[This is taken from William J. Long's Outlines of English and American Literature.]
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on Life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.
O’Hara, “The Bivouac of the Dead”
POLITICAL HISTORY. To study the history of America after 1840 is to have our attention drawn as by a powerful lodestone to the Civil War. It looms there in the middle of the nineteenth century, a stupendous thing, dominating and dwarfing all others. To it converge many ways that then seemed aimless or wandering, the unanswered questions of the Constitution, the compromises of statesmen, the intrigues of politicians, the clamor of impatient reformers, the silent degradation of the slave. And from it, all its passion and suffering forgotten, its heroism remembered, proceed the unexpected blessings of a finer love of country, a broader sense of union, a surer faith in democracy, a better understanding of the spirit of America, more gratitude for her glorious past, more hope for her future. So every thought or mention of the mighty conflict draws us onward, as the first sight of the Rockies, massive and snow crowned, lures the feet of the wanderer on the plains.
We shall not attempt here to summarize the war between the South and the North or even to list its causes and consequences. The theme is too vast. We note only that the main issues of the conflict, state rights and slavery, had been debated for the better part of a century, and might still have found peaceful solution had they not been complicated by the minor issues of such an age of agitation as America never saw before and, as we devoutly hope, may never see again.
Such agitation was perhaps inevitable in a country that had grown too rapidly for its government to assimilate the new possessions. By the Oregon treaty, the war with Mexico and the annexation of Texas vast territories had suddenly been added to the Union, each with its problem that called for patient and wise deliberation, but that a passionate and half-informed Congress was expected to settle overnight. With the expansion of territory in the West came a marvelous increase of trade and wealth in the North, and a corresponding growth in the value of cotton and slave labor in the South. Then arose an economic strife; the agricultural interests of one part of the country clashed with the manufacturing interests of another (in such matters as the tariff, for example), and in the tumult of party politics it was impossible to reach any harmonious adjustment. Finally, the violent agitation of the slave question forced it to the front not simply as a moral or human but as a political issue; for the old “balance of power” between the states was upset when the North began to outstrip the South in population, and every state was then fiercely jealous of its individual rights and obligations in a way that we can now hardly comprehend.
As a result of these conflicting interests and the local or sectional passions which they aroused, there was seldom a year after 1840 when the country did not face a situation of extreme difficulty or danger. Indeed, even while Webster was meditating his prophetic oration with its superb climax of “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” many of the most thoughtful minds, south and north, believed that Congress faced a problem beyond its power to solve; that no single government was wise enough or strong enough to meet the situation, especially a government divided against itself.
In the midst of the political tumult, which was increased by the clamor of agitators and reformers, came suddenly the secession of a state from the Union, an act long threatened, long feared, but which arrived at last with the paralyzing effect of a thunderbolt. Then the clamor ceased; minor questions were swept aside as by a tempest, and the main issues were settled not by constitutional rights, not by orderly process of law or the ballot, but by the fearful arbitrament of the sword. And even as the thunderbolt fell and the Union trembled, came also unheralded one gaunt, heroic, heaven-sent man to lead the nation in its hour of peril:
Oh, slow to smite and swift to spare,
Gentle and merciful and just!
Who in the fear of God didst bear
The sword of power, a nation’s trust!
Such is an outline of the period of conflict, an outline to which the political measures or compromises of the time, its sectional antagonism, its score of political parties, its agitators, reformers, and all other matters of which we read confusedly in the histories, are but so many illuminating details.
SOCIAL AND INTELLECTUAL CHANGES. The mental ferment of the period was almost as intense as its political agitation. Thus, the antislavery movement, which aimed to rescue the negro from his servitude, was accompanied by a widespread communistic attempt to save the white man from the manifold evils of our competitive system of industry. Brook Farm [Footnote: This was a Massachusetts society, founded in 1841 by George Ripley. It included Hawthorne, Dana and Curtis in its large membership, and it had the support of Emerson, Greeley, Channing, Margaret Fuller and a host of other prominent men and women] was the most famous of these communities; but there were more than thirty others scattered over the country, all holding property in common, working on a basis of mutual helpfulness, aiming at a nobler life and a better system of labor than that which now separates the capitalist and the workingman.
This brave attempt at human brotherhood, of which Brook Farm was the visible symbol, showed itself in many other ways: in the projection of a hundred social reforms; in the establishment of lyceums throughout the country, where every man with a message might find a hearing. In education our whole school system was changed by applying the methods of Pestalozzi, a Swiss reformer; for the world had suddenly become small, thanks to steam and electricity, and what was spoken in a corner the newspapers immediately proclaimed from the housetops. In religious circles the Unitarian movement, under Channing’s leadership, gained rapidly in members and in influence; in literature the American horizon was broadened by numerous translations from the classic books of foreign countries; in the realm of philosophy the western mind was stimulated by the teaching of the idealistic system known as Transcendentalism.
Emerson was the greatest exponent of this new philosophy, which made its appearance here in 1836. It exalted the value of the individual man above society or institutions; and in dealing with the individual it emphasized his freedom rather than his subjection to authority, his soul rather than his body, his inner wealth of character rather than his outward possessions. It taught that nature was an open book of the Lord in which he who runs may read a divine message; and in contrast with eighteenth-century philosophy (which had described man as a creature of the senses, born with a blank mind, and learning only by experience), it emphasized the divinity of man’s nature, his inborn ideas of right and wrong, his instinct of God, his passion for immortality,--in a word, his higher knowledge which transcends the knowledge gained from the senses, and which is summarized in the word “Transcendentalism.”
We have described this in the conventional way as a new philosophy, though in truth it is almost as old as humanity. Most of the great thinkers of the world, in all ages and in all countries, have been transcendentalists; but in the original way in which the doctrine was presented by Emerson it seemed like a new revelation, as all fine old things do when they are called to our attention, and it exercised a profound influence on our American life and literature.
LITERATURE OF THE PERIOD. The violent political agitation and the profound social unrest of the period found expression in multitudinous works of prose or verse; but the curious fact is that these are all minor works, and could without much loss be omitted from our literary records. They are mostly sectional in spirit, and only what is national or human can long endure.
To illustrate our criticism, the terrible war that dominates the period never had any worthy literary expression; there are thousands of writings but not a single great poem or story or essay or drama on the subject. The antislavery movement likewise brought forth its poets, novelists, orators and essayists; some of the greater writers were drawn into its whirlpool of agitation, and Whittier voiced the conviction that the age called for a man rather than a poet in a cry which was half defiance and half regret:
Better than self-indulgent years
The outflung heart of youth,
Than pleasant songs in idle ears
The tumult of the truth!
That was the feeling in the heart of many a promising young southern or northern poet in midcentury, just as it was in 1776, when our best writers neglected literature for political satires against Whigs or Tories. Yet of the thousand works which the antislavery agitation inspired we can think of only one, Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which lives with power to our own day; and there is something of universal human nature in that famous book, written not from knowledge or experience but from the imagination, which appeals broadly to our human sympathy, and which makes it welcome in countries where slavery as a political or a moral issue has long since been forgotten.
Though the ferment of the age produced no great books, it certainly influenced our literature, making it a very different product from that of the early national period. For example, nearly every political issue soon became a moral issue; and there is a deep ethical earnestness in the essays of Emerson, the poems of Longfellow and the novels of Hawthorne which sets them apart, as of a different spirit, from the works of Irving, Poe and Cooper.
Again, the mental unrest of the period showed itself in a passion for new ideas, new philosophy, new prose and poetry. We have already spoken of the transcendental philosophy, but even more significant was the sudden broadening of literary interest. American readers had long been familiar with the best English poets; now they desired to know how our common life had been reflected by poets of other nations. In answer to that desire came, first, the establishment of professorships of belles-lettres in our American colleges; and then a flood of translations from European and oriental literatures. As we shall presently see, every prominent writer from Emerson to Whitman was influenced by new views of life as reflected in the world’s poetry. Longfellow is a conspicuous example; with his songs inspired by Spanish or German or Scandinavian originals he is at times more like an echo of Europe than a voice from the New World.
