Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: as American Poet

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      Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most widely read of American poets, was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807. His father was a Harvard graduate, and his mother, like Bryant's, was descended from John and Priscilla Alden of Plymouth. Longfellow, when three years old, began to go to school, and, like Bryant, he published at the ripe age of thirteen his first poem, Battle of Lovell's Pond, which appeared in the Portland Gazette.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: American Poet
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

      Born in Portland, Maine, H.W. Longfellow was educated at private schools and Bowdoin College. After traveling in Europe between 1826-29 he returned to Bowdoin as a professor of languages. He married Mary Potter, a young and beautiful girl who unfortunately died on his second tour visit to Europe in 1835. In the following year, he took up a professorship at Harvard University which he resigned in 1854 while continuing to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He remained a major intellectual figure in the academic circles. The later life was overshadowed by the loss of his second wife Frances Appleton in 1861.

      He published his first prose work Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea in 1833-35. A series of travel sketches reminiscent of Irving’s sketchbook and. his was followed by Hyperion (1839), a semi-autobiographical romance, Voices of the Night Slavery (1842). His literary fame increased with the publication of a poetic drama entitled Spanish Student (1855), The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1845) and Kavanagh (1849), a semi-autobiographical prose tale. Longfellow, a professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, was the best-known American poet of his day. He was responsible for the misty, historical, legendary sense of the past that merged the American and the European literary traditions.

      It was his lifetime ambition to create an American epic poetry by choosing the domestic legends and casting them, classical forms. So he wrote three long narrative poems popularizing native legends in European meters - Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). Longfellow was good enough to write textbooks on modern languages. He also published the series of ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn’ in the line of thaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Christus (1872) - a trilogy, and his famous translation of Dante appeared in 1867.

      Although conventionality, sentimentality, and facile handling mar his long poems, the haunting short lyrics like, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” (1854), “My Lost youth” (1855), and “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” (1880) continue to give aesthetic pleasure. There is a mixture of sentiment and didacticism in his verse perfectly expressed the atmosphere of the Victorian parlor and fireside. His later poetry reflects his reading of the European epics and his interest in establishing an American mythology. Edgar Allan Poe, one of the contemporaries who avoided admiring Longfellow. Therefore, Peo described him as ‘a plagiarist’. This comment on Longfellow might not be just. Having relied on European literary forms and conventions. He did this deliberately because he believed in the value, the centrality of the European community and its great literary tradition. It was a strong belief that the American literature of the future had to depend on the European models.

      Portland made a great impression on the boy. To his early life there is due the love of the sea, which colors so much of his poetry. In his poem, My Lost Youth, he says:—

 "I remember the black wharves and the slips,
 And the sea tides tossing free;
 And Spanish sailors with bearded lips,
 And the beauty and mystery of the ships,
 And the magic of the sea."

      He went to Bowdoin College, Maine, where he had Nathaniel Hawthorne for a classmate. In his senior year Longfellow wrote to his father, "I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature; my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centers in it." His father replied, "There is not enough wealth in this country to afford encouragement and patronage to merely literary men. And as you have not had the fortune … to be born rich, you must adopt a profession which will afford you subsistence as well as reputation." The son then chose the law, saying, "This will support my real existence; literature, my ideal one." Bowdoin College, however, came to the rescue, and offered him the professorship of modern languages on condition that he would go abroad for study. He accepted the offer, and remained abroad three years. His travel sketches on this trip were published in book form in 1835, under the title of Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea. This is suggestive of the Sketch Book (p. 119), the earliest book which he remembered reading. After five years' service at Bowdoin, he accepted Harvard's offer of the professorship of modern languages and again went abroad. This journey was saddened by the death of his first wife. His prose romance; Hyperion, was one of the fruits of this sojourn abroad. The second Mrs. Longfellow, whose real name was Frances Appleton, appears in this book under the name of Mary Ashburton. Her father bought the Craigie House, which had been Washington's headquarters in Cambridge, and gave it to Longfellow as a residence. In 1854, after eighteen years' teaching at Harvard, he resigned, for his means were then ample to enable him to devote his full time to literature.

