Longfellow’s Light Phantoms | by Brenda Wineapple

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868

On December 17, 1877, Mark Twain delivered an after-dinner speech at a banquet of graybeards gathered in a Boston resort to rejoice John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday and the 20 th anniversary of the founding of The Atlantic Month-to-month. Seated on the head desk together with Whittier have been Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—a band of authors, one newspaper worshipfully famous, who bathed the place in an “nearly holy air.”

Twain was launched by The Atlantic’s editor, William Dean Howells, and proceeded to entertain the assembled literati with a prolonged story he thought fairly humorous on the time. Three seedy characters calling themselves Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow enter a lonely miner’s cabin on the foot of the Sierras. They chug his whiskey, cheat at playing cards, and by spewing well-known strains from each other’s work, they hoodwink the previous miner, who doesn’t know these “littery swells” are impostors. “That is the forest primeval,” shouts the sham Longfellow as he dances across the cabin. “Right here as soon as the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard around the world,” the sham Emerson replies. Early the following morning, simply earlier than the scoundrels take off, Longfellow grabs the miner’s solely pair of trainers and quotes one other of the poet’s best-loved strains: these boots will lay “footprints on the sands of Time.”

The viewers laughed, maybe with embarrassment, however many newspapers took offense. “Literary males in America, the place a lot is tolerated, must purpose increased than the gutter,” scolded the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican. Howells was horrified: Twain would possibly even have been suggesting that these venerable males weren’t all they have been cracked as much as be.

Nicholas Basbanes doesn’t embrace this anecdote in Cross of Snow, his affectionate new biography of Longfellow. To Basbanes, it was “modernism” that exiled the as soon as best-selling Longfellow to the antechambers of literary historical past, demoting him from beloved bard to “hearth” or “schoolroom” poet. Critically acclaimed in addition to vastly common, by the point of his dying in 1882 Longfellow’s verse had been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish, and he was assembly many of the outstanding and trendy figures of the day (besides Abraham Lincoln, although Lincoln learn him), from Harriet Beecher Stowe to the emperor of Brazil. Shortly after Longfellow’s dying, a marble bust of the poet was positioned in Westminster Abbey.

Thirty thousand copies of Evangeline have been in print simply two years after its launch in 1847, and 50,000 copies of The Track of Hiawatha after its publication in 1855, the identical yr Walt Whitman revealed the primary version of Leaves of Grass. (Whitman is regrettably absent from Basbanes’s pages, though the 2 authors met.) Twenty-five thousand copies of The Courtship of Miles Standish have been bought within the first two months after its look in 1858. However in 1857, in “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” Lewis Carroll was already mimicking what Basbanes calls the “tom-tom tempo of the meter” of Hiawatha: “From his shoulder Hiawatha/Took the digital camera manufactured from rosewood,/Manufactured from sliding, folding rosewood;/Neatly put all of it collectively.” And in 1854 the American poet Phoebe Cary had taken purpose at Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” which begins: “Inform me not, in mournful numbers,/Life is however an empty dream!/For the soul is useless that slumbers,/And issues usually are not what they appear.” Cary’s model opens with:

Inform me not, in idle jingle,
Marriage is an empty dream,
For the woman is useless that’s single,
And issues usually are not what they appear.

Although parody is usually a type of flattery, various Longfellow’s critics had already thought him overrated. Margaret Fuller thought of him “a person of cultivated style, delicate although not deep feeling, and a few, although not a lot, poetic power,” including, with sure foresight, that “he’ll rank as a author of stylish, if not all the time correct style, of nice imitative energy, and occasional felicity in an unique method, the place his emotions are actually stirred.” Edgar Allan Poe, who notoriously accused Longfellow of plagiarism, additionally mentioned that he wrote “stunning poems, by chance; that’s to say when allowing his genius to get the higher of his standard behavior of pondering,” and he balked at Longfellow’s didacticism. Henry James, with typical understatement, christened Longfellow “not fairly a Tintoretto of verse,” and James’s father dubbed him “good inoffensive comforting.”

Whether or not or not we blame modernism for Longfellow’s putative fall from grace, the poet Dana Gioia’s very good essay “Longfellow within the Aftermath of Modernism,” revealed in 1993, evidently influenced Basbanes. Gioia argued that Longfellow created the American prototype of the “poet-professor,” which conferred authority on the poet and anticipated the position that may be assumed by such modernists as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. What’s extra, Gioia admitted that Longfellow’s poetry may very well be pedestrian, however as a result of it’s “as a lot part of our historical past as of our literature,” it deserves to be approached by itself phrases, not in relation to the extra main poetry of Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, or Emily Dickinson. Coincidentally, Gioia’s essay appeared the identical yr as John Hollander’s capacious anthology American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, which nestled Longfellow between William Gilmore Sims and Whittier and included thirty-four Longfellow poems in addition to alternatives from such well-known lengthy works as Evangeline and Hiawatha. It’s an necessary chronological sampling.

