THE LIFE OF LONGFELLOW,
EVERY popular writer has a biography in these days, and this tribute to his fame was not likely to be omitted in the case of Longfellow. That the story of his life would be told, he seems to have anticipated. Writing in his Journal, he Bays:—" How
brief this chronicle is, even of my outward life. And of my inner life not a word. If one were only sure that one's journal would never be seen by any one, and never get into print, how different the case would be ! But death picks the lor!ks of all portfolios, and throws the contents into the streets for the public to scramble after." The remark is true generally, and applies with so much pertinence to the poet's own biography,
that it may be regarded as prophetic. From a somewhat barren diary, written as an aid to memory, Mr. Samuel Longfellow has
made extracts on so large a scale, that whole pages are inserted
which contain a bushel of chaff to a grain of wheat. That the daily incidents of life, making up the common round, may be
important to the writer, while comparatively valueless to the reader, does not seem to have occurred to the biographer. The result is that the narrative is too long. No doubt it is true, as the writer says, that the quiet life of a man of letters can be best painted by a multitude of minute touches ; but then, every touch, however slight, should add something to the fidelity of the portrait. And we disagree altogether with the old-fashioned apology—familiar enough in the biographies of the last century —that "the life of a man of letters must needs be unexciting and uneventful in the eyes of men of activities and affairs." On the contrary, the most attractive, and in some respects the most eventful, biographies in the language—the Lives of Johnson, Scott, Macaulay, and Carlyle, for example—relate the story of men whose reputation is due to literature. "Peace has her victories," and the achievements of great authors—what they thought and what they said, how they bore the burden of life, how they suffered, failed, or conquered—create an interest not easily to be surpassed.
Longfellow was not a great author, but much of his work is beautiful, and all of it sincere; and there are ample reasons why the biography of a man whose writings have circulated so widely, and whose life brought him affection, reverence, and troops of friends, should receive a hearty welcome from the public. Nature did much for this genial poet, and circumstances were also favourable to the development of his genius. He had no struggle with poverty to undergo, and none of the difficulties as to a profession which beset most young men of culture. He
began life early, and was able from the outset to cultivate his special tastes. He was in his nineteenth year when his
College sent him to Europe for three years to study modern languages, in order that he might take a Professorship at the end of that period. So the youthful poet, whose love of travel was one of the strongest passions of his life, had leisure to indulge his rambling propensities, and apart from his acquire- ment of languages, to gain the very food he most needed for his poetical culture. At the same time, he kept the chief end of this foreign tour steadily in view, and after two years and a half 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 boastingly. 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."
German he found at first "beyond measure difficult, not to read, but to write;" but it is scarcely necessary to say that the diffi- culty was mastered, and that Longfellow became an accom- plished German scholar. His most enthusiastic hours were spent in Spain, and in a few days passed at Granada he lived "almost a century." On the contrary, Italy created no strong emotion. "I feel no excitement," he writes ; "nothing of that romantic feeling which everybody else has, or pretends • Life of Henry Wa isnorth Long/allow, with Extracts Pant Ids Journal and Correppondence. Edited by Samuel Longfellow. 2 vols. London : Began Paul, Trench, and Co.
to have. The fact is, I am homesick for Spain. I want to go back there again. The recollection of it completely ruins Italy for me. Next to going home, let me go to Spain." But though Longfellow was thrice in Europe in after-years, he never revisited the Peninsula, being "unwilling to break the spell of that early time." At twenty-two, the Professor of Modern Languages began his labours at Bowdoiu College, and became at once extremely popular. "A better teacher, a more sympathetic friend, never addressed a class of young men," was the verdict of one of the students. No man probably ever entered on the literary career with brighter hopes, or met with fewer vicissitudes in an arduous profession. In 18,-.1 he married Mary Storer Potter who is described as alike lovely in person and in character. A few happy years passed, and then Longfellow was appointed to a similar Professorship in the more distinguished University of Harvard. It was agreed that before entering on the duties of the office, he should spend some time in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. The journey was destined to be a sad one, for at Amsterdam his wife fell ill, and ultimately died in Holland.
