To Walter Mainwaring, Esq., Lothian College, Oxford.
My dear Mainwaring — You are very good to ask me to come up and listen to a discussion, by the College Browning Society, of the minor characters in “Sordello;” but I think it would suit me better, if you didn’t mind, to come up when the May races are on. I am not deeply concerned about the minor characters in “Sordello,” and have long reconciled myself to the conviction that I must pass through this pilgrimage without hearing Sordello’s story told in an intelligible manner. Your letter, however, set me a-voyaging about my bookshelves, taking up a volume of poetry here and there.
What an interesting tract might be written by any one who could remember, and honestly describe, the impressions that the same books have made on him at different ages! There is Longfellow, for example. I have not read much in him for twenty years. I take him up today, and what a flood of memories his music brings with it! To me it is like a sad autumn wind blowing over the woods, blowing over the empty fields, bringing the scents of October, the song of a belated bird, and here and there a red leaf from the tree. There is that autumnal sense of things fair and far behind, in his poetry, or, if it is not there, his poetry stirs it in our forsaken lodges of the past. Yes, it comes to one out of one’s boyhood; it breathes of a world very vaguely realized — a world of imitative sentiments and forebodings of hours to come. Perhaps Longfellow first woke me to that later sense of what poetry means, which comes with early manhood.
Before, one had been content, I am still content, with Scott in his battle pieces; with the ballads of the Border. Longfellow had a touch of reflection you do not find, of course, in battle poems, in a boy’s favourites, such as “Of Nelson and the North,” or “Ye Mariners of England.”
His moral reflections may seem obvious now, and trite; they were neither when one was fifteen. To read the “Voices of the Night,” in particular — those early pieces — is to be back at school again, on a Sunday, reading all alone on a summer’s day, high in some tree, with a wide prospect of gardens and fields.
There is that mysterious note in the tone and measure which one first found in Longfellow, which has since reached our ears more richly and fully in Keats, in Coleridge, in Tennyson. Take, for example,
“The welcome, the thrice prayed for, the most fair,
The best-beloved Night!”
Is not that version of Euripides exquisite — does it not seem exquisite still, though this is not the quality you expect chiefly from Longfellow, though you rather look to him for honest human matter than for an indefinable beauty of manner?
I believe it is the manner, after all, of the “Psalm of Life” that has made it so strangely popular. People tell us, excellent people, that it is “as good as a sermon,” that they value it for this reason, that its lesson has strengthened the hearts of men in our difficult life. They say so, and they think so: but the poem is not nearly as good as a sermon; it is not even coherent. But it really has an original cadence of its own, with its double rhymes; and the pleasure of this cadence has combined, with a belief that they are being edified, to make readers out of number consider the “Psalms of Life” a masterpiece. You — my learned prosodist and student of Browning and Shelley — will agree with me that it is not a masterpiece. But I doubt if you have enough of the experience brought by years to tolerate the opposite opinion, as your elders can.
How many other poems of Longfellow’s there are that remind us of youth, and of those kind, vanished faces which were around us when we read “The Reaper and the Flowers”! I read again, and, as the poet says,
“Then the forms of the departed
Enter at the open door,
The beloved, the true-hearted
Come to visit me once more.”
Compare that simple strain, you lover of Theophile Gautier, with Theo’s own “Chateau de Souvenir” in “Emaux et Camees,” and confess the truth, which poet brings the break into the reader’s voice? It is not the dainty, accomplished Frenchman, the jeweller in words; it is the simpler speaker of our English tongue who stirs you as a ballad moves you. I find one comes back to Longfellow, and to one’s old self of the old years. I don’t know a poem “of the affections,” as Sir Barnes Newcome would have called it, that I like better than Thackeray’s “Cane-bottomed Chair.” Well, “The Fire of Driftwood” and this other of Longfellow’s with its absolute lack of pretence, its artful avoidance of art, is not less tender and true.
“And she sits and gazes at me
With those deep and tender eyes,
Like the stars, so still and saintlike,
Looking downward from the skies.”
It is from the skies that they look down, those eyes which once read the “Voices of the Night” from the same book with us, how long ago! So long ago that one was half-frightened by the legend of the “Beleaguered City.” I know the ballad brought the scene to me so vividly that I expected, any frosty night, to see how
“The white pavilions rose and fell
On the alarmed air;”
and it was down the valley of Ettrick, beneath the dark “Three Brethren’s Cairn,” that I half-hoped to watch when “the troubled army fled”— fled with battered banners of mist drifting through the pines, down to the Tweed and the sea. The “Skeleton in Armour” comes out once more as terrific as ever, and the “Wreck of the Hesperus” touches one in the old, simple way after so many, many days of verse-reading and even verse-writing.
