THE preface of “ Outre-Mer,” Longfellow’s first book, is dated 1833. The last poem in his last volume is published in 1863. In those thirty years what wide renown, what literary achievement, what love of friends in many lands, what abounding success and triumph, what profound sorrow, mark the poet’s career! The young scholar, returning from that European tour which to the imaginative and educated American is the great romance, sits down in Bowdoin College in Maine, where he is Professor, and writes the “ Epistle Dedicatory ” to the “ worthy and gentle reader.” Those two phrases tell the tale. The instinct of genius and literary power stirring in the heart of the young man naturally takes the quaint, dainty expression of an experience fed, thus far, only upon good old books and his own imagination. The frolicking tone of mock humility, deprecating the intrusion upon the time of a busy world, does not conceal the conviction that the welcome so airily asked by the tyro will at last be commanded by the master.
Like the “ Sketch-Book ” of the other most popular of our authors, Irving, the “Outre-Mer” of Longfellow is a series of tales, reveries, descriptions, reminiscences, and character-pieces, suggested by European travel. But his beat lies in France, Spain, and Italy. It is the romance of the Continent, and not that of England, which inspires him. It is the ruddy light upon the vines and the scraps of old chansons which enliven and decorate his pilgrimage, and through all his literary life they have not lost their fascination. While Irving sketches “ Rural Life in England,” Longfellow paints “ The Village of Auteuil ” ; Irving gives us “ The Boar’s Head Tavern,” and Longfellow “ The Golden Lion Inn” at Rouen ; Irving draws “A Royal Poet,” Longfellow discusses “ The Trouveres,” or “ The Devotional Poetry of Spain.” It is delightful to trace the charming resemblance between the books and the writers, widely different as they are. There is the same geniality, the same tender pathos, the same lambent humor, the same delicate observation of details, the same overpowering instinct of literary art. But Geoffrey Crayon is a humorist, while the Pilgrim beyond the Sea is a poet. The one looks at the broad aspects of English life with the shrewd, twinkling eye of a man of the world; the other haunts the valley of the Loire, the German street, the Spanish inn, with the kindling fancy of the scholar and poet. The moral and emotional elements are quite wanting in Irving; they are characteristic of Longfellow. But the sweetness of soul, the freedom from cynicism or stinging satire, which is most unusual in American, or in any humorous or descriptive literature, is remarkable in both. “ I have no wife, nor children, good or bad, to provide for,” begins Geoffrey Crayon, quoting from old Burton. But neither had he an enemy against whom to defend himself. It was true of Geoffrey Crayon, down to the soft autumn day on which he died, leaving a people to mourn for him. It is true of the Pilgrim of Outre-Mer, in all the thirty years since first he launched forth “ into the uncertain current of public favor.”
In this earliest book of Longfellow’s the notable points are not power of invention, or vigorous creation, or profound thought, but a mellowness of observation, instinctively selecting the picturesque and characteristic details, a copious and rich scholarship, and that indefinable grace of the imagination which announces genius. The work, like the “ Sketch-Book,” was originally issued in parts, and it was hardly possible for any observer thirty years ago not to see that its peculiar character revealed a new strain in our literature. Longfellow’s poems as yet were very few, printed in literary journals, and not yet signalizing his genius. It was the day when Percival, Halleck, Sprague, Dana, Willis, Bryant, were the undisputed lords of the American Parnassus. But the school reading-books already contained “An April Day” and “Woods in Winter,” and all the verses of the young author had a recognition in volumes of elegant extracts and commonplace-books. But the universal popularity of Longfellow was not established until the publication of “ Hyperion” in 1839, followed by “ The Voices of the Night ” in the next year. With these two works his name arose to the highest popularity, both in America and England ; and no living author has been more perpetually reproduced in all forms and with every decoration.