She is commemorated in the" Footsteps of Angels" as,—
" The being beauteous Who unto my youth was given, More than all things else to love me, And is now a saint in heaven."
With this sorrow at his heart, Longfellow went to Heidelburg,
and what he felt and saw is described, in a half-poetical, half- realistic form, in the dreamy pages of Hyperion. He writes
to his father of being overwhelmed with increasing sorrow; but he did not allow his grief to conquer him, and, like Paul Flemming, buried himself in books. Like Flemming, too, whose character reflects his own experiences, the young widower visited. Switzerland, and at Than met Mr. Appleton, of Boston, whose daughter, seen then for the first time, six years later became his second wife ; and it was her presence probably which called.
forth the following record in his diary :—
" A day of true and quiet enjoyment, travelling from Than to Entelbuch, 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 German ballads of Uhland, simple- and strange. At noon we stopped at Langnau, and walked into the fields, and sat down by a 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."
Once more in the United States, Longfellow settled at Cam- bridge, and it was not long before he gathered to his heart many of the choicest spirits of the country. To know the Professor was to love him ; and possibly it was a warm affection for the
man which led some great writers and critics to estimate the poet's verse too highly. Craigie House, where the greater part of Longfellow's life was spent, is as well known as Greta Hall or Rydal Mount, or perhaps better known than either, for it was once the residence of Washington. Few men of letters have had a more cheerful home, and there, after long silence, Long-
fellow began once more to write poetry. One of the poems belonging to this period was the "Psalm of Life," which seems to have attracted great attention. "It was copied far and wide.
Young men read it with delight ; their hearts were stirred by it as by a bugle summons. It roused them to high resolve, and wakened them to a new sense of the meaning and worth of life." And we are told of a student, a class-mate of Mr.
Sumner, who was saved from suicide by reading this poem, and of a Frenchman who said, after translating the " Psalm,"— " I am a new man ; I feel that my mind is saved, and that faith and hope have taken the place of despair. I owe it all to Longfellow." The biographer justly adds that the moral influence of the verses is apart from the question of their merit as poetry. Not long after this, Hyperion was published, and looking through the Journal of the same period, it is curious to note passages in the daily entries identical with the tone of that romance. Here, for instance, is a moonlight sketch in October :—
"The river in the meadow in front of my house spreada out into a silver lake, and the black shadows lie upon the grass like engravings in a book. Autumn has written his rubric on the illuminated leaves. The wind tarns them over, and chants like a friar."
And here is another equally characteristic passage :— " It is raining, raining with a soft, and pleasant sound. I cannot read, I cannot write,—but dream only. The visits of many pleasant thoughts, the coming and going of strange and foreign fantasies, have left my mind ajar, and it swings to and fro in the wind of various opinions."
A wholesomer, happier nature than Longfellow's has rarely existed, and seldom has a poet led a life more harmonious. The following retrospect from his pen of 1845 might have been taken of many years equally joyful and serene :—
" So closes the year 1845. Peace to his ashes ! Peace to the embers of burnt-out things; fears, anxieties, doubts, all gone! I see them now as a thin, blue smoke hanging in the bright heaven of the past year, vanishing away into utter nothingness. Not many hopes deceived, not many illusions scattered, not many anticipations disappointed ; but love fulfilled, the heart comforted, the soul enriched with affection !"
Among the more interesting passages of the Journal are the sketches of men, known and unknown, and the comments passed on books. Hawthorne, in the early days of their acquaint- ance, is described as "a strange owl, a very peculiar individual, with a dash of originality about him very pleasant to behold." A certain American novelist, Ingraham by name, dedicates a tale to Longfellow without permission, and the poet writes :— " He is tremendous, really tremendous. I think he may say that he writes the worst novels ever written by anybody."
