THE qualities which render Longfellow’s art delightful have passed over into the popular conception of his personality ; and it is a great satisfaction to find, now that his letters and diaries have been published, how truthful and generally accurate this popular conception has been. Mr. Samuel Longfellow, in editing his brother’s life,1 has wisely chosen to restrict his labor for the most part to the selection of illustrative passages from the diary which the poet kept and the letters which passed between him and his most constant correspondents. We have no reason to suppose that this selection has been made upon any other principle than that of presenting the most interesting and most characteristic features of a long and varied career; it would scarcely have been possible, in the range of this material, to conceal any marked trait of the poet, and therefore we have a right to believe that in these two abundant volumes we have a faithful and adequate portrait of Longfellow.
We repeat that it is a satisfaction to find this record tally so well with the popular apprehension of the poet’s life. There are no rude contradictions, no ugly disclosures; those traits which we knew, whether personally acquainted with him or not, are presented in deeper, more abiding lines ; some fresh and happy revelations are made, in harmony with the general conception, but not before so distinctly asserted; occasional commentaries on his work offer themselves. But on the whole we may say that we know Longfellow better and more intimately; not that we know a different man from what we had imagined, or that we are obliged to reconstruct and modify the image already clearly formed.
It is singular, when one stops to consider, bow entirely the popular conception of Longfellow has sprung from his art, and how little it owes to external testimony. He shrank from publicity, and though he was the recipient of numberless visitors, and accepted with patience the burdens which his fame imposed upon him, there was a charmed circle within which he dwelt, and beyond whose line none passed except the very few who would be the last to disclose any of the knowledge which they thus obtained. The occasions on which he took part in any public exercises were so rare as to intensify his privacy ; and this retirement was a note of his character, not the result of any deliberate choice or policy. “ Was to have gone to the Franklin birthday banquet in the Port,” he writes in his diary; “ but sent the carriage away, bearing that I was expected to reply to a toast in honor of ‘ the poets of Cambridge.’ ” But no one who was present can forget the occasion of his little speech in Sanders Theatre, in Cambridge. The hall was filled with an audience of schoolchildren, and such of their elders as could find admittance, met to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the settlement of Cambridge. The chair made from the spreading chestnuttree, which the children had given him, stood upon the platform, as a pleasant, silent response from the poet. He himself was among the guests grouped about the speakers of the day. Suddenly there was a hush of expectation. The governor was to have spoken, but was not present. The mayor, who was presiding, leaned over and spoke to Mr. Longfellow, and rose to say that the poet had consented to speak to the children. The quiet voice with which, standing where he had been sitting, he uttered the few graceful sentences that rose to his lips was the expression of a nature acting spontaneously and naturally, undisturbed by circumstance, yet moved by a force of sentiment which was set in motion by the spectacle before him.
There are but slight witnesses to the external course of his life to be found in Longfellow’s prose or verse. In one of his letters to Mr. Greene, when Hyperion had just been printed, he says, " The feelings of the book are true ; the events of the story mostly fictitious. The heroine, of course, bears a resemblance to the lady, without being an exact portrait. There is no betrayal of confidence, no real scene described. Hyperion is the name of the book, not of the hero. It merely indicates that here is the life of one who in his feelings and purposes is a ‘ son of Heaven and Earth,’ and who, though obscured by clouds, yet ‘moves on high.’ Further than this the name has nothing to do with the book, and in fact is mentioned only once in the course of it. I expect to be mightily abused. People will say that I am the hero of my own romance, and compare myself to the sun, to Hyperion Apollo. This is not so. I wish only to embody certain feelings which are mine, not to magnify myself.” It is common enough for readers to insist upon a close correspondence between a poet’s impersonations and his personal experiences, and in the case of Longfellow they have refused to accept any but the most literal rendering of Hyperion and of a few of his poems. Nor is it impossible to trace the lines of his life, now and then, in his verse; especially is it easy to recognize his companionship. Still, the revelation which Longfellow’s poetry makes is of that inner experience more important to understand than any mere external circumstance, and it is because of the freedom and fullness of this revelation that we are able to say, we knew the poet from his poetry before we were able, from these volumes, to see how perfectly this inner life was in harmony with the outer shell in which it was formed.