If now we care to explain the eager and affectionate welcome which always hails his writings, it is easy to see to what general quality that greeting must be ascribed. As with Walter Scolt, or Victor Hugo, or Beranger, or Dickens, or Addison in the “ Spectator,” or Washington Irving, it is a genial humanity. It is a quality, in all these instances, independent of literary art and of genius, but which is made known to others, and therefore becomes possible to be recognized, only through literary forms. The creative imagination, the airy fancy, the exquisite grace, harmony, and simplicity, the rhetorical brilliancy, the incisive force, all the intellectual powers and charms of style with which that feeling may be expressed, are informed and vitalized by the sympathy itself. But whether a man who writes verses has genius, — whether he be a poet according to arbitrary canons, — whether some of his lines resemble the lines of other writers, — and whether he be original, are questions which may be answered in every way of every poet in history. Who is a poet but he whom the heart of man permanently accepts as a singer of its own hopes, emotions, and thoughts ? And what is poetry but that song ? If words have a uniform meaning, it is useless to declare that Pope cannot be a poet, if Lord Byron is, or that Moore is counterfeit, if Wordsworth be genuine. For the art of poetry is like all other arts. The casket that Cellini worked is not less genuine and excellent than the dome of Michel Angelo. Is nobody but Shakspeare a poet ? Is there no music but Beethoven’s ? Is there no mountain-peak but Dhawalaghiri ? no cataract but Niagara?
Thirty years ago almost every critic in England exploded with laughter over the poetry of Tennyson, Yet his poetry has exactly the same characteristics now that it had then ; and Tennyson has gone up to his place among English poets. It is not “ Blackwood,” nor any quarterly review or monthly magazine, (except, of course, the “ North American ” and the “Atlantic,”) which can decree or deny fame. While the critics are busily proving that an author is a plagiarist or a pretender, the world is crowning him,— as the first ocean-steamer from England brought Dr. Lardner’s essay to prove that steamers could not cross the ocean. Literary criticism, indeed, is a lost art, if it ever were an art. For there are no permanent acknowledged canons of literary excellence; and if there were any, there are none who can apply them. What critic shall decide if the song of a new singer be poetry, or the bard himself a poet ? Consequently, modern criticism wisely contents itself with pointing out errors of fact or of inference, or the difference between the critic’s and the author’s philosophic or aesthetic view, and bitterly assaults or foolishly praises him. When Horace Binney Wallace, one of the most accomplished and subtile-minded of our writers, says of General Morris that he is “a great poet,” and that “he who can understand Mr. Emerson may value Mr. Bancroft,” we can feel only the more profoundly persuaded that fame is not the judgment of individuals, but of the mass of men, and that he whose song men love to hear is a poet.
But while the magnetism of Longfellow’s touch lies in the broad humanity of his sympathy, which leads him neither to mysticism nor cynicism, and which commends his poetry to the universal heart, his artistic sense is so exquisite that each of his poems is a valuable literary study. In this he has now reached a perfection quite unrivalled among living poets, except sometimes by Tennyson. His literary career has been contemporary with the sensational school, but he has been entirely untainted by it, and in the present volume, “ Tales of a Wayside Inn,” his style has a tranquil lucidity which recalls Chaucer. The literary style of an intellectually introverted age or author will always be somewhat obscure, however gorgeous; but Longfellow’s mind takes a simple, childlike hold of life, and his style never betrays the inadequate effort to describe thoughts or emotions that are but vaguely perceived, which is the characteristic of the best sensational writing. Indeed, there is little poetry by the eminent contemporary masters which is so ripe and racy as his. He does not make rhetoric stand for passion, nor vagueness for profundity ; nor, on the other hand, is be such a voluntary and malicious “ Bohemian” as to conceive that either in life or letters a man is released from the plain rules of morality. Indeed, he used to be accused of preaching in his poetry by gentle critics who held that Elysium was to be found in an oystercellar, and that intemperance was the royal prerogative of genius.
His literary scholarship, also, his delightful familiarity with the pure literature of all languages and times, must rank Longfellow among the learned poets. Yet he wears this various knowledge like a shining suit of chain-mail, to adorn and strengthen his gait, like Milton, instead of tripping and clumsily stumbling in it, as Ben Jonson sometimes did. He whips out an exquisitely pointed allusion that flashes like a Damascus rapier and strikes nimbly home, or he recounts some weird tradition, or enriches his line with some gorgeous illustration from hidden stores, or merely unrolls, as Milton loved to do, the vast perspective of romantic association by recounting in measured order names which themselves make music in the mind, — names not musical only, but fragrant:—
Of Araby the blest.”
In the prelude to the “ Wayside Inn,’ with how consummate a skill the poet graces his modern line with the shadowy charm of ancient verse, by the mere mention of the names !
