V. RECOLLECTIONS OF HOLMES AND LONGFELLOW.
I MADE acquaintance with Oliver Wendell Holmes soon after the Atlantic Monthly was started, and from that time was often in the way of meeting him at receptions, banquets, and on more private occasions. One of the first talks I ever had with him was at some gathering, I have forgotten what, when, allusion being made to the grammatical inaccuracies of famous writers,
I instanced the opening lines of The Prisoner of Chillon, —
Nor grew it white
In a single night,
As men’s have grown from sudden fears; ”
and also Byron’s “There let him lay! ” which occurs in the famous address to the ocean, in Childe Harold. The Autocrat remarked, in his quick, nervous way, “Suppose Trowbridge or Holmes had made those blunders ! would n’t the critics have had a war dance ? ” As he had already achieved a dazzling reputation, while I had none to speak of, this coupling of our names together was to me, I confess, flatteringly pleasant.
Another colloquy I recall that began less auspiciously. It was at an Atlantic dinner, where, a seat beside me becoming vacant, he came and occupied it. He betrayed not a little irritation as he began,—
“ I ’ve a nut to crack with you ! The critic of the ” — no matter what publication— “says you can write better than I can. What do you think of that? ”
I tried to parry the question with an allusion I thought would please him. “That must be when you are not writing ‘ as funny as you can, ’ doctor. ” But he shook his head, and insisted: what did I really think of it? Such a comparison being too absurd to be taken seriously, I replied, —
“That’s a critic after my own heart! If only all were as astute! But here ’s a scribbler in the ” — I named the paper — “who says Edmund Kirke can write better than I can. So what am I to think ? ”
Thereupon the cloud turned its silver lining. He laughed and said : “If you can write better than I, and Kirke can write better than you, then Kirke is the man! We know where we are! ”
At table he was unflaggingly vivacious, ready at repartee, as witty as Lowell without Lowell’s audacity at punning (they called each other “Wendell ” and “James,” talking perhaps from one end of the table to the other), and, for the immediate moment, as wise as Emerson. Underwood, in his monograph on Lowell, The Poet and the Man, has by some lapse of memory misquoted a passage of words that took place between Emerson and Holmes at one of the early Atlantic dinners. The conversation was upon the orders of architecture ; it was Emerson, not Holmes, who had been saying that the Egyptian was characterized by breadth of base, the Grecian by the adequate support, and the Gothic by its skyward soaring. Then it was Holmes, not Emerson, who flashed out instantly, “One is for death, one is for life, and one is for immortality. ” I did not hear this, but it was repeated to me at the time by one who did.
At another of the Atlantic dinners, Holmes surpassed even himself in the sparkle and flow of his Autocratic dissertations. Hardly any one suspected that he had in his napkin the proofs of his next Autocrat paper, procured for him by one of the publishers of the magazine, who was present, and who afterwards imparted to me the secret.
Many anecdotes illustrative of the doctor’s wit were current in those years. I will cite but one. When the friends of the rival claimants of the discovery of anæsthesia were proposing monuments for each, Holmes suggested that all should unite in erecting a single memorial, with a central group symbolizing painless surgery, a statue of Jackson on one side, a statue of Morton on the other, and the inscription beneath: “To E(i)ther.”
I never heard Holmes converse when he did not converse well; and once at least I had the satisfaction of contributing in some degree to his flow of spirits. Underwood, inviting me to a supper at which the doctor was to be the guest of honor, begged that I would come prepared to make a little speech, or to read something appropriate to the occasion. As speech-making was always irksome to me, I scribbled some lines heartily appreciative of the Autocrat, which I carried with me, and read, at a call from Underwood, in a hill of the conversation. The next day I received a letter from our host, in which he wrote: “It is to you, more than any one else, that the success of last evening is due. Your poem was not only a pleasure in itself, but it wrought a great change in the guest, and brought forth all his brilliant powers. I never heard him talk so well.”
With one of the kindest hearts, open to friends, and often sympathizingly helpful to strangers, he yet cherished a sort of Brahminical exclusiveness; something in the earlier Autocrat papers even made you feel that he was at times too complacently conscious of a superior caste and culture. The tone of his writings softened and his nature grew ever more kindly with years. The Poet at the Breakfast-Table was considered less successful than its predecessors, The Autocrat and The Professor; but there was noticeable in the later writings an increased mellowness of flavor that compensated for any supposed falling off in the wit. While they were running in the Atlantic Monthly, I read them always eagerly in advance sheets, begged or borrowed from the editorial room (then immediately under that of Our Young Folks, in the building on Tremont Street), neglecting all other occupations for that instant indulgence. Very likely this was one of a happy combination of circumstances that caused me to see in them what I might look in vain for to-day; our early enthusiasms are so apt to pale in the light of later experiences and changed conditions. Re-reading those papers now, thirty years and more afterwards, would no doubt cause me to wonder a little at that particular enthusiasm; but I am glad I had it, since it moved me to express, in a letter to the doctor, my appreciation of the genial quality that breathed in the new series, “bathing all in the softest Indian summer air.” The recognition was probably all the more welcome to him on account of the disparaging criticisms the monthly numbers were provoking from the press in many quarters. He wrote in reply (under date of May 12, 1872): “I was just sitting down to write when I received your letter, which gave me such singular pleasure that I must tell you how much happier I was made by it. Perhaps I wanted a pleasant word to give me heart for what I was doing; at any rate I felt really refreshed by your kind expressions, and very grateful. ... A few lines of sympathy from one, the value of whose esteem we know, go a great way towards repaying an author for his cares and labors. You may be sure that you obeyed a very healthy impulse when you sent me a note which I shall keep among the treasures of my correspondence. ”
He was frankly fond of praise, and although few men of letters ever breathed that incense more frequently or with fuller breath, he never lost his amiable and sincere enjoyment of it. He once told me of a letter he had received from a vivacious lady admirer, and well I recall the gusto with which he exclaimed, “It is gushing! and I like it! ” What he relished with such zest he in turn generously bestowed, and I have letters of his regarding some things of mine that had interested and pleased him — beautifully written letters, their neat and graceful chirography now faded by time — which I “keep among the treasures of my correspondence,” to quote words that have so much deeper a significance in my case than they could have had in his own.
