Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Longfellow Through a Poet's Eyes*


 

It is not easy to think critically of a writer under whose magic one has ever fallen. Something of his spell lingers about the porches of the imagination long after the guest is gone. We put aside the infatuation; we feel the charm undone; his power over us must needs give place to another's; yet the memory of his wonderful allurement revives in us at times, like the haunting cadence of some forgotten strain. And after his departure we turn indoors, as it were, to take up again the wonted habit of mind, with a soft wonder at our own incredulity, yet with a certain ineffaceable gladness; while long after, the mere mention of his name can stir too powerfully those personal emotions of love and gratitude which are thought to bias a critical justice. Our opinion is out of court, as the phrase is, in estimating his worth.

To think of Longfellow without a second thought is to think of him vaguely as the companion of Tennyson, the uncrowned laureate of America. His rank and station were long since established beside Whittier, and Holmes, and Lowell, in our affections; to speak of him so is the merest perfunctory jargon of criticism. There is another and more personal estimate of him, on which this paper will venture.

We know quite well what Longfellow's name stands for to-day, here and now, in Boston and London. But what did it stand for yesterday, and in the remote districts? Yesterday? Ah, what does it mean, that "yesterday?" One wakes of a summer's morning to find that twenty years have gone since it was "yesterday."

"Why is it," I said to a friend of mine, himself a lover of poetry and a working journalist, "why is it that you think so well of Longfellow?"

"And why not?" said he.

"Why not? O, well," I replied, "no one reads Longfellow now,-no one but children and shopgirls. He is too unsophisticated for us. I cannot account for the hold he seems to have on you."

"Ah," he said, "you do not understand. It is the glamour of old things-

I remember the black wharves and the ships,
     And the sea-tides tossing free;
And the 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.

"If Longfellow never took you under his Spanish cloak when you were a boy, you cannot hope to understand him now. It isn't a matter of fact; it is a matter of feeling. You see, I lived as a boy in a river town near the wilderness. We did not know what Boston thought; we did our own thinking, out of traditions of our own. There was poetry enough all around us, though we didn't know it, and none of us ever thought of it. But the 'Forest primeval' came down over the hills to the edges of our gardens, and as soon as we were out of the nursery we made guns and knives out of wood, to play Indian, and undertook fearful expeditions into the unknown skirts of the fir-trees at the back of the pasture lot. And when we came into the dignity of our trousers and our 'teens, we had learned to snowshoe and paddle; and made longer excursions, many miles up the netted waterways into the unbroken wilderness. The great river itself was a wonder-as wonderful as the road where Will o'the Mill lived, which came down over the mountains and went on into the citied plains beyond. It came from the mystery of the unexplored, from a hundred lakes where the moose ranged and the wild fowl gathered in clouds; and it went on silently down to the mystery of the sea. You may never have known the magic of a river bank. But there, by the sides of that river town, was a perpetual enchantment. I tell you I could sit under its great willows when the first bees made a tiny summer storm in the yellow seas of bloom, and watch that smiling current

'Till the beauty of its stillness
Overflowed me like a tide.

"Longfellow was an American; he was the only poet who was romantic and knew nature as he saw it. Then, too, we had The Psalm of Life by heart, and The Old Clock on the Stairs. Did we not recite them with quaking courage before the whole school? O, no, you don't know anything about Longfellow, if you didn't live with him, when you were a boy; and you never will."

All that is a trifle sentimental, and will not bring us very far towards a just estimate of Longfellow. Yet, my friend was correct in part. Longfellow was a prince in his own right, in his own time and land; and we were all his leal followers. But the prince is dead; the times are changed; and his followers are grown up. I do not know whether boys read him now and feed their hungry imaginations on his romances, but I believe they did yesterday-twenty years ago. I do not boast of their poetic insight; it may have been sadly at fault. I know they had the evil taste to be fired by the Lays of Ancient Rome,-those soul-stirring ballads of Horatius and Black Auster, which they have since learned to depreciate. And I dare say, if we had not been reared in the cult of Hiawatha, we might find it, too, a very touchstone for all that is cheap and false in poetry. I, at least, am thankful not to be that one.

A re-reading of the favorites of youth is a perilous thing for middle age, that age when wisdom begins to seem superfluous, and experience unnecessary, when we have neither the easy assurance of the beardless twenties, nor the ex-cathedra weight of the well-fed forties. Even a very ordinary angel might be expected to have enough sagacity to keep him from tracing back along the enchanted pathway of a personal romance, but, alas for men!