Finally, this period of conflict was governed more largely than usual by ideals, by sentiment, by intense feeling. Witness the war, with the heroic sentiments which it summoned up south and north. As the deepest human feeling cannot be voiced in prose, we confront the strange phenomenon of an American age of poetry. This would be remarkable Poetry enough to one who remembers that the genius of America had hitherto appeared practical and prosaic, given to action rather than speech, more concerned to “get on” in life than to tell what life means; but it is even more remarkable in view of the war, which covers the age with its frightful shadow. As Lincoln, sad and overburdened, found the relief of tears in the beautiful ending of Longfellow’s “Building of the Ship,” so, it seems, the heart of America, torn by the sight of her sons in conflict, found blessed relief in songs of love, of peace, of home, of beauty,--of all the lovely and immortal ideals to which every war offers violent but impotent contradiction. And this may be the simple explanation of the fact that the most cherished poems produced by any period of war are almost invariably its songs of peace.
* * * * *
THE GREATER POETS
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW (1807-1882)
When Longfellow sent forth his Voices of the Night, in 1839, that modest little volume met with a doubly warm reception. Critics led by Poe pounced on the work to condemn its sentimentality or moralizing, while a multitude of readers who needed no leader raised a great shout of welcome.
Now as then there are diverse critical opinions of Longfellow, and unfortunately these opinions sometimes obscure the more interesting facts: that Longfellow is still the favorite of the American home, the most honored of all our elder poets; that in foreign schools his works are commonly used as an introduction to English verse, and that he has probably led more young people to appreciate poetry than any other poet who ever wrote our language. That strange literary genius Lafcadio Hearn advised his Japanese students to begin the study of poetry with Longfellow, saying that they might learn to like other poets better in later years, but that Longfellow was most certain to charm them at the beginning.
The reason for this advice, given to the antipodes, was probably this, that young hearts and pure hearts are the same the world over, and Longfellow is the poet of the young and pure in heart.
LIFE. The impression of serenity in Longfellow’s work may be explained by the gifts which Fortune offered him in the way of endowment, training and opportunity. By nature he was a gentleman; his home training was of the best; to his college education four years of foreign study were added, a very unusual thing at that time; and no sooner was he ready for his work than the way opened as if the magic Sesame were on his lips. His own college gave him a chair of modern languages and literature, which was the very thing he wanted; then Harvard offered what seemed to him a wider field, and finally his country called him from the professor’s chair to teach the love of poetry to the whole nation. Before his long and beautiful life ended he had enjoyed for half a century the two rewards that all poets desire, and the most of them in vain; namely, fame and love. The first may be fairly won; the second is a free gift.
Longfellow was born (1807) in the town of Falmouth, Maine, which has since been transformed into the city of Portland. Like Bryant he was descended from Pilgrim stock; but where the older poet’s training had been strictly puritanic, Longfellow’s was more liberal and broadly cultured. Bryant received the impulse to poetry from his grandfather’s prayers, but Longfellow seems to have heard his first call in the sea wind. Some of his best lyrics sing of the ocean; his early book of essays was called Driftwood, his last volume of poetry In the Harbor; and in these lyrics and titles we have a reflection of his boyhood impressions in looking forth from the beautiful Falmouth headland, then a wild, wood-fringed pasture but now a formal park:
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.
This first call was presently neglected for the more insistent summons of literature; and thereafter Longfellow’s inspiration was at second hand, from books rather than from nature or humanity. Soon after his graduation from Bowdoin (1825) he was offered a professorship in modern languages on condition that he prepare himself for the work by foreign study. With a glad heart he abandoned the law, which he had begun to study in his father’s office, and spent three happy years in France, Spain and Italy. There he steeped himself in European poetry, and picked up a reading knowledge of several languages. Strangely enough, the romantic influence of Europe was reflected by this poet in a book of prose essays, Outre Mer, modeled on Irving’s Sketch Book.
For five years Longfellow taught the modern languages at Bowdoin, and his subject was so new in America that he had to prepare his own textbooks. Then, after another period of foreign study (this time in Denmark and Germany), he went to Harvard, where he taught modern languages and literature for eighteen years. In 1854 he resigned his chair, and for the remainder of his life devoted himself whole-heartedly to poetry.
His literary work began with newspaper verses, the best of which appear in the “Earlier Poems” of his collected works. Next he attempted prose in his Outre Mer, Driftwood Essays and the romances Hyperion and Kavanagh. In 1839 appeared his first volume of poetry, Voices of the Night, after which few years went by without some notable poem or volume from Longfellow’s pen. His last book, In the Harbor, appeared with the news of his death, in 1882.
Aside from these “milestones” there is little to record in a career so placid that we remember by analogy “The Old Clock on the Stairs.” For the better part of his life he lived in Cambridge, where he was surrounded by a rare circle of friends, and whither increasing numbers came from near or far to pay the tribute of gratitude to one who had made life more beautiful by his singing. Once only the serenity was broken by a tragedy, the death of the poet’s wife, who was fatally burned before his eyes,--a tragedy which occasioned his translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia (by which work he strove to keep his sorrow from overwhelming him) and the exquisite “Cross of Snow.” The latter seemed too sacred for publication; it was found, after the poet’s death, among his private papers.
Reading Longfellow’s poems one would never suspect that they were produced in an age of turmoil. To be sure, one finds a few poems on slavery (sentimental effusions, written on shipboard to relieve the monotony of a voyage), but these were better unwritten since they added nothing to the poet’s song and took nothing from the slave’s burden. Longfellow has been criticized for his inaction in the midst of tumult, but possibly he had his reasons. When everybody’s shouting is an excellent time to hold your tongue. He had his own work to do, a work for which he was admirably fitted; that he did not turn aside from it is to his credit and our profit. One demand of his age was, as we have noted elsewhere, to enter into the wealth of European poetry; and he gave thirty years of his life to satisfying that demand. Our own poetry was then sentimental, a kind of “sugared angel-cake”; and Longfellow, who was sentimental enough but whose sentiment was balanced by scholarship, made poetry that was like wholesome bread to common men. Lowell was a more brilliant writer, and Whittier a more inspired singer; but neither did a work for American letters that is comparable to that of Longfellow, who was essentially an educator, a teacher of new ideas, new values, new beauty. His influence in broadening our literary culture, in deepening our sympathy for the poets of other lands, and in making our own poetry a true expression of American feeling is beyond measure.
MINOR POEMS. It was by his first simple poems that Longfellow won the hearts of his people, and by them he is still most widely and gratefully remembered. To name these old favorites (“The Day is Done,” “Resignation,” “Ladder of St. Augustine,” “Rainy Day,” “Footsteps of Angels,” “Light of Stars,” “Reaper and the Flowers,” “Hymn to the Night,” “Midnight Mass,” “Excelsior,” “Village Blacksmith,” “Psalm of Life”) is to list many of the poems that are remembered and quoted wherever in the round world the English language is spoken.
Ordinarily such poems are accepted at their face value as a true expression of human sentiment; but if we examine them critically, remembering the people for whom they were written, we may discover the secret of their popularity. The Anglo-Saxons are first a busy and then a religious folk; when their day’s work is done their thoughts turn naturally to higher matters; and any examination of Longfellow’s minor works shows that a large proportion of them deal with the thoughts or feelings of men at the close of day. Such poems would be called Abendlieder in German; a good Old-English title for them would be “Evensong”; and both titles suggest the element of faith or worship. In writing these poems Longfellow had, unconsciously perhaps, the same impulse that leads one man to sing a hymn and another to say his prayers when the day is done. Because he expresses this almost universal feeling simply and reverently, his work is dear to men and women who would not have the habit of work interfere with the divine instinct of worship.
Further examination of these minor poems shows them to be filled with sentiment that often slips over the verge of sentimentality. The sentiments expressed are not of the exalted, imaginative kind; they are the sentiments of plain people who feel deeply but who can seldom express their feeling. Now, most people are sentimental (though we commonly try to hide the fact, more’s the pity), and we are at heart grateful to the poet who says for us in simple, musical language what we are unable or ashamed to say for ourselves. In a word, the popularity of Longfellow’s poems rests firmly on the humanity of the poet.
Besides these vesper songs are a hundred other short poems, among which the reader must make his own selection. The ballads should not be neglected, for Longfellow knew how to tell a story in verse. If he were too prone to add a moral to his tale (a moral that does not speak for itself were better omitted), we can overlook the fault, since his moral was a good one and his readers liked it. The “occasional” poems, also, written to celebrate persons or events (such as “Building of the Ship,” “Hanging of the Crane,” “Morituri Salutamus,” “Bells of Lynn,” “Robert Burns,” “Chamber over the Gate”) well deserved the welcome which the American people gave them. And the sonnets (such as “Three Friends,” “Victor and Vanquished,” “My Books,” “Nature,” “Milton,” “President Garfield,” “Giotto’s Tower”) are not only the most artistic of Longfellow’s works but rank very near to the best sonnets in the English language.