The doctor’s small, upright, animated figure seemed possessed of inexhaustible vitality, but in his advancing years his public appearances became a severe drain upon it, and he felt the need of husbanding it for special efforts, as he confided to me on more than one occasion. We were both engaged to deliver poems at the great Moore festival, given in Boston in May, 1879, in celebration of the Irish poet’s centennial birthday; and I retain a very vivid recollection of the Autocrat’s dismay when we learned that the guests had been brought together an hour before the banquet was to take place! After talking for twenty minutes or so to those who crowded around him, eager to catch a word from his lips, he whispered to me despairingly, “Help me out of this ; don’t let anybody follow! ”
I said in alarm, “You are not going away! ”
“For half an hour,” he replied. “I am going to get into a horse-car and ride up and down until the real, honest hour for the dinner arrives. I must save my voice for my poem.”
He returned in time to go in fresh and smiling to the dinner on the arm of that gifted young Irish revolutionist and adventurer, journalist and poet, John Boyle O’Reilly, while I followed with General Patrick A. Collins (now Mayor of Boston) for an escort. These two noted Irish-Americans were among the foremost promoters of the festival, but were not, I think, responsible for the too early assembling of the guests; and I doubt whether either of them knew what had become of the doctor in that halfhour. He was in fine voice for his poem.1
A few months later, in December of that same year, 1879, I had the honor of uniting in the celebration of Dr. Holmes’s seventieth birthday, contributing a poem, Filling an Order, to the postprandial exercises, at the famous Breakfast given to him by his publishers. It was one of the most notable gatherings of literary celebrities from far and near which Boston had ever witnessed. The Autocrat’s own beautiful and touching poem, The Iron Gate, read in a voice at times tenderly playful, at others vibrant with deeper emotion, was of course the memorable event of the Breakfast, and worthy of the audience and the hour. His praises were sounded by others in every key, in prose and verse; but I shall speak here only of my own contribution.
The Order, fabled to have been received by Dame Nature in her laboratory, was for “three geniuses,” one a bard, one wise, and one supremely witty, to grace an obscure town by the sea named Boston. The finer ingredients were mixed, and the souls set to steep, each in its glowing vessel: —
Threw laughter in, to make it thin, or thought, to make it thicker;
But when she came to choose the clay, she found, to her vexation,
That, with a stock on hand to fill an order for a nation,
Of that more finely tempered stuff, electric and ethereal,
Of which a genius must be formed, she had but scant material —
For three ? for one ! What should be done ? A bright idea struck her;
Her old witch eyes began to shine, her mouth began to pucker.
Of altogether too much clay, with quite too little essence,
And sluggish atoms that obstruct the spiritual solution;
So now, instead of spoiling these by over-much dilution,
With their fine elements I ’ll make a single, rare phenomenon,
And of three common geniuses concoct a most uncommon one,
So that the world shall smile to see a soul so universal,
Such poesy and pleasantry, packed in so small a parcel.”
So said, so done; the three in one she wrapped, and stuck the label:
Poet, Professor, Autocrat of Wit’s own Breakfast-Table.
I had the satisfaction of feeling that I had the audience with me in the reading; and that the fable pleased the subject of it I was gratifyingly assured in a letter I received from him a few days later, from which I cannot forbear quoting a single sentence: —
“I thought your poem excellent when I listened to it, but my hearing is not so sharp as it once was, and I did not know how excellent, how neat, ingenious, terse, artistic it was until I came to read it.”
One of the later occasions in which my voice was publicly heard with the Autocrat’s was the Garden Party, given by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, at Governor Claflin’s country house in Newton, to Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in celebration of her seventieth birthday. This was in the leafy month of June, 1882. At that open air festival we heard Mrs. Stowe herself, her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, and other celebrities; but the chief event was Dr. Holmes’s poem.
The doctor’s voice was not remarkable, — it was slightly husky, and lacking in clear resonance, but in his use of it he made you forget that it was not the fittest organ for his purpose; just as you were rendered oblivious of his inferior stature (five feet four or five) by his animation and perfect aplomb. Surely no other so narrow human jaw was ever the gateway of such intelligent and forceful speech (“the smallest adult jaw I ever fitted teeth to,” his dentist once said to me); but it had a nervous tension that compensated for its insignificant size. Lowell, Longfellow, Whittier, Hawthorne, Agassiz, like the most of his great contemporaries, might have justified the findings of the phrenologist or physiognomist ; yet he, even more than Emerson, demonstrated the truth that, of brains, quality is better than quantity, that spirit is more than flesh. He was a living disproof of Whitman’s proud attestation that “size is only development. ”
The Autocrat’s voice and manner were never more effective than on that refulgent afternoon at the Claflin Garden Party. Who that was present can have forgotten the two opening stanzas of his poem, The World’s Homage, in which he fancied people of every land who had read Uncle Tom summoned to the table, and the Babel of tongues that would have been heard there ?
Turk, Spaniard, Tartar of Ukraine,
Hidalgo, Cossack, Cadi,
High Dutchman and low Dutchman, too,
The Russian serf, the Polish Jew,
Arab, Armenian, and Mantchoo,
Would shout, ’We know the lady ! ’ ”
Only to those who heard him can the cold types convey an idea of the emphasis and percussive force of enunciation which he flung into this felicitously rhymed, surprisingly collocated list of names. It was greeted by such an outburst of irrepressible applause as was not heard before or after on that day, not even at the close of his reading. As I joined in the hand-clapping and watched the face of Mrs. Stowe wreathed in smiles, I fortunately forgot my own dozen or more four-line stanzas, snugly folded away in my breast pocket, to be unfolded and to come forth later.