Yet this process of disillusion is considered "generally necessary to salvation" in a critic. He must have become disenamored, we fancy, before he can see clearly the merit of the cause on trial. On the other hand, a lively sympathy, a keen alertness of appreciation,-through what other qualities of disposition are we ever to approach, even remotely, the purpose of a master or understand his message?

For no art can be merely a mental thing. To be of any value whatever, it must make appeal to our human nature by other means as well as those of mind. It must have a lure for the senses, a lift for the heart, as well as a light for the groping thought. Not the mere analysis, therefore, of this or that artistic masterpiece, not the mere comprehension of it, will suffice to settle its claim in a final judgment. So that, surely, if your critic who has been profoundly moved by a creation of beauty is to be hopelessly debarred from testimony in the aesthetic tribunal, one who has never been moved at all must be debarred more hopelessly still.

One must entertain some such consideration as this, to offset the seeming temerity of approaching a writer like Longfellow, the most loved, if not the best loved, of American poets, the one man more than all others in our literature, whose name carries with it invariable associations of the gentlest human feeling. His range was not wide, his power was not varied, his insight was not deep; he had no passion and little force; yet, in spite of these almost incalculable defects, he had one of the chief traits of genius, -he had the charm of benignity, the serene composure of an untarnished mind. All sunshine, he wanders through our fancy, this poet of the quiet Charles, with a gracious and winning smile like Virgil's own, a rare classic purity of mien, the influence of a personality undisturbed by vicissitude or doubt. In his pages there is something of that grace,-that unfailing grace and gentleness of nature, that urbanity of tone,-not always found in our greatest English poets, which so marks the Greek and Latin writers, the very quality that has led us to speak of our study of their work as a study of the humanities. The sense of proportion, the scrupulous reverence for art, the untiring winsomeness of manner which only an unswerving allegiance to beauty can bestow,-these characteristics are Longfellow's own. The stress and strain, the hopeless vagaries of whim, the floundering, incoherent, experimental atrocities so terribly prevalent in English letters, these are never his.

In the conclusion of that noble preface to his poems, Arnold says; "If we cannot attain to the mastery of the great artists, let us, at least, have so much respect for our art as to prefer it to ourselves. Let us not bewilder our successors; let us transmit to them the practice of poetry, with its boundaries and wholesome regulative laws, under which excellent works may again, perhaps, at some future time be produced, not yet fallen into oblivion through our neglect, not yet condemned and canceled by the influence of their eternal enemy, caprice."

In that sentence we have the true estimate of Longfellow's worth. He was not an original thinker, like Emerson; he was not a powerful political pamphleteer, like Lowell; he was not a prophet, like Whitman; he was a thorough, modest, conscientious craftsman, who had so much respect for his art as to prefer it to himself, and who, though he produced no work of the first order, nevertheless transmitted to us the practice of poetry, unimpaired by any neglect of his, and uninjured by its eternal enemy, caprice. This is Longfellow's honor; this justifies his reward. And when we are inclined to think harshly of his mediocrity,-his forceless mediocrity of thought, his depressing mediocrity of sentiment, we may well recall his high service to letters in maintaining their traditions, and importing their treasures into a new world. For, while Longfellow was the Psalmist of Philistia, he was also, by his sheer devotion to art, an example to the Children of Light. So that, with all his shortcomings, with all the disabilities of his own endowments, there still was left him an ample accomplishment; for there was left to him a large field of activity, the whole realm of intellectual experience in which the mass of mankind habitually dwells,-the realm of the familiar. He is the laureate of placidity, the poet of the commonplace. He was not, I mean, a master of thought like Browning or Goethe, solacing our disquietude with ever new helps towards a solution of the riddle; nor a stimulator of valorous spirit in the front of doubt, like Shelley or Heine, those brave soldiers in the holy warfare of humanity; nor did he voice, like Burns, the lyrical, stormy cry of the soul in the very ecstasy of daily joys and sorrows. No, he lived in that happy region where all of us average men and women in the world are prone, if not content, to dwell, the region of domestic sentiment and popular thought. And his gravest sin is that he would make us more content, rather than less content to dwell there.

In this fact his fame must find its reason, and his limitations their excuse.

