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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Of a man of whom much has been said it is not easy to say anything It has been the misfortune of very few poets, English or American, to have been so much discussed as Longfellow: it has also been the happiness of but few to command such general attention and such spontaneous applause.

In considering the merits of Longfellow as a poet, it is not easy to know what position to assign to him in the department of literature which he has adopted. Mr. Longfellow belongs to a school of poetry that can only be called the devotional school. Now devotional poetry, as a rule, cannot often please. Miscarriage in the exposition of such awful subjects as those which the devotional poet selects to sing, comes not from inability on the part of the singer so much as from poverty in the subject. The necessity of Faith has been too frequently enforced to gain anything from repetition. The loveliness of the emotions of which Religion is the inspirer has been too often indicated to acquire new beauty by any further indication. The devotional poet can only sing feebly what has been before sung well. No strains can equal in majesty, in grandeur, in beauty the Biblical strains. There is little for the devotional poet to say that is not to be found in the Bible; and it is obvious that he who sings what the Bible has already sung can be but at the best a feeble echo, and cannot but unreasonably expect to be applauded.

Though Mr. Longfellow's poetry is everywhere coloured by the devotional spirit, its influence is only perceptible enough to impart to his strains a most desirable effect-earnestness. Fortunately, on dividing his poems, and allotting each division to the province of which such division may be called the expression or interpretation, we find that his strictly devotional poetry forms the most inconsiderable share in his works.

We have heard "Evangeline" commended as and generally pronounced to be Longfellow's finest poetic composition. In this poem there are, doubtless, many passages of surprising sweetness, which, considering the unexpressive and halting vehicle of metre through which they are conveyed, are all the more to be admired. Still,

although "Evangeline" seldom wants for sweetness, it cannot boast a uniformity of strength. This is, perhaps, rather the fault of the story than the treatment. There is a mixture of the dramatic and bucolic about it that seems pretty well to negative the effects which might have been produced by a more decided inclination to either the one or the other of these treatments. This is the impression imparted by a consideration of the poem as a whole. Taking it in details, the truth of my former remark is apparent; for in those parts of which the treatment is exclusively dramatic or exclusively pastoral, we shall find the impressions conveyed striking and effective. Here is an example of the latter mode of treatment :

"West and south there were fields of flax, and orchards, and corn-fields,
Spreading afar and unfenced o'er the plain, and away to the northward
Blomidon rose, and the forests old, and aloft on the mountains
Sea fogs pitched their tents, and mists from the mighty Atlantic,
Looked on the happy valley, but ne'er from their station descended.
There, in the midst of its farms, reposed the Acadian village.
Strongly built were the houses, with frames of oak and of chestnut,
Such as the peasants of Normandy built in the reign of the Henries.

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There, in the tranquil evenings of summer, when brightly the sunset
Lighted the village street, and gilded the vanes on the chimneys,
Matrons and maidens sat in snow-white caps and in kirtles
Scarlet, and blue, and green, with distaffs spinning the golden

Flax for the gossiping looms, whose noisy shuttles within doors

Mingled their sound with the whir of the wheels and the songs of the maidens." I only quote a fragment of the picture; but seldom has a picture been more exquisitely painted, more admirably contrived, more delicately conceived. Of the exclusively dramatic mode of treatment I cannot find a better example than in the passage concluding the first part of the poem, commencing with these lines:

"Overwhelmed with the sight, and yet speechless, the priest and the maiden Gazed on the scene of terror that reddened and widened before them."

"The Song of Hiawatha" is, probably, Mr. Longfellow's most ambitious attempt. As an effort of intellect, it is far superior to "Evangeline;" far superior to it, too, from an artistic point of view. This is the only one of Mr. Longfellow's poems which seems animated, not so much by American nationality as by American nature. Doubtless this is due, in a great measure, to the subject of which the poet treats. But the mere introduction of Indian names, the mere allusion

to American scenery, could never impart to the verse that strange airiness, that bounding sense of freedom, that exultant thrill and throb of unrestrained life, which are exhaled from this "Song of Hiawatha" as perfume is exhaled from the flower. To the poet this subject was probably more suggestive of a national poetry than any other he had before attempted. He may have perceived that the influence exercised by American nature over the minds of Americans needed a poetic exponent, and that its exposition would be the basis of an American literature. Hitherto, in his treatment of subjects which had before been treated, he had approached them with the same spirit with which those had approached them whom he imitated. Of such efforts the results had been nearly as successful as the results of most mimetic efforts usually are. We see this in the "Spanish Student," where the nature, the descriptions, the language are borrowed. We see this in the "Golden Legend," where the sentiments are English, where the passions are such as may be found in dozens of good plays, where, in short, will be found a combination of traditional excellences, characterized by no special feature such as might have been expected in the composition of an American. But in the "Song of Hiawatha," Mr. Longfellow ignores the standard which others had set up for him, and erccts one for himself. He renders his verse thrilling with the intoxica'ing influence which he brings to bear upon it, by the mere reciprocal influence which he permits his subject to exercise over him. The graces he has thus snatched beyond the reach of art are innumerable. He is restrained by no fear of infringing those rules which, judging from much of his poetry, we are inclined to believe he admires in others. He expatiates in an unexplored realm: his simplicity in this poem is without affectation; his numbers are uniformly melodiousmelodious to a degree that would be almost monotonous, were they not rescued by the unfailing novelty of thought and sentiment that they enshrine.