      From 1854 until 1861 he lived in reality the ideal existence of his youthful dreams. In 1861 his wife's summer dress caught fire, and although he struggled heroically to save her, she died the next day, and he himself was so severely burned that he could not attend her funeral. Years afterwards he wrote:—

 "Here in this room she died; and soul more white  Never through martyrdom of fire was led  To its repose."

      Like Bryant, he sought refuge in translating. Longfellow chose Dante, and gave the world the fine rendering of his Divine Comedy (1867).

      Outside of these domestic sorrows, Longfellow's life was happy and prosperous. His home was blessed with attractive children. Loved by friends, honored by foreigners, possessed of rare sweetness and lovableness of disposition, he became the most popular literary man in America. He desired freedom from turmoil and from constant struggling for daily bread, and this freedom came to him in fuller measure than to most men.

      The children of the country felt that he was their own special poet. The public schools of the United States celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, February 27, 1882. Less than a month later he died, and was laid to rest in Mount Auburn cemetery, Cambridge.

      "LAUREATE OF THE COMMON HUMAN HEART."—"God must love the common people," said President Lincoln, "because he has made so many of them." Longfellow wrote for "the common human heart." In him the common people found a poet who could gild the commonplace things of life and make them seem more attractive, more easily borne, more important, more full of meaning.

      In his first published volume of poems, Voices of the Night (1839), he shows his aim distinctly in such poems as A Psalm of Life. Its lines are the essence of simplicity, but they have instilled patience and noble purpose into many a humble human soul. The two stanzas beginning

 "Life is real! Life is earnest," and "Lives of great men all remind us,"

      Can be repeated by many who know but little poetry, and these very stanzas, as well as many others like them, have affected the lives of large numbers of people. Those born a generation ago not infrequently say that the following stanza from The Ladder of St. Augustine (1850) has been the stepping-stone to their success in life:—

 "The heights by great men reached and kept
 Were not attained by sudden flight,
 But they, while their companions slept,
 Were toiling upward in the night."

      His poem, The Rainy Day (1841), has developed in many a person the qualities of patience, resignation, and hopefulness. Repetition makes the majority of things seem commonplace, but even repetition has not robbed lines like these of their power:—

 "Be still, sad heart! and cease repining,
 Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
 Thy fate is the common fate of all;
 Into each life some rain must fall,
 Some days must be dark and dreary."

      Nine days before he died, he wrote his last lines with the same simplicity and hopefulness of former days:—

 "Out of the shadows of night
 The world rolls into light.
 It is daybreak everywhere."

      As we examine these typical poems, we shall find that all of them appeal to our common experiences or aspirations, and that all are expressed in that simple language which no one need read twice to understand.

      BALLADS.—Longfellow knew how to tell a story which preserved the simplicity and the vigor of the old ballad makers. His The Wreck of the Hesperus (1839) starts in the true fashion to make us wish to finish the tale:—

 "It was the schooner Hesperus,
 That sailed the wintry sea;
 And the skipper had taken his little daughter
 To bear him company."

      Longfellow says that he wrote this ballad between twelve and three in the morning and that the composition did not come to him by lines, but by stanzas.

      Even more vigorous is his ballad of The Skeleton in Armor (1840). The Viking hero of the tale, like young Lochinvar, won the heart of the heroine, the blue-eyed daughter of a Norwegian prince.

 "When of old Hildebrand
 I asked his daughter's hand,
 Mute did the minstrels stand
 To hear my story."

      The Viking's suit was denied. He put the maiden on his vessel before he was detected and pursued by her father. Those who think that the gentle Longfellow could not write poetry as energetic as Scott's Lochinvar should read the following stanza:—

 "As with his wings aslant,
 Sails the fierce cormorant,
 Seeking some rocky haunt,
 With his prey laden,—
 So toward the open main,
 Beating to sea again,
 Through the wild hurricane,
 Bore I the maiden."