AMERICAN IDYLS. In the same spirit in which Tennyson wrote his English Idyls the American poet sent forth certain works reflecting the beauty of common life on this side of the ocean; and though he never collected or gave them a name, we think of them as his “American Idyls.” Many of his minor poems belong to this class, but we are thinking especially of Evangeline, Miles Standish and Hiawatha. The last-named, with its myths and legends clustering around one heroic personage, is commonly called an epic; but its songs of Chibiabos, Minnehaha, Nokomis and the little Hiawatha are more like idyllic pictures of the original Americans.
Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie (1847) met the fate of Longfellow’s earlier poems in that it was promptly attacked by a few critics while a multitude of people read it with delight. Its success may be explained on four counts. First, it is a charming story, not a “modern” or realistic but a tender, pathetic story such as we read in old romances, and such as young people will cherish so long as they remain young people. Second, it had a New World setting, one that was welcomed in Europe because it offered readers a new stage, more vast, shadowy, mysterious, than that to which they were accustomed; and doubly welcomed here because it threw the glamor of romance over familiar scenes which deserved but had never before found their poet. Third, this old romance in a new setting was true to universal human nature; its sentiments of love, faith and deathless loyalty were such as make the heart beat faster wherever true hearts are found. Finally, it was written in an unusual verse form, the unrimed hexameter, which Longfellow handled as well, let us say, as most other English poets who have tried to use that alluring but difficult measure. For hexameters are like the Italian language, which is very easy to “pick up,” but which few foreigners ever learn to speak with the rhythm and melody of a child of Tuscany.
Longfellow began his hexameters fairly well, as witness the opening lines of Evangeline:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
Occasionally also he produced a very good but not quite perfect line or passage:
And as the voice of the priest repeated the service of sorrow,
So with a mournful sound, like the voice of a vast congregation,
Solemnly answered the sea, and mingled its roar with the dirges.
One must confess, however, that such passages are exceptional, and that one must change the proper stress of a word too frequently to be enthusiastic over Longfellow’s hexameters. Some of his lines halt or hobble, refusing to move to the chosen measure, and others lose all their charm when spoken aloud:
When she had passed it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.
That line has been praised by critics, but one must believe that they never pronounced it. To voice its sibilant hissing is to understand the symbol for a white man in the Indian sign language; that is, two fingers of a hand extended before the face, like the fork of a serpent’s tongue. On the whole, Longfellow’s verse should be judged not by itself but as a part of the tale he was telling. Holmes summed up the first impression of many readers by saying that he found these “brimming lines” an excellent medium for a charming story.
That is more than one can truthfully say of the next important idyl, The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). The story is a good one and, more than all the histories, has awakened a romantic interest in the Pilgrims; but its unhappy hexameters go jolting along, continually upsetting the musical rhythm, until we wish that the tale had been told in either prose or poetry.
The Song of Hiawatha (1855) was Longfellow’s greatest work, and by it he will probably be longest remembered as a world poet. The materials for this poem, its musical names, its primitive traditions, its fascinating folklore, were all taken from Schoolcraft’s books about the Ojibway Indians; its peculiar verse form, with its easy rhythm and endless repetition, was copied from the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. Material and method, the tale and the verse form, were finely adapted to each other; and though Longfellow showed no originality in Hiawatha, his poetic talent or genius appears in this: that these tales of childhood are told in a childlike spirit; that these forest legends have the fragrance of hemlock in them; and that as we read them, even now, we seem to see the wigwam with its curling smoke, and beyond the wigwam the dewy earth, the shining river, and the blue sky with its pillars of tree trunks and its cloud of rustling leaves. The simplicity and naturalness of primitive folklore is in this work of Longfellow, who of a hundred writers at home and abroad was the first to reveal the poetry in the soul of an Indian.
As the poem is well known we forbear quotation; as it is too long, perhaps, we express a personal preference in naming “Hiawatha’s Childhood,” his “Friends,” his “Fishing” and his “Wooing” as the parts most likely to please the beginner. The best that can be said of Hiawatha is that it adds a new tale to the world’s storybook. That book of the centuries has only a few stories, each of which portrays a man from birth to death, fronting the problems of this life, meeting its joy or sorrow in man fashion, and then setting his face bravely to “Ponemah,” the Land of the Hereafter. That Longfellow added a chapter to the volume which preserves the stories of Ulysses, Beowulf, Arthur and Roland is undoubtedly his best or most enduring achievement.
HIS EXPERIMENTAL WORKS. Unless the student wants to encourage a sentimental mood by reading Hyperion, Longfellow’s prose works need not detain us. Much more valuable and readable are his translations from various European languages, and of these his metrical version of The Divine Comedy of Dante is most notable. He attempted also several dramatic works, among which The Spanish Student (1843) is still readable, though not very convincing. In Christus: a Mystery he attempted a miracle play of three acts, dealing with Christianity in the apostolic, medieval and modern eras; but not even his admirers were satisfied with the result. “The Golden Legend” (one version of which Caxton printed on the first English press, and which a score of different poets have paraphrased) is the only part of Christus that may interest young readers by its romantic portrayal of the Middle Ages. To name such works is to suggest Longfellow’s varied interests and his habit of experimenting with any subject or verse form that attracted him in foreign literatures.
The Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863-1873) is the most popular of Longfellow’s miscellaneous works. Here are a score of stories from ancient or modern sources, as told by a circle of the poet’s friends in the Red Horse Inn, at Sudbury. The title suggests at once the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer; but it would be unwise to make any comparison between the two works or the two poets. The ballad of “Paul Revere’s Ride” is the best known of the Wayside Inn poems; the Viking tales of “The Saga of King Olaf” are the most vigorous; the mellow coloring of the Middle Ages appears in such stories as “The Legend Beautiful” and “The Bell of Atri.”
CHARACTERISTICS OF LONGFELLOW. The broad sympathy of Longfellow, which made him at home in the literatures of a dozen nations, was one of his finest qualities. He lived in Cambridge; he wrote in English; he is called the poet of the American home; but had he lived in Finland and written in a Scandinavian tongue, his poems must still appeal to us. Indeed, so simply did he reflect the sentiments of the human heart that Finland or any other nation might gladly class him among its poets.
For example, many Englishmen have written about their Wellington, but, as Hearn says, not even Tennyson’s poem on the subject is quite equal to Longfellow’s “Warden of the Cinque Ports.” The spirit of the Spanish missions, with their self-sacrificing monks and their soldiers “with hearts of fire and steel,” is finely reflected in “The Bells of San Blas.” The half-superstitious loyalty of the Russian peasant for his hereditary ruler has never been better reflected than in “The White Czar.” The story of Belisarius has been told in scores of histories and books of poetry; but you will feel a deeper sympathy for the neglected old Roman soldier in Longfellow’s poem than in anything else you may find on the same theme. And there are many other foreign heroes or brave deeds that find beautiful expression in the verse of our American poet. Of late it has become almost a critical habit to disparage Longfellow; but no critic has pointed out another poet who has reflected with sympathy and understanding the feelings of so many widely different peoples.
Naturally such a poet had his limitations. In comparison with Chaucer, for example, we perceive instantly that Longfellow knew only one side of life, the better side. Unhappy or rebellious or turbulent souls were beyond his ken. He wrote only for those who work by day and sometimes go to evensong at night, who hopefully train their children or reverently bury their dead, and who cleave to a writer that speaks for them the fitting word of faith or cheer or consolation on every proper occasion. As humanity is largely made of such men and women, Longfellow will always be a popular poet. For him, with his serene outlook, there were not nine Muses but only three, and their names were Faith, Hope and Charity.