Here may be observed a difference between Longfellow and Hawthorne. Both were men of seclusion ; both were instinctively artists. The evidence concerning both may be said to be all in ; we have their works, their private journals, and we have external testimony regarding them. But Hawthorne has been brought very much closer to men, in his personal relations, through the publication of his life ; there have been laid open almost unknown tracts of his nature. His books, for all their apparently confidential air, never really told very much of the man. Longfellow, on the other hand, concealed himself behind a veil so thin that while it was a perfect protection to his own consciousness it was a transparent medium for the public. His journals and letters make this clear, and only translate into the language of fact what we may already be said to have read in the language of symbol.
It belonged to both of these men to be intimate chiefly with themselves. But Hawthorne cultivated this intimacy, and by long habit made his journals hold a very important place in his mental and spiritual life. Longfellow, less of a recluse, was surrounded by other intimate friends than himself, and his diary, while apparently regular, was by no means so necessary a confidante as was the case with Hawthorne. It was less the record of his spiritual life, though often interesting in this view, and more the transcript of his thoughts about his occupation, and the memorandum book of literary and personal judgment. The short, frequent entries attest the method of his life, and indicate also the large absorption in work and friends which forbade too close an attention to his own moods. His letters reflect his intimate thought less directly ; they are free, generous gifts of himself. They do not spring, as some letters of literary men do, from a naive interest in his own performances ; they always suppose the recipient, and show how gracefully and unaffectedly the writer entered into the life of others.
The value of these memoirs as a commentary upon the genius of Longfellow is chiefly, as has been intimated, in the opportunity they afford for a view of the poet’s career, ab intra rather than ab extra. There is only a slight display of the impression made upon the world of the successive works, hardly any sign of the enthusiasm which they created beyond the inner circle of the poet’s friends, and even less indication of the rebound upon his own consciousness. What we are permitted to see is something of the spirit in which he worked, the methods which he used, and above all, the relation of his art to his daily life, By means of the jottings in his diary and the letters to his friends, we are able to watch from a favored position the steady unfolding of his genius.
in this way we become possessed of an important clue. The student of his works has easily perceived that there was a harmonious development of Longfellow’s nature from the outset, that the artistic power manifested in his maturity was present in elementary form in his earlier poems ; but only now do we discover that Longfellow was one of those rare natures that perceive their destiny with perfect distinctness from the time when consciousness makes them distinct persons. He knew as well in the last year of his college life that he was meant for literature as he did in the last year of his worldly life. He saw with clearness of poetic vision the meaning of his endowment, and with that fine confidence in his destiny which is faith in the unseen he steered for port. Mr. Greene, in his well-known dedicatory letter, prefixed to his life of General Greene, and quoted in these volumes, records the impression made upon him when Longfellow, at twenty-one years of age, unfolded his plans of life, and showed the deep cisterns from which he had already learned to draw. One wishes that the friend had kept for the world a précis of that conversation. But we get a glimpse of the determining spirit when we read the letters which Longfellow wrote to his father from Brunswick, in his eighteenth year.
“ The fact is,” he writes, after detailing his immediate plans, — “ and I will not disguise it in the least, for I think I ought not, — the fact is, I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature; my whole soul burns most 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 the 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 professedly so, until they have studied and entered the practice of theology, law, or medicine. But this is evidently lost time. 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 ever 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. Here, then, seems to be the starting-point; and I think it best for me to float out into the world upon that tide and in that channel which will the soonest bring me to my destined port, and not to struggle against both wind and tide, and by attempting what is impossible lose everything. . . . 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.”
This was the eager outlook of a young man who uses some of the conventional phrases of youth, but there is an unmistakably genuine ring to the expression of faith in his calling, and the resolution which he showed in the next few years, when he was qualifying himself ostensibly for the post of professor, but quite consciously for the larger field of literature, disclosed a strong nature, not afflicted by petty doubts. The spirit which the young man displayed, when the college authorities at Bowdoin showed a disposition to recede from the promises which they had made him, brings out an interesting side of his character, and surprises one a little by its early indication of that consciousness of dignity which in later life found other forms of expression.
In one of his letters, written when leaving college, he intimates that if his father insists upon his adopting a profession, he may accept the law. “ I can be a lawyer,” he says ; “ this will support my real existence, literature an ideal one.” As it turned out, he was able to earn his living by a pursuit which was more directly akin to literature. For about twenty-five years he was bound by the exacting duties of a professorship, first at Bowdoin, afterward at Harvard. We are a little surprised that the editor has not more distinctly marked the period when the professor laid aside his gown. Longfellow himself makes this entry in his diary : —
“ September 12, 1854. Yesterday I got from President Walker a note, with copy of the vote of the corporation, accepting my resignation, and expressing regrets at my retirement. I am now free! But there is a good deal of sadness in the feeling of separating one’s self from one’s former life.”
