- Longfellow - America's Uncrowned Poet Laureate [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
by Long, William J.

When Longfellow sent forth his Voices of the Night, in 1839, that modest little volume met with a doubly warm reception. Critics led by Poe pounced on the work to condemn its sentimentality or moralizing, while a multitude of readers who needed no leader raised a great shout of welcome.

Now as then there are diverse critical opinions of Longfellow, and unfortunately these opinions sometimes obscure the more interesting facts: that Longfellow is still the favorite of the American home, the most honored of all our elder poets; that in foreign schools his works are commonly used as an introduction to English verse, and that he has probably led more young people to appreciate poetry than any other poet who ever wrote our language. That strange literary genius Lafcadio Hearn advised his Japanese students to begin the study of poetry with Longfellow, saying that they might learn to like other poets better in later years, but that Longfellow was most certain to charm them at the beginning.

The reason for this advice, given to the antipodes, was probably this, that young hearts and pure hearts are the same the world over, and Longfellow is the poet of the young and pure in heart.


The impression of serenity in Longfellow's work may be explained by the gifts which Fortune offered him in the way of endowment, training and opportunity. By nature he was a gentleman; his home training was of the best; to his college education four years of foreign study were added, a very unusual thing at that time; and no sooner was he ready for his work than the way opened as if the magic Sesame were on his lips. His own college gave him a chair of modern languages and literature, which was the very thing he wanted; then Harvard offered what seemed to him a wider field, and finally his country called him from the professor's chair to teach the love of poetry to the whole nation. Before his long and beautiful life ended he had enjoyed for half a century the two rewards that all poets desire, and the most of them in vain; namely, fame and love. The first may be fairly won; the second is a free gift.

Longfellow was born (1807) in the town of Falmouth, Maine, which has since been transformed into the city of Portland. Like Bryant he was descended from Pilgrim stock; but where the older poet's training had been strictly puritanic, Longfellow's was more liberal and broadly cultured. Bryant received the impulse to poetry from his grandfather's prayers, but Longfellow seems to have heard his first call in the sea wind. Some of his best lyrics sing of the ocean; his early book of essays was called Driftwood, his last volume of poetry In the Harbor; and in these lyrics and titles we have a reflection of his boyhood impressions in looking forth from the beautiful Falmouth headland, then a wild, wood-fringed pasture but now a formal park:

      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.

The Call of Books

This first call was presently neglected for the more insistent summons of literature; and thereafter Longfellow's inspiration was at second hand, from books rather than from nature or humanity. Soon after his graduation from Bowdoin (1825) he was offered a professorship in modern languages on condition that he prepare himself for the work by foreign study. With a glad heart he abandoned the law, which he had begun to study in his father's office, and spent three happy years in France, Spain and Italy. There he steeped himself in European poetry, and picked up a reading knowledge of several languages. Strangely enough, the romantic influence of Europe was reflected by this poet in a book of prose essays, Outre Mer, modeled on Irving's Sketch Book.

Years of Teaching

For five years Longfellow taught the modern languages at Bowdoin, and his subject was so new in America that he had to prepare his own textbooks. Then, after another period of foreign study (this time in Denmark and Germany), he went to Harvard, where he taught modern languages and literature for eighteen years. In 1854 he resigned his chair, and for the remainder of his life devoted himself whole-heartedly to poetry.

His literary work began with newspaper verses, the best of which appear in the "Earlier Poems" of his collected works. Next he attempted prose in his Outre Mer, Driftwood Essays and the romances Hyperion and Kavanagh. In 1839 appeared his first volume of poetry, Voices of the Night, after which few years went by without some notable poem or volume from Longfellow's pen. His last book, In the Harbor, appeared with the news of his death, in 1882.

His Serenity

Aside from these "milestones" there is little to record in a career so placid that we remember by analogy "The Old Clock on the Stairs." For the better part of his life he lived in Cambridge, where he was surrounded by a rare circle of friends, and whither increasing numbers came from near or far to pay the tribute of gratitude to one who had made life more beautiful by his singing. Once only the serenity was broken by a tragedy, the death of the poet's wife, who was fatally burned before his eyes,--a tragedy which occasioned his translation of Dante's Divina Commedia (by which work he strove to keep his sorrow from overwhelming him) and the exquisite "Cross of Snow." The latter seemed too sacred for publication; it was found, after the poet's death, among his private papers.