Concerning his faults, perhaps the most illuminating thing that can be said is that critics emphasize and ordinary readers ignore them. The reason for this is that every poem has two elements, form and content: a critic looks chiefly at the one, an ordinary reader at the other. Because the form of Longfellow’s verse is often faulty it is easy to criticize him, to show that he copies the work of others, that he lacks originality, that his figures are often forced or questionable; but the reader, the young reader especially, may be too much interested in the charm of the poet’s story or the truth of his sentiment to dissect his poetic figures. Thus, in the best-known of his earlier poems, “A Psalm of Life,” he uses the famous metaphor of “footprints on the sands of time.” That is so bad a figure that to analyze is to reject it; yet it never bothers young people, who would understand the poet and like him just as well even had he written “signboards” instead of “footprints.” The point is that Longfellow is so obviously a true and pleasant poet that his faults easily escape attention unless we look for them. There is perhaps no better summary of our poet’s qualities than to record again the simple fact that he is the poet of young people, to whom sentiment is the very breath of life. Should you ask the reason for his supremacy in this respect, the answer is a paradox. Longfellow was not an originator; he had no new song to sing, no new tale to tell. He was the poet of old heroes, old legends, old sentiments and ideals. Therefore he is the poet of youth.
* * * * *
JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER (1807-1892)
The strange mixture of warrior and peace lover in Whittier has led to a strange misjudgment of his work. From the obscurity of a New England farm he emerged as the champion of the Abolitionist party, and for thirty tumultuous years his poems were as war cries. By such work was he judged as “the trumpeter of a cause,” and the judgment stood between him and his audience when he sang not of a cause but of a country. Even at the present time most critics speak of Whittier as “the antislavery poet.” Stedman, for example, focuses our attention on certain lyrics of reform which he calls “words wrung from the nation’s heart”; but the plain fact is that only a small part of the nation approved these lyrics or took any interest in the poet who wrote them.
Such was Whittier on one side, a militant poet of reform, sending forth verses that had the brattle of trumpets and the waving of banners in them:
Lift again the stately emblem on the Bay State’s rusted shield,
Give to Northern winds the Pine Tree on our banner’s tattered field.
Sons of men who sat in council with their Bibles round the board,
Answering England’s royal missive with a firm, “Thus saith the Lord!”
Rise again for home and freedom! set the battle in array!
What the fathers did of old time we their sons must do to-day.
On the other side he was a Friend, or Quaker, and the peaceful spirit of his people found expression in lyrics of faith that have no equal in our poetry. He was also a patriot to the core. He loved America with a profound love; her ideals, her traditions, her epic history were in his blood, and he glorified them in ballads and idyls that reflect the very spirit of brave Colonial days. To judge Whittier as a trumpeter, therefore, is to neglect all that is important in his work; for his reform poems merely awaken the dying echoes of party clamor, while his ballads and idyls belong to the whole American people, and his hymns of faith to the wider audience of humanity.
LIFE. The span of Whittier’s life was almost the span of the nineteenth century. He was born (1807) in the homestead of his ancestors at Haverhill, Massachusetts, and spent his formative years working in the fields by day, reading beside the open fire at night, and spending a few terms in a “deestrict” school presided over by teachers who came or went with the spring. His schooling was, therefore, of the scantiest kind; his real education came from a noble home, from his country’s history, from his toil and outdoor life with its daily contact with nature. The love of home and of homely virtues, the glorification of manhood and womanhood, the pride of noble traditions, and always a background of meadow or woodland or sounding sea,--these were the subjects of Whittier’s best verse, because these were the things he knew most intimately.
It was a song of Burns that first turned Whittier to poetry; but hardly had he begun to write songs of his own when Garrison, the antislavery agitator, turned his thought from the peaceful farm to the clamoring world beyond. Attracted by certain verses (Whittier’s sister Elizabeth had sent them secretly to Garrison’s paper) the editor came over to see his contributor and found to his surprise a country lad who was in evident need of education. Instead of asking for more poetry, therefore, Garrison awakened the boy’s ambition. For two terms he attended the Haverhill Academy, supporting himself meanwhile by making shoes. Then his labor was needed at home; but finding his health too delicate for farm work he chose other occupations and contributed manfully to the support of his family.
For several years thereafter Whittier was like a man trying to find himself. He did factory work; he edited newspapers; he showed a talent for political leadership; he made poems which he sold at a price to remind him of what he had once received for making shoes. While poetry and politics both called to him alluringly a crisis arose; Garrison summoned him; and with a sad heart, knowing that he left all hope of political or literary success behind, he went over to the Abolitionist party. That was in 1833, when Whittier was twenty-six years old. At that time the Abolitionists were detested in the North as well as in the South, and to join them was to become an outcast.
Then came the militant period of Whittier’s life. He became editor of antislavery journals; he lectured in the cause; he was stoned for his utterances; his printing shop was burned by a mob. Meanwhile his poems were sounding abroad like trumpet blasts, making friends, making enemies. It was a passionate age, when political enemies were hated like Hessians, but Whittier was always chivalrous with his opponents. Read his “Randolph of Roanoke” for a specific example. His “Laus Deo” (1865), a chant of exultation written when he heard the bells ringing the news of the constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery, was the last poem of this period of storm and stress.
In the following year Whittier produced Snow-Bound, his masterpiece. Though he had been writing for half a century, he had never won either fame or money by his verse; but the publication of this beautiful idyl placed him in the front rank of American poets. Thereafter he was a national figure, and the magazines which once scorned his verses were now most eager to print them. So he made an end of the poverty which had been his portion since childhood.
For the remainder of his life he lived serenely at Amesbury, for the most part, in a modest house presided over by a relative. He wrote poetry now more carefully, for a wider audience, and every few years saw another little volume added to his store: Ballads of New England, Miriam and Other Poems, Hazel Blossoms, Poems of Nature, St. Gregory’s Quest, At Sundown. When he died (1892) he was honored not so widely perhaps as Longfellow, but more deeply, as we honor those whose peace has been won through manful strife. Holmes, the ready poet of all occasions, expressed a formal but sincere judgment in the lines:
Best loved and saintliest of our singing train,
Earth’s noblest tributes to thy name belong:
A lifelong record closed without a stain,
A blameless memory shrined in deathless song.
EARLIER WORKS. In Whittier’s poetry we note three distinct stages, and note also that he was on the wrong trail until he followed his own spirit. His earliest work was inspired by Burns, but this was of no consequence. Next he fell under the spell of Scott and wrote “Mogg Megone” and “The Bridal of Pennacook.” These Indian romances in verse are too much influenced by Scott’s border poems and also by sentimental novels of savage life, such as Mrs. Child’s Hobomok; they do not ring true, and in this respect are like almost everything else in literature on the subject of the Indians.
In Voices of Freedom (1849) and other poems inspired by the antislavery campaign Whittier for the first time came close to his own age. He was no longer an echo but a voice, a man’s voice, shouting above a tumult. He spoke not for the nation but for a party; and it was inevitable that his reform lyrics should fall into neglect with the occasions that called them forth. They are interesting now not as poems but as sidelights on a critical period of our history. Their intensely passionate quality appears in “Faneuil Hall,” “Song of the Free,” “The Pine Tree,” “Randolph of Roanoke” and “The Farewell of an Indian Slave Mother.”
There is a fine swinging rhythm in these poems, in “Massachusetts to Virginia” especially, which recalls Macaulay’s “Armada”; and two of them at least show astonishing power and vitality. One is “Laus Deo,” to which we have referred in our story of the poet’s life. The other is “Ichabod” (1850), written after the “Seventh of March Speech” of Webster, when that statesman seemed to have betrayed the men who elected and trusted him. Surprise, anger, scorn, indignation, sorrow,--all these emotions were loosed in a flood after Webster’s speech; but Whittier waited till he had fused them into one emotion, and when his slow words fell at last they fell with the weight of judgment and the scorching of fire upon their victim. If words could kill a man, these surely are the words. “Ichabod” is the most powerful poem of its kind in our language; but it is fearfully unjust to Webster. Those who read it should read also “The Lost Occasion,” written thirty years later, which Whittier placed next to “Ichabod” in the final edition of his poems. So he tried to right a wrong (unfortunately after the victim was dead) by offering generous tribute to the statesman he had once misjudged.