Of Merlin and the Mort d’Arthure,
Mingled together in his brain
With talcs of Flores and Blanchefleur,
Sir Ferumbras, Sir Eglamour,
Sir Launcelot, Sir Morgadour,
Sir Guy, Sir Bevis, Sir Gawain.”
A most felicitous illustration of this trait is in “ The Evening Star,” an earlier poem. Chrysaor, in the old mythology, sprang from the blood of Medusa, armed with a golden sword, and married Callirrhoe, one of the Oceanides. The poet, looking at evening upon the sea, muses upon the long-drawn, quivering reflection of the evening star, and sings. How the verses oscillate like the swaying calm of the sea, while the image inevitably floats into the scholar’s imagination : —
As the day grows fainter and dimmer,
Lonely and lovely a single star
Lights the air with a dusky glimmer.
Falls the trail of its golden splendor,
And the gleam of that single star
Is ever refulgent, soft, and tender.
Showed thus glorious and thus emulous,
Leaving the arms of Callirrhoe,
Forever tender, soft, and tremulous.
Trailed the gleam of his falchion brightly:
Is it a god, or is it a star,
That, entranced, I gaze on nightly? ”
The blending of the poetical faculty and scholarly taste is seen, also, in his translations; and would not a translation of Dante’s great poem be the crowning work of Longfellow’s literary life ? But while we chat along the road, and pause to repeat these simple and musical poems, each so elegant, so finished, as the monk finished his ivory crucifix, or the lapidary his choicest gem, we have reached the Wayside Inn. It is the title of Longfellow’s new volume, “ Tales of a Wayside Inn.” They are NewEngland “ Canterbury Tales.” Those of old London town were told at the Tabard at Southwark; these at the Red Horse in Sudbury town. And although it is but the form of the poem, peculiar neither to Chaucer nor to Longfellow, which recalls the earlier work, yet they have a further likeness in the sources of some of the tales, and in the limpid blitheness of the style and the pure objectivity of the poems.
The melodious, picturesque simplicity of the opening, in which the place and the persons are introduced, is inexpressibly graceful and masterly : —
Across the meadows bare and brown,
The windows of the wayside inn
Gleamed red with fire-light through the
Of woodbine hanging from the eaves,
Their crimson curtains rent and thin.
As ancient is this hostelry
As any in the land may be,
Built in the old colonial day,
When men lived in a grander way,
With ampler hospitality:
A kind of old Hobgoblin Hall,
Now somewhat fallen to decay,
With weather-stains upon the wall,
And stairways worn, and crazy doors,
And creaking and uneven floors,
And chimneys huge, and tiled, and tall.”
The autumn wind moans without, and dashes in gusts against the windows ; but there is a pleasant murmur from the parlor, with the music of a violin. In this comfortable tavern - parlor, ruddy with the fire-light, a rapt musician stands erect before the chimney and bends his ear to his instrument, —
Confessions of its secret thought,”
— a figure and a picture, as he is afterward painted, — “ Fair-haired, blue-eyed, his aspect blithe, His figure tall and straight and lithe,” —
which recall the Norwegian magician, Ole Bull. He plays to the listening group of friends. Of these there is the landlord,
— a youth of quiet ways, “ a student of old books and days,”—a young Sicilian, — “ a Spanish Jew from Alicant,” —
Of Cambridge on the Charles,” —
then a poet, whose portrait, exquisitely sketched and meant for quite another, will yet be prized by the reader, as the spectator prizes, in the Uffizi at Florence, the portraits of the painters by themselves : —
Was tender, musical, and terse:
The inspiration, the delight,
The gleam, the glory, the swift flight
Of thoughts so sudden that they seem
The revelations of a dream,
All these were his: but with them came
No envy of another's fame;
He did not find his sleep less sweet
For music in some neighboring street,
Nor rustling hear in every breeze
The laurels of Miltiades.
Honor and blessings on his head
While living, good report when dead,
Who, not too eager for renown,
Accepts, but does not clutch, the crown.”
The musician completes the group.
When he stops playing, they call upon the landlord for his tale, which he, “ although a bashful man,” begins. It is “ Paul Revere’s Ride,” already known to many readers as a ballad of the famous incident in the Revolution which Has, in American hearts, immortalized a name which this war has but the more closely endeared to them. It is one of the most stirring, ringing, and graphic ballads in the language, — a proper pendant to Browning’s “ How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix.”