As the persistent and prolonged uproar subsided, it was with a startled feeling that I remembered the ordeal of comparison before me, and with something like a cowardly wish that the verses I had thought tolerably well of up to that moment might be quietly dropped from the catalogue of things to be called for. I must acknowledge that the feeling marred a little my enjoyment of the remainder of Holmes’s recital, and was perhaps the cause of my fancying in the subsequent stanzas a falling off from the superlatively bright and vigorous opening. Or was it possible (as these are very frank memoirs I venture the suggestion), — was it barely possible that I indulged a secret hope that the prestige of those dazzling first flashes might be mercifully tempered, for my sake ?
If for a moment I cherished that feeble hope, I had ample time to return to a more resolute and generous frame of mind before delivering my tribute. The doctor was followed by other readers and speakers, who caused my interest in my own forthcoming effort to rise by degrees, to revive, and put forth buds of faith and buoyant expectation, until I finally stepped upon the improvised platform with a tranquil confidence not unjustified, I think, by the reception accorded to my reading of The Cabin. As was inevitable, some of the thoughts in the doctor’s poem were paralleled in my own : —
He preached to priest and rabbin;
He spoke all tongues; in every land
Opened that lowly Cabin.
One or two briefly told anecdotes must close these desultory reminiscences of one of Boston’s most remarkable men. Going once to hear a lecture by Matthew Arnold, I entered the hall early, and seeing Holmes alone in one of the central seats, took a place beside him for a chat while the audience was coming in. Soon we saw Rev. James Freeman Clarke wandering down one of the side aisles, with his numbered ticket in his hand, scanning the backs of the seats.
“There,” said the doctor, “is my Double. We were friends in boyhood, we were classmates in college, our orbits are forever crossing; wherever I go he appears. I can no more avoid him than I can my own shadow.” While he was relating some curious instance of this seeming fatality, Clarke drew near, still observing the backs of rows; when I inquired, —
“ What is your number, Mr. Clarke ? ” He named it. “Here it is, ” I said, “beside Dr. Holmes; I am in your seat.”
One afternoon, in the years of which I am writing, I chanced to call upon Mr. Longfellow just after he had received a visit from the doctor.
“ What a delightful man he is! ” said he. “But he has left me, as he generally does, with a headache.” When I inquired the cause, he replied: “The movement of his mind is so much more rapid than mine, that I often find it difficult to follow him, and if I keep up the strain for any length of time, a headache is the penalty.”
Every one who knew the Autocrat must have been impressed by this trait ascribed to him by Longfellow, — the extraordinary rapidity of his mental processes. Not that he talked fast, but that his turns of thought were surprisingly bright and quick, and often made with a kind of scientific precision, agreeably in contrast with the looseness of statement commonly characterizing those who speak volubly and think fast. In one of the early Autocrat papers he made this comparison: “Writing or printing is like shooting with a rifle; you may hit your reader’s mind, or miss it. But talking is like playing at a mark with the pipe of an engine; if it is within reach, and you have time enough, you can’t help hitting it.” His own talk was less like hose-playing than most men’s. It was more like shooting with a rifle, — and it was always sure to hit. In view of this habitual vivacity, how we must marvel at his length of life, measured not by years only, but by the amount of thought and feeling and spiritual energy that animated him throughout his long and fortunate career!
Holmes’s place among the writers of his time is distinctly assured. He enriched our literature with a new form of essay as distinctly individual as Montaigne’s or Charles Lamb’s. In metrical composition his work is voluminous and varied, much of it ephemeral, but all of it lucid and musical; and he has left a few lyrics that take high rank — one of them almost the highest — as pure poetry. A characteristic note is a certain playful tenderness; — and I think his Muse charms us most when she appears, like the bride in the ballad, —
when the verses are dewy and tremulous with a feeling which the wit irradiates and sets off, yet seems half designed to conceal: —
Of keen wits the most humane.”
Although Longfellow was not one of my literary passions, — perhaps because I came under his influence so gradually, — the spirit that breathed in his poems inspired in me a feeling of love and admiration long before I saw him, — a feeling that grew in depth and constancy after I was admitted to his acquaintance, and the acquaintance ripened into friendship.
That honor was rather late in coming to me, entirely through my own perverse neglect of opportunities, which I have elsewhere confessed and deplored. When the hour of meeting came, it was he who took the initial step toward it. Grasping my hand warmly, he began at once to talk to me of my poems with a delightful sincerity that blew away like dandelion woof or thistledown the last film and feather of my aloofness, and made me humbly ashamed of it, when he inquired earnestly, —
“Why have you never come to see me ? ”
“Because, ” I said, “ I never felt that the work I have been trying to do gave me any right to intrude myself on your attention.” And, with the frankness that is often the twin sister of reserve, I went on to speak of his being already a famous poet, a Cambridge professor, a man representing the highest culture, when I first came to Boston with the odor of my native backwoods still upon me, — without friends, or academic acquirements, or advantages of any sort; — and of the feeling I could never quite get over, of the immense distance between us.
“That,” he replied, “is the effect of mirage; it is illusion. At any rate, there is no such distance now.” And there never was, from that time forth.
Longfellow was slightly below the medium stature, but of a sufficiently stocky build, well planted on his feet, as the French say; with strong, symmetrical features, which must have been singularly handsome in his youth as they were singularly noble in his later years; the forehead sweeping to a shapely width in constructiveness and ideality ; mild blue eyes under fine brows, and hair and beard of patriarchal whiteness. Charles Kingsley said of him in 1868 : “ I do not think I ever saw a finer human face; ” which might have been truly said of him to the last.
