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The Centenary of Longfellow

by Bliss Perry

WE allow the centenaries of our men to pass without general observance. The one hundredth anniversaries of the births of Poe, of Hawthorne, and of Emerson, were duly celebrated at Chare and at Brunswick, at Salem, Concord, and Boston. But these were exercises of local piety, the expression of a provincial pride. A wide, national recognition of such anniversaries does not yet come easily to us; "they order this matter better in France," with a more spontaneous clashing of the cymbals, a graceful processional to the shrine. It is possible that the anniversary of Longfellow's birth on February 27, may be more generally and tenderly remembered than that of other authors of his time. 'Multitudes of his countrymen to whom Hawthorne and Poe were mere necromancers, and Emerson a shining seraph announcing things, thought of Longfellow as a familiar friend. But twenty-five years have already elapsed since his death. To a busy republic, swift to forget even its best servants, a quarter of a century is a long period, and the startling and social changes which have been brought about within that interval -- make it seem even longer still. Longfellow's life and work have indeed kept him in remembrance; but apparently, it is only Lincoln, among all the figures of that generation, who has grown steadily in popular fame.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Recollecting Longfellow"
A selection of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow originally published in The Atlantic Monthly.


It is inevitable that there should be some reaction against the extraordinary popularity which Longfellow's poetry enjoyed in his lifetime. Nor should his most loyal admirers quarrel with the spirit which to-day seeks to scrutinize the causes of such a popularity. To the true lover of books, the quality of a poet is everything; the counting of the heads of the poet's audience is but an idle occupation. It is difficult for Colonel Higginson to write otherwise than delightfully, but I wish that he had not begun his Life of Longfellow by giving the British Museum statistics of the demand for Longfellow's writings, and in the editions in the various languages of the world. Do not even the publicans and the historical novelists the same? Such figures -- unless they cover more than a single generation -- raise more doubts than they allay. Nowhere is a little wise distrust of the popular judgement more sanative than in the field of poetry. The literary mass-meeting settles nothing. If it records an enormous majority for some candidate today, it is likely tomorrow to vote his name wearisomely familiar, imitating, that illogical but very human and likable Athenian who petulantly marked his ballot against Aristides.

Yet if a little skepticism as to the wisdom of the general contemporary verdict is wholesome, a complete skepticism is rash. I know a shrewd and slightly cynical publisher who insists that the popularity of a piece of literature is always an inverse ratio to its excellence. This is a pleasing and easily remembered formula. It collapses, however, when you say "Hamlet", And I think it collapses when you say " Evangeline." The presumption may be, and for certain fastidious minds it always will be, that a popular poem cannot have a high literary rating. But it is one of the most unsafe presumptions upon which a critic can put out to sea. There is, to be sure, a natural commonplaceness which forms a solidarity of sympathy between certain authors and their public. I once asked a poet: "How does our friend Blank, the novelist, manage to hit the average vulgar taste with such wonderful accuracy age to hit the average vulgar taste with such wonderful accuracy?" "He doesn't hit it " said the poet gloomily, "he is it." But this complete identity of author and audience must be sharply distinguished from that exquisite gift possessed by a few men of essential distinction, -- like Gray, like Goethe, like Longfellow, -- of giving perfect expression to certain feelings which are

"in widest commonalty spread."

Both of these classes of writers may produce a widely popular poem or book. But the difference in the result is that which separates David Harum from The Vicar of Wakefield, and The Old Oaken Bucket from the Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Longfellow, it is true, sometimes allowed himself to print rather commonplace pieces. Like most poets, and like every American poet of his generation except Poe, he published too much. He had a sympathetic perception of the moods of unsophisticated people, and he usually preferred to interpret such feelings rather than the more recondite aspects of human experience. He felt, as we all feel, that the rain is beautiful, and he did not hesitate to say in verse, --

"How beautiful is the rain!"