His Work and Influence

Reading Longfellow's poems one would never suspect that they were produced in an age of turmoil. To be sure, one finds a few poems on slavery (sentimental effusions, written on shipboard to relieve the monotony of a voyage), but these were better unwritten since they added nothing to the poet's song and took nothing from the slave's burden. Longfellow has been criticized for his inaction in the midst of tumult, but possibly he had his reasons. When everybody's shouting is an excellent time to hold your tongue. He had his own work to do, a work for which he was admirably fitted; that he did not turn aside from it is to his credit and our profit. One demand of his age was, as we have noted elsewhere, to enter into the wealth of European poetry; and he gave thirty years of his life to satisfying that demand. Our own poetry was then sentimental, a kind of "sugared angel-cake"; and Longfellow, who was sentimental enough but whose sentiment was balanced by scholarship, made poetry that was like wholesome bread to common men. Lowell was a more brilliant writer, and Whittier a more inspired singer; but neither did a work for American letters that is comparable to that of Longfellow, who was essentially an educator, a teacher of new ideas, new values, new beauty. His influence in broadening our literary culture, in deepening our sympathy for the poets of other lands, and in making our own poetry a true expression of American feeling is beyond measure.

Minor Poems

It was by his first simple poems that Longfellow won the hearts of his people, and by them he is still most widely and gratefully remembered. To name these old favorites ("The Day is Done," "Resignation," "Ladder of St. Augustine," "Rainy Day," "Footsteps of Angels," "Light of Stars," "Reaper and the Flowers," "Hymn to the Night," "Midnight Mass," "Excelsior," "Village Blacksmith," "Psalm of Life") is to list many of the poems that are remembered and quoted wherever in the round world the English language is spoken.

Vesper Songs

Ordinarily such poems are accepted at their face value as a true expression of human sentiment; but if we examine them critically, remembering the people for whom they were written, we may discover the secret of their popularity. The Anglo-Saxons are first a busy and then a religious folk; when their day's work is done their thoughts turn naturally to higher matters; and any examination of Longfellow's minor works shows that a large proportion of them deal with the thoughts or feelings of men at the close of day. Such poems would be called Abendlieder in German; a good Old-English title for them would be "Evensong"; and both titles suggest the element of faith or worship. In writing these poems Longfellow had, unconsciously perhaps, the same impulse that leads one man to sing a hymn and another to say his prayers when the day is done. Because he expresses this almost universal feeling simply and reverently, his work is dear to men and women who would not have the habit of work interfere with the divine instinct of worship.

Further examination of these minor poems shows them to be filled with sentiment that often slips over the verge of sentimentality. The sentiments expressed are not of the exalted, imaginative kind; they are the sentiments of plain people who feel deeply but who can seldom express their feeling. Now, most people are sentimental (though we commonly try to hide the fact, more's the pity), and we are at heart grateful to the poet who says for us in simple, musical language what we are unable or ashamed to say for ourselves. In a word, the popularity of Longfellow's poems rests firmly on the humanity of the poet.

Typical Poems

Besides these vesper songs are a hundred other short poems, among which the reader must make his own selection. The ballads should not be neglected, for Longfellow knew how to tell a story in verse. If he were too prone to add a moral to his tale (a moral that does not speak for itself were better omitted), we can overlook the fault, since his moral was a good one and his readers liked it. The "occasional" poems, also, written to celebrate persons or events (such as "Building of the Ship," "Hanging of the Crane," "Morituri Salutamus," "Bells of Lynn," "Robert Burns," "Chamber over the Gate") well deserved the welcome which the American people gave them. And the sonnets (such as "Three Friends," "Victor and Vanquished," "My Books," "Nature," "Milton," "President Garfield," "Giotto's Tower") are not only the most artistic of Longfellow's works but rank very near to the best sonnets in the English language.

American Idyls

In the same spirit in which Tennyson wrote his English Idyls the American poet sent forth certain works reflecting the beauty of common life on this side of the ocean; and though he never collected or gave them a name, we think of them as his "American Idyls." Many of his minor poems belong to this class, but we are thinking especially of Evangeline, Miles Standish and Hiawatha. The last-named, with its myths and legends clustering around one heroic personage, is commonly called an epic; but its songs of Chibiabos, Minnehaha, Nokomis and the little Hiawatha are more like idyllic pictures of the original Americans.


Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie (1847) met the fate of Longfellow's earlier poems in that it was promptly attacked by a few critics while a multitude of people read it with delight. Its success may be explained on four counts. First, it is a charming story, not a "modern" or realistic but a tender, pathetic story such as we read in old romances, and such as young people will cherish so long as they remain young people. Second, it had a New World setting, one that was welcomed in Europe because it offered readers a new stage, more vast, shadowy, mysterious, than that to which they were accustomed; and doubly welcomed here because it threw the glamor of romance over familiar scenes which deserved but had never before found their poet. Third, this old romance in a new setting was true to universal human nature; its sentiments of love, faith and deathless loyalty were such as make the heart beat faster wherever true hearts are found. Finally, it was written in an unusual verse form, the unrimed hexameter, which Longfellow handled as well, let us say, as most other English poets who have tried to use that alluring but difficult measure. For hexameters are like the Italian language, which is very easy to "pick up," but which few foreigners ever learn to speak with the rhythm and melody of a child of Tuscany.

Longfellow began his hexameters fairly well, as witness the opening lines of Evangeline:

  This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
  Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
  Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
  Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
  Loud from its rocky caverns the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
  Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

Occasionally also he produced a very good but not quite perfect line or passage:

  And as the voice of the priest repeated the service of sorrow,
  So with a mournful sound, like the voice of a vast congregation,
  Solemnly answered the sea, and mingled its roar with the dirges.

One must confess, however, that such passages are exceptional, and that one must change the proper stress of a word too frequently to be enthusiastic over Longfellow's hexameters. Some of his lines halt or hobble, refusing to move to the chosen measure, and others lose all their charm when spoken aloud:

  When she had passed it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.

That line has been praised by critics, but one must believe that they never pronounced it. To voice its sibilant hissing is to understand the symbol for a white man in the Indian sign language; that is, two fingers of a hand extended before the face, like the fork of a serpent's tongue. [Footnote: This curious symbol, a snake's tongue to represent an Englishman, was invented by some Indian whose ears were pained by a language in which the s sounds occur too frequently. Our plurals are nearly all made that way, unfortunately; but Longfellow was able to make a hissing line without the use of a single plural.] On the whole, Longfellow's verse should be judged not by itself but as a part of the tale he was telling. Holmes summed up the first impression of many readers by saying that he found these "brimming lines" an excellent medium for a charming story.

That is more than one can truthfully say of the next important idyl, The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). The story is a good one and, more than all the histories, has awakened a romantic interest in the Pilgrims; but its unhappy hexameters go jolting along, continually upsetting the musical rhythm, until we wish that the tale had been told in either prose or poetry.

Song of Hiawatha

The Song of Hiawatha (1855) was Longfellow's greatest work, and by it he will probably be longest remembered as a world poet. The materials for this poem, its musical names, its primitive traditions, its fascinating folklore, were all taken from Schoolcraft's books about the Ojibway Indians; its peculiar verse form, with its easy rhythm and endless repetition, was copied from the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. Material and method, the tale and the verse form, were finely adapted to each other; and though Longfellow showed no originality in Hiawatha, his poetic talent or genius appears in this: that these tales of childhood are told in a childlike spirit; that these forest legends have the fragrance of hemlock in them; and that as we read them, even now, we seem to see the wigwam with its curling smoke, and beyond the wigwam the dewy earth, the shining river, and the blue sky with its pillars of tree trunks and its cloud of rustling leaves. The simplicity and naturalness of primitive folklore is in this work of Longfellow, who of a hundred writers at home and abroad was the first to reveal the poetry in the soul of an Indian.

As the poem is well known we forbear quotation; as it is too long, perhaps, we express a personal preference in naming "Hiawatha's Childhood," his "Friends," his "Fishing" and his "Wooing" as the parts most likely to please the beginner. The best that can be said of Hiawatha is that it adds a new tale to the world's storybook. That book of the centuries has only a few stories, each of which portrays a man from birth to death, fronting the problems of this life, meeting its joy or sorrow in man fashion, and then setting his face bravely to "Ponemah," the Land of the Hereafter. That Longfellow added a chapter to the volume which preserves the stories of Ulysses, Beowulf, Arthur and Roland is undoubtedly his best or most enduring achievement.