If we permit ourselves to generalize a moment, we shall see that all art, and therefore, of course, all poetry, is a compromise between the inborn conception in the artist's mind and the strictly limited means of expression at his command. He can never perfectly embody his new idea, never perfectly convey it to his audience in all its freshness, since the only means of expression at his command are conventional and already overworn. He must always compromise between a freshness of expression which would completely satisfy himself, and a triteness of expression which would completely satisfy his public. So that it happens every artist, every poet, commands an audience whose size is directly in proportion to this compromise.

Blake, for instance, with his keen vision and his fervent imagination, made the smallest possible compromise with ordinary intelligibility. And, as a direct consequence of his uncompromising adherence to what Emerson would call his "private dream," he is, and must always remain, a poet for the few. The artist, on the other hand, whose mind is a typical average mind, whose feelings are typical average feelings, if he have a faculty for expression of any sort, whether in painting, or music, or poetry, will inevitably embody such thoughts and feelings in conventional forms. His music, or his poetry, will have one virtue at least; it will never be over the heads of his hearers. He will always be perfectly understood, because he never transcends the average imperfect understanding. He will have a great popularity, an enormously wide appeal, because his emotions are typical average emotions, and he never makes a demand on sympathies which the average man does not possess. His admirers will think there is none like him because he so perfectly embodies their own thoughts and feelings, and voices those sentiments which are endeared to them by age. It does not occur to them that art may have a different function in the world, that its purpose may be, not to give us satisfaction in contemplating our own thoughts and feelings, but to make us profoundly dissatisfied with them, and to give us newer and better ones in their stead.

There can scarcely be any question of comparative greatness between these two kinds of artist. The one is great in spite of his limitations, the other is great because of them. And this is all there is of greatness.

Is it? I think not. I have an idea that, in the last analysis, those qualities of mind which stir the world, which provoke endeavor, which rouse, and stimulate, and encourage, even while they appall with their terrible revelations of the truth, must be considered greater than those which lull us in our wonted content, which conciliate, and drowse, and amuse, lest we rankle under a touch of Titanic misgiving. And this is forever the severest arraignment of your popular artist, that he makes us satisfied with what we are, rather than ambitious of what we may become.

Still, the fact of Longfellow remains, and it is with that we have to deal,-the undoubted fact of his great vogue. And a consideration of any of his more important works will show us the reason of his success. Let us look at Evangeline, for instance, the work most intimately connected with his name, the one by which he is best known.

It has long been my good fortune to be driven northward every season, and lodged, with other migrants, on the slopes above Grand Pré. The whole of that lovely region is often called, "The Evangeline Country;" and its modest villages rejoice yearly in the miraculous bounty of the tourist,-a manna of American silver in a wilderness of poetic association. Thousands every year make that pious pilgrimage to the country which Longfellow described so beautifully, and never had the curiosity to visit. One can understand a man's reluctance to behold a place towards which he had intentions of poetic justice; but one cannot comprehend how he could resist the temptation to look once in reality on the face of a region he himself had already made immortal with his pen. However, Longfellow never went to Grand Pré, and the loss was his own.

But there, last summer, in one of the gardens of the world, under the loveliest of skies, when the orchards were heavy with fruit, there where time goes no faster than the swing of the great pendulous tides, I re-read the moving tale of Evangeline in the most popular poem of American literature. The touching story was there with all its pathos; the glamour of Evangeline's name and her sweet character still hung about the leisurely pages; but for anything of poetic power, of dramatic sense, of lyrical feeling,-they seem to have vanished. I confess most sorrowfully, the poem seemed to me flat and insipid, a sadly inadequate rendering of an excellent legend. And I said in my haste, "The truth is, Longfellow has spoiled a fine subject. His melody is wooden, his sentiment is sloppy, and his descriptions conventional and common to a degree. He is neither sensuous nor impassioned, and his simplicity is without distinction."

And I wondered what it was could give the poem its immense reputation, in the face of such glaring faults. Then I bethought myself of the fact that it was the very shortcomings themselves that insured its success. I recalled the popular love of descriptions, of sentimentalism, of familiar melody, and the popular hatred of everything that is sensuous or distinguished. And I said, "Mediocrity is the ideal of the majority."

