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Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (1807-188 2) :

Longfellow is known for his verse and poetries. His earlier works are not as much important as his later works are, some hackneyed minor pieces of his earlier works that have been parodied to death, are Excelsior. The Village Blacksmith or The Psalm of Life. But it is as unfair to judge Longfellow by these as it would be to judge Tennyson by The May Queen, The Brook or The Supposed Confession of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind.

The first insistent impression conveyed to us by Longfellow’s verse is its deft and delicate grace. For example, he praises night as,

“Thou lamest thy fingers on the lips of care, and they complain no more”.

His briefer pieces throughout his long career ripple with graceful fancies; and if these are not always fresh enough to fill the “loosely-hanging sails”, they are often sufficiently animated to give an agreeable vitality and dainty movement to the verse.

It is this gift that delights us in his touching lines on Hawthorne, with its happy allusiveness: “The unfinished window in Aladdin’s tower, unfinished must remain” and that lifts out of the commonplace the myriad little pictures of Nature scattered throughout his writings. “Morn on the mountain, like a summer bird, lifts up her purple wing”.

He is not at his best as a sonneteer, for the magical felicity that blends thought and expression into a harmonious pattern was beyond him. His sonnets too often are merely things of shreds and patches and the few glimmering threads of gold are not sufficient recompense for the abundance of honest, yet unattractive fustian. But even here his grace of fancy has come to the poet’s rescue more than once and such sonnets as to Shakespeare and The Tides have certainly some claim to affection and remembrance.

“I saw the long line of the vacant shore,

The seaweed and the shells upon the sand,

And the brown rocks left bare on every hand

As if the ebbing tides would flow no more.

Then heard I, more distinctly than before,

The ocean breathe and its great breast expand,

And hurrying came on the defenseless land

The insurgent waters with tumultuous roar.

All thought and feeling and desire, I said,

Love, laughter and the exultant joy of song,

Have ebbed from me forever! Suddenly o’er me

They swept again from their deep ocean-bed,

And in tumult of delight and strong

As youth and beautiful as youth, up bore me”.

Though he was not a great prose man, his little romances, Hyperion and Cavanaugh, are well worth reading for the delightful fancies with which they abound, to say nothing of flashes of humor that never see light in his verse.

Sometimes, he reminds us curiously of Holmes, while delivering detached sayings. A few detached sayings are as follows:-

“Silence is a great peacemaker”.

“In youth all doors open outward; in old age they all open inward”.

“When looking for anything lost, begin by looking where you think it is not”.

(All are taken from Cavanaugh.)

There is also a singing quality in Longfellow’s verse that is often underrated. His melodies may have nothing in them of the opulent splendor of Swinburne’s or the haunting sweetness of Tennyson’s; the music is thinner. But music it is, none the less, pleasant and appealing in its note.

Longfellow’s poems lend themselves to a musical setting better than do most poets, because he did not pack them with too much music. They are just musical enough to crave the complement of a sister art to bring out their full charm.

Tennyson, Shelley, Swinburne, lose rather than gain by a musical setting, for they have all the music they need. They very perfection of their art stands in their way as song-writers. Longfellow’s cruder art and homelier methods give him the advantage here.

Longfellow is at bottom a moralist, as nearly all American writers are; and it is this in combination with his homely sentiment that its urgency at times spoiled his art. It was a source of his strength as well as of his weakness; especially when informed by the genial, buoyant spirit of the man.

His tolerant charity is reflected in everything that he wrote. Poe had said some very bitter things about him, but after Poe’s death, when someone commented on this to Longfellow, his only reply was: “He is dead; I am alive and writing: that is an end of the matter”.

In spite of his didactic tendency, there is no obtrusion of the personal point of view: in fact, he is an impersonal often as Emerson himself. This is well exhibited in his lyrics, where most poets give expression to their minds and idiosyncrasies.

But Longfellow’s lyrics are local, not personal, as we shall see if we run over the titles: The Bridge, The Belfry at Bruges, The Lighthouse, The River Charles & C. The emotions he expresses are general, not particular. This may blunt at times the interest we feel in his work.

The sunshine is so evenly distributed that we long peevishly for a storm or momentary eclipse. But it adds to the charm of the engaging friendliness of which I have spoken. What could be better in its intimate ease, than the prelude to the pleasant Tales of a Wayside Inn:

“One Autumn night in Sudbury town,

Across the meadows bare and brown,

The windows of the wayside Inn

Gleamed red with firelight through the leaves

Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves,

Their crimson curtains rent and thin.

As ancient is this hostelry

As any in the land may be,

Built in the old Colonial day,

When men lived in the grander way,

With ampler hospitality;

A kind of old Hobgoblin Hall,

Now somewhat fallen to decay,

With weather-stains upon the wall,

And stairways worn and crazy doors,

And creaking and uneven floors,

And chimneys huge and tiled and tall.

A region of repose it seems

A place of slumber and of dreams,

Remote among the wooded hills!”

A word must be said in conclusion as to the wide range over which his benignant spirit passes. As the poet of American life, he touches on one side the Indian epic of Hiawatha; on the other, the doings of his Puritan ancestry in Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish.

As a scholar and translator he did much to familiarize the reader with French, Spanish, German and Italian poets. His own genius was more akin to the German than to any other European people; he is especially happy in dealing with Richter; and his cosmopolitan interests contributed greatly to the appreciation of Longfellow on the Continent.

Another aspect of his work is revealed in his concern with children and child life. He has been fitly called “The Children’s Poet”; and his simple directness, his tenderness, his unpretentious sentiments are at their best here.

There is no poet more readily understood and loved by children than he. The Tales of a Wayside Inn can be appreciated by both young and old, but The Wreck of the Schooner Hesperus, Pegasus in Pound, The leap of Roughen Beg, The Three Kings, The Emperor’s Bird’s Nest-to mention a few only-have a peculiar appeal for children. Indeed, who can doubt that the man who wrote The Children’s Hour knew how to warm young hearts and fire young imaginations?

After all, Longfellow’s appeal lies chiefly in his intimate simplicity and tender humanity. He does not deal with recondite aspects of human life, but with the universal emotions of love, pity, faith and hope.

Whether in his domestic pictures, in his unpretentious moralities, his picturesque narratives, or his lyrics of everyday life, there is a direct and engaging friendliness and a sweet sanity of outlook that, though easily ridiculed, are matters for grateful remembrance. The very titles he gave to his collections of verse are eloquent of this homely simplicity – Voices of the Night, The Seaside and the Fireside, In the Harbor.

And thus we come back to Longfellow’s power of dealing with simple, human characteristics. His faults and Limitations as a literary artist are clear enough-I am not concerned to dispute them.

But Longfellow is emphatically not to be dismissed as some have tried to do, as merely a facile writer of commonplace sentimentalities. He was a versatile scholar who did much to develop the culture of young literary America; a vigorous ballad writer with peculiar force and charm when the sea is his subject; a narrative poet of abundant force and clarity; above all, a kindly and gracious personality, whose kindliness and graciousness diffused themselves over everything that he wrote. If not great poet, he was a genuine one, with a power of swift and direct appeal to thousands whom our greater poets would have left cold.

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