He had the simplicity of manners that belongs to strong, true natures, and a tact and sympathy that prompted him to meet all persons on their own ground of interest and experience. Of all people I ever knew he was the most charitable in speech, tolerant even of faults which society deems it dangerous to condone. I never heard him speak with anything like indignant condemnation of anybody except a certain class of critics who sit in judgment upon works they have neither the heart to feel nor the sense to understand. Some kind friend once sent me a review in which a poor little volume of my own verse was scalped and tomahawked with savage glee. Turning the page,
I was consoled to see a volume of Longfellow’s treated in the same Ojibway style; for, I reflected, “The critic who strikes at him blunts the weapon with which he would wound others.” Meeting him in a day or two, I found that some equally well-meaning friend had sent him a copy of the same review.
I was surprised to see how much he was annoyed by it, and said to him, —
“ I may well be disturbed when they try to blow out my small lantern, but why should you care when they puff away at your star ? ”
He replied, “The ill will of anybody hurts me. Besides, there are people who will believe what this man says. If he cannot speak well of a book, why speak of it at all? ”
“He must earn his bread,” I suggested.
“So must the hired assassin and the highwayman, ” said Longfellow.
He had suffered from abundant unjust and foolish criticism in earlier days; but I do not believe his wise, calm spirit was ever more than temporarily ruffled by it. Older readers will remember the very general depreciation, the ridicule in paraphrase and parody, with which Hiawatha was at first received. But Hiawatha quickly came to rival Evangeline in public favor; and the relenting reviewers joined afterwards in the chorus of its praise. Evangeline had likewise been the subject of adverse criticism, especially in respect to the hexameters, which were declared unsuited for English verse. Poe’s ridicule of them remains a brilliant example of a kind of literary savagery common in the middle of the last century, that is hardly possible among men of letters to-day. Having resorted to the old trick of printing as prose a passage selected for his purpose, to illustrate the absence of the spondee, indispensable in the Greek hexameter, he went on to say that he could manage the point Longfellow and others had missed; giving as a sample these lines, in which the spondee is very much in evidence —
Born and brought up with their snouts deep down in the mud of the Frog Pond ?
Why ask ? who ever yet saw money made out of a fat old
Jew, or downright, upright nutmegs out of a pine knot ? ”
This was very funny; and “ Du tell, ” “deep down,” “Frog Pond,” and the like are good spondees. But Poe himself felt obliged to apologize for the dactyls; “hope to make,” “men of sense,” “born and brought,” which take the place of dactyls, being, properly speaking, not dactyls at all. Such criticism goes to show that the Greek and Latin hexameter is not possible in English verse, nor in any verse that is scanned by accents, and not by long and short syllables. This Longfellow knew as well as anybody, and what he attempted was some such adaptation of it as Goethe had brought into favor with German readers in his Hermann und Dorothea. Poe’s attack had long been forgotten, or it was kept in the minds of men only by Poe’s growing fame as a poet, and Longfellow could well afford to smile at it benignantly as he did, when I once ventured to recall it to his mind; for his choice of metre, and his easy management of it, had been amply justified by time and the judgment of mankind; the flowing hexameters which relate Evangeline’s beautiful story continuing to be read, then as now, by learned and unlearned alike, with perennial delight.
Longfellow had little of Holmes’s facility in writing occasional verses, and still less of Holmes’s boyish delight in reciting them. Yet Holmes himself never wrote anything more graceful than the tribute to Agassiz on his Fiftieth Birthday, or more delightfully rollicking than the other Agassiz poem, Noël, written in French, —a trifle, indeed, but yet a tour de force, appreciated by those at least to whom French is an acquired tongue, and who have adventured their poetic feet among the hedges and pitfalls of the hiatus and other artificial restrictions of French verse. It may be in place here to repeat what Longfellow’s brother-inlaw, Thomas G. Appleton, once said to me of the poet’s mastery of modern languages and literatures: “It is an accomplishment which his fame as a poet has too much overshadowed, but which should give him a foremost reputation among American scholars.”
Holmes could hang his halo of verse on any star of occasion, but Longfellow needed an impulse from within. When urged by his Bowdoin classmates to write something for their semi-centennial anniversary, no happy thought suggested itself, and he hastened to unburden his mind of the care and responsibility of such a task by positively declining it. Then came the inspiring motive of Morituri Salutamus, one of his noblest poems, drawn from the deeps of his poetic nature, and written in a glow of enjoyment chilled only by the prospective ordeal of public delivery. The final announcement that he was to appear in person and read his poem thrilled with joyous expectation every son of Bowdoin, and rallied to the college, on the eventful day, such throngs of its alumni and friends as it never saw gathered before. I think that, at the last hour, he rather enjoyed what he had dreaded; and his kindly nature must have been gratified by an opportunity of giving pleasure to so many. I asked a Bowdoin man how Longfellow bore himself. “Finely!” he said. “I couldn’t hear him, but it was glory enough to have him there, and to have his poem in print afterwards. ”
His voice was ill fitted for public speaking; it was habitually gentle and low, and it was irksome for him to raise it above the conversational pitch. I never heard it on any public occasion except once. At the great Boston Banquet given by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in honor of Whittier’s seventieth birthday, it was with the utmost difficulty that Whittier himself could be prevailed upon to be present. Growing old was bad enough,he said, “ without being twitted of it, ” — as Pickard relates in his full and graphic life of the poet. A sense of the incongruity of such a performance with the principal character left out finally prevailed over his diffidence ; almost at the last hour he consented to appear, and in acknowledgment of the tremendous ovation that greeted him, he spoke a few well-chosen but rather hesitating words, which could not be called a speech. Even then he would not trust himself to read the poem he had prepared, and which he had in advance engaged Longfellow to read for him. Longfellow introduced the poem with some easy conversational remarks; in them, and in the reading of Whittier’s response, his manner was self-possessed and unaffected; but his voice lacked carrying quality ; and although I was in a position to catch the lowest words distinctly, I judged, by the hollowing of hands behind ears, that neither he nor Whittier was heard well at the remoter tables.
Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes were the chief guests of honor, besides Whittier himself. Holmes, of course, had a poem to read, and he read it with his usual enunciative vigor. Emerson, who was already beginning to show signs of the decay of his powers which progressed slowly but fatally in the following years, made a few remarks laudatory of Whittier, and particularly of Whittier’s Ichabod, which he then proceeded to read, not very effectively, as it proved. The reading of Ichabod was regarded by Longfellow as one of two unfortunate mistakes that were committed, by famous guests, on that memorable evening. In talking over the Banquet with me a day or two after, he asked if I was not amazed at Emerson’s want of tact in selecting such a poem for such an occasion.
“ Why, no, ” I answered in some surprise; “it didn’t strike me so. I have always thought lchabod one of Whittier’s strongest poems, — perhaps his very strongest political poem.”
“But what a terrible denunciation of Webster! ” he exclaimed. “It was perhaps well enough for the time when it was written; but the passions of men have cooled, and I am sure Whittier himself regrets having made so terrible an attack upon our greatest statesman,
— once the idol of Massachusetts, and still believed in by a large number of those present at the dinner. Why bring up again, at such a time, a subject that must be offensive to many ? ”
I had not regarded it in that light; it was characteristic of Longfellow’s large charity that he had. When I said I hardly thought the partisanship of the poem was noticed by the audience, he immediately began to make excuses for Emerson, saying, “Of course, he took only the literary view of it, as you did.”
I thought this curiously illustrative of the difference in temperament between Longfellow and his two distinguished friends. He lacked the fine ethical energy of Emerson and the forceful impulse of the Quaker poet, while his abhorrence of oppression was no doubt as great as theirs. He was not formed for conflict; he shrank from severity of censure and deprecated injustice even to the unjust. He who had written and published Poems on Slavery as early as 1842, when to utter a word against the divinely appointed institution was to invite opprobrium,
— he who was Charles Sumner’s closest friend, admiring in him the warfare he was himself unfitted to wage, — must be ranked as a fearless and consistent opponent of slavery, notwithstanding the charge of time-serving once brought against him for consenting to the omission of the slavery pieces from an edition of his poems otherwise complete. This was no sacrifice of principle, although he perhaps yielded too much to the representations of the publisher, who was packing his goods, so to speak, for a market the gates of which were too narrow for that load. These were not his best poems, nor even his second best; they continued to be issued in other editions, and their suppression in that particular one showed no such “subserviency to the slave power ” as some abolitionists, notably Parker in one of his sermons, indignantly averred. His reprobation of Webster’s course was as deep as that of the more fiery Whittier, whom it inspired to write lchabod, or of the philosophic Emerson, when it drew him from his studious solitudes, and moved him to declare, in a public discourse on the Fugitive Slave Law, “Every drop of blood in this man’s veins has eyes that look downward.” While deploring the great statesman’s advocacy of that law, Longfellow’s broad charity and calm equipoise of opinion led him to judge the man himself more as posterity is judging him.
That Holmes had a son who enlisted in our Civil War and was dangerously wounded is a circumstance that has been kept in the memory of men by the Autocrat’s narrative of his Hunt after the Captain, and by the Captain’s subsequent career as an eminent jurist. It is not so well remembered that Longfellow likewise gave a son to his country’s service in the great conflict against slavery, a son who was also dangerously wounded at the front, and whom the father similarly hastened to seek and bring home.
Once we were speaking of the prices paid to the best writers by the best periodicals, when Longfellow remarked that he could never get over the feeling that one hundred dollars was a very large sura for a poem of perhaps not half a hundred lines. I said it did not seem so to me, even if we considered merely the labor that went into it, let alone the name and fame of the author.
“You would think differently,” he said, “ if you had written as many poems for three and live dollars each as I have, ” — those being the prices he had received for some of his earlier wellknown pieces, which he named. The immortal Psalm of Life — which, with the marks it bears of an imperfect mastery of the art he was afterwards to bring to such perfection, yet breathes the inmost spirit of his genius, — the poem that may almost be said to have established his reputation — was sold for three or five dollars (certainly not more than five, — I think he told me three) to the Knickerbocker Magazine, in which it first appeared. This was in 1838. Through the agency of his versatile, intimate friend, Samuel Ward, in New York, he was enabled in a few years to command three or four times five dollars for anything he chose to write, —fifteen or twenty dollars being really dazzling prices for poems in those days.
The Hanging of the Crane was disposed of to the New York Ledger for an exceptionally large sum, and the history of the transaction was related to me by Longfellow about the time it took place. The poem was finished in December, 1873, and sent to Ward in New York, who received it with rapture, and wrote that he thought his “trotting friend Bonner ” would pay “ two guineas a line for it.” As it comprised about two hundred lines, this meant a little more than two thousand dollars. Mr. Fields advised that it should not appear in any periodical, but be issued at once in a small and elegant illustrated volume. Longfellow held the matter in consideration for a month or more, then consented that the poem should be submitted to Bonner, who promptly proposed to pay one thousand dollars for it, — about five dollars a line. Longfellow thought this offer munificent enough, and would have accepted it unquestioningly; but Ward demurred, contending that such a poem from so famous an author should have a higher value for the Ledger, — a sheet that had founded its enormous success mainly on the stories of Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. Bonner thereupon consulted his lawyer, a man of liberal views, who said: “Ward is right. Send Longfellow a check for three thousand dollars, and give Ward an honorarium of one thousand for his mediation.” Bonner was himself a man of the most liberal disposition, which was evinced not only in practical matters, but in those of a more personal nature; as when, the Ledger having gradually outgrown the Cobb, Jr. style of story, instead of casting out with business-like indifference the writer who had been so useful to him, Bonner retired him on pension of four thousand dollars a year, which Mr. Cobb enjoyed in his home in Norway, Maine, after he had ceased to write, and as long as he lived.