On the other hand, no less a judge than Dr. Holmes has said, "f the larger poems of our chief singer, I should not hesitate to select Evangeline as the masterpiece, and I think the general verdict of opinion would confirm my choice..The hexameter has been often criticised, but I do not believe any other measure could have told that lovely story with such effect, as we feel when carried along the current of these brimming, soul-satisfying lines."

Dr. Holmes's conviction that the general verdict of opinion would confirm him, should have been enough to make him distrust his own choice. But aside from that, he seems to me to overstate the matter. Longfellow's choice of a meter undoubtedly helped him to his success; in his hands it is a meter of great facilities,-easy, familiar, homely, melodious; and it has little dignity, or strength, or reserve. The use of the hexameter in English has been a great source of controversy among critics. Matthew Arnold selected it as the meter in which the final translation of Homer is to be made; while Mr. Swinburne execrates it as an alien impossibility. Certainly the movement and the feeling of Evangeline, thinking for the moment of the versification merely, are far enough removed from the movement and feeling of Homer. But it may be that this meter, so little used in English, only awaits a competent hand to give it distinction and nobility. Whether it is Homeric or not is hardly the question here. It is to be considered merely as an English-meter, with the individual characteristics given it by the user. And it was for Longfellow, a meter full of peril; an ample, loose, copious means of expression, it was lacking in those very difficulties and restrictions which his talent most needed. It gave him every scope for the conversational manner, the too familiar style. It was a broad and pleasant road, constantly betraying him into swamps of platitude and mires of bathos.

Silently one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven, Blossomed the lovely stars.

That would be all very well, if it were all. But it is not. The poet had a line to finish. His meter was too easy, too ample; it gave him too much room in which to move; it failed to support and restrain him as good meter should; and he concludes,

Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.

And you descend at one step from the simple, the unaffected, the beautiful, to the tawdry and ridiculous. I cannot believe that the man who could say,

Build thou more stately mansions, O my soul,

could find anything soul-satisfying in the line,

Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.

And that bathos, that flatness of expression, that insipidity of phrase are never quite far enough away in Evangeline. The tale, so simply noble in itself, so romantic in all its setting and local color, too often suffers in the telling from lapses into the utterly trivial, the ignoble and the commonplace. In a poet of the first rank this can never happen; but I am inclined to think that in the present instance the fault lay, to some extent, in that easy, irresponsible meter, which left the author's taste entirely free to its occasional undoing.

But all this is not to say that Evangeline is not Longfellow's most successful poem. It certainly is, if popularity be success. It is the work with which his name will always be associated. It has all those qualities of prettiness and sentiment which captivate the average reader and fill her with a gentle sympathy for the unfortunate heroine. Its great fault is its lack of passion. And that, of course, is Longfellow's signal defect as a poet. He is utterly without passion. His single love poem, beginning,

Lo, in the painted oriel of the West

is almost the only poor sonnet he ever wrote. But I do not mean the passion of love merely, I mean passion of any sort. The story of Evangeline does not evoke the passionate phases of love; it calls up the tender and idyllic phases of it. Consider the incident of the deportation, though. As I am persuaded, that execrable act was the scheme of the dastardly governor, Laurence, unauthorized by his home government. But that fact does not lessen the dramatic horror of the deed; while the peacefulness of the French neutrals engages our sympathy the more. Here surely was the theme to raise the passion of righteousness in the veriest dough-faced caitiff that ever trod upon grass. Longfellow is utterly unmoved before it. He goes on with the tale in that mild tone, as if not a heart were breaking. Not a quaver of indignation in his voice, not an accent of wrath on his lips. "The hate of hate, the scorn of scorn" are not in him.

Now, that mildness of nature, that incapacity for passionate feeling, while they help to a serenity and dignity of tone, at the same time are hindrances to the proper interpretation of human actions. A poet without passion, a poet of tepid emotions, will be well fitted to interpret the meditative moods of nature; he will hardly have the requisite insight to deal with rash tumultuous human deeds forcefully or convincingly. They will not become, in his handling to them, great pieces of literature. They will inevitably partake of the tameness of his own character; and, failing to be great, distinguished, simple, they will be popular, flat, and trite. This is the fate of the Evangeline tale. And it is due, as I think, in no small part to the measure. For a meter, which, of itself, is so prone to fall into an ambling, easy-going manner, is hardly the best medium of expression for an artist whose characteristic is a proneness to a similar habit of mind. Gentleness and ease were qualities of Longfellow's character, and very beautiful they are; but when they find their expression in a medium whose characteristics are a like gentleness and ease, the result is a product in which those qualities are exaggerated to the proportion of faults.