That he ran a certain risk in thus carrying simplicity to the verge of guilelessness he must have been aware, through the early, and constant parodies upon this vein of his poetry. But he knew his course. He gained and held his great circle of readers by precisely this obedience to his instinct. His contemporaries felt what Emerson (with perhaps a touch of unconscious patronage) wrote about Hiawatha: "I have always one foremost satisfaction in reading your books, that I am safe." To speak safely to one generation is to speak with some hazard to the generations following, and Longfellow's beautiful work has already paid a penalty for his overwhelming immediate success.

In one other respect, too, we must note a sort of whispered reservation that is sometimes made when Longfellow's name is spoken. One need not fear to utter it, even in the magazine to which he was such a friendly and honored contributor. Was he, after all, great poet? Mr. Longfellow himself with his delicate sense of literary values would have respected the scruple which prompts such a question. One may easily imagine what he would have replied. He was once showing the Craigie House with his unmatched courtesy, to one of those ignorant bores whom he patiently allowed to ravage his golden hours. The stranger asked if Shakespeare did not live somewhere about there. "I told him," said Mr. Longfellow, "I knew no such person in this neighborhood." Exactly. No such person as has ever been in the Cambridge Directory. But what of it? Why should size be snatched at as the chief criterion of poetic performance? The nightinga1e, type and symbol of all poets, is but a small brown bird.

How Longfellow himself regarded as an indubitably great poet may be seen in his incomparable sonnets upon the Divina Commedia. Dante's poem is there likened to a cathedral, within whose doors the tumult of the time dies away

"While the eternal ages watch and wait"

Old agonies and exaltations haunt these shadows; here are echoes of tragedies and of celestial voices. The windows are ablaze with saints and martyrs; the organ sounds; the unseen choirs sing the Latin hymns; and the head is bowed in the presence of the ineffable mysteries of the Faith. Nothing built by human hands has the dark grandeur of such a minister. There is only one other place that may be as sacred, -- and that is the home. To open Dante is like passing within the solemn portal of a cathedral. To read Longfellow is like entering the Craigie House. The fine dignity of the eighteenth century is here. From doorway stretches a gentle landscape, with its winding river and low hills. All around there is a quiet beauty, with lilacs and elms and green lawns sweet with children's voices; within the old mansion hospitality, and gracious courtesy, and with the savor of worn books, and the sanctities of long, intimate converse with all lovely and honorable things. It is a roof, and it welcomes us in hours when the cathedral oppresses or appalls.

It is no wonder that men and women of New England blood are loyal to Longfellow. His stock was of the finest of our wheat. John Alden, the young lover in his most perfect narrative poem, -- the "bunch of May-flowers from the Plymouth woods," was his maternal ancestor. Among his forbears were men distinguished for gallantry in the country's service, and for stainless integrity private character. His boyhood in Portland was typical of the time and section in its moral sweetness, its intellectual hunger and fine ambition. He had the look of his family, -- the slim straight figure, the waving brown hair, the blue the quickly flushed cheeks. He read father's library the sound English classics of the eighteenth century, but the book to fascinate his imagination was Irving's Sketch-Book. "I was a schoolboy when it was published," he wrote forty years afterward, "and read each succeeding number with ever increasing delight, spell-bound by its pleasant humor, its melancholy tenderness, its atmosphere of revery, nay even by its gray-brown covers, the shaded letters of its titles, and the fair, clear type, seemed an outward symbol of its style." Such was the boy of whom -- at the age of six -- his schoolmaster had testified that "his conduct last quarter was very correct and amiable," and a classmate at Bowdoin -- in that famous class of 1825 -- said, "It appeared easy for him for him to avoid the unworthy."