Take “The Spirit of Poetry,” composed in 1825, when Longfellow was solely eighteen. It anticipates an older Longfellow who continues to be in love with the “previous poetic legends” that he sought to revive:

…gifted bards
Have ever beloved the calm and
   quiet shades.
For them there was an eloquent
   voice in all
The sylvan pomp of woods, the
   golden solar,
The flowers, the leaves, the river
   on its method,
Blue skies, and silver clouds, and
   light winds,—
The swelling upland, the place the
   sidelong solar
Aslant the wooded slope, at
   night, goes,—
Groves, by whose damaged
   roof the sky seems in,
Mountain, and shattered cliff, and
   sunny vale,
The distant lake, fountains,—and
   mighty timber,
In lots of a lazy syllable, repeating
Their previous poetic legends to the

Some twenty years later, in “The Fireplace of Drift-Wooden,” the poet extra efficiently creates a quiet setting to meditate poignantly on the passage of time. Two buddies chat in an previous farmhouse whereas sitting in entrance of the fireplace:

We sat and talked till the night time,
Descending, stuffed the little room;
Our faces light from the sight,
Our voices solely broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished
Of what we as soon as had thought and
Of what had been, and might need
And who was modified, and who
   was useless;

And all that fills the hearts of
When first they really feel, with secret
Their lives thenceforth have
   separate ends,
And by no means might be one once more.

In 2000 the late J.D. McClatchy judiciously edited a number of verse and prose for a Library of America quantity devoted solely to Longfellow, and in it we are able to rediscover such effective poems as “The Ropewalk,” “Vox Populi,” or “Within the Churchyard at Cambridge.” A number of biographies and important assessments subsequently adopted—notably by Christopher Irmscher, who claimed that Longfellow was an early multiculturalist.

But reputations ebb and circulation, and the actual fact stays that he’s seldom learn in the present day.

As Whitman remarked after Longfellow’s dying, he was the proper antidote to “our materialistic, self-assertive, money-worshipping…America,” in addition to simple to take and by no means radical: “His very anger is light, is at second hand.” Longfellow did publish in 1842 a quantity entitled Poems on Slavery (written partially on the behest of his buddy Charles Sumner, the antislavery senator from Massachusetts), however as Basbanes observes, he himself mentioned they have been “so delicate that even a Slaveholder would possibly learn them with out shedding his urge for food for breakfast.” Nonetheless, in 1844 the abolitionist Whittier was so impressed that he requested Longfellow to run for Congress on the antislavery Liberty Social gathering ticket. Characteristically, Longfellow demurred: “Although a powerful anti-Slavery man, I’m not a member of any society, and combat below no single banner…. Partisan warfare turns into too violent, too vindictive for my style.” “He all the time thought it wisest to not do a factor,” one in every of Longfellow’s sons recalled. “He hated extra or extremes.”

Born in 1807 in Portland, Maine, and descended from Mayflower passengers on his mom’s facet, Longfellow attended Bowdoin School. A studious younger man, he was chosen to ship the graduation handle, “Our Native Writers,” in 1825. He informed his father, a well-respected lawyer who had represented the district of Maine within the Massachusetts legislature, that he supposed to “be eminent in one thing” and most notably aspired to get pleasure from “future eminence in literature.” Sharply reminding his star-gazing son that “there’s not wealth sufficient on this nation to afford encouragement and patronage to merely literary males,” Stephen Longfellow, who was a trustee at Bowdoin, probably helped him safe a newly established professorship in trendy languages there. The job stipulated that younger Longfellow journey to Europe at his personal expense (truly at his father’s expense) and study the languages he was supposed to show.

Longfellow’s early profession was extra of a wrestle than the triumphalist march to fame that Basbanes suggests. Returning to Bowdoin in 1829 after a wonderful three years overseas, ostensibly to check German in Göttingen—Basbanes minutely chronicles Longfellow’s obvious romances in Spain and Italy—he married Mary Potter, a childhood buddy from Portland. However he was chafing below the school harness. “I’ve aimed increased than this,” he groused to his sister. Shrewdly capitalizing on the demand for language textbooks and grammars, he translated French poetry, wrote e book critiques, and started lobbying for an additional place, at New York College or the College of Virginia, or maybe an appointment as secretary to the American legation to Madrid. Possibly he would open a faculty for younger ladies in New York or begin a literary journal. Nothing materialized.

