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Great American Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Written by: Hezekiah Butterworth
That was a memorable scene in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, when the veil was lifted from the bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the first American upon whom England had conferred such distinguished honor. James Russell Lowell was there, and made the eulogy, and left in all minds the impression of these simple words; "The most beautiful character that I have ever known." Mr. Lowell knew men, and among the great spirits of the age with whom he had been associated, he perhaps had known no literary man more intimately than Longfellow. The original families of Lowell and Longfellow in America had grown side by side on the banks of the Merrimac. The younger poet had succeeded the elder in the professorship of literature at Harvard College; the two had lived side by side in historic houses in the old Cambridge neighborhood on the Charles, and there had shared the amenities of suburban life and had studied the world together. It was said that Longfellow came to live in a house "on the way to Mt. Auburn;" Lowell lived in a house on the same road, and the two poets sleep together there now in the loving shadows of Boston's "Field of God."
Since the days of Horace, friendship has found no more sympathetic and beautiful expression in verse than in the lines inscribed by Lowell to Longfellow and in the poems written by Longfellow in reference to Lowell.
Says Lowell in his lines to H. W. L——:
"Long days be his, and each as lusty-sweet
As gracious natures find his song to be;
May age steal on with softly-cadenced feet
Falling in music, as for him were meet
Whose choicest verse is harsher-toned than he!"
Says Longfellow of Lowell in the "Herons of Elmwood:"
"Sing to him, say to him, here at his gate,
Where the boughs of the stately elms are meeting,
Some one hath lingered to meditate,
And send him unseen this friendly greeting;
"That many another hath done the same,
Though not by a sound was the silence broken;
The surest pledge of a deathless name
Is the silent homage of thoughts unspoken."
The matchless lines in "The Two Angels," a poem that commemorates the events of the birth of a child to Longfellow and the death of the beautiful wife of Lowell on the same night, in which the poet sees an angel with amaranths go to the door of his neighbor, while an angel with asphodels comes to his own door, strikes the tenderest chords of life.
Longfellow was the poet of friendship, and he carried his heart friends wherever he went. The river Charles in his fancy made the letter C in its windings in the Brighton meadows before his door, and ever recalled three friends who had borne that name. One of the masterpieces of the work of his fading years is "Three Friends of Mine," in which he pictures Felton and Agassiz and the midnight parting with Charles Sumner at his door, and represents himself as one left to cover up the embers.
Henry W. Longfellow, the poet of "Hope, Home, and History," was a descendant of the family of William Longfellow, who came from England to Newbury, Mass., in 1675, and a son of Stephen Longfellow, an eminent lawyer and public man. He was born in Portland, Me., February 27, 1807. The family consisted of eight children, of which he was the second, and of which two were poets, the other being the Unitarian hymn writer, Rev. Samuel Longfellow.
He grew up a pure, loving boy in the schools of Portland, Me., fond of the woods, the hills, and the sea. "My Lost Youth" furnishes a delightful picture of this period of his life. It is said that his childhood fancy first found expression in the following rhymes:
"Mr. Finney had a turnip
That grew behind the barn,
And it grew and it grew,
But never did any harm."
A member of the Longfellow family has denied that these luminous but not very promising lines were the first offering of his muse. If the anecdote be apocryphal, the boyLongfellow yet began to love poetry and to write it, and he became a newspaper poet, one of those common soldiers of literature, while a student. He read Irving at twelve, and was charmed with the matter and style of "Rip Van Winkle." He felt the charm of Horace a little later, and probably learned his first lesson in eloquent literature from the "Poetic Art" of the Augustine age of Rome in her glory. Says Horace: "He who writes what is useful with what is agreeable wins every vote: his book crosses the sea; it will enrich the booksellers, and win for him imperishable fame."
Longfellow learned to make what is useful, agreeable, and this principle was one of the great secrets of his success in literary life. His early poems that did useful and agreeable service in the poet's corner of the newspapers of the time were, so far as we know, never collected. A few of them, however, survive, among them "The Spirit of Poetry," "Sunrise on the Hills," and "The Hymn of the Moravian Nuns."
At the age of fourteen he was prepared for Bowdoin College, which he entered a year later as a sophomore, and became a member of one of the most distinguished classes in American history. Among his fellow-students were Nathaniel Hawthorne, his personal friend, John S. C. Abbott, George B. Cheever, William Pitt Fessenden, John P. Hale, Calvin E. Stone, and Franklin Pierce, afterward President of the United States. He was graduated the fourth in his class.
The ambition for authorship came to him among the shades of Bowdoin. He said while there, thus anticipating in prose the "Psalm of Life:" "Whatever I study I ought to engage in with all my soul, for I will be eminent in something."
