Longfellow and the Children by Lucy Larcom

The poets who love children are the poets whom children love. It is natural that they should care much for each other, because both children and poets look into things in the same way,—simply, with open eyes and hearts, seeing Nature as it is, and finding whatever is lovable and pure in the people who surround them, as flowers may receive back from flowers sweet odors for those which they have given. The little child is born with a poet's heart in him, and the poet has been fitly called "the eternal child."

Not that all children or all poets are alike in this. But of Longfellow we think as of one who has always been fresh and natural in his sympathy for children, one who has loved them as they have loved him.

We wish he had given us more of the memories of his own childhood. One vivid picture of it comes to us in "My Lost Youth," a poem which shows us how everything he saw when a child must have left within him a life-long impression. That boyhood by the sea must have been full of dreams as well as of pictures. The beautiful bay with its green islands, widening out to the Atlantic on the east, and the dim chain of mountains, the highest in New England, lying far away on the northwestern horizon, give his native city a roomy feeling not often experienced in the streets of a town; and the boy-poet must have felt his imagination taking wings there, for many a long flight. So he more than hints to us in his song:

       "I can see the shadowy lines of its trees,
           And catch, in sudden gleams,
        The sheen of the far-surrounding seas,
        And islands that were the Hesperides
           Of all my boyish dreams.
        And the burden of that old song,
        It murmurs and whispers still:
       'A boy's will is the wind's will,
 And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.'

       "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.
        And the voice of that wayward song
        Is singing and saying still:
       'A boy's will is the wind's will,
 And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.'"

Longfellow's earliest volume, "The Voices of the Night," was one of the few books of American poetry that some of us who are now growing old ourselves can remember reading, just as we were emerging from childhood. "The Reaper and the Flowers" and the "Psalm of Life,"—I recall the delight with which I used to repeat those poems. The latter, so full of suggestions which a very young person could feel, but only half understand, was for that very reason the more fascinating. It seemed to give glimpses, through opening doors, of that wonderful new world of mankind, where children are always longing to wander freely as men and women. Looking forward and aspiring are among the first occupations of an imaginative child; and the school-boy who declaimed the words:

"Lives of great men all remind us
     We can make our lives sublime,"

and the school-girl who read them quietly by herself, felt them, perhaps, no less keenly than the man of thought and experience.

Longfellow has said that—

                               "Sublimity always is simple
Both in sermon and song, a child can seize on its meaning,"

and the simplicity of his poetry is the reason why children and young people have always loved it; the reason, also, why it has been enjoyed by men and women and children all over the world.

One of his poems which has been the delight of children and grown people alike is the "Village Blacksmith," the first half of which is a description that many a boy might feel as if he could have written himself—if he only had the poet's command of words and rhymes, and the poet's genius! Is not this one of the proofs of a good poem, that it haunts us until it seems as if it had almost grown out of our own mind? How life-like the picture is!—

 "And children coming home from school
     Look in at the open door;
   They love to see the flaming forge,
     And hear the bellows roar,
   And catch the burning sparks that fly
     Like chaff from a threshing-floor."

No wonder the Cambridge children, when the old chestnut-tree that overhung the smithy was cut down, had a memento shaped into a chair from its boughs, to present to him who had made it an immortal tree in his verse! It bore flower and fruit for them a second time in his acknowledgment of the gift; for he told them how—

 "There, by the blacksmith's forge, beside the street
     Its blossoms, white and sweet,
   Enticed the bees, until it seemed alive,
     And murmured like a hive.

 "And when the wind of autumn, with a shout
     Tossed its great arms about,
   The shining chestnuts, bursting from the sheath,
     Dropped to the ground beneath."

In its own wild, winsome way, the song of "Hiawatha's Childhood" is one of the prettiest fancies in poetry. It is a dream of babyhood in the "forest primeval," with Nature for nurse and teacher; and it makes us feel as if—were the poet's idea only a possibility—it might have been very pleasant to be a savage baby, although we consider it so much better to be civilized.