In brief, Longfellow’s qualities are so mixed with what the reader brings, with so many kindliest associations of memory, that one cannot easily criticize him in cold blood. Even in spite of this friendliness and affection which Longfellow wins, I can see, of course, that he does moralize too much. The first part of his lyrics is always the best; the part where he is dealing directly with his subject. Then comes the “practical application” as preachers say, and I feel now that it is sometimes uncalled for, disenchanting, and even manufactured.
Look at his “Endymion.” It is the earlier verses that win you:
“And silver white the river gleams
As if Diana in her dreams
Had dropt her silver bow
Upon the meadows low.”
That is as good as Ronsard, and very like him in manner and matter. But the moral and consolatory application is too long — too much dwelt on:
“Like Dian’s kiss, unasked, unsought,
Love gives itself, but is not bought.”
Excellent; but there are four weak, moralizing stanzas at the close, and not only does the poet “moralize his song,” but the moral is feeble, and fantastic, and untrue. There are, though he denies it, myriads of persons now of whom it cannot be said that
“Some heart, though unknown,
Responds unto his own.”
If it were true, the reflection could only console a school-girl.
A poem like “My Lost Youth” is needed to remind one of what the author really was, “simple, sensuous, passionate.” What a lovely verse this is, a verse somehow inspired by the breath of Longfellow’s favourite Finnish “Kalevala,” “a verse of a Lapland song,” like a wind over pines and salt coasts:
“I remember the black wharves and the slips,
And the sea-tide, tossing free,
And Spanish sailors with bearded lips,
And the beauty and the mystery of the ships,
And the magic of the sea.”
Thus Longfellow, though not a very great magician and master of language — not a Keats by any means — has often, by sheer force of plain sincerity, struck exactly the right note, and matched his thought with music that haunts us and will not be forgotten:
“Ye open the eastern windows,
That look towards the sun,
Where thoughts are singing swallows,
And the brooks of morning run.”
There is a picture of Sandro Botticelli’s, the Virgin seated with the Child by a hedge of roses, in a faint blue air, as of dawn in Paradise. This poem of Longfellow’s, “The Children’s Hour,” seems, like Botticelli’s painting, to open a door into the paradise of children, where their angels do ever behold that which is hidden from men — what no man hath seen at any time.
Longfellow is exactly the antithesis of Poe, who, with all his science of verse and ghostly skill, has no humanity, or puts none of it into his lines. One is the poet of Life, and everyday life; the other is the poet of Death, and of bizarre shapes of death, from which Heaven deliver us!
Neither of them shows any sign of being particularly American, though Longfellow, in “Evangeline” and “Hiawatha,” and the “New England Tragedies,” sought his topics in the history and traditions of the New World.
To me “Hiawatha” seems by far the best of his longer efforts; it is quite full of sympathy with men and women, nature, beasts, birds, weather, and wind and snow. Everything lives with a human breath, as everything should live in a poem concerned with these wild folk, to whom all the world, and all in it, is personal as themselves. Of course there are lapses of style in so long a piece. It jars on us in the lay of the mystic Chibiabos, the boy Persephone of the Indian Eleusinia, to be told that
"the gentle Chibiabos
Sang in tones of deep emotion!”
“Tones of deep emotion” may pass in a novel, but not in this epic of the wild wood and the wild kindreds, an epic in all ways a worthy record of those dim, mournful races which have left no story of their own, only here and there a ruined wigwam beneath the forest leaves.
A poet’s life is no affair, perhaps, of ours. Who does not wish he knew as little of Burn’s as of Shakespeare’s? Of Longfellow’s there is nothing to know but good, and his poetry testifies to it — his poetry, the voice of the kindest and gentlest heart that poet ever bore. I think there are not many things in poets’ lives more touching than his silence, in verse, as to his own chief sorrow. A stranger intermeddles not with it, and he kept secret his brief lay on that insuperable and incommunicable regret. Much would have been lost had all poets been as reticent, yet one likes him better for it than if he had given us a new “Vita Nuova.”
What an immense long way I have wandered from “Sordello,” my dear Mainwaring, but when a man turns to his books, his thoughts, like those of a boy, “are long, long thoughts.” I have not written on Longfellow’s sonnets, for even you, impeccable sonneteer, admit that you admire them as much as I do.
Last updated Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 13:51