His poems published in the newspapers, principally in the Boston Literary Gazette, during his college life made for him a name, and he was offered the professorship of modern languages in Bowdoin College, soon after his graduation. To better prepare himself for the chair he went abroad, in 1826, in his twentieth year. He studied in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. He made himself master of the French, Spanish, German, and Italian languages and literature, and returned to America in the late summer of 1829, and entered upon the duties of his professorship at Bowdoin in the autumn. He married Miss Mary Potter, of Portland, Me., and went to live in an old house, which was shaded by a single great elm, the site of which is still shown, on a salary of $1,000 per year. He published "Outre Mer," and taught and wrote with such distinguished success that, on the resignation of George Ticknor, he was offered the chair of modern languages at Harvard. For the larger preparation which he found necessary for his work, he went to Europe again in 1835. In his first visit to Europe he had met Washington Irving in Spain; he now made the acquaintance of Carlyle and Browning. His wife died in Germany.
He became a professor in Harvard in the fall of 1836, making his residence at the Cragie House, an old colonial mansion, shaded by trees, which Washington had used for his headquarters in 1775-1776. He married a most beautiful and accomplished lady, a daughter of Hon. Nathan Appleton, of Boston, whom he had met abroad, and who is supposed to be described in his romance "Hyperion." Here, happy in his domestic life, surrounded by the most scholarly men of America, his literary life ripened, his fame as a poet grew, and his sympathy with life as expressed in his works won all hearts. His "Voices of the Night" made him the poet of the home; "Evangeline," which is the American book of Ruth, made him the singer of the fidelity of holy affections, and "Hiawatha," the voice of the dying traditions of the Indian race.
He was a lover of his family, and a great affliction came to him in the summer of 1861. One July day his wife was playing with some sealing-wax with her children, when her dress caught fire, and she was enveloped in the flames, and burned to death. The poet is said to have suddenly changed from a young man to an old man under his weight of grief; he appeared in the streets of Cambridge again, in a few weeks, but unlike his former self. His affection for his dead wife in his widowerhood is expressed in the "Cross of Snow," written many years after her death:
"In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died."
He would take a dear friend into the room where her portrait hung, point to it, and say "my dear wife," and turn away to weep. His loving dream of his first wife is pictured in "The Footsteps of Angels:"
"And with them 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 a slow and noiseless footstep
Comes that messenger divine,
Takes the vacant chair beside me,
Lays her gentle hand in mine.
"And she sits and gazes at me
With those deep and tender eyes.
Like the stars, so still and saint-like.
Looking downward from the skies.
"Uttered not, yet comprehended,
Is the spirit's voiceless prayer.
Soft rebukes, in blessings ended.
Breathing from her lips of air.
"Oh, though oft depressed and lonely
All my fears are laid aside,
If I but remember only
Such as these have lived and died."
In 1868 he went to England with his family. His fame in England was as great now as that of any English poet. He was received in London with the greatest love and hospitality; he met the queen, and received a doctor's degree from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His reception by the literary classes was not more warm than the appreciative interest which was shown by the people. He had become the poet of the English homes, and was as greatly read as the Laureate.
I met the poet under most pleasant circumstances, in the beginning of his beautiful old age. I was a young editor; I was called to make an address before a church literary society on the historic places of Boston, and I wrote to Professor Longfellow in regard to the history of the poem "I Stood on the Bridge at Midnight." I received a note from him in his well-known hand, saying that if I would visit him some evening at his home, it would give him pleasure not only to give me the history of the writing of this poem, but of any of his poems in which I might take an interest. I accepted the invitation, and one misty February night found me at his door, feeling as poor Phillis Wheatly must have felt when she stood at the same door after the invitation from Washington.
I well recall the night. The slow opening of the door by the quiet servant, the dim hall that seemed haunted by the shadows of the past, the great reception-room walled with books and pictures!
The poet was alone—he was a lonely man in his old age. He rose from his table, and came to meet me, a kindly light in his face, his flowing hair as white as snow. He saw that I was awed by his presence, and his gracious dignity changed at once into a friendly sympathy. "I have here some things that may interest you," he said; "here is Coleridge's inkstand; there is Tom Moore's waste-paper basket; and there," he added, in a reverent tone, "is a piece of Dante's coffin." The last relic was enclosed in a solid glass, and he proceeded to tell the story of how he had received it.
"You express a kindly interest in the origin of my poems," he added, in substance. "I will tell you something about the writing of some of them. You see the screen yonder; it is Japanese; there is written upon it the 'Psalm of Life.' The poem was written at Cambridge when the orchards were bright with buds and blossoms, and the days were in the full tide of the year. I did not write it for publication but for myself. I felt an inspiration to express in words my one purpose in life. I carried it about with me for a long time, when I was asked for a poem for the Knickerbocker Magazine, then a popular periodical, and I sent it to the editor without any expectation of its success with the people. It has been translated into nearly all languages that have a literature.