To be sure, this was the formal separation only. The real cessation of college work had taken place a few months earlier. But in the diary of the closing years of his connection with the college there are many signs of a growing weariness and a desire to be relieved of irksome duties, and we think it would be possible to make from the record of this quarter century an interesting study of the relation which Longfellow’s academic life bore to his art. In a rough way, his function as a professor seems always to have been subordinate in his own consciousness, but never to have been slighted. More than that, his literary faculty distinctly reinforced his professorial power. He apparently brought to his work in the college no special love of teaching, nor, so far as we can see, any special gift of exegesis; he brought something, however, that was rare in his position and of great value, —a deep love of literature, namely, and that unacademic attitude toward his work which was a liberalizing power.
Nor, on the other hand, can we say that his work in the college was of serious disadvantage to him as a man of letters. It is probable that he found in poetry a relief from the routine of his life, and that the business which compelled him gave a certain stability to his course, making it possible for him to keep poetry always like a pure flame leading him forward. At any rate, it is to be observed that during these twentyfive years, naturally the most fruitful in a poet’s life, he wrote the poems which fixed his place on Parnassus. It was just at the turning-point that he wrote Hiawatha, but he had already written Evangeline, and those poems of hope and confidence which he called to himself psalms, though he used that title finally for only one of them.
It was during this quarter century, also, that he formed those friendships which give a beauty and nobility to the record of his social life. Most of the men who were nearest to him died before him, — Felton, Sumner, Hawthorne, Agassiz, — and he embalmed their memories in translucent verse. Yet we are ready to say that we would give up the lines on Sumner, if we had to choose between them and the glowing, impassioned words in diary and letters in which he speaks of and to his friend. It is by these passages that one looks deep into Longfellow’s heart. They help us to perceive the still depths of his convictions on great moral themes, and the strong hold which national life had upon his thought. One might see this, indeed, in the closing lines of the Building of the Ship, but it is good to have the inspiration of a poet confirmed by the same poet’s unguarded prose.
In speaking of his academic life we have been drawn forward to the period of his fuller development. The preparation which he made for that life by travel and study was also a very distinct preparation for his literary career, and has, in this regard, the stronger claim upon our notice. The resolution and self-knowledge which determined him in the choice of a career were evident also in the use he made of the opportunities given him in Europe. He
laid then the foundation of that familiar acquaintance with the localities of legend and song and literary art which gave to all his work, so far as it was allusive of art, a lightness of touch, a confidence and an affectionateness of handling. It is to be observed that his letters during both his earlier journeys have a directness and freedom not always apparent in the two volumes Outre-Mer and Hyperion, which contained the first results of his study and experience. The young man’s hand grew firmer as he went deeper into European life, and his letters, especially to his younger correspondents. are fresh, joyous, and unaffected. The style is indeed better than in his formal prose. There is a distinct literary air in Hyperion which is agreeably absent from the letters, although the diaries contain occasional tropes which read like tentative experiments in literary form. The slight sketches which are given might well have been left out. They are not numerous enough to serve as real illustrations, and they do not indicate any special faculty. We must also express some regret that the editor did not, when selecting passages from the diary, suppress some of the more private and intimate confessions of the sixteenth chapter. At a later period the poet writes in his diary : “ How brief this chronicle is, even of my outward life ! — and of my inner life, not a word. If one were only sure that one’s journal would never be seen by any one, and never get into print, how different the case would be! But death picks the locks of all portfolios, and throws the contents into the street for the public to scramble after.” The reserve which Mr. Longfellow showed in all his later life was broken into in the peculiarly trying time of his journey in Switzerland and the Tyrol. He seems to have found it hard to write then to friends, but to have unburdened his mind in his journal; and although one cannot but be interested in the revelation which it makes of his agitated mind, one instinctively shrinks from so intimate a knowledge. How wisely the editor has treated the great calamity which overtook the poet in 1861, stating the facts simply and swiftly ! Then, the diary and letters, though alluding to the event, leave it uncommented on. This was the mood of the older man, but it was the mood also in which we think he would have wished the record of his earlier grief preserved.