In 1834, when George Ticknor resigned his place as Smith Professor of Trendy Languages at Harvard, Longfellow obtained the job. To Basbanes, this was nearly inevitable. He imagines Ticknor and Longfellow’s first assembly eight years earlier: “My sense is that Ticknor took to Henry immediately, his vibrant thoughts, his passionate ambition, the very minimize of his jib—good-looking, properly dressed, respectful of his elders, articulate, courteous, wonderful references.” However as Lawrance Thompson explains in his complete Younger Longfellow (1938), Longfellow had been canvassing well-placed buddies like Ticknor, a few of whom, comparable to his father’s Harvard classmate Justice Joseph Story, a Harvard overseer, have been maneuvering on his behalf. “Life is alternative,” Longfellow later informed Whitman.

Thankfully for Longfellow, the place got here with the suggestion that he once more examine German overseas—once more at his personal expense; Ticknor would keep at Harvard within the interim. Leaping on the likelihood, within the spring of 1835 he and his reluctant spouse sailed to Europe. That fall, after struggling for a number of weeks the aftereffects of both a miscarriage or a stillborn baby, Mary Longfellow died. Basbanes’s narrative then swerves to an evidence of how two portraits on the Longfellow Home on Brattle Road in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have come to be recognized as her. One had been owned by Decide Lemuel Shaw’s great-granddaughter, who facilitated the publication of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, although there is no such thing as a different connection made between Melville and Longfellow. Such asides, diverting as they might be, distance us from the poet, his grief, and his poetry.

Basbanes steadily interrupts his account of Longfellow’s life to catalog the furnishings within the Longfellow homestead. We study that Albert Bierstadt introduced Longfellow together with his portray Departure of Hiawatha, “which in the present day is a centerpiece within the Brattle Road eating room,” and {that a} portrait of Longfellow by G.P.A. Healy additionally hangs within the eating room, as do two Gilbert Stuart work. A crude bathe contraption continues to be within the second-floor washroom, and a duplicate of Nice Expectations might be discovered within the eating room “at eye degree, on the center shelf, to the left.” The plaster solid of Goethe that Longfellow bought sits on prime of his writing desk.

A bibliographer and antiquarian whose earlier books embrace On Paper (2013) and the distinctive A Light Insanity: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Everlasting Ardour for Books (1995), Basbanes repeatedly attracts consideration to his analysis. He rummaged by the Longfellow Home storage vaults and located a baby’s pair of scuffed sneakers, two transportable touring desks with folding tops, and a solid of the hand of the Swedish author Fredrika Bremer. One in all his eBay searches turned up signed autograph playing cards that Longfellow had given out, and he and his spouse visited the childhood dwelling of Longfellow’s second spouse, which later housed the Boston Ladies’s Membership and is now a personal residence (and a Nationwide Historic Landmark) and was bought for $15.3 million. We study that Basbanes was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the grandson of Greek immigrants who labored within the textile mills.

There’s a sure allure to those quite a few if distracting digressions. However the man who was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, other than the cocoon of memorabilia and affection spun about him, stays one thing of a thriller. Certainly his vaunted sweetness and serenity, a lot hailed by his buddies, masked dogged ambition, a concern of failure (“I by no means am content material,/However all the time see the labor of my hand/Fall in need of my conception”), and an acute consciousness of fame’s inconstancy: “Repeating/…previous poetic legends to the wind.”

Clearly he additionally had a present for friendship, because the bond between him and Sumner suggests; it was in some ways a placing partnership between the donnish poet and the outspoken politician who was overwhelmed practically to dying on the Senate ground in 1856 by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks for his denunciation of slaveowners. Basbanes notes with approbation that Longfellow’s private account books include a number of “modest money contributions” to such locations as “coloured faculty,” “negro faculty,” and “South Carolina negro faculty.”

Longfellow’s friendships with different contemporaries, just like the Transcendentalist Emerson, have been extra difficult. After a dinner at Longfellow’s, Emerson confided to his journal:

If Socrates have been right here, we might go and discuss with him, however Longfellow, we can not go and discuss with; there’s a palace, and servants, and a row of bottles of various colored wines, and wine glasses, and effective coats.

Basbanes describes the entry as catty, which Emerson seldom was. He could have been registering frustration at having to skate on the Longfellow floor and never, as was his wont, getting below it.

Borrowing from an ideal retailer of world literature, Longfellow was dedicated to creating an American idiom by it. In his novel Kavanagh, one of many characters, a author, declares, “Nationality is an efficient factor to a sure extent, however universality is healthier.” From his early Washington Irving–derived sketchbook, Outre-Mer, to his lengthy narrative poems comparable to Evangeline, with its unrhymed dactylic hexameters, Longfellow sought to fuse the previous and new. The affecting chorus, “A boy’s will is the wind’s will/And the ideas of youth are lengthy, lengthy ideas,” in “My Misplaced Youth,” which influenced Robert Frost, comes from an previous Lapland music. The Track of Hiawatha employs the trochaic tetrameter rhymes of the Kalevala, the Finnish nationwide epic, and in Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow makes an attempt an American Canterbury Tales and Decameron.