How Longfellow loved the very little ones can be seen in such verses as the "Hanging of the Crane," and in those earlier lines "To a Child," where the baby on his mother's knee gazes at the painted tiles, shakes his "coral rattle with the silver bells," or escapes through the open door into the old halls where once

"The Father of his country dwelt."

Those verses give us a charming glimpse of the home-life in the historic mansion which is now so rich with poetic, as well as patriotic associations.

How beautiful it was to be let in to that twilight library scene described in the "Children's Hour":

 "A sudden rush from the stair-way,
     A sudden raid from the hall!
   By three doors left unguarded,
     They enter my castle wall!

 "They climb up into my turret,
     O'er the arms and back of my chair;
   If I try to escape, they surround me;
     They seem to be everywhere."

Afterward, when sorrow and loss had come to the happy home, in the sudden removal of the mother of those merry children, the father who loved them so had a sadder song for them, as he looked onward into their orphaned lives:

 "O little feet, that such long years
   Must wander on, through hopes and fears,
      Must ache and bleed beneath your load,
   I, nearer to the wayside inn,
   Where toil shall cease, and rest begin,
      Am weary, thinking of your road!"



Longfellow loved all children, and had a word for them whenever he met them.

At a concert, going early with her father, a little girl espied Mr. Longfellow sitting alone, and begged that she might go and speak to him. Her father, himself a stranger, took the liberty of introducing his little daughter Edith to the poet.

"Edith?" said Mr. Longfellow, tenderly. "Ah! I have an Edith, too; but my baby Edith is twenty years old." And he seated the child beside him, taking her hand in his, and making her promise to come and see him at his house in Cambridge.

"What is the name of your sled, my boy?" he said to a small lad, who came tugging one up the road toward him, on a winter morning.

"It's 'Evangeline.' Mr. Longfellow wrote 'Evangeline.' Did you ever see Mr. Longfellow?" answered the little fellow, as he ran by, doubtless wondering at the smile on the face of the pleasant gray-haired gentleman.

Professor Monti, who witnessed the pretty scene, tells the story of a little girl who one Christmas inquired the way to the poet's house, and asked if she could just step inside the yard; and he relates how Mr. Longfellow, being told she was there, went to the door and called her in, and showed her the "old clock on the stairs," and many other interesting things about the house, leaving his little guest with beautiful memories of that Christmas day to carry all through her life. This was characteristic of the poet's hospitality, delicate and courteous and thoughtful to all who crossed his threshold. Many a trembling young girl, frightened at her own boldness in having ventured into his presence, was set at ease by her host in the most genial way; he would make her forget herself in the interesting mementos all about her, devoting himself to her entertainment as if it were the one pleasure of the hour for him to do so.



It is often said, and with reason, that we Americans do not think enough of manners—that politeness of behavior which comes from genuine sympathy and a delicate perception of others' feelings. Certainly our young people might look to Mr. Longfellow as a model in this respect. He was a perfect gentleman, in the best sense of that term, always considerate, and quick to see where he might do a kindness, or say a pleasant word.

The celebration of Longfellow's seventy-fifth birthday by school-children all over the country is something that those children must be glad to think of now—glad to remember that the poet knew how much they cared for him and for what he had written. Even the blind children, who have to read with their fingers, were enjoying his songs with the rest. How pleasant that must have been to him! Certainly, as it seems to me, the best tribute that the young people of the country can pay to his memory is to become more familiar with his poems.

We should not wait until a great and good man has left us before giving him honor, or trying to understand what he has done for us. A dreary world ours would be, if there were no poets' songs echoing through it; and we may be proud of our country that it has a poetry of its own, which it is for us to know and possess for ourselves.

Longfellow has said:

 "What the leaves are to the forest
    With light and air and food,
  Ere their sweet and tender juices
    Have been hardened into wood,
  That to the world, are children":

and something like this we may say of his songs. There is in all true poetry a freshness of life which makes the writer of it immortal.

The singer so much beloved has passed from sight, but the music of his voice is in the air, and, listening to it, we know that he can not die.

Somewhat back from the village street