That Longfellow was charged with sentiment is illustrated in a hundred incidental ways throughout these volumes, but it is equally clear that he shrank from making it the conduit of his personal experience. Dramatically, he used sentiment freely; personally, he was chary of displaying it. It is interesting to note how he insisted upon it as a quality in religion. He was a steady church-goer, and his comments in his diary upon the sermons which he heard are frequently to the effect that if a sermon was mainly logical, and lacked unction, it failed of excellence. “ Chandler Robbins preaches : a good discourse on the gospel and with unction, without which a sermon is not a sermon.” It is when one reads the strong expression of his feeling for Sumner, and sees the unfading impression which the tragedy of his own life made upon him, that one discovers how far below this surface of sentiment flowed the deep current of his emotional nature.
The record of Longfellow’s European life is filled with marks of his studiousness and of his sense of a literary vocation. Equally interesting in this regard is the narrative of his life in the Craigie house as it flowers forth in verse and prose, and is set before the reader in its daily lines through the medium of the diary. Apparently the editor has selected the most interesting and salient passages from the regular journal of the poet, rather than taken certain portions from specific entries. At any rate, the impression given is of a somewhat faithfully kept diary, in which the incidents of each day are briefly noted. We are able to see pretty clearly how the poet passed his time, what books he read, what company he kept, how he set about his poems, what his plans were. Occasionally there is a shrewd bit of criticism or comment, but for the most part the entries are simple memoranda.
How full of interest is this stretch of twenty years ! One is aware of a fine, fit temperature in which the poet works : his domestic life serene and yet stimulating, for his wife’s companionship was intellectual as well as affectionate; his converse with friends full of the best wine ; his fame growing with steady advance ; the world coming to him with its homage, as he sits in his study lookingwestward, or paces his broad piazzas. Under these conditions the poet sends forth his songs, rejoicing in them, steadfast to his ideal, and unvexed by the anxieties which fret so many artists.
We are told that he disliked everything violent, and that this hatred of noise was a trait of his character from earliest days. It is easy to believe it, for it is impossible to read these volumes without being made aware of an atmosphere created by the poet himself. There was no mere avoidance of disturbing elements, nor was his serenity the result of favoring conditions ; his nature asserted itself in a resolute compulsion of conditions, —
To a green thought in a green shade.”
His methods of composition are not very fully declared, yet what can be told of a poet’s ways of work ? One may be curious to know whether he uses scraps of paper, or is particular us to his stationery ; whether he cons his lines until they are perfected, and then sets them down, or fishes them, with frequent blots, out of his inkstand; whether he works methodically, or by fits and starts ; whether his rule is nulladies sine linea, or stans in uno pede; whether he works in his garden or in his study. But after all, though one sees the alchemist surrounded by his vials and retorts, one misses the exact moment when the base metal is transmuted into gold. We see enough of Longfellow’s modes to know that he worked with swiftness, and felt in some of his shorter lyrics the glow which runs through the veins as a molten thought flows into rich and beauteous form. The fac-simile of the manuscript of Excelsior offers an admirable opportunity for studying the poet’s mood as he wrote that famous poem, and it discloses that interesting combination of poetic fire and scholarly thought so characteristic of Longfellow. The fire burned steadily and did not go out, though he wrote and rewrote, erased, studied, and finished. The little sentence at the close of the first draft, “ Half past three o’clock, morning. Now to bed,” is a curious disclosure of the poet’s triumphant, excited, and half-exhausted frame, at the end of his poetic vigil.
