of the highest functions of art to crystallize national sentiment by putting into striking and intelligible form what we all feel, and criticism of poems which do this is entirely out of place—except by a foreigner; and then it is impertinent.  7
  Longfellow’s longer poems may be conveniently divided into two classes, according to subject-matter. One would include his poems on mediæval themes or based on mediæval models, as ‘Christus,’ in dramatic form, in three parts,—‘The Divine Tragedy,’ ‘The Golden Legend,’ and ‘The New England Tragedies,’—presenting three phases of the development of the Christian religion; ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn,’ ‘The Spanish Student,’ and ‘Judas Maccabæus,’ also dramatic in form, and his translation of Dante. The other division would contain ‘Evangeline,’ ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ and ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish.’ To the writer it seems that his literary reputation rests most securely on these last, his popular reputation on these and the lyrics already mentioned. He casts the same gently romantic light over the Middle Ages that he does over everything he presents in poetical form; and Mr. Ruskin says that in the ‘Golden Legend’ he has “entered more closely into the character of the monk for good and evil than ever yet theological writer or historian, though they have given their lives’ labor to the analysis.” Longfellow’s studies were largely mediæval; old cities and their quaint architecture and legends were to him of special interest, but he never “entered into the evil” of any state of society. It was not germane to him, and he lacked the insight into the horrors and abominations of the past which Mr. Ruskin’s words would imply.  8
  In passing, we may remark that Longfellow was by nature more akin to the spirit of Greek culture than to the spirit of the Christian centuries: he was healthily objective. But his studies were in the period in which the great conflict between the natural man and the conviction of sin filled society with grotesque contrasts. He uses little of the old classical imagery and the beautiful Greek mythology. Had he been professor of Greek instead of modern languages, his genius might have found a type of artistic feeling and expression more in accordance with its nature. For the dramatic form he lacks two requisites: he cannot throw himself into a character so as to reproduce in himself and express the dominant note of that character, especially if it is an evil one. He cannot group the actions of a set of people into a unity. Consequently his dramas are the work of a conscientious student with a gift for graceful expression; the scholar in tragedy, not the born dramatist. The ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn,’ too, charmingly graceful in expression,—especially in the verses which link the poems together,—seem to fail in the qualities given by the born story-teller. But some of the tales, notably the ‘Bell of Atri’ and the ‘Birds of Killingworth,’ are in Longfellow’s best manner. The echoes from Chaucer’s verse have never been reflected more perfectly, though they have struck on hundreds of poetic souls.  9
  His translation of Dante may be regarded as simply the work of a competent and cultured scholar. He aims to reproduce the terseness of the original rather than its form. Perhaps this is all that a sustained translation of a great poem can do; for poetic worth lies in the relation between the group of words and the idea, and even individual poetic words—much more, groups of them—have no foreign equivalents. But Longfellow’s version is one of the few great translations of literature.  10
  His American poems, ‘Evangeline’ and the ‘Song of Hiawatha,’ vindicate his claim to the name of poet in the sense of a creator of original and characteristic works of art. Of both these the themes are American, and of such nature as to be well adapted to Longfellow’s temperament. The story of Evangeline—the Acadian girl separated from her lover in the deportation of her people, and wandering in the search all her life till she finally found him an old man dying in a hospital in Philadelphia—had been suggested to Hawthorne as the material for a story. He showed his sense of his own powers and limitations in rejecting it; for it contains no elements of the psychologically somber or tragic,—it is simply pathetic. To Longfellow it appealed at once for that very reason. It is on the everyday plane of emotion; everybody can understand it. Granting the extreme simplicity of the action, Longfellow has handled the incidents with great skill. The metre he adopted sets the story in a more idyllic medium than blank verse could have done, and gives it a higher artistic worth than Tennyson’s ‘Enoch Arden.’ Goethe’s ‘Hermann and Dorothea’ had shown him that the modern hexameter was well adapted to the modern pastoral; and Longfellow’s skill in phrasing prevents the terminal cadence from becoming too monotonous. The poem embodies three contrasts which are so admirably handled that they reinforce each other: first, the contrast between the simplicity and peace of the rural community and the rigor and confusion of the embarkation; second, the contrast between the northern landscape of Nova Scotia and the southern landscape of Louisiana; third, the contrast which pervades the whole poem, between the youthful lovers at the betrothal and the old man and woman at the death-bed. There is no modern poem which, with the entire absence of sentimentality or of any emotion foreign to the situation, presents a more perfect poetic unity. There is no more beautiful passage in poetry than the scene of the arrival of the girl and priest at the house of Gabriel’s father, only to find that the son has just departed. The description of the mocking-bird’s song—perfect to those who have heard the bird in its southern home—seems the prelude to a rapturous meeting of the lovers. Yet in it are heard
  “Single notes in sorrowful, low lamentation,”
that seem to hint, as all beautiful things do, that happiness is unattainable.