Bonner saw the force of his lawyer’s suggestion; and so it happened that The Hanging of the Crane appeared in the Ledger at an expense to that paper of four thousand dollars, three fourths of which went to Longfellow, and one fourth to Ward.
In speaking of this poem I am reminded of a poetical figure in it that may have been suggested by one in my own poem, Service, which had appeared in the Atlantic Monthly some time before. I had written: —
In rings of beauty.
In Longfellow’s lines the image is reversed, the dazzling dawn becomes the smiling close of day, and the sun
Drops down into the night.”
Longfellow was of course wholly unconscious of this adaptation, — if indeed it was an adaptation, and not a figure that had arisen independently in his own mind; although Service was a poem of which he had spoken to me of having read.
His imagination, like that of every true poet, was the haunt of suggestions that had come to him often from unknown sources and by unremembered ways, — teeming fancies ready to start forth in the light and take place and shape in the page they were needed to adorn. Sometimes the thought that first appeared in one form reappeared in another; as when the poet wrote in his journal (November 18, 1850), “This college work is like a great hand laid on all the strings of my lyre, stopping their vibrations, ” and afterwards, in The Golden Legend, —
Upon my heart, gently, not smiting it,
But as a harper lays his open palm
Upon his harp, to deaden its vibrations.”
I do not know that anybody had ever used this image before him; but in Excelsior he had written, —
to discover later (as he notes in his diary) that Brainard had already said the same thing of the mocking-bird’s note, —
As a lost star falls down into the marsh.”
Wordsworth has in one of his odes, —
which Longfellow, as he notes again in his diary, had never read when in his ode To a Child he wrote
He was generally fortunate enough to detect these echoes or resemblances in advance of the critics, but not always; as when the one striking image, in the one memorable poem of the Bishop of Chichester, — rendered memorable only by this circumstance, — reappeared as the “muffled drums ” of the Psalm of Life, and brought down upon him the injurious charge of plagiarism. As he himself observes in his journal, “One cannot strike a spade in the soil of Parnassus without disturbing the bones of some dead poet.”
Here again I am reminded of a thought which I once adapted from him, and which must have persisted in my mind long after I had forgotten that it had any other source than my own imagination. Early in 1858 I wrote the following winter piece which I print here to illustrate a curious literary circumstance relating to two names of much greater interest than my own : —
I hear the snow-storm drive and sift,
And Boreas plunge with many a shout
Into the tree and through the drift,
Methinks that up and down,
With his merry, mocking clown,
Goes the old king who gave away his crown.
Alas, alas the day
That saw him part his golden crown
To deck fair Summer’s forehead gay
And Autumn’s tresses brown !
Have robbed him of his train ;
And now all night he laughs and raves,
And beats his breast and sings wild staves,
And scatters his white hair over the graves.
A mad and broken-hearted Lear,
He roams the earth with crazèd brain ;
Ah, would the gentle Spring were here,
The sweet Cordelia of the year,
To soothe his bitter pain !
Fondly believing this to be original, and thinking tolerably well of it, I handed it to Underwood for the Atlantic. He likewise thought well of it, and took it to Cambridge, for Lowell’s acceptance. It came back to me with the comment that it had a fault. This was not the overworked and wornout classic Boreas, which certainly had no business in so modern a composition, and which could easily have been changed to North Wind. Nor yet was it the bookish “methinks,” in the use of which I might have pleaded the example of Hawthorne, who even puts it into the colloquial speech of some of his characters, — if ever the speech of Hawthorne’s characters may be termed “colloquial.” As for the feeble inversions, “ forehead gay ” and “ tresses brown, ”— where the adjective is placed after the noun for the too obvious convenience of the rhythm and rhyme, — they were indeed blemishes, which I was to have sense and conscience enough to banish altogether and forever from my later verse, along with all such earmarks of the conventional poetic diction; although I might have justified them by adducing the usage of poets the most renowned. But the fault that condemned my winter piece was none of these. It was the worst of all faults. The leading idea of the poem was stolen — “ Longfellowniously obtained, ” as Underwood laughingly said, quoting, I think, his editor-in-chief. I immediately looked up the Midnight Mass for the Dying Year, and was dismayed to find there the image I had so shamelessly plagiarized : —
Crowned with wild flowers and with heather
Like weak, despisèd Lear; ”
the comparison being carried further in the succeeding stanzas. Of course I did not print the poem in the Atlantic, or anywhere else, but flung it aside in wrath and humiliation, and hardly ever gave it a thought afterwards, until I was reminded of it by the afore-mentioned curious circumstance, to the point of which I am now coming. It is this: in Lowell’s volume, Under the Willows and Other Poems, which appeared ten years later (1868), the title poem has on page 10 these lines: —
Reels back, and brings the dead May in his arms.”
Now this was also undoubtedly an unconscious appropriation of the same image that I had “ Longfellowniously obtained; ” and the incomprehensible thing about it is that Lowell should have picked up, and pocketed, and afterwards have stuck into his poetical shirt-front, the little gem, the ownership of which he had detected in my more expansive setting. The only explanation seems to be, that he had forgotten both Longfellow’s original and my imitation, and reproduced the idea as innocently as poets are all liable to reproduce ideas, — as he himself reproduced a line of Shelley in an earlier part of the same poem (Under the Willows), where he describes the West (west wind) —
which are certainly the English poet’s “white fleecy clouds ” over again, —
Longfellow was accustomed to receive all sorts of people, some of whom sought him out for the most whimsical reasons; like the English visitors who said to him with astounding frankness, “As there are no ruins in this country we thought we would come and see you.” The old colonial Craigie mansion, with its windows commanding the broad valley where
Writes the last letter of his name,”
was unquestionably, both from its earlier and later associations, the most attractive house in Cambridge. But I was always so much more interested in the man I went to see there than in anything else in or about it, or even in the memories of the great Washington whose historical headquarters it had been, that I never really saw it save in the most partial and casual manner, until one afternoon, when some ladies sent in their cards just as I was taking leave. They came with the modest request that they might be shown the house and “just speak with Mr. Longfellow if he wasn’t too busy to see them.” He promptly gave orders that they should be admitted, and turning to me, said, “Stay, and help me entertain these callers; ” which I was very glad to do, as it gave me an opportunity of seeing, with him for cicerone, not only such parts of the house and the things in it as I had seen before, though never so advantageously, but other parts, with their numerous objects of interest. Our host, in his genial way, tried to palm me off also as an “ object of interest, ” but without distinguished success.