The sensitiveness to varying phases of nature which appears in Longfellow’s poems recurs to one as he reads the frequent notes, in diary and letters, of the welcome which the poet gave the spring, the spirit with which he encountered the winter. It was his custom to walk before sunrise. “ Resumed my morning walks,” he says one 9th of January, “ after the long snow blockade. Was out by half past six, the moon shining; in the east just an explosion of light through broken clouds.” And again : “ A vigorous, cold day. Ah, how cold it is ! My walk before sunrise I keep up very conscientiously, and because I really enjoy the fresh air. But to-day the wind scourged my ears sharply. These extremes of climate make me feel melancholy. Even when not cold myself, I cannot help thinking how many others are so.” In another place he writes, “ I get very tired of the routine of this life. The bright autumn weather draws me away from study, and the brown branches of the leafless trees are more beautiful than books. We lead but one life here on earth. 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 poet’s 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 toward 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. “What is the use,” he exclaims, “of writing books about books ! — excepting so far as to give information to those who cannot get the books themselves.” 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. “June is our month,” he writes ; “ oh, perfect days, after the dreary, restless rain ! The lilacs perfume the air. The horse-chestnuts light the landscape with their great taper-like blossoms.” “ A delicious day. Sat all the morning on a promontory covered with wild roses, looking seaward, with F. What a delightful morning ! ” 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, as these volumes disclose, 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 deflect 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 that integrity of nature which knows only the voice within. Yet we are touched quite as much by that patience and charity which the poet displayed when paying the penalty of his fame in receiving and answering the countless demands made by bores of all kinds. Mr. Norton says, “ One day I ventured to remonstrate with him on his endurance of the persecutions of one of the worst of the class, who to lack of modesty added lack of honesty, — a wretched creature; and when I had done, he looked at me with an amused expression, and half deprecatingly replied. ‘ But, Charles, who would be kind to him if I were not?’” As early as 1856 he mentions in his diary that he has lying on his table more than sixty requests for autographs, and with his methodical habits this was probably not a long accumulation. Occasionally he bursts out with impatience at the imposition. “ I am plagued to death,” he writes, “ with letters from all sorts of people, —of course about their own affairs ; no hesitation, no reserve, no consideration or delicacy. What people ! ” And his consternation takes a humorous turn as he considers the massive impertinence of a certain count who had been introduced to him: —
“ 15th. I was weak enough to ask the count to dine with us ; and he came, and stayed all the afternoon, and to tea, and did not go away till eleven at night. We all feel as if a huge garden-roller had gone over us. He has a fifty-ogre power of devouring time. Woe worth the day when Felton introduced him to me !
“16th. ‘The terrible count’ called this morning before sunrise to leave a note on an unimportant subject, signed ‘ The homeless G.’ I was breakfasting by candle-light. Luckily, he did not demand admission.
“ 18th. Before I was dressed, this morning, a ring at the door-bell. It was the count again, come to know if I had received his note. The aspect of things grows serious. These early hours are precious. If they too are invaded, what will become of me ?
“ 26th. After dinner il terribile conte came in; and the smokers turned my study into a village tavern with cigars and politics, much to my annoyance. The count stayed till ten o’clock, and expatiated amply on the corruption of European society, — like an old rake who has lost all faith in virtue.”
The humor which constantly peeps out of the brief entries in his diary was a delightful element in the poet’s nature ; an additional mark, if one needed it, of that sanity which seems to us the deepest note of this large nature. A sanity which could stand prosperity and not give way under the severest attack of adversity, — this was the poet’s sure foundation, and the art built upon it lasts because of this property which has thoroughly possessed it.
It would seem as if the editor, moving leisurely through the years, was overtaken when he had reached 1868 by the discovery that he bad reached the proper mechanical limit of his work. The reader, who has sauntered with a delightful sense of ease up to this point, is suddenly hurried forward through the remaining years. It is true, undoubtedly, that the records and correspondence are less abundant during the closing fifteen years, yet one is somewhat disturbed by the violent lack of proportion. Nothing is said of certain half-editorial work which the poet undertook in those years, and scarcely a glimpse is given of that beautiful old age which made Longfellow’s presence a benediction to the world about him.
Of the mechanical execution of the work, high praise can be given, except that the index is exceedingly defective. A full index, where there is such a mass of fragmentary matter, is very desirable, and it is a pity that there should not have been added a chronological bibliography.
The work, however, is so great a gift to literature and literary history that we cannot spend much time in pointing out these obvious defects. It is too early to make a full survey of the immense importance to American literature of the work done by half a dozen great men in the middle of this century. This body of prose and verse is constituting the solid foundation upon which other structures are to rise ; the humanity which it holds is entering into the life of the country, and no material invention, or scientific discovery, or institutional prosperity, or accumulation of wealth, will so powerfully affect the spiritual well-being of the nation for generations to come. The reason lies deep in the lives of the men who have wrought, independently, at laying this foundation; and the rich record of one of these lives, now so fully made the possession of the people, is of inestimable value. To the young man of letters it will be an inspiration and a star of hope ; to the rank and file of readers it will give new dignity to the literary calling and a loftier conception of literature itself.
- Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Extracts from his Journals and Correspondence. Edited by SAMUEL LONGFELLOW. In two volumes. Boston : Ticknor & Co. 1886.↩