One is reminded of the remark made by Pavis de Chavannes in the hour of his triumph as an artist. " Who was your master?" he was asked. "I never had any master," said the painter, thinking perhaps of his restless, friendless journeys from one atelier to another; "my master has been a horror of certain things." That fineness of nature which made it seem, easy for Longfellow, as for his classmate Hawthorne, to avoid the unworthy, was perfected by the firm intellectual discipline and the clear flame of aspiration that characterized the years spent in the struggling country college. Typical of that period was his unashamed acknowledgment of his heart's ambition, revealed in a well-known letter to his father: "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." How charming it is, this boyish ardor! Longfellow's was but one of hundreds of such voices rising from every home of learning in New England, three quarters of a century ago. We hear them still, in the fresh tones of this eager, generous. high-minded youth, who had the good fortune to realize his dream.

It was fulfilled, as most dreams are, in unforeseen ways. Through the range and the quality of Longfellow's life-work he was enabled to perform a spiritual service for his countrymen. He was to become a national, rather than a merely provincial figure. In our imaginations, indeed, he lingers as a lovely flowering of all that was most fair in the New England temperament and training, in that long blossoming season which began with Emerson's Nature and ended -- no one knows just when or how -- within a decade or two after the close of the Civil War. There is but too much truth in Mr. Oliver Herford's witty description of the present-day New England as the abandoned farm of literature. Apparently the soil must lie fallow for a while, or someone must plough deeper than our melancholy short-story writers seem to go. But when the old orchard was bearing, what bloom and fruitage were hers!

Yet Longfellow was far more than a melodious voice of that New England springtime. It became his privilege to interpret to his generation the hitherto alien treasures of European culture. He brought Spain and Italy, France and Germany and the shadowy northern races, into the consciousness of his countrymen. While Irving and Bryant were the pioneers in this adventure, it was through Longfellow, more than any other man, that the poetry of the Old World -- the romance of town and tower and storied stream, the figures of monk and saint and man-at-arms, of troubadour and minnesinger, of artist and builder and dreamer -- became the familiar possession of the New.

This immense service was made possible through Longfellow's scholarship. When he was graduated from Bowdoin, at the age of eighteen, he had a good knowledge of Latin and Greek, and a fair amount of French. Receiving the promise of a professorship of modern languages at his alma mater, upon the condition that he should prepare himself by European study, he sailed in 1826 for a three years' absence. After two years and a half he was able to write to his father, "I know you cannot be dissatisfied with the progress I have made in my studies. I speak honestly, not boastfully. With the French and Spanish languages I am familiarly conversant, so as to speak them correctly, and write them with as much ease and fluency as I do the English. The Portuguese I read without difficulty. And with regard to my proficiency in the Italian, I have only to say that all at the hotel where I lodge took me for an Italian until I told them I was an American."' He then proceeded to master German, and in subsequent years familiarized himself with several other languages of northern Europe. During the five or six years of his Bowdoin professorship, and for eighteen years at Harvard, he gave careful and competent instruction in these languages, lecturing regularly upon various foreign literatures, and superintending the work of the picturesque and often extremely difficult foreign gentlemen (the " four-in-hand of outlandish animals all pulling the wrong way except one ") who acted as his assistants. Of the extent and accuracy of his linguistic attainments his published translation, from no less than nine languages are a sufficient proof. His college tasks left him scanty leisure; his eyesight was early impaired; and he gave himself freely, to the claims of hospitality; and yet in spite of these drawbacks his acquaintance with the literatures of medieval and modern Europe became extraordinary. He made, no pretense, however, to strictly philological erudition, and he would probably have regarded with mild surprise the formidable apparatus of learning which our contemporary scholars love to concentrate -- like the irresistible wedge of close football formulation -- upon the weakest points in their opponent's line. One may even venture to think that Longfellow would have found such philological contests rather dull. He played by preference the open game, moving with a delightful swiftness and case from folklore and drinking-song to missal and codex. His prose volumes, Hyperion and Outre-Mer, reflect something of the variety of his reading, and his natural sympathy with that European Romantic movement which was still occupied, in the thirties, with revivifying the past and lending an emotional coloring to the present. For years after his return from his first long sojourn in Europe this seemed to be his calling: to give a few American boys some bright glimpses of those illuminated pages which had fascinated his own fancy.

