revolutionary or anarchical forces at home. In the same sense, happy the man whose life-story is brief. Life, in such a case, is not so much a war or series of battles, with their vicissitudes, their wild excitement and terrible disasters, as a journey or series of excursions, enlivened indeed by adventure, but unchequered by mishaps, and attended only by fatigue to sweeten the intervals of repose. Had Longfellow been naturally a robust and froward spirit, capable of bearing heavy burdens, and requiring to be tamed by carrying them through life, then had we wished for him a different career. But a spirit so gentle and meek as breathes in his poetry would have succumbed in a Titanic life-struggle: to act out an epos of strife, and crown it with pæans of victory would not have been his; and we are therefore glad that he was spared the dust and din of the arena, where his inner sense would have been dulled to those sights and sounds of beauty which form the distinguishing charm of his verses. What the Abbess of Irmingard, in the Golden Legend, says to Elsie of Vogelweid's minstrelsy, is true of his own :

His song was of the summer time,
The very birds sang in his rhyme:
The sunshine, the delicious air,

The fragrance of the flowers, were there.
Well, then, that his life-voyage has been smooth and happy:

Down soft aerial currents sailing,
O'er blossomed orchards, and fields in bloom,
And through the momentary gloom

Of shadows o'er the landscape trailing. Longfellow's visits to continental Europe have left marked traces in his poetry. No man of culture can pass even from Great Britain, wheremediæval institutions are still represented by abbeys and castles in ruins, and by half-occupied cathedrals, into the Roman Catholic countries of Europe, particularly Spain and Italy, without having his interest intensely excited by the spectacle of mediævalism living on there in connection with the church, and looking very life-like indeed on high-days and holy-days, in its various costumes and pompous solemnities. But the impression must be still stronger on a scholar from the United States, where only a few fragmentary relics, preserved in museums, witness to mediæval

[ocr errors]

times, which they illustrate very much as an old brick might represent a once goodly mansion. From the last of Longfellow's “ Earlier Poems,” entitled “ Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem,” it is clear that, even before visiting Europe, his imagination had taken fire at the altar, where romantic love and chivalrous daring used to worship the incorporate God, and record their vows, while the frequency with which he borrows illustrations from the mediæval past, or what survives of it, shows with equal evidence that, on crossing the Atlantic and the English Channel, he reverted in contemplation as many centuries as he had travelled thousands of miles, and that southern Europe became to him the very land of romance. The impression indeed overmastered him, for there are instances in which his fondness for mediæval illustrations has betrayed him into inaccuracies of expression and errors of taste. Thus, describing the fields of maize in Evangeline, he says that they,

[ocr errors]

“ Lifted their slendershafts, with leaves interlacing, and forming

Cloisters for mendicant crows, and granaries pillaged by squirrels,"

Now the crows take without asking : thievish therefore is their style, and not mendicant ; for we cannot suppose the mendicancy of Longfellow's favourite monks to resemble the “picking and stealing” of the hooded crows. Again, in the “ Occultation of Orion”

" The moon was pallid, but not faint ;

Yet beautiful as some fair saint,
Serenely moving on her way
In hours of trial and dismay.
As if she heard the voice of God,
Unharmed with naked feet she trod
Upon the hot and burning stars,
As on the glowing coals and bars,
That were to prove her strength, and try
Her holiness and her purity.”

Here, in order to carry out his illustration from the fiery ordeal of feudal times, he is obliged to make the stars “ hot and burning,” contrary to the poetic sense of mankind, which declares them to be bright indeed but cold.

The grand source, however, of Longfellow's inspiration,

and the chief scene of his triumphs is in the domain of external nature, including domestic, industrial, and rural life : for all that is beautiful in these he has an eye and a voicc. His paramount sympathy with the beauty of the outer world appears in the choice of subjects for his “ Earlier Poems:'' and although, towards the close of his “ Prelude" to the “ Voices of the Night,” which was his first published collection of poems, he declares his intention of becoming the poet of human life in general, yet the far greater part of that “prelude” is an avowal con amore of his predilection for easier and quieter themes; and throughout his poems, nay, even in the “ Voices of the Night” themselves, the natural tendency triumphs over the purpose of reflection. He describes his native self in these stanzas of the “prelude”–

“ Beneath some patriarchal tree

I lay upon the ground;
His hoary arms uplifted he,
And all the broad leaves over me
Clapped their little hands in glee,

With one continuous sound.

