After his second wife’s horrible death by fire, in 1861, Longfellow’s face was too seared to be shaven, and he grew a beard. It was this beard in which he was received by Queen Victoria, toasted by Gladstone and seen by a vast international public as the foremost of American poets. For those of us who were taught in grade school to revere him and in college to shrug him off, the beard is an obstacle to fresh acquaintance, and Newton Arvin has wisely chosen a frontispiece in which the forty-eight-year-old man is obscured only by burnsides. What the photograph shows, immediately, is the “lit-up face and glowing warmth and courtesy” which Whitman encountered. But that we might have guessed: less expected is the general air of robust youthfulness. In the lift of the head, in the strong brows and nose, there is a look of romantic adventurousness, or perhaps, as Mr. Arvin suggests, of command. The eyes are direct, clear and full of life, though a pronounced fold at the outer corners gives them a touch of sadness. The mouth, in contradiction to all that may seem rugged in the other features, is generous, comfort-loving and a bit unformed.
Like the frontispiece, Mr. Arvin’s excellent account of Longfellow’s life presents the man rather than the idol. This is not to say that the biographical chapters confer any illusion of intimacy with Longfellow; the proportions of the study permit very little detail, very little quotation from journal or letters; the method is neither dramatic nor atmospheric, and we do not fancy that we are “there.” We do, however, gain from Mr. Arvin’s spare, pointed narrative a just perspective on a unique career, and an admirably reserved interpretation of a character which was less simple than it seemed.
Few writers have been so fortunate. Longfellow suffered three painful bereavements, but the rest of his life was incessantly sweet. He was born into a cultured, comfortable family of good standing, and brought up in a home town—Portland, Maine—which he never ceased to love. As a senior at Bowdoin College he developed a fervent aspiration toward “future eminence in literature,” and events promptly conspired to give him his wish. Bowdoin’s trustees preserved him from the study of law by appointing him, at the age of eighteen, to a professorship of modern languages, and after three years of happy preparation abroad he returned to teach, first at Bowdoin, and then for eighteen years at Harvard. If he sometimes found teaching onerous, he was always successful at it, and never wearied of his material. As America’s first poet-professor he was luckier than many since, in that for him there was “a complex and fruitful reaction between literary scholarship and literary creation.” His house in Cambridge seemed to Emerson a palace; his domestic life, as Mr. Arvin says, “was one of almost pure felicity”; and his poetic reputation, beginning with Voices of the Night in 1839, grew steadily greater. He was translated, while living, into more than twenty languages, and on his death to the poets’ corner of Westminster Abbey.
It was a lucky life, lived directly and serenely to its goal; and there were, as Mr. Arvin tells, other exceptional things about it. “Modern Languages” was not an established discipline in the 1820s, and Longfellow’s teaching of European languages and literatures was thus a relatively fresh venture. He devised his own textbooks at Bowdoin: he was the first in America to offer a course in Goethe’s Faust; his unprecedented collection of translations, The Poets and Poetry of Europe, was an enlightenment to all of literate America. In short, Longfellow’s scholarly career had a creativeness which is now seldom remembered. Nor do we readily associate with Longfellow the unacademic gusto with which he approached his academic material: he learned his languages not in the schoolrooms and libraries of Europe, but in great measure by mixing in the daily life of people of all classes; his teaching was based on “the contagion of personal enthusiasm.” Another aspect of the man was the way in which, as Henry James put it, “his ‘European’ culture and his native kept house together.” Longfellow was, in his time, a major channel of European influence, and yet he appears never to have felt the least confusion as to where he belonged. One might begin to explain this by observing that nothing in Longfellow’s American background was repressive or narrowing to a man of his temper; that he lacked the cold vanity and intellectuality necessary for any rational style of estrangement; and that his Europe was not ideas, politics or a possible way of life, but a romantic literary experience. Nevertheless his cultural equilibrium remains a small marvel, and it is reflected in such a poem as “My Lost Youth,” where Italian echoes, a classical reference and a Lapland refrain encountered in German translation are made to blend perfectly with memories of a Maine boyhood.