Beginning with the room in which the visitors found us,— the front room at the right of the entrance, once General Washington’s official headquarters, but in later years the poet’s study, in which so many of his famous poems had been written,— he had some simple but illuminating word of association or suggestion for every object to which he called attention, — among many other precious things, perhaps the most precious, uniform bindings of the original manuscripts of his works, nearly complete, and shelved behind glass, — all in his own unvarying, beautifully round, upright hand, the most of them in pencil; Coleridge’s inkstand, always in sight on his centre table; sand of the desert in an hourglass (subject of his well-known poem) ; in the drawing-room, an exquisitely carved agate cup, the work of Benvenuto Cellini, that had once belonged to the poet Rogers; everywhere portraits and pictures, among these Buchanan Read’s painting of Longfellow’s Daughters, which was then well known to the public through photographic copies, and which, by an ambiguity in the grouping, had given rise to the absurd story that one of Longfellow’s children had no arms. Regarding this monstrous fable he said : “ My friend Lowell once heard a loud-talking woman expatiating upon it in an omnibus full of passengers, and took occasion to correct the popular error, saying that he knew the family, and that he could vouch for each of the children having a good pair of arms. The woman retorted, ’I have it on the best authority! ’ and that settled it.”
He had a fund of quiet humor in relating traditions connected with the old house; one of which commemorated an occasion when Washington was said to have indulged in the laughter so rare with him. It was when General Putnam brought to headquarters an old woman taken as a spy, whom he carried, reluctant and struggling, on his back, into the house, — a sight which proved too much for the gravity even of the Father of his Country. After the ladies were gone I asked Mr. Longfellow if such visits were not sometimes a bore to him. “Yes,” he said, “if the comers are pretentious or shallow-minded; then I make as quick work with them as courtesy will allow. But these were sincere persons, and I am glad to have afforded them a pleasure that was evidently so much to them, and which they will remember all their lives.”
“ And the memory of which they will transmit to their children,” I could not help adding.
His conversation was simple and easy, and often enlivened by a genial pleasantry, to me more welcome than the wit that keeps the listener too much alert. I never heard him make a pun. And never, in my presence, did there fall from his lips an expression that had in it any flavor of slang, except on one occasion. At the time when the Nineteenth Century Magazine was launched, we were discussing Tennyson’s sonnet, which appeared, a proud figurehead, on the prow of the first number. I remarked that it had one particularly expressive line,—
Of daffodil and crocus.”
Longfellow’s face lighted up, as he took a stride across his hearth, repeated the words, and stopping before me, exclaimed, “ It is a fine thing to have one strong line go ripping through a sonnet ! ”
It has been said, by one who had exceptional opportunities for knowing him, that Longfellow seldom if ever mentioned his distinguished contemporaries, either to criticise or commend. This does not accord with my recollection of the various conversations I had with him. Rarely indeed did a word of disapproval fall from those gracious lips; but he was by no means reticent or lukewarm when there was occasion for praise. I have already quoted his comments on Emerson and Whittier, in connection with the Ichabod incident. He once spoke freely of Emerson’s faulty ear, and said that in at least one instance Emerson rivaled Whittier in the badness of his rhymes, —
Carries the eagles, and masters the sword.”
But then he went on to speak of The Snow-Storm, as a perfect gem of blank verse, citing the description of the housemates gathered —
In a tumultuous privacy of storm,”
and pronouncing the last to be one of the most beautifully suggestive lines written by any modern poet.
Bayard Taylor’s feat, reported at the time, of writing in a single night, immediately upon the arrival of the book in America, a review of Victor Hugo’s Legendes des Siècles, giving metrical translations of some of the poems, — all remarkably well done, and occupying a page or two (I have forgotten just how much space, and am afraid to say two or three pages) in the next morning’s Tribune, — this he pronounced an achievement of which probably no other man in America would have been capable. He expressed great admiration for Taylor’s varied gifts, and remarked,
“ How narrowly he escapes being a great poet! ” adding that he had facility, rhetoric, feeling, a sense of beauty and melody, yet lacked the last “indefinable touch.”
His ways with young children were exceedingly gracious and winning. My own girls (then very young indeed) had been kept out of sight whenever he called, until one day, hearing their laughter in the hall, he asked to see them. Overawed by his gray hair and beard and venerable aspect, yet attracted by his smile, they approached with bashful pleasure as he held out his arms to them; but he broke down all barriers by saying, —
“Where are your dolls? I want you to show me your dolls! Not the fine ones you keep for company, but those you love best and play with every day. ”
Before the mother could interfere, they had taken him at his word, and brought the shabby little favorites with battered noses, and were eagerly telling him their names and histories, while he questioned them with an interest that wholly won their childish hearts. Notwithstanding its humorous and homely aspect, — or partly perhaps on account of it, — the scene suggested a more beautiful and human picture of the often treated subject, “Suffer little children to come unto me, ” than any I ever beheld.
On another occasion I took the elder of the little girls to see him, along with some Western relatives, who thought their visit to the East would miss its crowning satisfaction if they should go back without seeing Longfellow. We found other company at the house, and the conversation had become so animated that the presence of the child was forgotten by everybody except our host. Suddenly he arose with a smile, saying, “I can’t bear that little Grace should n’t also be entertained! ” and going into the hall, he set the musical clock to playing its tunes for her, while her elders talked.