Then, after a decade of teaching, came the revelation of his true power. He discovered that he was himself a poet. He had written boyish verses, such as write, and the constant practice in metrical translation had perfected his poetical form. But here was a new impulse. His Journal notes [Dec. 6, 1838] "A beautiful holy morning within me. I was softly excited, I knew not why: and wrote with peace in my heart and not without tears in my eyes, The Reaper and the Flowers, a Psalm of Death. I have had an idea of this kind in my mind for a long time, without finding any expression for it in words. This morning it seemed to crystallize at once, without any effort."How familiar that "soft excitement" is to those who listen to the confidences of the poets; and how inadequate an explanation, after all, of the miracle by which a poem comes into being!

Longfellow was now in his thirties. He had been called from Brunswick to Cambridge. The wife of his youth was dead in a foreign land, and he had returned from that melancholy second visit to Europe, to live with books and a few friends. His youthful ambition for eminence had deepened into a love of the beautiful and desire to speak truth. "Fame must be upon only as an accessory," he wrote, in a heart-searching letter to his friend Greene. " If it has ever been an object with me -- which I doubt -- it is so no more." Like Hawthorne, he found fame when he ceased to seek it. The Psalm of Life, The Reaper and the Flowers, The Wreck of the Hesperus, The Skeleton in Armor, The Rainy Day, Maidenhood, Excelsior, followed one another as thrushes follow one another in the deep woods at dawn, with melodies effortless and pure. Everybody listened. Two of these poems, The Psalm and Excelsior, have indeed paid the price of a too apt adjustment to the mood of that "earnest" moment They were not so much poems as calls to action, and now that two generations have passed, those trumpets rust upon the wall. It is enough that they had their glorious hour.

To appeal through verse to the national as well as to the individual conscience was not for Longfellow, as it was for Whittier and Lowell, a natural instinct. His path lay for the most part out of political poetry. Yet by his anti-slavery poems of 1842 he placed on record against the most gigantic evil of his day; and in his anti-militaristic poem, The Arsenal at Springfield , he protested against the most widespread evil of our own. History loves to be ironical. Longfellow lived to see those very Springfield rifles help to end slavery in the United States; he lived to see "Enceladus arise" and shake off by force of arms the shackles of Italy; but he did not live long enough to hear his" holy melodies" of international love succeed to the diapasons of war. The high priests of the present dispensation assure us that his vision of universal disarmament is only a dream, and a dangerous dream. Yet there are and will be others to dream it until they make the dream come true.

The happiness of an assured recognition by the public was now followed by the deeper joy of a new home, but his habitation still remained the Craigie House. Friends multiplied, although a chosen few, like Felton and Stunner, had still their privileged place. Longfellow began to build in fancy a great poem, dealing with no less vast a theme than "the various aspects of Christendom in the Apostolic, Middle and Modern Ages." For thirty years it was to occupy his mind. The second portion, The Golden Legend, was finished first: a lovely, full-blown rose of learning, of sympathetic insight, of imagination. The third part, The New England Tragedies, followed after nearly a score of years, and The Divine Tragedy, which now introduces the completed poem, was written last. Thus the poet's task was ultimately finished; whether it was truly accomplished, according to the measure of his aspiration, who can say? He was not by nature a tragic poet. The New England dramas, faithfully as they reproduce the colonial atmosphere, seem but a provincial conclusion for the poet's comprehensive scheme. The sacred theme of The Divine Tragedy, and the scrupulous fidelity with which Longfellow weaves the words of the Scripture into his pattern, tend to remove the poem from the unimpeded scrutiny, of criticism. We know that it possessed a deep significance to the author, that more is meant than meets the ear, completely as the ear is charmed. It is one of the instances, not rare in the history of letters, where a poet's greatest work -- as conceived by himself -- has been relatively unregarded by his public.