The "North British Review," in considering Longfellow, says, "His command of verse alone proves him to be a genuine poet." Undoubtedly Longfellow's command of verse helps him to be a genuine poet, but how it proves him to be so is beyond my capacity to conjecture. To very incompetent critics, to young ladies fresh from school, and to the general admirers of a man who rhymes, doubtless a particular command over the various forms of metre, is a sufficient guarantee of the man who rhymes being a poet. At least, such has been found to be the case in many instances, indeed. But unfortunately for those who can

do nothing more than rhyme, critics from the remotest times have agreed rather to value the matter than the manner, and furthermore have, on discovering the matter to be bad, displayed a particular contempt for the manner, no matter how meritoriously musical. If the recognition of Longfellow's merits as a poet depended upon his merits as a metrician, conjecture might fairly hesitate to pronounce the posi tion in letters which he would occupy. Fortunately, however, his claims to both excellences can equally endure the closest scrutiny.

As a translator, Mr. Longfellow, if he has been equalled, has certainly never been excelled. Bryant and Lockhart are sometimes as happy as he is in their rendering; but Longfellow is more uniformly excellent. Moreover, some of his most felicitous translations are from a language the difficulties of which none can know who have never attempted it. I refer to the German. The charm of these translations is the means with which the spirit of the original is caught and embodied. Take, for instance, the well-known verses beginning

"I know a maiden fair to see,

Take care!

She can both false and friendly bo;

Beware! beware!"

Take "The Two Locks of Hair," or "The Legend of the Crossbill." Take "Frithiof's Temptation," from the Swedish, or the version of Uhland's "Castle by the Sea." More admirable specimens of genuine translation of translation, I mean, as opposed to the mere verbal accuracy without spirit of some, and the paraphrastical exaggeration by which the spirit of the original is diffused and weakened, of otherswill not easily be found.

The mentioning of the "Castle by the Sea," reminds me that Mr. Longfellow has to be considered in the light of a prose author as well as in that of a poet. It is in his "Hyperion" that he introduces the above-mentioned poem; those who have not read the work may thank me for transcribing the translator's comments upon the verses. Flemming, after rendering them, asks, "How do you like that?" Miss Ashburton rejoins, "It is very graceful and pretty. But Ubland seems to leave a great deal to his reader's imagination. All his readers should be poets themselves or they will hardly comprehend him. I confess I hardly understand where he speaks of the castle's stooping downward to the mirrored wave* below, and then soaring upward into

*I do not understand the term "mirrored wave." The wave may mirror something; but to be itself mirrored is to imply that it reflects itself. Now we might as well talk of a looking-glass reflecting itself.

the gleaming sky. I suppose, however, he writes to expose the momentary illusion we experience when beholding a perfect reflection of an old tower in the sea. We look at it as if it were not a mere shadow in the water; and yet the real tower rises far above, and seems to float in the crimson evening clouds. Is that the meaning?"

"I should think it was. To me it is all a beautiful cloud landscape, which I comprehend and feel, and yet should find some difficulty, perhaps, in explaining."

"And why need one always explain ? Some feelings are quite untranslatable. No language has yet been found for them. They gleam upon us beautifully through the dim twilight of fancy, and yet, when we bring them close to us, and hold them up to the light of reason, lose their beauty all at once; as glow-worms, which gleam with such a spiritual light in the shadows of evening, when brought in where the candles are lighted, are found to be only worms like so many others."

The language of "Hyperion," indeed of all Longfellow's prose works, is completely of this stamp, singularly refined, copious without profusion, and pregnant with thoughts, with sentiments, with allusions and similes of a nature the most admirable and happy. Of his numerous works in verse as well as prose, one of the most, if not the most, poetical is "Kavanagh." This unpretending story abounds with touches that, more than his happiest rhymes, his dantiest stanzas, his most melodious numbers, convince us that Longfellow is a poet. Whatever fate his poetry may meet with in the future; whatever judgment posterity may pronounce upon it; it is very certain that they who may read " Kavanagh" shall arrive at but one opinion, and exclaim, what though the name of the author be perished, "None but a poet wrote this." Nor can less praise be accorded to "Outre-Mer," though, being eminently discursive in its views and more colloquial and familiar in its style, it wants that compactness, that symmetry, those harmonious combinative excellences which constitute not the smallest charm of "Kavanagh." I know not whether it is that Mr. Longfellow is always singularly happy in the choice of his subjects, or that his subjects are rendered singularly happy by his treatment, but it is certain that it would be almost impossible to name any single volume more attractive than the volume that goes under the name of "Longfellow's Prose Works." Whatever he approaches he renders instinct with the spirit of the gentleman and the scholar; terms which embrace in their application the advocacy of religion, of the emotions,

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