BALLADS AND AMERICAN IDYLS. Whittier’s manly heart and his talent for flowing verse made him an excellent ballad writer; but his work in this field is so different from that of his predecessors that he came near to inventing a new type of poetry. Thus, many of the old ballads celebrate the bravery that mounts with fighting; but Whittier always lays emphasis on the higher quality that we call moral courage. “Barclay of Ury” will illustrate our criticism: the verse has a martial swing; the hero is a veteran who has known the lust of battle; but his courage now appears in self-mastery, in the ability to bear in silence the jeers of a mob. Again, the old ballad aims to tell a story, nothing else, and drives straight to its mark; but Whittier portrays the whole landscape and background of the action. He deals largely with Colonial life in New England, and his descriptions of place and people are unrivaled in our poetry. Read one of his typical ballads, “The Wreck of Rivermouth” or “The Witch’s Daughter” or “The Garrison of Cape Ann” or “Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” and see how closely he identifies himself with the place and time of his story.
There is one quality, however, in which our Quaker poet resembles the old ballad makers, namely, his intense patriotism, and this recalls the fact that ballads were the first histories, the first expression not only of brave deeds but of the national pride which the deeds symbolized. Though Whittier keeps himself modestly in the background, as a story teller ought to do, he can never quite repress the love of his native land or the quickened heartbeats that set his verse marching as if to the drums. This patriotism, though intense, was never intolerant but rather sympathetic with men of other lands, as appears in “The Pipes at Lucknow”, a ballad dealing with a dramatic incident of the Sepoy Rebellion. The Scotsman who could read that ballad unmoved, without a kindling of the eye or a stirring of the heart, would be unworthy of his clan or country.
Even better than Whittier’s ballads are certain narrative poems reflecting the life of simple people, to which we give the name of idyls. “Telling the Bees,” “In School Days,” “My Playmate,” “Maud Muller,” “The Barefoot Boy,”—there are no other American poems quite like these, none so tender, none written with such perfect sympathy. Some of them are like photographs; and the lens that gathered them was not a glass but a human heart. Others sing the emotion of love as only Whittier, the Galahad of poets, could have sung it,--as in this stanza from “A Sea Dream”:
Draw near, more near, forever dear!
Where’er I rest or roam,
Or in the city’s crowded streets,
Or by the blown sea foam,
The thought of thee is home!
SNOW-BOUND. The best of Whittier’s idyls is Snow-Bound (1866), into which he gathered a boy’s tenderest memories. In naming this as the best poem in the language on the subject of home we do not offer a criticism but an invitation. Because all that is best in human life centers in the ideal of home, and because Whittier reflected that ideal in a beautiful way, Snow-Bound should be read if we read nothing else of American poetry. There is perhaps only one thing to prevent this idyl from becoming a universal poem: its natural setting can be appreciated only by those who live within the snow line, who have seen the white flakes gather and drift, confining every family to the circle of its own hearth fire in what Emerson calls “the tumultuous privacy of storm.”
The plan of the poem is simplicity itself. It opens with a description of a snowstorm that thickens with the December night. The inmates of an old farmhouse gather about the open fire, and Whittier describes them one by one, how they looked to the boy (for Snow-Bound is a recollection of boyhood), and what stories they told to reveal their interests. The rest of the poem is a reverie, as of one no longer a boy, who looks into his fire and sees not the fire-pictures but those other scenes or portraits that are graved deep in every human heart.
To praise such a work is superfluous, and to criticize its artless sincerity is beyond our ability. Many good writers have explained the poem; yet still its deepest charm escapes analysis, perhaps because it has no name. The best criticism that the present writer ever heard on the subject came from a Habitant farmer in the Province of Quebec, a simple, unlettered man, who was a poet at heart but who would have been amazed had anyone told him so. His children, who were learning English literature through the happy medium of Evangeline and Snow-Bound, brought the latter poem home from school, and the old man would sit smoking his pipe and listening to the story. When they read of the winter scenes, of the fire roaring its defiance up the chimney-throat at the storm without,
What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire’s ruddy glow,--
then he would stir in his chair, make his pipe glow fiercely, and blow a cloud of smoke about his head. But in the following scene, with its memories of the dead and its immortal hope, he would sit very still, as if listening to exquisite music. When asked why he liked the poem his face lighted: “W’y I lak heem, M’sieu Whittier? I lak heem ‘cause he speak de true. He know de storm, and de leetle cabane, and heart of de boy an’ hees moder. Oui, oui, he know de man also.”
Nature, home, the heart of a boy and a man and a mother,--the poet who can reflect such elemental matters so that the simple of earth understand and love their beauty deserves the critic’s best tribute of silence.
POEMS OF FAITH AND NATURE. Aside from the reform poems it is hard to group Whittier’s works, which are all alike in that they portray familiar scenes against a natural background. In his Tent on the Beach (1867) he attempted a collection of tales in the manner of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, but of these only one or two ballads, such as “Abraham Davenport” and “The Wreck of Rivermouth,” are now treasured. The best part of the book is the “Prelude,” which pictures the poet among his friends and records his impressions of sky and sea and shore.
The outdoor poems of Whittier are interesting, aside from their own beauty, as suggesting two poetic conceptions of nature which have little in common. The earlier regards nature as a mistress to be loved or a divinity to be worshiped for her own sake; she has her own laws or mercies, and man is but one of her creatures. The Anglo-Saxon scops viewed nature in this way; so did Bryant, in whose “Forest Hymn” is the feeling of primitive ages. Many modern poets (and novelists also, like Scott and Cooper) have outgrown this conception; they regard nature as a kind of stage for the drama of human life, which is all-important.
Whittier belongs to this later school; he portrays nature magnificently, but always as the background for some human incident, sad or tender or heroic, which appears to us more real because viewed in its natural setting. Note in “The Wreck of Rivermouth,” for example, how the merry party in their sailboat, the mowers on the salt marshes, the “witch” mumbling her warning, the challenge of a careless girl, the skipper’s fear, the river, the breeze, the laughing sea,--everything is exactly as it should be. It is this humanized view of the natural world which makes Whittier’s ballads unique and which gives deeper meaning to his “Hampton Beach,” “Among the Hills,” “Trailing Arbutus,” “The Vanishers” and other of his best nature poems.
Our reading of Whittier should not end until we are familiar with “The Eternal Goodness,” “Trust,” “My Soul and I,” “The Prayer of Agassiz” and a few more of his hymns of faith. Our appreciation of such hymns will be more sympathetic if we remember, first, that Whittier came of ancestors whose souls approved the opening proposition of the Declaration of Independence; and second, that he belonged to the Society of Friends, who believed that God revealed himself directly to every human soul (the “inner light” they called it), and that a man’s primal responsibility was to God and his own conscience. The creed of Whittier may therefore be summarized in two articles: “I believe in the Divine love and in the equality of men.” The latter article appears in all his poems; the former is crystallized in “The Eternal Goodness,” a hymn so trustful and reverent that it might well be the evensong of humanity.
CHARACTERISTICS OF WHITTIER. One may summarize Whittier in the statement that he is the poet of the home and the hills, and of that freedom without which the home loses its chief joy and the hill its inspiration. In writing of such themes Whittier failed to win the highest honors of a poet; and the failure was due not to his lack of culture, as is sometimes alleged (for there is no other culture equal to right living), but rather to the stern conditions of his life, to his devotion to duty, to his struggle for liberty, to his lifelong purpose of helping men by his singing. Great poems are usually the result of seclusion, of aloofness, but Whittier was always a worker in the world.
His naturalness is perhaps his best poetic virtue. There is in his verse a spontaneous “singing” quality which leaves the impression that poetry was his native language. It is easy to understand why Burns first attracted him, for both poets were natural singers who remind us of what Bede wrote of Cædmon: “He learned not the art of poetry from men.” Next to his spontaneity is his rare simplicity, his gift of speaking straight from a heart that never grew old. Sometimes his simplicity is as artless as that of a child, as in “Maud Muller”; generally it is noble, as in his modest “Proem” to Voices of Freedom; occasionally it is passionate, as in the exultant cry of “Laus Deo”; and at times it rises to the simplicity of pure art, as in “Telling the Bees.” The last-named poem portrays an old Colonial custom which provided that when death came to a farmhouse the bees must be told and their hives draped in mourning. It portrays also, as a perfect, natural background, the path to Whittier’s home and his sister’s old-fashioned flower garden, in which the daffodils still bloom where she planted them long ago.
That Whittier was not a great poet, as the critics assure us, may be frankly admitted. That he had elements of greatness is also without question; and precisely for this reason, because his power is so often manifest in noble or exquisite passages, there is disappointment in reading him when we stumble upon bad rimes, careless workmanship, mishandling of his native speech. Our experience here is probably like that of Whittier’s friend Garrison. The latter had read certain poems that attracted him; he came quickly to see the poet; and out from under the barn, his clothes sprinkled with hayseed, crawled a shy country lad who explained bashfully that he had been hunting hens’ nests. Anything could be forgiven after that; interest in the boy would surely temper criticism of the poet.
