N O V E M B E R 1 8 7 3
Every poet creates a type of himself, by which all that he does afterwards is felt as his, and variance from which is not easily forgiven. He becomes his own rival, as has often been said: yet even in his self-rivalry it is not his likeness but his unlikeness to himself that displeases; and whilst we protest against any criticism that presumes to limit a poet to any vein, or to dictate how and what he shall write, as vulgar and impudent, we confess a sympathy with the popular expectation that each poet shall be in a manner what he has been, as nearly as he can. In the love we bear a man's poetry there is something analogous to the repetition-asking principle in music; some recurrence of accustomed mental attitudes we all desire. It was the absence of these in Mr. Longfellow's New England Tragedies and Divine Tragedy which disappointed a generation unable to read as impartially as the future, and unwilling to accept their severe outlines in place of the pictures and opulent reliefs they were used to being pleased with in him. The next generation will do what we hardly can: read the Christus with a due sense of it as a whole. For us, with whom The Golden Legend was long ago accepted as a complete poem, and The Divine Tragedy came afterwards without warrant of their relationship till the last, they must always remain disunited in our thought, whatever they are in fact. The two latter parts, indeed, are the fruit of artistic moods quite different from that which produced the first. Something of the self-denying strictness with which the Dante was translated seems to have forbidden them the richness and the quaint detail of the earlier drama. But in the three books of Mr. Longfellow's Tales of the Wayside Inn, the last of which is now closed in the volume called Aftermath, the dominant mood is always the same, so that the three series are as intimately related in manner as are the different Idyls of the King.
From Atlantic Unbound:|
Moreover, in Aftermath, the poet appears willing to recall to the lovers of his poetry all their favorites among his works. It is a pensive, delicious refrain, the melodious reverberation, in delicately subdued effects, of the old colors, tones, feelings; and the art is mellowed to that last flavor of perfection which in Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette is almost enough of itself to constitute a poem. Those who have loved a poet long and constantly feel the charm of this with a keeness unknown to the fickle and impatient; but there is certainly in the ripe performance of every great master of style a delight which no intelligent reader can miss. By exercise and study of his art all its highest effects come easily to him; he has but to wave his hand, as it appears, and they are there; sometimes it even appears as if they came unbidden. Besides, in Aftermath, we have somehow a better sense than before of our poet's genius. The perfect serenity of his mental atmostphere widens those clear horizons along which lurks a melancholy light, and lets us perceive how great his range has been and in what an ample spirit he has touched his many themes. These poems, as effortless, as uncompelled, as the color and sweet of Nature, affect us as if they came from a store as rich as hers, and suggest her largeness as well as her fertility.
We suppose this sense of their spontaneity is heightened by their freedom from the didactic tendency which charaterized some of Mr. Longfellow's shorter poems, at an earlier period. The tales are simply stories, teaching by incident and character, and often not teaching at all; and in the poems that follow them, brief and few in number, are almost pure expressions of feeling; or are expressions of feeling tacitly directed towards a lesson, not bearing it as a burden. And on the whole we believe we are ready to set some of these poems before any in the language of a similar kind, -- of quite the same kind there are none. Take, for example, this called
This is full of the feeling to be conveyed; but it is not surcharged by the slightest touch, it is exquisitely balanced; and this which follows is such a pleasure in its artistic loveliness and completeness as a whole literature can but twice or thirce afford: --
Fata Morgana is almost as good as these two poems, but is perhaps not so marvellously poised, not so wholly freed from all process of art; and then we have The Haunted Chamber, The Meeting, and The Challenge, that suggest in mood and movement the best of Mr. Longfellows's earlier short poems, and are worth a place in our memories with The Beleagured City, The Footsteps of Angels, and other kindred pieces, which they equal in richness and tenderness of sentiment and surpass in the evidence of poetic mastery.
Of the Tales of a Wayside Inn, our readers already know Scanderbeg, and have, we hope,
"liked the canter or the rhymes
and the midnight solemnity of the atmostphere thrown about the wild, fierce tragedy; and they have also enjoyed the peculiarly Longfellowish humor of The Rhyme of Sir Christopher. All the other tales, and of course the interludes and preludes, are here printed for the first time. It is the Spanish Jew who tells the story of Scanderbeg, and he tells also the first story in the series, that of Azrael and Solomon, and the Rajah who flies from the death-angel only to meet him at his own door. The Poet's tale of Charlemagne; it is a scene, a spectacle, rather than a story, and affects the reader as a painting of the same subject might; it is dramatic in the last degree and the critical reader will notice with what consummate skill, with what fulness and yet with what wise reticence he is possessed of the situation. The Student's tale is that old and pretty story of the king's daughter who carried her lover from her bower lest his footsteps in the snow should betray them both; and we need not say how sweetly it is told, and how it turns as innocent in the poet's verse as the Theologians's tale of the fair Quakeress Elizabeth Haddon, who as she rode through the woods to meeting, with her guest John Estaugh, lingered behind the others a little, and whispered: --
This purely Quaker love-story, in which of course John Estaugh finally "has freedom" to accept the love of Elizabeth, is perhaps the best in the book. The quaint and homely material is wrought into a texture marvellously delicate; and its colorless fineness clothes a beauty as chaste and soft as the neutral-tinted garments of the fair, meekly bold Quaker maiden. The English hexameter which Mr. Longfellow has so intimately associated with his name, he has never more successfully handled, we think, than in this poem, which recalls Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish at their best, and yet has a humor and sweetness quite its own, and unmistakeably knowable for Longfellow's. But the humor is his quietest, naturally. That gayety, that esprit which among modern poets is almost peculiar to him, finds its broadest expression in the Sicilian's tale of the Monk of Casal-Maggiore, who pretended that he had been changed into an ass for the sin of gluttony. It is as the poet says of it,
"A tale that cannot boast forsooth,
And it is as merry as a tale of Chaucer's and told with a relish for all its comic points and extravagances which the reader cannot refuse to share. All the character-painting is in the mellowest tones, -- the wily, worthless, jovial monk, the simple peasant, the hospitable housewife, the old grandsire with his memories of the French and Milanese wars. How good is this picture of the rogue of a friar, supping at the peasant's board: --
When Brother Timothy returns to his convent, the prior sends to market the ass which the guilty monk had persuaded Farmer Gilbert to believe his penitential shape.
This, which is so charmingly said, has all the elder story-teller's amiable pleasure in the truth of such simple details as the children's fond and credulous rapture, and the donkey's gravity of behavior. The ass, in fact,
or, as he stands
is studied with the same humorous observance and appreciation of brute-character as Chaucer brings to the portrayal of Chanticleer and Dame Partlet, -- a whimsical playfulness akin to that with which our poet indicates the kind of animal with whom Sir Christopher Gardiner found refuge from the justice of Massachusetts Bay: --
The Musician's tale is a version of the affecting Norse ballad of The Mother's Ghost; but we care less for it than for the others. The whole book, however, seems to us the best that we could ask of the poet whom it suggests, if it does not reveals, in his whole range; and who has given more pleasure of a high and refined sort to more people than any other poet of our time.