He sometimes brought to see me his intimate and almost lifelong friend, Professor George W. Greene, the historian, of Greenwich, R. I. ; and at one of their visits our Windsor, then a boy of thirteen, took us out on the lake in his boat. Professor Greene, who was in feeble health, wished to pull an oar; Windsor, full of health and spirits, pulled the other, and pulled too hard for him. This he continued to do, notwithstanding my remonstrance, —being slow to realize how much it was needful that he should moderate his stroke, — when Mr. Longfellow said,—
“Let him row his own way! He enjoys it; and we must n’t interfere with a boy’s happiness. It makes no difference to us whether we go forward or only circle round and round.”
In a brief sketch of the poet, written for the Youth’s Companion after his death, I related this anecdote to illustrate his thoughtful regard for the happiness of the young. It was subsequently quoted by Rev. Samuel Longfellow, in an article about his brother that appeared in another periodical; in which, to my great surprise, he took the ground that the poet was too indulgent on that occasion, because the boy should, for his own sake, have been disciplined.
It was while walking alone with me once on the shore of that lake (Arlington Lake, or Spy Pond) that Mr. Longfellow, after stopping to gaze for some moments in silence at the island and the distant banks, overleaned by willows and water-maples, said to me, —
“Why have you never put this lake into a poem ? ”
I said I supposed it was because I had it in view every day. “When I get away from it, then very likely my imagination will come back to it, and I may write something about it.”
“Don’t wait for that,” he replied; “do it now! ”
I have always regretted that I did not then and there enter into an agreement with him that we should each write a poem on the subject. What a precious companion piece we might then have had to his Cadenabbia and Songo River! I can almost imagine these lines, inspired by Lake Como, to have been breathed by his Muse that very afternoon, as we stood gazing from our shore; —
Linger, until my heart shall take
Into itself the summer day,
And all the beauty of the lake! ”
This was in September. I Waited until the glory of the month of May was on the wooded shores and the reflecting water, then, in memory of his inspiring suggestion, I wrote Menotomy Lake.
I cannot forbear quoting here the last letter I ever received from him, it is so characteristic of the kindness of heart that prompted him, even in illness, to pen with his own hand a brief message that he knew would carry happiness to a friend. The same sheet bore the printed announcement that his family were then sending to his correspondents: “On account of illness, Mr. Longfellow finds it impossible to answer any letters at present; ” a circumstance that rendered all the more touching his voluntary note to me. And it became still more sacredly precious when it proved, not only the last to me, but one of the last letters he ever wrote.
CAMBRIDGE, Dec. 16, 1881.
DEAR MR. TROWBRIDGE, —What a beautiful poem is this of yours in the January Atlantic ! I have read it with delight, and cannot help writing a line to say so.
HENRY W. LONGFELLOW.
In him passed the most purely poetical of the entire group of our early singers. Bryant, journalist and politician, would now be forgotten as a poet but for Thanatopsis, the lines To a Waterfowl, and one or two other pieces. The reputation of Poe — a man of genius, if ever there was one, but an adventurer, and also something of a charlatan — likewise rests upon three or four poems, one might almost say on one or two. Whittier, prophet and reformer, had extraordinary poetic sensitiveness and a winning spirituality, but he was too much an improvisators to regard uniform excellence in his work. Whitman brought sheaves in abundance, but too often with stubble plucked up by the roots and the soil adhering. Holmes was a wit and a man of science; Lowell, satirist, essayist, diplomatist, and assuredly a poet, but one whose affluence of fancy and largeness of culture did not insure him always against incongruousness of metaphor and roughness of utterance; Emerson, pursuing ever the loftiest ideals, yet a transcendent master of crystalline prose rather than of rhythmical harmonies. Longfellow was not the greatest of the group. He was neither brilliant nor versatile nor intense; great power and great passion were not among his gifts; the charm of his verse is more in sentiment and atmosphere than in any distinctively vigorous intellectual quality. But he was always the poet, devoted to the poet’s ultimate aims, and, amid all the distractions of college work or other duties and interests, breathing the cool airs of the Parnassian groves.
Every bright reputation is certain to be dimmed by time, and to suffer from comparison with dazzling new stars, even with meteors that flash transitorily across the sky. Longfellow is no exception to the rule; it has even become a fashion to decry his poetry as commonplace. He did not experiment in many metres, nor startle us with audacities, nor witch the world with haunting melodies. Commonplace his poetry undoubtedly is, inasmuch as it has entered into our literature and into our lives, and has so ceased to be a novelty, —commonplace too, possibly, here and there, in a more depreciatory sense. But, when all admissions are made, may we not ask — passing over without mention his more important productions, those on which his fame is mainly based — is it not pertinent to inquire what waiters of to-day, on either side of the sea, are blending thought and feeling in such forms of beauty as The Two Angels, The Bridge, The Arsenal at Springfield, The Birds of Killingworth, — and a long list beside of poems as full of a wise, sweet humanity and as perfect in their art ?
His work, more than most men’s, was the outgrowth of his character; and the same might almost be said of the circumstances of his life, which seemed the natural branching and foliage of the genius they were to support and enfold. But for the one overwhelming catastrophe of his home, I know of no other so altogether happy and harmonious career. He lived long in the enjoyment of the fullness of his fame, and died the most widely read and best beloved poet of the English tongue.
Ko more fitting, no more touching tribute can be paid to him than in the words of his most illustrious contemporary, who, in his own darkening years, when his memory was in eclipse, and those sky-piercing faculties showed like shattered peaks amid clouds, having stood long by the open coffin of his friend, and gazed his last upon the features death had stilled, murmured gently, “I do not remember his name, but he was a beautiful soul.”
A beautiful soul in very truth he was.
J. T. Trowbridge.
- My own poem, read at the Moore Banquet, was Recollections of Lalla Rookh.↩