Even so our present criticism of Whittier’s verse must include certain considerations of the man who wrote it: that he smacked of his native soil; that his education was scanty and hardly earned; that he used words as his father and mother used them, and was not ashamed of their rural accent. His own experience, moreover, had weathered him until he seemed part of a rugged landscape. He knew life, and he loved it. He had endured poverty, and glorified it. He had been farm hand, shoemaker, self-supporting student, editor of country newspapers, local politician, champion of slaves, worker for reform, defender of a hopeless cause that by the awful judgment of war became a winning cause. And always and everywhere he had been a man, one who did his duty as he saw it, spake truth as he believed it, and kept his conscience clean, his heart pure, his faith unshaken. All this was in his verse and ennobled even his faults, which were part of his plain humanity. As Longfellow was by study of European literatures the poet of books and culture, so Whittier was by experience the poet of life. The homely quality of his verse, which endears it to common men, is explained on the ground that he was nearer than any other American poet to the body and soul of his countrymen.
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JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL (1819-1891)
The work of Lowell is unusual and his rank or position hard to define. Though never a great or even a popular writer, he was regarded for a considerable part of his life as the most prominent man of letters in America. At the present time his reputation is still large, but historians find it somewhat easier to praise his works than to read them. As poet, critic, satirist, editor and teacher he loomed as a giant among his contemporaries, overtopping Whittier and Longfellow at one time; but he left no work comparable to Snow-Bound or Hiawatha, and one is puzzled to name any of his poems or essays that are fairly certain to give pleasure. To read his volumes is to meet a man of power and brilliant promise, but the final impression is that the promise was not fulfilled, that the masterpiece of which Lowell was capable was left unwritten.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. Lowell came from a distinguished family that had “made history” in America. His father was a cultured clergyman; he grew up in a beautiful home, “Elmwood,” in the college town of Cambridge; among his first companions were the noble books that filled the shelves of the family library. From the beginning, therefore, he was inclined to letters; and though he often turned aside for other matters, his first and last love was the love of poetry.
At fifteen he entered Harvard, where he read almost everything, he said, except the books prescribed by the faculty. Then he studied law and opened an office in Boston, where he found few clients, being more interested in writing verses than in his profession. With his marriage in 1844 the first strong purpose seems to have entered his indolent life. His wife was zealous in good works, and presently Lowell, who had gayly satirized all reformers, joined in the antislavery campaign and proceeded to make as many enemies as friends by his reform poems.
Followed then a period of hard, purposeful work, during which he supported himself by editing The Pennsylvania Freeman and by writing for the magazines. In 1848, his banner year, he published his best volume of Poems, Sir Launfal, A Fable for Critics and the first series of The Biglow Papers. It was not these volumes, however, but a series of brilliant lectures on the English poets that caused Lowell to be called to the chair in Harvard which Longfellow had resigned. He prepared for this work by studying abroad, and for some twenty years thereafter he gave courses in English, Italian, Spanish and German literatures. For a part of this time he was also editor in turn of The Atlantic Monthly and The North American Review.
In the simpler days of the republic, when the first question asked of a diplomat was not whether he had money enough to entertain society in a proper style, the profession of letters was honored by sending literary men to represent America in foreign courts, and Lowell’s prominence was recognized by his appointment as ambassador to Spain (1877) and to England (1880). It was in this patriotic service abroad that he won his greatest honors. In London especially he made his power felt as an American who loved his country, as a democrat who believed in democracy, and as a cultured gentleman who understood Anglo-Saxon life because of his familiarity with the poetry in which that life is most clearly reflected. Next to keeping silence about his proper business, perhaps the chief requirement of an ambassador is to make speeches about everything else, and no other foreign speaker was ever listened to with more pleasure than the witty and cultured Lowell. One who summed up his diplomatic triumph said tersely that he found the Englishmen strangers and left them all cousins.
He was recalled from this service in 1885. The remainder of his life was spent teaching at Harvard, writing more poetry and editing his numerous works. His first volume of poems, A Year’s Life, was published in 1841; his last volume, Heartsease and Rue, appeared almost half a century later, in 1888. That his death occurred in the same house in which he was born and in which he had spent the greater part of his life is an occurrence so rare in America that it deserves a poem of commemoration.
LOWELL’S POETRY. There are golden grains everywhere in Lowell’s verse but never a continuous vein of metal. In other words, even his best work is notable for occasional lines rather than for sustained excellence. As a specific example study the “Commemoration Ode,” one of the finest poems inspired by the Civil War. The occasion of this ode, to commemorate the college students who had given their lives for their country, was all that a poet might wish; the brilliant audience that gathered at Cambridge was most inspiring; and beyond that local audience stood a nation in mourning, a nation which had just lost a million of its sons in a mighty conflict. It was such an occasion as Lowell loved, and one who reads the story of his life knows how earnestly he strove to meet it. When the reading of his poem was finished his audience called it “a noble effort,” and that is precisely the trouble with the famous ode; it is too plainly an effort. It does not sing, does not overflow from a full heart, does not speak the inevitable, satisfying word. In consequence (and perhaps this criticism applies to most ambitious odes) we are rather glad when the “effort” is at an end. Yet there are excellent passages in the poem, notably the sixth and the last stanzas, one with its fine tribute to Lincoln, the other expressive of deathless loyalty to one’s native land.
The best of Lowell’s lyrics may be grouped in two classes, the first dealing with his personal joy or grief, the second with the feelings of the nation. Typical of the former are “The First Snowfall” and a few other lyrics reflecting the poet’s sorrow for the loss of a little daughter,--simple, human poems, in refreshing contrast with most others of Lowell, which strive for brilliancy. The best of the national lyrics is “The Present Crisis” (1844). This was at first a party poem, a ringing appeal issued during the turmoil occasioned by the annexation of Texas; but now, with the old party issues forgotten, we can all read it with pleasure as a splendid expression of the American heart and will in every crisis of our national history.
In the nature lyrics we have a double reflection, one of the external world, the other of a poet who could not be single-minded, and who was always confusing his own impressions of nature or humanity with those other impressions which he found reflected in poetry. Read the charming “To a Dandelion,” for example, and note how Lowell cannot be content with his
Dear common flower that grow’st beside the way,
Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,
but must bring in Eldorado and twenty other poetic allusions to glorify a flower which has no need of external glory. Then for comparison read Bryant’s “Fringed Gentian” and see how the elder poet, content with the flower itself, tells you very simply how its beauty appeals to him. Or read “An Indian-Summer Reverie” with its scattered lines of gold, and note how Lowell cannot say what he feels in his own heart but must search everywhere for poetic images; and then, because he cannot find exactly what he seeks or, more likely, because he finds a dozen tempting allusions where one is plenty, he goes on and on in a vain quest that ends by leaving himself and his reader unsatisfied.
The most popular of Lowell’s works is The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848), in which he invents an Arthurian kind of legend of the search for the Holy Grail. Most of his long poems are labored, but this seems to have been written in a moment of inspiration. The “Prelude” begins almost spontaneously, and when it reaches the charming passage “And what is so rare as a day in June?” the verse fairly begins to sing,--a rare occurrence with Lowell. Critical readers may reasonably object to the poet’s moralizing, to his imperfect lines and to his setting of an Old World legend of knights and castles in a New World landscape; but uncritical readers rejoice in a moral feeling that is fine and true, and are content with a good story and a good landscape without inquiring whether the two belong together. Moreover, Sir Launfal certainly serves the first purpose of poetry in that it gives pleasure and so deserves its continued popularity among young readers.
Two satiric poems that were highly prized when they were first published, and that are still formally praised by historians who do not read them, are A Fable for Critics and The Biglow Papers. The former is a series of doggerel verses filled with grotesque puns and quips aimed at American authors who were prominent in 1848. The latter, written in a tortured, “Yankee” dialect, is made up of political satires and conceits occasioned by the Mexican and Civil wars. Both works contain occasional fine lines and a few excellent criticisms of literature or politics, but few young readers will have patience to sift out the good passages from the mass of glittering rubbish in which they are hidden.