And dreams of that which cannot die,

Bright visions came to me,
As lapped in thought I used to lie,
And gaze into the summer sky,
Where the sailing clouds went by,

Like ships upon the sea."
But in these others,-

“ Learn that henceforth thy song shall be,

Not mountains capped with snow,
Nor forests sounding like the sea,
Nor rivers flowing ceaselessly,
Where the woodlands bend to see

The bending heavens below.
“ Look then into thine heart and write !

Yes into life's deep stream!
All forms of sorrow and delight,
All solemn Voices of the Night,
That can soothe thee or affright,

Be these henceforth thy theme." -in these he announces a purpose alien from his instincts, and beyond his power of execution. He has, in fact, no ear for the

[ocr errors]

terrible, and accordingly the most frightful night-voice becomes in his rhymes a soothing melody. In spite of his purpose to fathom life's deep stream,” he keeps floating quietly down its surface, joining in the concerts of music that greet him from its banks, and confidently anticipating the pacific ocean of eternity.

The absence of passion in Longfellow incapacitates him for being the poet of human life. There is no abyss in his experience between sorrow and delight; the sounds of both blend into a pleasing harmony in his ear:

“ I heard the sounds of sorrow and delight,

The manifold soft chimes
That fill the haunted chambers of the night,

Like some old poet's rhymes."

Though a writer of poetry when a mere youth, yet the tender passion has almost no place in his effusions; and though his smaller pieces are very numerous, not one is addressed to any object, animate or inanimate, of personal attachment. His mistress is no more to him than the “presence of the night,” if the following stanza be attuned, as it ought to be, to the lyre of his own heart:-

“ I felt her presence, by its spell of might,

Stoop o'er me froin above;
The calm majestic presence of the night,

As of the one I love."

Equally remarkable is the absence of national enthusiasm, to the indulgence of which he might have been often tempted by the contrast between the decrepitude of southern Europe and the go-a-headism of his native States. His whole poetry contains but one utterance-it cannot be called an outburst -of patriotism. At the end of his poem on the “Building of the Ship,” is an apostrophe to the Union, in which, however, there is no proud mention of liberty and independence ; nothing but a prayer for prosperity, which a Briton, or any other well-wisher of humanity, might breathe with as much propriety as a native American. Still more impotent is Longfellow in hatred and denunciation. He can hate nothing and nobody. His poems on slavery paint its sorrows, and bring into relief its consolations; but they scarcely denounce the crime, and blow no blast of execration on its perpetrators. He has not an unkind word to say even of Lucifer, whom he thus gently dismisses at the end of the « Golden Legend :"

“ It is Lucifer,

The son of mystery ;
And since God suffers him to be,
He, too, is God's minister,
And labours for some good

By us not understood !" To complete his impassibility, Longfellow has no comic vein; you never catch him laughing, as you never catch him crying, but smiling, always smiling, like an optimist, who has come to Pope's conclusion, that “whatever is, is best.”

Hence the sternness of reality is wanting in Longfellow's view of things. He will not look honestly on the dark side. Perfectly amiable, and, on the whole, well pleased himself, there is little sin and misery in his world ; and, brimming with hope, there is no hell in his future. All is couleur de rose : even the hospital beds present quite a pleasing spectacle to Evangeline :

“ And as she looked around, she saw how Death the consoler,

Laying his hand upon many a heart, had healed it for ever.”

[ocr errors]

And to little Elsie in the “Golden Legend :

s6 The grave itself is but a covered bridge,

Leading from light to light, through a brief darkness.” Longfellow, in short, is a poet-artist much more than a poet-man; and his instincts, in the order of strength, are for the beautiful, the good, and the true; not for the true, the good, and the beautiful. Hence his indifference to those things which divide men most, as forms of government and religion. A mass in Italy, and a first communion of children in Sweden, are alike highly interesting to him, because both present aspects of the beautiful, although in heart he can be a sympathising spectator of neither. Hence, too, his feebleness in passionate and moral expression, and, in general, his unfitness to be a poet of human life.

By nature a lover of the beautiful, by education a scholar,

« ElőzőTovább »