The poet, listening with eager delight, seizes the sword of the landlord’s ancestor which was drawn at Concord fight, and tells him that his grandfather was a grander shape than any old Sir William, Did honest and dull “ Conservatism. ” have ever a happier description ? But lest the immortal foes of Conservatism and Progress should come to loggerheads in the conversation, the student opens his lips and breathes Italy upon the NewEngland autumn night. He tells the tale of “ The Falcon of Sir Federigo,” from the “ Decameron.” It is an exquisite poem. So charming is the manner, that the “Decameron,” so rendered into English, would acquire a new renown, and the public of to - day would understand the fame of Boccaccio.
With iron gauntlets on his hands,
And on his head an iron pot.”
All laughed but the landlord,—
Were always greatest in his eyes.”
But the theologian hears with other ears, and declares that the old Italian tales
“ Are either trifling, dull, or lewd,”
The student will not argue. He says only,—
That from these reservoirs and tanks
Even imperial Shakspeare drew
His Moor of Venice and the Jew,
And Romeo and Juliet,
And many a famous comedy.”
After a longer pause, the Spanish Jew from Alicant begins “ a story in the Talmud old,” “ The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi.” This is followed after the interlude by the Sicilian’s tale, “ King Robert of Sicily,” a noble legend of the Church, whose moral is humility. It is told in a broad, stately measure, and with consummate simplicity and skill. The attention is not distracted for a moment from the story, which monks might tell in the still cloisters of a Sicilian convent, and every American child hear with interest and delight.
A Saga of the days of old.”
It is the Saga of King Olaf, and is much the longest tale in the volume, recounting the effort to plant Christianity in Norway by the sword of the King. In every variety of measure, heroic, elegiac, lyrical, the wild old Scandinavian tradition is told. Even readers who may be at first repelled by legends almost beyond modern human sympathy cannot escape the most musical persuasion of the poem which wafts them along those icy seas.
Saw the red light in the sky,
Laid his hand upon his sword,
As he leaned upon the railing,
And his ships went sailing, sailing
Northward into Drontheim fiord.
Skilful in each manly sport,
Young and beautiful and tall;
Art of warfare, craft of chases,
Swimming, skating, snow-shoe races,
Excellent alike at all.”
There is no continuous thread of story in the Saga, but each fragment of the whole is complete in itself, a separate poem. The traditions are fierce and wild. The waves dash in them, the winds moan and shriek. There are evanescent glimpses of green meadows, and a swift gleam of summer; but the cold salt sea and winter close round all. The tides rise and fall; they eddy in the sand ; they float off and afar the huge dragon-ships. But the queens pine for revenge and slaughter; the kings drink and swear and fight, and sail away to their doom.
Sharper the dragons bite and sting!
Eric the son of Hakon Yarl
A death-drink salt as the sea
Pledges to thee,
Olaf the King! ”
Whoever has heard Ole Bull play, or Jenny Lind sing, the weird minor melodies of the North, will comprehend the kind of spell which these legends weave around the mind. Nor is their character lost in the skilful and symmetrical rendering of Longfellow. The reader has not the feeling, as in Sir William Jones’s translations, that he is reading Sir William, and not the Persian.
On the quarter-deck;
‘ Something heard I like the stranding
Of a shattered wreck.’
Einar, then, the arrow taking
From the loosened string,
Answered, 'That was Norway breaking
From thy hand, O King! ”’
But the battle which Thor had defied was not to end by the weapons of war. In the fierce sea-fight,
How the King stripped off his mail,
Like leaves of the brown sea-kale,
As he swam beneath the main;
And never by night or day
In his kingdom of Norroway
Was King Olaf seen again.’’
The victory must be won by other weapons. In the convent of Drontheim, Astral, the abbess, hears a voice in the darkness: —
Love against hatred,
Peace-cry for war-cry! ”
The voice continues in peaceful music, forecasting heavenly rest: —
Half dried in their channels,
Suddenly rise, though the
Sky is still cloudless,
For rain has been falling
Far off at their fountains;
Grow full to o’erflowing,
And they that behold it
Marvel, and know not
That God at their fountains
Far off has been raining.”