Much more worthy of the reader’s attention are certain neglected works, such as Lowell’s sonnets, his “Prometheus,” “Columbus,” “Agassiz,” “Portrait of Dante,” “Washers of the Shroud,” “Under the Old Elm” (with its noble tribute to Washington) and “Stanzas on Freedom,” It is a pity that such poems, all of which contain memorable lines, should be kept from the wide audience they deserve, and largely because of the author’s digressiveness. To examine them is to conclude that, like most of Lowell’s works, they are not simple enough in feeling to win ordinary readers, like the poetry of Longfellow, and not perfect enough in form to excite the admiration of critics, like the best of Poe’s melodies.
LOWELL’S PROSE. In brilliancy at least Lowell has no peer among American essayists, though others excel him in the better qualities of originality or charm or vigor. The best of his prose works are the scintillating essays collected in My Study Window and Among My Books. In his political essays he looked at humanity with his own eyes, but the titles of the volumes just named indicate his chief interest as a prose writer, which was to interpret the world’s books rather than the world’s throbbing life. For younger readers the most pleasing of the prose works are the comparatively simple sketches, “My Garden Acquaintance,” “Cambridge Thirty Years Ago” and “On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners.” In these sketches we meet the author at his best, alert, witty and so widely read that he cannot help giving literary flavor to whatever he writes. Among the best of his essays on literary subjects are those on Chaucer, Dante Keats, Walton and Emerson.
One who reads a typical collection of Lowell’s essays is apt to be divided between open admiration and something akin to resentment. On the one hand they are brilliant, stimulating, filled with “good things”; on the other they are always digressive, sometimes fantastic and too often self-conscious; that is, they call our attention to the author rather than to his proper subject. When he writes of Dante he is concerned to reveal the soul of the Italian master; but when he writes of Milton he seems chiefly intent on showing how much more he knows than the English editor of Milton’s works. When he presents Emerson he tries to make us know and admire the Concord sage; but when he falls foul of Emerson’s friends, Thoreau and Carlyle, his personal prejudices are more in evidence than his impersonal judgment. In consequence, some of the literary essays are a better reflection of Lowell himself than of the men he wrote about.
An author must be finally measured, however, by his finest work, by his constant purpose rather than by his changing mood; and the finest work of Lowell, his critical studies of the elder poets and dramatists, are perhaps the most solid and the most penetrating that our country has to show. He certainly kept “the great tradition” in criticism, a tradition which enjoins us, in simple language, to seek only the best and to reverence it when we find it. As he wrote:
Great truths are portions of the soul of man;
Great souls are portions of eternity;
Each drop of blood that e’er through true heart ran
With lofty message, ran for thee and me.
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OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES (1809-1894)
It is a sad fate for a writer to be known as a humorist; nobody will take him seriously ever afterward. Even a book suffers from such a reputation, the famous Don Quixote for example, which we read as a type of extravagant humor but which is in reality a tragedy, since it portrays the disillusionment of a man who believed the world to be like his own heart, noble and chivalrous, and who found it filled with villainy. Because Holmes (who was essentially a moralist and a preacher) could not repress the bubbling wit that was part of his nature, our historians must set him down as a humorist and name the “One-Hoss Shay” as his most typical work. Yet his best poems are as pathetic as “The Last Leaf,” as sentimental as “The Voiceless,” as patriotic as “Old Ironsides,” as worshipful as the “Hymn of Trust,” as nobly didactic as “The Chambered Nautilus”; his novels are studies of the obscure problems of heredity, and his most characteristic prose work, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, is an original commentary on almost everything under the sun.
Evidently we prize a laugh above any other product of literature, and because there is a laugh or a smile hidden in many a work of Holmes he must still keep the place assigned to him as an “American” humorist. Even so, he is perhaps our most representative writer in this field; for he is as thoroughly American as a man can be, and his rare culture and kindness are in refreshing contrast to the crude horseplay or sensationalism that is unfortunately trumpeted abroad as New World humor.
A PLACID LIFE. Though Holmes never wrote a formal autobiography he left a very good reflection of himself in his works, and it is in these alone that we become acquainted with him,--a genial, witty, observant, kind-hearted and pure-hearted man whom it is good to know.
He belonged to what he called “the Brahmin caste” of intellectual aristocrats (as described in his novel, Elsie Venner), for he came from an old New England family extending back to Anne Bradstreet and the governors of the Bay Colony. He was born in Cambridge; he was educated at Andover and Harvard; he spent his life in Boston, a city which satisfied him so completely that he called it “the hub of the solar system.” Most ambitious writers like a large field with plenty of change or variety, but Holmes was content with a small and very select circle with himself at the center of it.
For his profession he chose medicine and studied it four years, the latter half of the time in Paris. At that period his foreign training was as rare in medicine as was Longfellow’s in poetry. He practiced his profession in Boston and managed to make a success of it, though patients were a little doubtful of a doctor who wrote poetry and who opened his office with the remark that “small fevers” would be “gratefully received.” Also he was for thirty-five years professor of anatomy at the Harvard Medical School. What with healing or teaching or learning, this doctor might have been very busy; but he seems to have found plenty of leisure for writing, and the inclination was always present. “Whoso has once tasted type” he said, “must indulge the taste to the end of his life.”
His literary work began at twenty-one, when he wrote “Old Ironsides” in protest against the order to dismantle the frigate Constitution, which had made naval history in the War of 1812. That first poem, which still rings triumphantly in our ears, accomplished two things: it saved the glorious old warship, and it gave Holmes a hold on public attention which he never afterward lost. During the next twenty-five years he wrote poetry, and was so much in demand to furnish verses for special occasions that he was a kind of poet-laureate of his college and city. He was almost fifty when the Atlantic Monthly was projected and Lowell demanded, as a condition of his editorship, that Holmes be engaged as the first contributor. Feeling in the mood for talk, as he commonly did, Holmes responded with The Autocrat. Thereafter he wrote chiefly in prose, making his greatest effort in fiction but winning more readers by his table talk in the form of essays. His last volume, Over the Teacups, appeared when he was past eighty years old.
We have spoken of the genial quality of Holmes as revealed in his work, but we would hardly be just to him did we fail to note his pet prejudices, his suspicion of reformers, his scorn of homeopathic doctors, his violent antipathy to Calvinism. Though he had been brought up in the Calvinistic faith (his father was an old-style clergyman), he seemed to delight in clubbing or satirizing or slinging stones at it. The very mildest he could do was to refer to “yon whey-faced brother” to express his opinion of those who still clung to puritanic doctrines. Curiously enough, he still honored his father and was proud of his godly ancestors, who were all stanch Puritans. The explanation is, of course, that Holmes never understood theology, not for a moment; he only disliked it, and was consequently sure that it must be wrong and that somebody ought to put an end to it. In later years he mellowed somewhat. One cannot truthfully say that he overcame his prejudice, but he understood men better and was inclined to include even reformers and Calvinists in what he called “the larger humanity into which I was born so long ago.”
WORKS OF HOLMES. In the field of “occasional” poetry, written to celebrate births, dedications, feasts and festivals of every kind, Holmes has never had a peer among his countrymen. He would have made a perfect poet-laureate, for he seemed to rise to every occasion and have on his lips the right word to express the feeling of the moment, whether of patriotism or sympathy or sociability. In such happy poems as “The Boys,” “Bill and Jo,” “All Here” and nearly forty others written for his class reunions he reflects the spirit of college men who gather annually to live the “good old days” over again. [Footnote: It may add a bit of interest to these poems if we remember that among the members of the Class of ‘29 was Samuel Smith, author of “America,” a poem that now appeals to a larger audience than the class poet ever dreamed of.] He wrote also some seventy other poems for special occasions, the quality of which may be judged from “Old Ironsides,” “Under the Violets,” “Grandmother’s Story” and numerous appreciations of Lowell, Burns, Bryant, Whittier and other well-known poets.
Among poems of more general interest the best is “The Chambered Nautilus,” which some read for its fine moral lesson and others for its beautiful symbolism or almost perfect workmanship. Others that deserve to be remembered are “The Last Leaf” (Lincoln’s favorite), “Nearing the Snow Line,” “Meeting of the Alumni,” “Questions and Answers” and “The Voiceless,”—none great poems but all good and very well worth the reading.