Longfellow’s emotional equilibrium was by no means perfect, and there were periods of intense private depression, anxiety and hypochondria. One wonders how much these seizures may have proceeded from the unease of self-ignorance, from want of convictions or from that dread of vicissitude which accompanies a love of security. In contrast to Emily Dickinson, say, or Melville, Longfellow had no articulate inwardness, and such a poem as “The Fire of Driftwood” (of which Howard Nemerov has written so well) is atypical in its presentation of a live and nuanced psychology. In religion and morals, Longfellow was neither heretical nor orthodox but conventional, and he embraced a reduced and uncertain Christianity of “the deed, and not the creed” which cannot have been very fortifying against fear or trial. In any case, the poems of Longfellow seem the work of a man who has given all to the exercise of an authentic but limited talent and neglected to grapple with his own heart and mind. The huge work Christus is first of all an intellectual failure. “The Saga of King Olaf” is a stunning performance, as Mr. Arvin shows, but the delight in violence which informs it is never brought face to face, in any poem, with the pacifism of that equally fine poem, “The Arsenal at Springfield.” Longfellow’s last piece of writing, “The Bells of San Blas,” is full of felicities, but troubles the reader with a sense not so much of conflict as of discontinuity of attitude. The first ten stanzas express nostalgic regret for the age of faith, but the last stanza (written, Mr. Arvin notes, after a lapse of time) is an abrupt affirmation of progress: “It is daybreak everywhere.” Like Tennyson, Longfellow often juxtaposes two quite distinct voices, the one melancholy and desirous of repose, the other positive, edifying and usually less convincing. “Though he believed in balance,” William Charvat has observed, “he did not feel it.” And Mr. Arvin makes the right objection to much of Longfellow’s moralizing: it is not, as Poe thought, that the didactic has no place in poetry, but that Longfellow’s moral lessons are likely to be hand-me-downs rather than trophies of “independent cogitation.”
Had Mr. Arvin intended to stir up a Longfellow revival, he might have focused sharply, in his treatment of the work, on those shorter poems which seem most recoverable in view of current taste and reading habits. What he has done is even more interesting—to dismiss very little, and to allot his space with some regard to the pretensions of each work. If this makes for an honorable kind of slow going when ambitious failures are in question, it affords a sense of the whole oeuvre, acquaints us with the magnitude of the poet’s role as Longfellow saw it and challenges us to appreciate his successes in now disused poetic genera. A reviewer cannot comment in detail on commentaries, but Mr. Arvin is to be praised for not misapplying our prevalent criteria—ambiguity and so forth—to Longfellow; what he does is to look for the qualities in Longfellow which, fashionable or not, are worth noting or admiring, and the enquiry is both helpful and aesthetically enlarging. Longfellow emerges as a straightforward poet of mood, sentiment and story, who was at his best “an accomplished, sometimes an exquisite, craftsman,” who dealt in “states of feeling that remain this side of either ecstasy or despair,” and whose better work is “worth preserving in some ideal anthology of verse of the second order.” Mr. Arvin gives due attention to Longfellow’s bold technical experiments in everything from free verse to the eight-stress line, finds “something almost Elizabethan in the range and freshness of Longfellow’s work as a translator,” and defensibly considers him the best American sonneteer of his century. One agrees, too, that Longfellow’s storytelling is well-paced, vaned and thoroughly readable, especially in Tales of a Wayside Inn, and that we have to our cost forgotten his talent for humorous narrative. Among many acute passages in Mr. Arvin’s critical chapters I particularly prize his observations on the translatableness of Longfellow’s “limpid, uneccentric” language, on the poet’s “use of literary allusion for purposes of metaphor” and on the associative structure of such poems as “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.”
In an epilogue, Mr. Arvin makes a valuable distinction among three kinds of popular poetry: folk, masscult and demotic. Folk poetry is pre-literate or illiterate; masscult poetry is newspaper verse and the like; demotic poetry is work of genuine literary quality written in response to the emergence of “a very wide body of more or less educated but not sophisticated or exacting readers.” That Longfellow consciously responded to such a public may be seen in his praise of “Songs that lowlier hearts feel,” in the confident warmth with which he addresses his readers in the “Dedication” to The Seaside and the Fireside, and in his letters to G. W. Greene about “The Wreck of the Schooner Hesperus”: “I have a great notion of working upon the people’s feelings. I am going to have it printed on a sheet with a coarse picture on it. I desire a new sensation and a new set of critics…”
Contemporary Russia, with its new literate classes, its scarcity of cheap diversions and its enormous editions of poetry, may be enjoying a kind of offically enforced demotic period; our own “great age of demotic poetry” is past, and Longfellow’s reputation went with it. There is much in Longfellow—one has only to think of the powerful Michael Angelo or the subtly turned “Snow-Flakes”—which is not popular poetry in any sense, and could easily be more esteemed today. But what of the best of the bulk of his work? Have we no use whatever for the stirring ballad, the clear and modest lyric, the well-told tale? The effect of Mr Arvin’s study is to send us to Longfellow’s high-demotic, with an awakened sense of its merits, and to convince us that it would be narrow and improvident to let it go.
June 1, 1963