  11
  In ‘Hiawatha,’ Longfellow undertook the extremely difficult task of recreating the sub-conscious life of a savage people as embodied in their myths. There are in us only a few deeply buried moods of feeling, inherited from our remote ancestors, that respond to the primitive interpretation of nature. “The world is too much with us.” Our senses are too dull to “hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.” But Longfellow went much further back into the primitive nature-worship, and recalled for us the cultus of infantile, half-articulate man. No one but a poet, and no poet but Longfellow, could have written the ‘Song of Hiawatha.’ The simplicity of the metre and the frequent repetitions are features entirely consistent with the conception. And furthermore the conception, though ideal, is consistent with the character of the Indian as we know it. The poem is no dream, nor phantasmagoria, nor thing of shreds and patches; it is a poetic unity. Of course this results partly from the fact that it is built up from real legends, but more from the fact that the legends are put in form by a real artist.  12
  The use of the trochaic four-accent line has been severely criticized. It is true that this line is not natural to English. It forces the sundering of syllables that the language has joined together: the monosyllabic noun and the article, the sign of the infinitive and the monosyllabic verb for instance, which are in ordinary pronunciation agglutinated into natural iambi. Such lines as—
  “Make a | bed for | me to | lie in;
I, the | friend of | Man, Mon | damin,
Come to | warn you | and in | struct you”—
in their scansion do violence to the natural union of syllables. Still it is possible to read verse with only the slightest sub-consciousness of the metre, and to emphasize the rhythm. But it must be remembered in the first place that a strange primitive metre was absolutely necessary. The strength and solid English qualities of the unrhymed pentameter would be out of place in this barbaric chant. Secondly, the ‘Song of Hiawatha’ must be read with little reference to the metric scheme. It will then be found that the metric scheme is overlaid with a beautiful rhythmic scheme of clause and sentence, breaking up the monotony of the trochees. Longfellow’s sweet and simple phrase-music is woven into many novel combinations which are his own, which no one can exactly copy. But the real beauty of this poem does not lie in its form; it lies in the fact that it is an interpretation of an unfamiliar type of life, and as such possesses an ideal beauty and truth.
  13
  The group of American writers of the first half of the nineteenth century, the best-known members of which are Longfellow, Emerson, Holmes, Lowell, and Hawthorne, will always be regarded as having laid the foundations of American literature. Each of these men possessed a distinct artistic individuality; but they form one of the most interesting groups in history. The elements which give them similarity and unite them in our general conception are their common consciousness of the worth and reality of the moral quality in life, and their belief in the beauty of righteousness. Theirs was a temper of mind equally removed from the disordered pessimism which sees in the moral order only a mechanical balance of the forces of selfishness, from a shallow sentimental optimism, and from a servile reverence for organized dogma. Serenity, kindliness, and earnestness are the notes of sanity. Undoubtedly an artistic temperament is sometimes dominated by moods far different from these; and undoubtedly too the artist whose life vision is clouded by doubt or by denial of ethical truth, has a strange and unwholesome attraction. Such a one appeals at least to our sympathy for mental distress. We rejoice that the foundations of our literature were laid by artists of the normal and healthy type, and believe that a civilization which produced a poet like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow must hold in its heart some of the love of beauty and order and righteousness which was the underlying principle of his verse.  14
 
 
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