Longfellow, the Universal Poet

by Edwin Watts Chubb

We have passed the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Longfellow, and he still remains the favorite American poet. Not that Longfellow is one of the great world poets; Longfellow himself would have been offended with that eulogistic extravagance which would place him among the few immortals. He is not a Homer, nor a Dante, nor a Shakspere. No, he is not even a Wordsworth in philosophic insight into nature, nor a Shelley in power to snatch the soul into the starry empyrean, nor a Tennyson in variety and passion, nor a Milton in grandeur of poetic expression. He is—only Longfellow. But that means he has his own peculiar charm. It is idle to detract from the fame of one man because he is not some one else. Roast beef may be more nutritious than strawberries, but that is no criticism upon the flavor of the strawberry. Longfellow is not Milton, but then neither is Milton Longfellow:

If I cannot carry forests on my back
Neither can you crack a nut.

Of late years the critics have been finding fault with Longfellow. They have said that really Longfellow is no poet. Frederic Harrison calls Evangeline "goody, goody dribble!" and Quiller-Couch in his anthology gives three pages to Longfellow and seven to Wilfred Scawen Blunt—but who is Blunt? When I was in Berlin I found in a German history of English and American Literature one-half a page devoted to Longfellow and ten pages to Poe. Perhaps some of this criticism is but the natural reaction following the extreme praise that ensued after the death of Longfellow in 1882.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

From a wood engraving of a life photograph

But Longfellow is surviving all derogatory criticism. He is still the poet with the universal appeal. It is altogether probable that he is more widely read to-day than any other American poet. Even foreigners still express their affection for this poet of the domestic affections. In 1907 Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the English Ambassador to the United States, made an address in which he made graceful acknowledgement of his debt to this American poet:

"I owe much of the pleasure of my life to American writers of every shade of thought.... But I owe to one American writer much more than pleasure. Tastes differ and fashions change, and I am told that the poetry of Longfellow is not read as it used to be. Men in my own country have asked me whether the rivers of Damascus were not better than all the waters of Israel, whether Shakspere, and Milton, and Shelley, and Keats were not enough for me, that I need go to Longfellow. And Americans have seemed surprised that I did not speak rather of Lowell and Bryant and others. Far be it from me to say a word against any of them. I have loved them all from my youth up, every one of them in his own way, and Shakspere as the master and compendium of them all. No one, I suppose, would place Longfellow as a poet quite on the same level with some of them. But the fact remains that, for one reason or another, perhaps in part from early associations, Longfellow has always spoken to my heart. Many a time, in lands far away from the land he loved so well, I have sought for sympathy in happiness and in sorrow—

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of time—

but from that pure and gentle and untroubled spirit."

Professor E.A. Grosvenor, of Amherst, years ago published an article on Longfellow that was widely copied. It is an interesting account of a conversation in 1879 on board the Messageries steamer Donai, bound from Constantinople to Marseilles. On board many nationalities were represented. The story is a fine illustration of the wide-spread popularity of the American poet.

"One evening, as we were quitting the Straits of Bonifacio, some one remarked at dinner that, though Victor Hugo was born in Paris, the earliest impressions of his life were received in Corsica, close to which we were passing. Ten or twelve of us lingered after the meal was finished to talk of the great French poet. One of the party spoke of him as embodying, more than any other writer, the humanistic tendencies of the nineteenth century and as the exponent of what is best in humanity.

"We had been talking in French, when the Russian lady exclaimed in English to the gentleman who had last spoken, 'How can you, an American, give to him the place that is occupied by your own Longfellow? Longfellow is the universal poet. He is better known, too, among foreigners than any one except their own poets! Then she commenced repeating in rich, mellow tones:

I stood on the bridge at midnight,
As the clocks were striking the hour,
And the moon rose over the city
Behind the dark church tower.

I recall how her voice trembled over the words:

And the burden laid upon me
Seemed greater than I could bear.

and how it swelled out in the concluding lines:

As the symbol of love in Heaven,
And its wavering image here.

It was dramatic and never to be forgotten. Then she added, 'I long to visit Boston that I may stand on the Bridge.'

"In the company was an English captain returning from the Zulu war. He was the son of that member of Parliament' who had been the chief supporter of the claimant in the famous Tichborne case, and who had poured out his money like water in behalf of the man whom he considered cruelly wronged. The captain was a typical British soldier, with every characteristic of his class. Joining our steamer at Genoa, he had so far talked only of the Zulus and, with bitter indignation, of the manner in which the Prince Imperial had been deserted by British soldiers to be slain by savages. As soon as the Russian lady had concluded he said: 'I can give you something better than that,' and began in a voice like a trumpet:

Tell me not in mournful numbers
Life is but an empty dream.

His recitation of the entire poem was marked by the common English upheaval and down-letting of the voice in each line; but it was evident that he loved what he was repeating.

"Then a tall, lank, gray-haired Scotchman, who knew no French, who had hardly mingled with the other passengers, and who seemed always communing with himself, suddenly commenced:

There is no flock, however watched and tended,
But one dead lamb is there.

He repeated only a few stanzas, but could apparently have given the whole poem, had he wished.

"For myself, I know that my contribution was My Lost Youth, beginning

Often I think of the beautiful town,
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town
And my youth comes back to me.

Never did the distance from an early home seem so great to one, New England born, as in that strange company, gathered from many lands, each with words upon the lip which the American had first heard in childhood.

"A handsome, olive-cheeked young man, a Greek from Manchester, educated and living in England, said, 'How do you like this?' Then he began to sing:

Stars of the summer night,
Far in yon azure deeps,
Hide, hide your golden light!
She sleeps!
My lady sleeps!

So he rendered the whole of that exquisite serenade—dear to American college students—with a freedom and a fire which hinted that he had sung it at least once before on some more appropriate occasion. Perhaps to some dark-eyed maiden of that elegant Greek colony of Manchester it had come as a revelation, and perhaps she had first heard it sung in front of her father's mansion and had looked down, appreciative but unseen, from above.

"The captain of the Donai was not her regular commander, but an officer of the national French navy, who was in charge only for a few voyages. A thorough Frenchman, no one would have accused him of knowing a word of any tongue, save his own. Versatile, overflowing with wit and bons mots, it must have wearied him to be silent so long. To our astonishment, in accents so Gallic that one discerned with difficulty that he was attempting English, he intoned:

Zee seds of neet fair valeeng fast,
Ven t'rough an Alpeen veelage past
A yout, who bore meed snow and eece
A bannair veed dees strange deveece

"'Eh, voila,' he exclaimed with satisfaction, 'J'ai appris cela a l'école. C'est tout l'anglais que je sais.'

"'Mais, commandant,' said the Russian lady, 'ce n'est pas l'anglais du tout ce que vous venez de dire là.'

"'Ah, oui, madame, ça vient de votre Longfellow.'

"None of the other passengers contributed, but already six nationalities had spoken—Scotch, Russian, Greek, French, English, and American. As we arose from the table and went up on deck to watch the lights glimmering in Napoleon's birthplace, Ajaccio, the Russian lady said: 'Do you suppose there is any other poet of any country, living or dead, from whom so many of us could have quoted? Not one. Not even Shakspere or Victor Hugo or Homer.'"