For it is unquestionable that to his contemporaries, both here and abroad, Longfellow was recognized as the author of tender lyrics, and of Evangeline, Hiawatha, and The Courtship of Miles Standish,. These narrative poems have become so secure a national possession that criticism seems an intrusion: it is like carrying a rifle into a national park. And it is to be suspected that the most formidably armed critic would return from his unlawful excursion with a rather empty bag. He would discover, no doubt, a few weak hexameters in Evangeline, an occasional thinness of tone in Hiawatha. He would point out the essentially bookish origin of all three poems, or in other words -- what is true enough -- that Longfellow loved to enter the House of Life by the library door. Very possibly there might never have been an Evangeline if there had not been a Hermann and Dorothea first. Very probably Felton and T. W. Parsons and other scholarly friends of Longfellow were right in their feeling that the dactylic measure of Evangeline is less suited to our English speech-rhythms than the iambic. Certainly the hexameters of Miles Standish, with their frequent iambic substitutions, are more supple and racy than those of the earlier poem. But this does not take us very far. We are no nearer the heart of the mystery of poetry for knowing that the rhythm of Hiawatha was borrowed from the Finnish Kalevala, and that the legends were taken, with due acknowledgments, from Schoolcraft. After all, the crucial question about Hiawatha's canoe was not where he got his materials, but whether the finished craft would float; and it is enough to say of the poem, as of the gayly colored canoe itself --

And the forest's life was in it,
All its mystery and its magic,
All the lightness of the birch-tree,
All the toughness of the cedar,
All the larch's supple sinews,
And it floated on the river,
Like a yellow leaf in Autumn.
Like a yellow water-lily.

Evangeline had been finished on the poet's fortieth birthday, and The Courtship of Miles Standish was written, when he was fifty-one. That decade, so rich in poetic productiveness, was the happiest of Longfellow's life. He had been granted what Southey, another library poet had craved for himself, --

"Books, children, leisure, all the heart's desires."

Success -- a ghastly calamity for some writers -- did not spoil the simplicity of his nature and the sincerity of his art. As the years went by, he discovered that college teaching, which had been pleasant enough at first, grew wearisome. His journal is full of half humorous, halt plaintive references to the - "treadmill" and the "Yoke;" he likens himself to a miller, his hair white with meal, trying to sing amid the din and clatter; he finds it hard to lecture on so delicate a subject as Petrarch "in this harsh climate, in a college lecture-room, by broad daylight." In 1854 he surrendered his colleague chair to Lowell, and gave himself henceforward wholly to his true vocation. He could not, indeed, summon the ungracious courage to protect himself from the merciless demands of callers, correspondents, and admirers of every sort. In one week he wrote nothing but letters; in one forenoon he entertained fourteen callers, thirteen of them English. But aside from these intrusions, which are the unavoidable impost-tax upon popularity, he was enabled, in almost as full a degree as Tennyson after 1850, to ripen upon the sunny side of the wall. The sheltered life was best, no doubt, for that delicate nature of his, disliking to strive and cry In the streets, and finding, as he confesses in his journal, "life and its ways and ends prosaic in this country to the last degree. "He was too true a poet not to feel the possibility of a poetic inspiration in the dominant chords of that competitive civilization which was already vibrating all about him. He notes in a morning walk: "I see the red dawn encircling the horizon, and hear the thundering railway trains, radiating in various directions from the city along their sounding bars, like the bass of some great anthem, -- our national anthem." But he never -- save possibly in The Building of the Ship -- tired to set that anthem to music of his own. One is reminded of that other sensitive and withdrawn person, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who said regretfully of the rude life which he witnessed upon the wharves of Boston, " A better book than I shall ever write was there." Yet it would not be strange if both Hawthorne and Longfellow were to outlast the author of "McAndrew's Hymn."