"In London I received an invitation to visit the queen. On returning from the palace, the coach was stopped by the crowd of vehicles in the street. There stepped before the door of the carriage an English workman. 'Are you Mr. Longfellow?' he asked. 'I am,' I answered. 'Did you write the "Psalm of Life"?' 'I wrote that poem, my friend.' 'Pardon me, but would you be willing to take the hand of a workingman?' 'Certainly, my friend; it would give me pleasure.' He put his hand through the carriage window, and I shook hands with him. That," said Mr. Longfellow, with emphasis and feeling, "was the best compliment that I ever received in my life."
The last declaration, in which we think that we have quoted the poet's exact words, shows the heart and character of the man. It is a photograph of his soul.
He said that the poem "I Stood on the Bridge at Midnight" was written in the lonely hours of his widowerhood, when he used to visit Boston evenings and return over the bridge of the Charles. The bridge grew still as the night wore on, and the procession of the day became thin. There was a furnace at Brighton at that time, and the reflection of the red fire fell across the dark river. The bridge over the Charles is nearly the same now as then; it has been somewhat reconstructed, but the wooden piers are there; the drifting seaweed, the odor of the brine, and the processions of "care-encumbered men" vanishing into the night. An English nobleman who is a literary critic has pronounced this poem the most sympathetic in the language. Its popularity probably is due to the night scene and the spirit of self-renunciation. It is one of the most beautiful songs of the age as set to music by two English composers. We never tire of the message of sympathy.
"Excelsior," which has been greatly parodied, expresses in a simple way what Browning has more artistically illustrated in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." It was written one evening after the poet had received a letter from his beloved friend, Charles Sumner, full of lofty sentiments, expressed in the classic rhetoric of the time. As he dropped the letter the word "Excelsior" caught his eye, and the inspiration and the vision of the poem came. He wrote it on the back of the letter which contained the magic word.
It is said that the words "Cumnor Hall," in Meckle's ballad, so haunted the mind of Sir Walter Scott as to compel him to write "Kenilworth." "I was led, I think," said Longfellow, "to write the 'Wreck of the Hesperus' by the words 'Norman's Woe' I had been reading one dreary night of the disasters that had befallen the Gloucester fishing fleet, and my eye met the words 'Norman's Woe.' I went to bed, but the story haunted me. I arose and began to write, and the poem came to me in whole stanzas."
"The Old Clock on the Stairs" was suggested by an old farmhouse timepiece at the country house of Mr. Appleton, his father-in-law. While the house described was in the country, the description answers well to the poet's own residence, which also contained an eight-day clock which reached from floor to ceiling. Many people never so much as doubted that the Cragie House and its clock were meant in the poem. The clock in the Cambridge house was so old and antique that most visitors fancied that they saw in it the real "old clock on the stairs." The refrain was suggested by the French words "Toujours jamais, jamais toujours" in an elegant French quotation.
"Hiawatha" was pictured to the poet by the story which Abraham le Fort, an Onondaga chief, gave to Schoolcraft. The musical vocabulary in which the Indian words suggest their own meaning may be found in Schoolcraft. It is the one poem which commemorates the legends of the Indian races; it will doubtless outlive those races, and be their tradition in future ages. The Indian words, as in the instance of "Norman's Woe," must have suggested in many cases the scenes and incidents of the poet's creative fancy.
"The March of Miles Standish," which followed, repeats the old apocryphal Puritan story, which no one but a critic would care to question. We think, however, that the ancient fable of Europa is likely to have suggested the ride to Duxbury on the back of the bull, for at that time there were few cattle in the colonies.
"'The Tales of a Wayside Inn,'" said Mr. Longfellow, "received that name merely to give them locality. I had never been in the Wayside Inn, but once." (We think that he stopped there on his first return from Europe when travelling from Albany to Boston, on which road there were the White Horse, Red Horse (Wayside), and Black Horse Inns.) "I had written the stories in verse, and I wished to connect them with a sympathetic place and a company of story-tellers. My friends were accustomed to dine occasionally at the Wayside Inn, and it seemed a pleasing fancy to place my story-tellers there." The Poet of the company was Mr. Parsons, the Dante scholar; the Theologian, Mr. Wales; the Sicilian, Luigi Monte, an exile from Sicily, whom President Lincoln sent back in an official capacity, under the influence of Charles Sumner, when Sicily became free during the Italian revolution; the Jew was Edrika, an accomplished Boston merchant.