      Those who are fond of this kind of poetry should turn to Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), where they will find such favorites as Paul Revere's Ride and The Birds of Killingworth.

      LONGER POEMS.—No other American poet has equaled Longfellow's longer narrative poems. Bryant and Poe would not attempt long poems. The flights of Whittier and Emerson were comparatively short. It is unusually difficult to write long poems that will be read. In the case of Evangeline (1847), Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), Longfellow proved an exception to the rule.

      Evangeline is based upon an incident that occurred during the French and Indian War. In 1755 a force of British and colonial troops sailed from Boston to Acadia (Nova Scotia) and deported the French inhabitants. Hawthorne heard the story, how the English put Evangeline and her lover on different ships and how she began her long, sad search for him. When Hawthorne and Longfellow were discussing this one day at dinner at the Craigie House, the poet said, "If you really do not want this incident for a tale, let me have it for a poem." Hawthorne consented to give his classmate all poetical rights to the story.

      Evangeline is the tale of a love "that hopes and endures and is patient." The metrical form, dactylic hexameter, is one that few of our poets have successfully used, and many have thought it wholly unfitted to English verse. Longfellow has certainly disproved their theory, for his success with this meter is pronounced. The long, flowing lines seem to be exactly adapted to give the scenes the proper atmosphere and to narrate the heroine's weary search. The poem became immediately popular. It was the first successful long narrative poem to appear in the United States. Whittier had studied the same subject, but had delayed making verses on it until he found that it had been suggested to Longfellow. In a complimentary review of the poem, Whittier said, "Longfellow was just the one to write it. If I had attempted it, I should have spoiled the artistic effect of the poem by my indignation at the treatment of the exiles by the colonial government."

 From the moment that Evangeline appears, our interest does not lag.
 "Fair was she to behold, that maiden of seventeen summers.
 * * * * *
 When she had passed, it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music."

      The imagery of the poem is pleasing, no matter whether we are listening to "the murmuring pines and the hemlocks," the softly sounding Angelus, the gossiping looms, the whir of wings in the drowsy air, or seeing the barns bursting with hay, the air filled with a dreamy and mystical light, the forest arrayed in its robes of russet and scarlet and yellow, and the stars, those "forget-me-nots of the angels," blossoming "in the infinite meadows of heaven."

      The Song of Hiawatha was begun by Longfellow in 1854, after resigning the professorship of modern languages at Harvard. He seemed to revel in his new freedom, and in less than a year he had produced the poem by which he will probably be longest known to posterity. He studied Schoolcraft's Algic Researches and the same author's History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, and familiarized himself with Indian legends. The simplicity of Longfellow's nature and his ability as a poetic artist seemed rarely suited to deal with these traditions of a race that never wholly emerged from childhood.

 Longfellow's invitation to hear this Song does not include all, but only
 "Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple,
 Who have faith in God and nature."

      Those who accept this invitation will rejoice to accompany Shawondasee, the South-Wind, when he sends northward the robin, bluebird, and swallow. They will also wish to go with Kabibonokka, the North-Wind, as he paints the autumn woods with scarlet and sends the snowflakes through the forests. They will be glad to be a child with Hiawatha, to hear again the magical voices of the forest, the whisper of the pines, the lapping of the waters, the hooting of the owl, to learn of every bird and beast its language, and especially to know the joy of calling them all brothers. They will gladly accompany Hiawatha to the land of the Dacotahs, when he woos Minnehaha, Laughing Water, and hears Owaissa, the bluebird, singing:—

 "Happy are you, Hiawatha,
 Having such a wife to love you!"

      But the guests will be made of stern stuff if their eyes do not moisten when they hear Hiawatha calling in the midst of the famine of the cold and cruel winter:—

 "Give your children food, O father!
 Give us food or we must perish!
 Give me food for Minnehaha,
 For my dying Minnehaha."