In fact, the last decade -- which has ordered its writers to serve up life in the raw, to write with their eye open upon the object, and to sacrifice beauty to the thrilling sense of contact with actual experience -- has been hardly fair to the Cambridge and Concord men. It is undeniable that there was a transient phase of "softness" in the forties, which Longfellow did not escape. He thought it, "exquisite to read good novels in bed with waxlights in silver candlesticks," and exclaimed, after reading Fremont's account of the Rocky Mountain expedition of 1842, " But, ah, the discomforts!" He remained in lifelong unacquaintance with the physical aspects of his own country. Yet we forget how quickly the bookish man, provided he have the search-light of imagination upon his desk, can dispense with first-hand observation of scenery. Coleridge wrote the Hymn to Mont Blanc and The Ancient Mariner without having seen the Vale of Chamounix and the tropic ocean. The northwestern and southwestern American landscapes in Hiawatha and Evangeline are no less "true to nature" than the realistic picture of the rainy morning in Sudbury, in the Tales of a Wayside Inn. The misfortune of the home-keeping poets lies not so much in any artistic limitation as in our own lurking sense that some bolder and more enfranchising spiritual adventures might have been theirs if they had more often, as it were, gone down to the sea in ships and done business in great waters.

Yet we know but little, either from his Journal or his poems, of Longfellow's inner life. When his hour of dreadful trial came, in 1861, he met it with a gentleman's silent courage. In the years that followed he turned again for solace to his translation of Dante, begun long before. He found also, in his device of the Wayside Inn, a happy mode of linking together many a mellow story which he still wished to tell. The various Interludes reveal, to a fuller degree than any previous work of his, the ease of the finished artist, playful and adroit. The stories are for the most part Old World tales, -- of Arabia and the East, of Sicily and Tuscany, of the green Alsatian hills and the gray Baltic, -- but here too are Paul Revere's Ride and Lady Wentworth. It is inevitable that in such a rich collection there should be some tales in which Longfellow's masters in the story-telling art would have surpassed him; stories to which Boccaccio would have imparted a gayer drollery, or Chaucer a more robust breath of the highroad. But we who have loved these stories in youth rarely tire of them, and the most brilliant, I think, are those that are most completely the product of Longfellow's own fancy --

an invention of the Jew,
Spun from the cobwebs in his brain,
And of the same bright scarlet thread,
As was the Tale of Kambalu.

With the completion of The Divine Tragedy, the trilogy now published under the title Christus: A Mystery was finished. Longfellow began almost immediately another long dramatic poem, Michael Angelo, which was found in his desk after his death. It is difficult to characterize it fitly, or to realize all the subtle bonds of affinity which drew the thoughts of the aging Longfellow to the last survivor of the greatest artistic period of, Italy. Mr. Horace Scudder, one of the most sympathetic and best equipped critics of American verse, used to consider this poem as Longfellow's apologia pro vita sua, wherein the reader is always aware of Longfellow's presence, " wise, calm, reflective, musing over the large thoughts of life and art." I confess that I cannot see so clearly as this beneath the smooth, shadowed surface of the poem. It is Longfellow's most finished blank verse, -- a verse that sings, mourns, and aspires, but never quite laughs; indeed, this was no time for laughter, after the sack of Rome. In lieu of action, there is a succession of charming or grave conversations, woven together out of the gossipy pages of Cellini, Vasari, and many, another chronicler; to read them is to see again the yellowing travertine, the broken arches, and the stone pines against the Roman sky; it is to feel the pathos of unfulfilled dreams, of a titanic, unavailing struggle against a petty world; in a word, it is to watch the red melancholy sunset of the Renaissance. But it is a strange apologia for the American poet.

Although the last two decades of Longfellow's life produced these longer poems, with a deeper symbolism that may escape the casual reader, they also gave to the world some of his best known and most characteristic work. The range of his poetic faculty and the ripeness of his technical skill were exhibited in lyrics fully as lovely and varied as the old: in descriptive pieces like Keramos and The Hanging of the Crane; in such personal and "occasional" verses as The Herons of Elmwood and the noble Morituri Salidamus; and finally in sonnets, like those upon Chaucer, Milton, the Divina Commedia, A Nameless Grave, Felton, Sumner, Nature, My Books, -- which are already secure among the imperishable treasures of the English language.