"Paul Revere's Ride" is perhaps the most popular, and the "Vision Beautiful" the most philosophical, of these many tales. The story of "Lady Wentworth" is a most charming story of old New England folk-lore, and wears the quaint and sympathetic colorings of colonial times.
"I have given up the theory," said Mr. Longfellow, "that the old stone tower at Newport is to be connected with the Norsemen. I feel certain now that it is merely a windmill. I have a model of just such a mill, which was a common sight on the coasts of the North Sea." His residence in Scandinavia as a student gave him a love of the literature of the North, and hence his tales from the Sagas.
The melodious and sympathetic qualities of Longfellow's verse meet well the wants of the composer. The songs of the poet are more and more being wedded to music. "The Bridge," "The Rainy Day," "The Day is Done," "The Legend of the Crossbill," "The Silent Land," "Allah," "The Sea Hath its Pearls" (translation), and many other poems have found expression in musical art as inspired and beautiful as themselves, and thus winged will long go singing through the world. The English composers have thus far been the best interpreters of his songs.
His view of literature at that time, when he had made his fame and stood in the ripeness of the harvest, was expressed in the words of Fitz Greene Halleck, which he quoted: "A little well written is immortality." He had always acted on Horace's advice as given in the "Poetic Art," and had chosen subjects that waited a voice, and made what was useful, agreeable. Every poem, even though an inspiration, had been carefully revised, until the best and most sympathetic, picturesque, and worthy expression was found. His poems grew in art with years. One of his earliest volumes was "Outre Mer," which was followed by "Hyperion" after some years; both prose works were filled with the spirit of poetry. In 1839 he published his first popular volume of verse under the title of "Voices of the Night;" in 1841, "Ballads and other Poems;" in 1842, "Poems on Slavery;" in 1843, "The Spanish Student;" in 1846, "The Belfry of Bruges;" and in 1847, "Evangeline," which established his fame. His other works were published after intervals of two or three years, with a long silence after the death of his wife in 1861. The last of his great poems was "Morituri Salutamus," read by him at the fiftieth reunion of his class at Bowdoin College. One of his most perfect poems, and perhaps the most elegant of its kind in any language, was produced at this period of the beginning of life's winter, "Three Friends of Mine."
One March day in 1882, a lad from one of the Boston schools came to me, and said that some pupils from the school wished to call on the poet, and asked me if I supposed that he would receive them and give them his autograph. I recalled that Longfellow had said to me that he always answered applications for autographs, adding, "Would it not be discourteous in me to refuse my name to one who took such an interest in anything which I had written as to write me for such a favor?" I replied that I had no doubt but that the poet would receive them kindly; that he loved young people, and advised them to make the call.
He received the lads with his usual kindness, showed them the historic associations of the old house, and then in their company looked over on the Brighton meadows and the Charles River with its now icy C, for the last time. The day was declining, the last March day that he would ever see in health. Illness came soon after this visit from the school-boys, and soon he who had lived on the way to Mt. Auburn, was borne to the calm city of the dead. His grave is near Spurzheim's, not far from the gate, on a beautiful knoll, and is marked by a simple stone with a plain inscription.
Longfellow was the poet of humanity and eternal hope, and his poetic scriptures are always sought and always will be by spirits seeking sympathy. He doubtless will live as the poet of the heart long after greater rhetoricians and more philosophical poets have lost their influence. It is the poet that is most human that has the greatest influence and the most enduring fame.
As the poet of eternal hope, his horizons ever lift. He could not have written Browning's "Lost Leader." His characters are all happy in the end; his ships of song all come to blue harbors and happy ports. Poems like Lowell's "Rhœcus," where opportunity is lost forever, find no expression in his muse, but rather the rainbow always that shines in the "Legend Beautiful." His Sordellos do not fail; they attain; the people of his fancy overcome even their sins and mount on them like ladders to heaven. Even old age in his view is full of opportunity, and all experiences have their kindly helps and opportunities. Though a translator of Dante, his own muse had no "Inferno," hut only a "Purgatorio."
He is the most loved poet of our own or of any age; the American Horace, whose pictures of all that is best in our early history will ever remain. To study him is to grow. He never gave to the world a soiled thought, or planted a seed in any mind whose flower and fruit were not good. "The most beautiful character I ever knew," said Lowell amid the shadows of the royal tombs of the Abbey, as his white bust was placed among the ghosts; and so felt those who laid him down to rest in the kindly earth of Mt. Auburn's fields and flowers, on the banks of the calm, rippling Charles; and so feel those who visit that simple spot, and rest in thought there amid the vines and roses under the trees.
He touched all life to make it better, and humanity will ever be grateful to the Heavens that he lived and sang.