His Experimental Works

Unless the student wants to encourage a sentimental mood by reading Hyperion, Longfellow's prose works need not detain us. Much more valuable and readable are his translations from various European languages, and of these his metrical version of The Divine Comedy of Dante is most notable. He attempted also several dramatic works, among which The Spanish Student (1843) is still readable, though not very convincing. In Christus: a Mystery he attempted a miracle play of three acts, dealing with Christianity in the apostolic, medieval and modern eras; but not even his admirers were satisfied with the result. "The Golden Legend" (one version of which Caxton printed on the first English press, and which a score of different poets have paraphrased) is the only part of Christus that may interest young readers by its romantic portrayal of the Middle Ages. To name such works is to suggest Longfellow's varied interests and his habit of experimenting with any subject or verse form that attracted him in foreign literatures.

The Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863-1873) is the most popular of Longfellow's miscellaneous works. Here are a score of stories from ancient or modern sources, as told by a circle of the poet's friends in the Red Horse Inn, at Sudbury. The title suggests at once the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer; but it would be unwise to make any comparison between the two works or the two poets. The ballad of "Paul Revere's Ride" is the best known of the Wayside Inn poems; the Viking tales of "The Saga of King Olaf" are the most vigorous; the mellow coloring of the Middle Ages appears in such stories as "The Legend Beautiful" and "The Bell of Atri."

Characteristics of Longfellow

The broad sympathy of Longfellow, which made him at home in the literatures of a dozen nations, was one of his finest qualities. He lived in Cambridge; he wrote in English; he is called the poet of the American home; but had he lived in Finland and written in a Scandinavian tongue, his poems must still appeal to us. Indeed, so simply did he reflect the sentiments of the human heart that Finland or any other nation might gladly class him among its poets.

A Poet of all Peoples

For example, many Englishmen have written about their Wellington, but, as Hearn says, not even Tennyson's poem on the subject is quite equal to Longfellow's "Warden of the Cinque Ports." The spirit of the Spanish missions, with their self-sacrificing monks and their soldiers "with hearts of fire and steel," is finely reflected in "The Bells of San Blas." The half-superstitious loyalty of the Russian peasant for his hereditary ruler has never been better reflected than in "The White Czar." The story of Belisarius has been told in scores of histories and books of poetry; but you will feel a deeper sympathy for the neglected old Roman soldier in Longfellow's poem than in anything else you may find on the same theme. And there are many other foreign heroes or brave deeds that find beautiful expression in the verse of our American poet. Of late it has become almost a critical habit to disparage Longfellow; but no critic has pointed out another poet who has reflected with sympathy and understanding the feelings of so many widely different peoples.

Naturally such a poet had his limitations. In comparison with Chaucer, for example, we perceive instantly that Longfellow knew only one side of life, the better side. Unhappy or rebellious or turbulent souls were beyond his ken. He wrote only for those who work by day and sometimes go to evensong at night, who hopefully train their children or reverently bury their dead, and who cleave to a writer that speaks for them the fitting word of faith or cheer or consolation on every proper occasion. As humanity is largely made of such men and women, Longfellow will always be a popular poet. For him, with his serene outlook, there were not nine Muses but only three, and their names were Faith, Hope and Charity.

Poetic Faults

Concerning his faults, perhaps the most illuminating thing that can be said is that critics emphasize and ordinary readers ignore them. The reason for this is that every poem has two elements, form and content: a critic looks chiefly at the one, an ordinary reader at the other. Because the form of Longfellow's verse is often faulty it is easy to criticize him, to show that he copies the work of others, that he lacks originality, that his figures are often forced or questionable; but the reader, the young reader especially, may be too much interested in the charm of the poet's story or the truth of his sentiment to dissect his poetic figures. Thus, in the best-known of his earlier poems, "A Psalm of Life," he uses the famous metaphor of "footprints on the sands of time." That is so bad a figure that to analyze is to reject it; yet it never bothers young people, who would understand the poet and like him just as well even had he written "signboards" instead of "footprints." The point is that Longfellow is so obviously a true and pleasant poet that his faults easily escape attention unless we look for them. There is perhaps no better summary of our poet's qualities than to record again the simple fact that he is the poet of young people, to whom sentiment is the very breath of life. Should you ask the reason for his supremacy in this respect, the answer is a paradox. Longfellow was not an originator; he had no new song to sing, no new tale to tell. He was the poet of old heroes, old legends, old sentiments and ideals. Therefore he is the poet of youth.


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