      Hiawatha overflows with the elemental spirit of childhood. The sense of companionship with all earth's creatures, the mystery of life and of Minnehaha's departure to the Kingdom of Ponemah, make a strong appeal to all who remember childhood's Eden.

      The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), in the same meter as Evangeline, is a romantic tale, the scene of which is laid "In the Old Colony days, in Plymouth, the land of the Pilgrims." We see Miles Standish, the incarnation of the Puritan church militant, as he "… wistfully gazed on the landscape,  Washed with a cold gray mist, the vapory breath of the east-wind,  Forest and meadow and hill, and the steel-blue rim of the ocean,  Lying silent and sad in the afternoon shadows and sunshine."  Priscilla Mullins, the heroine of the poem, is a general favorite. Longfellow and Bryant were both proud to trace their descent from her. This poem introduces her "Seated beside her wheel, and the carded wool like a snow-drift    Piled at her knee, her white hands feeding the ravenous spindle, While with her foot on the treadle she guided the wheel in its motion.   * * * * *    She, the Puritan girl, in the solitude of the forest, Making the humble house and the modest apparel of homespun Beautiful with her beauty, and rich with the wealth of her being!"

      This story has more touches of humor than either Evangeline or Hiawatha. Longfellow uses with fine effect the contradiction between the preaching of the bluff old captain, that you must do a thing yourself if you want it well done, and his practice in sending by John Alden an offer of marriage to Priscilla. Her reply has become classic: "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?"

      Longfellow's Christus, a Mystery, was the title finally given by him to three apparently separate poems, published under the titles, The Golden Legend (1851), The Divine Tragedy (1871), and The New England Tragedies (1868). His idea was to represent the origin, the medieval aspect, and the Puritan conception of Christianity—a task not well suited to Longfellow's genius. The Golden Legend is the most poetic, but The New England Tragedies is the most likely to be read in future years, not for its poetic charms, but because it presents two phases of New England's colonial history, the persecution of the Quakers and the Salem witchcraft delusion.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—An eminent Scotch educator says that Longfellow has probably taught more people to love poetry than any other nineteenth-century poet, English or American. He is America's best and most widely read story-teller in verse. Success in long narrative poems is rare in any literature. Probably the majority of critics would find it difficult to agree on any English poet since Chaucer who has surpassed Longfellow in this field.

      He has achieved the unusual distinction of making the commonplace attractive and beautiful. He is the poet of the home, of the common people, and of those common objects in nature which in his verses convey a lesson to all. He has proved a moral stimulus to his age and he has further helped to make the world kindlier and its troubles more easily borne. This was his message:—

 "Bear through sorrow, wrong and ruth
 In thy heart the dew of youth,
 On thy lips the smile of truth."

      His poetry is usually more tinctured with feeling than with thought. Diffuseness is his greatest fault. The Sonnets of his later years and an occasional poem, like Morituri Salutamus (1875), show more condensation, but parts of even Hiawatha would be much improved if told in fewer words.

      Some complain that Longfellow finds in books too much of the source of his inspiration; that, although he did not live far from Evangeline's country, he never visited it, and that others had to tell him to substitute pines or hemlocks for chestnut trees. Many critics have found fault with his poetry because it does not offer "sufficient obstruction to the stream of thought,"—because it does not make the mind use its full powers in wrestling with the meaning. It is a mistake, however, to underestimate the virtues of clearness and simplicity. Many great men who have been unsuccessful in their struggle to secure these qualities have consequently failed to reach the ear of the world with a message. While other poets should be read for mental development, the large heart of the world still finds a place for Longfellow, who has voiced its hopes that

 "… the night shall be filled with music,
 And the cares that infest the day,
 Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
 And as silently steal away."

      Like most Puritans, Longfellow is usually over-anxious to teach a lesson; but the world must learn, and no one has surpassed him as a poetic teacher of the masses.

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