With this exquisitely beautiful strain of the abbess the Saga ends.
The theologian muses aloud upon creeds and churches, then tells a fearful tragedy of Spain,—the story of a father who betrays his daughter to the fires of Torquemada. It chills the heart to think that such unspeakable ruin of a human soul was ever wrought by any system that even professed to be Christian. Moloch was truly divine, compared with the God of the Spanish Inquisition. But the gloom of the tragedy is not allowed to linger. The poet scatters it by the story of the merry “ Birds of Killingworth,” which appears elsewhere in the pages of this number of the “ Atlantic.” The blithe beauty of the verses is captivating, and the argument of the shy preceptor is the most poetic plea that ever wooed a world to justice. What an airy felicity in the lines,—
The awakening continents from shore to
Somewhere the birds are singing evermore.”
And so, amid sunshine and the carolling of birds, the legendary rural romance of the Yankee shore, we turn the page, and find, with real sorrow, that the last tale is told in the Wayside Inn. The finale is brief. The guests arose and said good night. The drowsy squire remains to rake the embers of the fire. The scattered lamps gleam a moment at the windows. The Red Horse inn seems, in the misty night, the sinking constellation of the Bear, — and then,
So ends this ripe and mellow work, leaving the reader like one who listens still for pleasant music i’ the air which sounds no more. Those who will may compare it with the rippling strangeness of “ Hiawatha,” the mournfully rolling cadence of “ Evangeline,” the mediaeval romance of “ The Golden Legend.” For ourselves, its beauty does not clash with theirs. The simple old form of the group of guests telling stories, the thread of so many precious rosaries, has a new charm from this poem. The Tabard inn is gone; but who, henceforth, will ride through Sudbury town without seeing the purple light shining around the Red Horse tavern ?
The volume closes with a few poems, classed as “ Birds of Passage.” It is the “ second flight,”—the first being those at the end of the "Miles Staudish ” volume. Some of these have a pathos ami interest which all will perceive, but the depth and tenderness of which not all can know. “ The Children’s Hour” is a strain of parental love, which haunts the memory with its melody, its sportive, affectionate, and yearning lay.
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his mouse-tower on the Rhine.
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old moustache as I am
Is not a match for you all ? ”
Here, too, is the grand ballad of “ The Cumberland,” and the delicate fancy of “The Snow-Flakes,” expressing what every sensitive observer has so often felt, —that the dull leaden trouble of the winter sky finds the relief in snow that the suffering human heart finds in expression. Then there is “ A Day of June,” an outburst of the fulness of life and love in the beautiful sunny weather of blossoms on the earth and soft clouds in the sky.
Of thoughts, whose only speech is song!
O heart of man! canst thou not be
Blithe as the air is, and as free? ”
To this poem the date is added, June, 1860.
And here, at length, is the last poem. We pause as we reach it, and turn back to the first page of “ Outre-Mer.” “ ‘ Lystenyth, ye godely gentylmen, and all that ben hereyn !’ I am a pilgrim benighted on my way, and crave a shelter till the storm is over, and a seat by the fireside in this honorable company. As a stranger I claim this courtesy at your hands, and will repay your hospitable welcome with tales of the countries I have passed through in my pilgrimage.” It is the gay confidence of youth. It is the bright prelude of the happy traveller and scholar, to whom the very quaint conceits and antiquated language of romance are themselves romantic, and who makes himself a hard and troubadour. Hope allures him ; ambition spurs him ; conscious power assures him. His eager step dances along the ground. His words are an outburst of youth and joy. Thirty years pass by. What sober step pauses at the Wayside Inn ? Is this the jocund Pilgrim of Outre-Mer? The harp is still in his strong hand. It sounds yet with the old tenderness and grace and sweetness. But this is the man, not the boy. This is the doubtful tyro no longer, but the wise master, honored and beloved. To how many hearts has his song brought peace! How like a benediction in all our homes his music falls ! Ah ! not more surely, when the stretched string of the full-tuned harp snaps in the silence, the cords of every neighboring instrument respond, than the hearts which love the singer and his song thrill with the heart-break of this last poem : —
Must wander on through doubts and fears,
Must ache and bleed beneath your load!
I, nearer to the wayside inn
Where toil shall cease and rest begin,
Am weary, thinking of your road.”