There is no formula which adequately explains and comments upon such a career. It is apparent that Longfellow possessed, to a very notable degree, an instinctive literary tact. He knew, by a gift of nature, how to comport himself with moods and words, with forms of prose and verse, with the traditions, conventions, unspoken wishes of his readers. Literary tact, like social tact, is more easy to feel than to define. It does not depend upon learning, for professional scholars conspicuously lack it. Nor does it turn upon mental power, or moral quality. Poe, who could not live among men without making enemies, moved in and out the borderland of prose and verse with the inerrant grace of a wild creature, surefooted and quick-eyed. Lowell, whose social tact could be so perfect, sometimes allowed himself, out of sheer exuberance of spirits, to play a boyish leap-frog with the literary proprieties. The beautiful genius of Emerson often stood tongue-tied and awkward, confusing. And confused, before problems of literary behavior which to the facile talent of Dr.Holmes were as simple as talking across a dinner-table. But Longfellow's literary tact was always impeccable: he divined what could and could not be said and done under the circumstances; he escorted the Muses to the banquet hall without stepping on their robes; he met the unspoken thought with the desired word, and -- a greater gift than this -- he knew when to be silent.

It is possible to misjudge this fineness of artistic instinct, this professional dexterity. Browning, who analyzed, and perhaps overanalyzed, Andrea del Sarto as the "faultless painter," has, by dint of forcing us to consider what Andrea lacked, made us too forgetful of what he really possessed. Once made aware of the Florentine's limitations in passion and imagination, we tend, under the spell of Browning's genius, to give him insufficient credit even for his grace in composition, his pleasant coloring, his suave facility. And it is true that the greatest painters have something which Andrea somehow missed. No doubt the masterful poets have certain qualities which we do not find in Longfellow. But that is no reason for failing to recognize qualities which he did command in well-nigh flawless perfection. There are candid readers, unquestionably, who feel that they have outgrown him. But for one, I can never hear such a confession without a sort of pain. It may be that readers are naturally passing on room to room of the endless palace It may be that they seek a more athletic exercise of the mind than Longfellow offers them, and that they find this stimulus in Browning or Whitman or Lucretius. Concerning such preferences there can be no debate; the world of letters is fortunately very wide. But sometimes, it is to be feared, a loss of enjoyment in Longfellow is the symbol of a lessening love for what is simple, graceful, and refined.

These characteristics of Longfellow's art were rooted in his nature. from his Journal, on August 4, 1836: "A day of quiet and true enjoyment, travelling from Thun to Entlebuch on our way to Lucerne. The time glided too swiftly away. We read the Genevieve of Coleridge and the Christabel and many scraps of song, and little ballads of Uhland, simple and strange. At noon we stopped at Langnau and walked into the fields, and sat down stream of pure water that turned a mill and a little girl came out of the mill and brought us cherries ; and the shadow of the trees was pleasant, and my soul was filled with peace and gladness."Nowadays many a tourist motors through without ever discovering the valley of Langnou; or, whirling past it, has no desire to rest under the shadow of by that stream of pure water. Indeed, it would be foolish for the tourist to tarry there. He would in not find in himself, as Longfellow did, a new peace and gladness; and besides, might miss his dinner in Lucerne.

A clear transparency of spirit, an anima candida like Virgil's, an unvarying gentleness and dignity of behavior: these were the traits which endeared Longfellow to those who knew him. The delicacy of his literary tact was one secret of his welcome, but the deeper secret -- though this too was an open one -- lay in the beauty of his character. There could be no better illustration of this than the familiar story of the pathetic but perfect tribute paid by Emerson, who, broken by age, and with a memory that had almost lapsed, attended Longfellow's funeral. They had been friends for nearly forty years. "I do not remember the name of the gentleman whose funeral we have attended," he said; "but he had a beautiful soul."