As a sonneteer Longfellow was much more fortunate. That strict form of verse seems to have supplied just the support and restraint his prolixity required. In those large, calm interludes to his translation of the Divine Comedy, in the sonnet on Chaucer, and in the sonnet on Nature, he is at his best, and he is among the masters of the sonnet, with Wordsworth and Milton. His delicate taste and instinctive breeding found their fitting habit in that aristocratic regularity of expression.

Of all Longfellow's more extended poetical works, there is only one, as it seems to me, which still rings true, retaining its old charm, and casting over the reader as potent a spell as it did in those earlier days of innocence before we had eaten of the fruit of egotism, and become as critics, knowing good from bad in poetry. I mean the Song of Hiawatha. Here, too, Longfellow was happy in his choice of a metrical form,-far happier than in those "soul-satisfying lines" of Evangeline. The novelty of the measure alone transports us into an alien region, apart from our accustomed world; the legends themselves are full of the most beautiful poetic interpretations of nature; while that trick of repetition falls on the ear with a strange wildness of refrain. It serves another purpose, too, quite unguessed by the author himself; it saves him from platitudes and superfluities of Evangeline, by putting in his mouth a parallelism, a recurrence of phrase. When he describes the blessing of the cornfields,-

When the noiseless night descended
Broad and dark o'er field and forest,

the conventional use of a repetition does not allow him to spoil or weaken the figure; it compels him to strengthen it with a Hebraic thought-rhyme,-

When the mournful Wawonessa
Sorrowing sang among the hemlocks.

And then in the same passage, he tells how Laughing Water rose from her bed to go out and bless the fields, and says,

No one but the Midnight only
Saw her beauty in the darkness.

again he is not permitted to ruin the picture, as he ruined the phrase

Blossomed the lovely stars,

by adding to it,

The forget-me-nots of the angels.

He is compelled by the convention he is following rather to improve and emphasize the figure, as a Hebrew poet might have done,

No one but the Wawonessa
Heard the panting of her bosom.

I spoke of the danger of the personal estimate creeping into one's judgment of poetry; and it may be I overrate the beauty of Hiawatha. To have known the unfettered life of river and wood, and had the wild things for fellows, is to remember them forever; and it may be they always afterwards fill the mind with pictures and furnishings of their own, so that one cannot judge dispassionately the guest approaching in their name. For me, I am content with Hiawatha any day, transported beyond the reaches of annoyance, almost beyond the touch of adversity. If poetry has a finer boon than this, I have yet to find it.

But there is another and very important aspect of Longfellow's work in which we have not yet glanced. I mean his work as a translator. I have ventured to set down a purely personal estimate of him; but that, of course, is a very small part of the true estimate, and there is still left a large field of his activity unsurveyed. For Longfellow's monumental achievement was that he imported culture into America. He was the first American man of letters to be thoroughly saturated with European savor and sentiment, and this taste of that Old-World relish is through and through his work.

All the delight of art and story and the mellowing beauties of an elder civilization, which is now become the commonplace of travel for thousands of our people, was unfelt in Longfellow's youth. He was the first to come under that potent influence, and all his life it held him. His was the very temper, gentle and romantic as it was, to be moved by the dreamy pageant of historic time, and he passed through the towns and cities of the continent (the only continent) like a pilgrim returning to his native country. The great bulk of his actual translations from so many sources attests his infatuation. No wild White Mountain top, no sweep of his own New England coast, could impress him as keenly as some scrap of legendary lore. His genius rejoiced in the humanities; that calm temperament, so unvexed by any stormy passion, while it felt no need for an intense or vehement expression of itself, felt as little necessity for the stern consolations of wildness and solitude. He was never the priest of nature; he was always the gentle sacristan of art. And it is his great labors in this field that have so endeared him to his countrymen. He gave us an air, an atmosphere which we did not before possess, an air in which art could grow. He made us partakers of the amenities of an unobtrusive culture, and brought home treasures of the ages to our doors, as the clipper-built ships of Salem used to bring those rare bales of outlandish merchandise and handicraft from China or the Indies long ago.


"Longfellow Through Modern Eyes," Longfellow Chap-Book, Apr. 1898 [back]