Emerson is one of the finest lecturers he ever heard, "with magnificent passages of true prose-poetry. But it is all dreamery after all." And here is a sketch of Prescott in his palmiest days :—
"This morning, as I was sitting at breakfast, a gentleman on horseback sent up word that I should come down to him. It was Prescott, author of Ferdinand and Isabella. He is an early riser, and rides about the country. There on his horse sat the great author. He is one of the best fellows in the world, and much my friend ; handsome, gay, and forty; a great diner-out ; gentle, companionable, and modest ; quite astonished to find himself so famous."
While glancing through the diary and letters, we read of a visit to England, when an agreeable fortnight was spent with Dickens, whose "whole household is a delightful one," and at his house Longfellow meets Thomas Campbell, who is described as small and shrunken, "nipped by unkindly age," and wearing a "foxy wig." At Bath he dined with Savage Landor, "a rather ferocious critic." Later on, however, he enrolls himself among his admirers, and finds "great charm in his well- rounded, ponderous periods." Short criticisms of books abound. Vanity Fair is styled "a clever, cutting, amusing, disagreeable book, showing too much of the coarse lining of London life ;" and Clough's Bothie is "witty, natural, and poetical in a high degree." Of Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture, he writes:— " What a magnificent breadth and sweep of style in the elevated passages ! It is Jeremy Taylor come back again to preach to us." Bulwer's style in The Cartons produces on him "the effect of a flashy waistcoat festooned with gold chains ;" while
Disraeli's Contarini Fleming "is full of life ; a fresh young vigour of style that bears one on like a steed ;" and elsewhere he writes with a sensuousness which reminds us of Gray's passion for Marivaux :—" I think it exquisite to read good novels in bed, with wax-lights in silver candlesticks,—Disraeli's Vivian Grey, for example."
Longfellow's first volume of poems, The Voices of the Night, was published in the same year as Hyperion, and won no small praise, notably from Hawthorne, who said that the poems grew upon him at every reperusal :—" Nothing equal to some of them was ever written in this world,—this Western world I mean ; and it would not hurt my conscience much to include the other hemisphere." From England came a message from Rogers, saying he could not express the delight with which he had read Longfellow's poetry, adding, "Very few things, if any, have ever thrilled me so much." Praise like this came to him thus early in his poetical career, and followed him throughout the length of it. It is about thirty years since the Harrow boys decided that Longfellow was the greatest poet of the age ; and if in mature manhood they think differently, the belief is still held by scores of readers, to whose sympathies he appeals more by the sweetness of his nature, and by his exquisitely tender perception of the sanctities of domestic life, than by qualities essentially poetical. Whatever judgment posterity may form as to Longfellow's place in literature, it will be admitted that he received in his lifetime a sufficient measure of praise to satisfy the ambition even of a poet.
There is no singer, if we except Tennyson—and this exception is doubtful—whose name is so familiar in his own country and throughout the length and breadth of Greater Britain.
Longfellow finds a place in every household, and it does not follow that he is not a true poet because his weakest verses are the most popular. If his voice is rarely strong, it is almost always sweet; and the "humbler poets whose songs gush from the heart," may at times win our love and
gratitude, when the mighty poets who are beyond comparison and competition fail, as he has himself suggested, to give the rest of spirit we need. But Longfellow is something more than a charming and graceful versifier. In Hiawatha he has added to our poetical literature a work of lasting value ; and there can be little doubt that many of his shorter poems have taken too firm a hold to be easily rooted out of the language. Hyperion and Kavanagh have not these marks of permanence ; but there is a season in early manhood, if the writer may judge from his own experience, when Hyperion gives shape to vague aspirations and generous emotions ; and its local colour and sentiment make this semi-romance dear to many a youthful traveller. We have made no attempt to follow Longfellow's coarse through a long series of happy but comparatively uneventful years, the fruit of which remains in his works. Between his second mar- riage, to Miss Appleton—the Mary Ashburnham of Hyperion— in 1843, and the tragic death of his wife in 1861, the poet's sky was well-nigh unclouded ; and even after the anguish of that loss, the love of family and friends, the extraordinary affection felt for him by the wise and good in the Old Country as well as in the New, his vocation as a singer of sweet songs, and his unfailing delight in Nature, made the later years of life- " Serene and bright,
And lovely as a Lapland night."