Via the years, one in every of his implicit topics continued to be poetry, explicitly so within the beautiful “Birds of Passage,” whose cry, anticipating Wallace Stevens, the speaker hears “Falling dreamily by the sky,/However their types I can not see.” Quickly the types seem as ghostly phantoms, one thing like inspiration, in “Haunted Homes”:

The stranger at my hearth can not
The types I see, nor hear the
   sounds I hear;
He however perceives what’s; whereas
   unto me
All that has been is seen and

Though the phantoms visiting Longfellow have been gentler than people who haunted Dickinson, the older poet suffered from mysterious eye issues, complications, neuralgia, and insomnia in addition to a ceaseless sense of his personal laziness. He complained of “dismal lethargy” and “darkness [that] at instances usurps the empire of my ideas.” This was comprehensible after the dying of Mary Longfellow, though whereas nonetheless overseas in the summertime of 1836—not desirous to return dwelling, he didn’t accompany her physique again to America—in Interlaken he met Fanny Appleton, the sensible younger heiress he would marry seven years later.

Basbanes devotes two chapters completely to Fanny, whose usually jejune journals, quoted at size, he likens to the fascicles of Dickinson. One other chapter primarily considerations the younger George William Curtis’s crush on Fanny, which Basbanes claims he “can assert with confidence” (“reward be for paper trails,” he exclaims). Even with out the paper trails, Fanny emerges as a witty, sensible, cultivated girl.* Irritated by Longfellow’s thinly veiled portrait of their friendship in his fiction Hyperion: A Romance, which she described as “desultory, objectless, a factor of shreds and patches just like the Creator’s thoughts,” she initially rejected his swimsuit. He was devastated. For unexplained causes she relented in 1843, and the couple quickly wed.

The wedding was extraordinarily completely satisfied; that they had six kids, although one daughter, Frances, died earlier than she turned two. With Fanny at his facet, sheltered by the manse her father had bought for them and assured in his professorship, Longfellow entered an enormously prolific interval. Along with his Poems on Slavery, he produced an anthology of favourite poems in 1844 and an anthology of European poetry, in addition to his personal assortment The Belfry of Bruges and Different Poems the following yr. In 1847 he introduced out Evangeline; in 1849 one other assortment, The Seaside and the Fireplace, and Kavanagh; in 1851 the verse drama The Golden Legend. Having change into fairly affluent in his personal proper, he was in a position to resign from Harvard in 1854 and started work on Hiawatha.

Then, on a scorching day in July 1861, a lit match or a drop of burning wax fell onto Fanny’s gentle muslin costume, which whooshed into flame. She ran to Longfellow’s examine, the place he woke from his nap; throwing a rug over her, he held her near attempt to put out the hearth. She died the following day. Shortly after describing the calamitous occasion and the shock expressed by Longfellow’s buddies, Basbanes takes us on an nearly two-page detour concerning the frequency of such tragedies, given the flammability of muslin.

Bereft, Longfellow turned to Dante, a lifelong ardour. Although often ambivalent about his translations—they may appear “like an excuse for being lazy,—like leaning on one other man’s shoulder”—he had included some that he had performed from Purgatory in his early quantity Voices of the Evening. Now, resuming the work on Dante, “I enter right here from each day,” Longfellow writes, “And go away my burden at this minster gate.” As Basbanes perceptively suggests, Dante allowed Longfellow to articulate emotions that in any other case appeared too intimate or distressing and to calm them. “With me all deep emotions are silent ones,” he had as soon as mentioned. “Affliction makes us infantile.”

In 1875 the getting older poet traveled to Bowdoin for the fiftieth reunion of his class and browse a poem, “Morituri Salutamus,” that’s totally trustworthy, unhappy, touching, and in its personal method heroic:

The night time hath not but come; we
   usually are not fairly
Reduce off from labor by the failing
For age is alternative no much less
Than youth itself, although in
   one other costume,
And because the night twilight fades
The sky is full of stars,
   invisible by day.

Like Gertrude Stein, with whom he shares nothing else, Longfellow wrote an excessive amount of and at instances too facilely. He was neither a vatic poet like Whitman nor a poet like Dickinson, who delved into “inner distinction—/The place the Meanings, are.” However he did possess extraordinary vary, composing fiction and nonfiction, journey sketches, verse drama and narrative poems, lyric verse and dramatic monologues, odes, ballads, sonnets, and elegies in voices urbane, scholarly, or homespun—all proof of a person of floor calm restlessly searching for sufficient type. Maybe, then, in his case, it’s the journey, not the arrival, that issues, although arrive he usually did.

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