Those of us who once begged for Mr. Longfellow's autograph, or besieged, shyly or brazenly, the always open door of his home, can do no more than transmit our own impression of his personality. The coming generations will select their own poets, in obedience to some instinct which cannot be divined by us. For myself, I have no doubt that Americans, in a far distant future, will look back to the author of Evangeline and Hiawatha as we look back to his favorite Walter von der Vogelweide, a Meistersinger of a golden age. Now and again, very likely, he may be neglected. He is already thought negligible by some clever young men of overeducated mind and under-educated heart, who borrow their ethics from the cavemen, their philosophy from the raft-men, and who, in the presence of the same material from which Longfellow wrought delightful poetry, -- the same landscape, the same rich past and ardent present and all the "long thoughts" of youth, -- are themselves impotent to produce a single line.

But Longfellow's reputation may be trusted to safer hands than theirs. There can be no happier fortune than that which has made him the children's poet. These wise little people know so well what they like! They are untroubled with scruples and hesitancies. With how sure an instinct do they feel - without comprehending or analyzing - the note of true poetry! Will Stevenson be one of the enduring writers? I look at his twenty-five volumes in shining red and gold, and cannot tell; but when I hear a child murmuring My Shadow, I think I know. If there were a language for such childish secrets, the sweet voices that recite with delicious solemnity The Children's Hour might tell us more about Longfellow than we professional critics -- with our meticulous pedantry, our scrutiny of "sources," our ears so trained to detect over-tones that we lose the melody -- shall ever learn.

The children go to the heart of the matter. And so do many of those larger children -- the men and women of simple soul who keep an unsophisticated way of looking at the world. There are some very highly organized persons who amuse themselves with 'poetry as they would with chess, or Comparative Religion, or The Shaving of Shagpat. They can criticise and expound verses, and invent theories of poetics, and compile anthologies. But these valuable members of the intellectual community are not the real readers of poetry. To find the true audience of a Heine, a Tennyson, a Longfellow, you are not to look in the Social Register. You must seek out the shy boy and girl who live on side streets and hill roads, - no matter where, so long as the road to dreamland leads from their gate; you must seek the working-girls and shopkeepers, the "schoolteachers and country ministers" who put and kept Longfellow's friend Sumner in the Senate; you must make a census of the lonely, uncounted souls who possess the treasures of the humble. These readers are sadly ignorant of Ibsen and Bernard Shaw and Fogazzaro; but when the conversation shifts to Shakespeare they brighten up. They know their Shakespeare, and they know Longfellow. They are, sometimes described as the intellectual "middle class;" but a poet may well say, as a President of the United States once said of a camp-meeting at Ocean Grove, "Give me the support of those people and I can snap my fingers at the rest."

It is folly to worship numbers. But it is a deeper folly not to perceive that among the uncritical masses there may be a right instinct for the essence of poetrv. It is glory enough for Longfellow that he is read by the same persons who still read Robert Burns and the Plays of Shakespeare and the English Bible. Until simplicity and reverence go wholly out of fashion he will continue to be read. In that quaint Flemish city which Longfellow's verses have helped to make famous there is a tiny room, in the Hospital of St. John, in which are treasured some of the loneliest pictures of Hans Memling. The years come and go, in Bruges; the streets and canals grow quieter here, noisier there, than they used to be; the belfry that Longfellow admired looks down to-day on advertisements of Sunlight Soap and American Petroleum. Yet in that hushed room in the inner courtyard of the Hospital of St. John, visitors still linger entranced, as of old, over Memling's Marriage of St. Catherine, his Adoration of the Magi and his Shrine of St. Ursula. Purity of color and of line are there, delicate brush-work, a charming fancy, a clear serenity of spirit: they are masterpieces of a born painter whose nature was also that of the dreamer, the story-teller, the devotee. There Are Venetian and Roman painters, far greater than Hans Memling. And there are poets whose strength of wing and of imagination are beyond Longfellow's. But no truer poet ever lived.


Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1907; The Centenary of Longfellow - 07.03; Volume 99, No. 3; page 379-388.