“The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” is the most popular of the humorous poems. Many readers enjoy this excellent skit without thinking what the author meant by calling it “a logical story.” It is, in fact, the best pebble that he hurled from his sling against his bête noire; for the old “shay” which went to pieces all at once was a symbol of Calvinistic theology. That theology was called an iron chain of logic, every link so perfectly forged that it could not be broken at any point. Even so was the “shay” built, unbreakable in every single part; but when the deacon finds himself sprawling and dumfounded in the road beside the wrecked masterpiece the poet concludes:
End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.
Other typical verses of the same kind are “The Height of the Ridiculous,” “Daily Trials,” “The Comet” and “Contentment.” In the last-named poem Holmes may have been poking fun at the Brook Farmers and other enthusiasts who were preaching the simple life. Poets and preachers of this gospel in every age are apt to insist that to find simplicity one must return to nature or the farm, or else camp in the woods and eat huckleberries, as Thoreau did; but Holmes remembered that some people must live in the city, while others incomprehensibly prefer to do so, and wrote his “Contentment” to express their idea of the simple life:
Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone (A very plain brown stone will do)
That I may call my own;
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.
I care not much for gold or land;
Give me a mortgage here and there,
Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
Or trifling railroad share.
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.
The most readable of the prose works is The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), a series of monologues in which Holmes, who was called the best talker of his age, transferred his talk in a very charming way to paper. As the book professes to record the conversation at the table of a certain Boston boarding-house, it has no particular subject; the author rambles pleasantly from one topic to another, illuminating each by his wisdom or humor or sympathy. Other books of the same series are The Professor at the Breakfast Table, The Poet at the Breakfast Table and Over the Teacups. Most critics consider The Autocrat the best and The Poet second best of the series; but there is a tender vein of sentiment and reminiscence in the final volume which is very attractive to older readers.
The slight story element in the breakfast-table books probably led Holmes to fiction, and he straightway produced three novels, Elsie Venner, The Guardian Angel and A Mortal Antipathy. These are studies of heredity, of the physical element in morals, of the influence of mind over matter and other subjects more suitable for essays than for fiction; but a few mature readers who care less for a story than for an observation or theory of life will find The Guardian Angel an interesting novel. And some will surely prize Elsie Venner for its pictures of New England life, its description of boarding school or evening party or social hierarchy, at a time when many a New England family had traditions to which it held as firmly and almost as proudly as any European court.
THE QUALITY OF HOLMES. The intensely personal quality of the works just mentioned is their most striking characteristic; for Holmes always looks at a subject with his own eyes, and measures its effect on the reader by a previous effect produced upon himself. “If I like this,” he says in substance, “why, you must like it too; if it strikes me as absurd, you cannot take any other attitude; for are we not both human and therefore just alike?” It never occurred to Holmes that anybody could differ with him and still be normal; those who ventured to do so found the Doctor looking keenly at them to discover their symptoms. In an ordinary egoist or politician or theologian this would be insufferable; but strange to say it is one of the charms of Holmes, who is so witty and pleasant-spoken that we can enjoy his dogmatism without the bother of objecting to it. In one of his books he hints that talking to certain persons is like trying to pet a squirrel; if you are wise, you will not imitate that frisky little beast but assume the purring-kitten attitude while listening to the Autocrat.
Another interesting quality of Holmes is what we may call his rationalism, his habit of taking nothing for granted, of judging every matter by observation rather than by tradition or sentiment or imagination; and herein he is in marked contrast with Longfellow and other romantic writers of the period. We shall enjoy him better if we remember his bent of mind. As a boy he was fond of tools and machinery; as a man he was interested in photography, safety razors, inventions of every kind; as a physician he rebelled against drugs (then believed to have almost magical powers, and imposed on suffering stomachs in horrible doses) and observed his patients closely to discover what mentally ailed them; and as boy or man or physician he cared very little for books but a great deal for his own observation of life. Hence there is always a surprise in reading Holmes, which comes partly from his flashes of wit but more largely from his independent way of looking at things and recording his first-hand impressions. His Autocrat especially is a treasure and ranks with Thoreau’s Walden among the most original books of American literature.
* * * * *
SIDNEY LANIER (1842-1881)
The name of Lanier is often associated with that of Timrod, and the two southern poets were outwardly alike in that they struggled against physical illness and mental depression; but where we see in Timrod the tragedy of a poet broken by pain and neglect, the tragedy of Lanier’s life is forgotten in our wonder at his triumph. It is doubtful if any other poet ever raised so pure a song of joy out of conditions that might well have occasioned a wail of despair.
The joyous song of Lanier is appreciated only by the few. He is not popular with either readers or critics, and the difficulty of assigning him a place or rank may be judged from recent attempts. One history of American literature barely mentions Lanier in a slighting reference to “a small cult of poetry in parts of America”; [Footnote: Trent, History of American Literature (1913), p. 471.] another calls him the only southern poet who had a national horizon, and accords his work ample criticism;
[Footnote: Moses, Literature of the South (1910), pp 358-383] a third describes him as “a true artist” having “a lyric power hardly to be found in any other American,” but the brief record ends with the cutting criticism that his work is “hardly national.” [Footnote: Wendell, Literary History of America (1911), pp 495-498.] And so with all other histories, one dismisses him as the author of a vague rhapsody called “The Marshes of Glynn,” another exalts him as a poet who rivals Poe in melody and far surpasses him in thought or feeling. Evidently there is no settled criticism of Lanier, as of Bryant or Longfellow; he is not yet secure in his position among the elder poets, and what we record here is such a personal appreciation as any reader may formulate for himself.
LIFE. America has had its Puritan and its Cavalier writers, but seldom one who combines the Puritan’s stern devotion to duty with the Cavalier’s joy in nature and romance and music. Lanier was such a poet, and he owed his rare quality to a mixed ancestry. He was descended on his mother’s side from Scotch-Irish and Puritan forbears, and on his father’s side from Huguenot (French) exiles who were musicians at the English court. One of his ancestors, Nicholas Lanier, is described as “a musician, painter and engraver” for Queen Elizabeth and King James, and as the composer of music for some of Ben Jonson’s masques.
His boyhood was spent at Macon, Georgia, where he was born in 1842. A study of that boyhood reveals certain characteristics which reappear constantly in the poet’s work. One was his rare purity of soul; another was his brave spirit; a third was his delight in nature; a fourth was his passion for music. At seven he made his first flute from a reed, and ever afterwards, though he learned to play many instruments, the flute was to him as a companion and a voice. With it he cheered many a weary march or hungry bivouac; through it he told all his heart to the woman he loved; by it he won a place when he had no other means of earning his bread. Hence in “The Symphony,” a poem which fronts one of life’s hard problems, it is the flute that utters the clearest and sweetest note.
Lanier had finished his course in Oglethorpe University (a primitive little college in Midway, Georgia) and was tutoring there when the war came, and the college closed its doors because teachers and students were away at the first call to join the army. For four years he was a Confederate soldier, serving in the ranks with his brother and refusing the promotion offered him for gallant conduct in the field. There was a time during this period when he might have sung like the minstrels of old, for romance had come to him with the war. By day he was fighting or scouting with his life in his hand; but when camp fires were lighted he would take his flute and slip away to serenade the girl who “waited for him till the war was over.”
We mention these small incidents with a purpose. There is a delicacy of feeling in Lanier’s verse which might lead a reader to assume that the poet was effeminate, when in truth he was as manly as any Norse scald or Saxon scop who ever stood beside his chief in battle. Of the war he never sang; but we find some reflection of the girl who waited in the poem “My Springs.”
Lanier was at sea, as signal officer on a blockade runner, when his ship was captured by a Federal cruiser and he was sent to the military prison at Point Lookout (1864). A hard and bitter experience it was, and his only comfort was the flute which he had hidden in his ragged sleeve. When released the following year he set out on foot for his home, five hundred miles away, and reached it more dead than alive; for consumption had laid a heavy hand upon him. For weeks he was desperately ill, and during the illness his mother died of the same wasting disease; then he rose and set out bravely to earn a living,--no easy matter in a place that had suffered as Georgia had during the war.
We shall not enter into his struggle for bread, or into his wanderings in search of a place where he could breathe without pain. He was a law clerk in his father’s office at Macon when, knowing that he had but a slender lease of life, he made his resolve. To the remonstrances of his father he closed his ears, saying that music and poetry were calling him and he must follow the call. The superb climax of Tennyson’s “Merlin and the Gleam” was in his soul:
O young mariner,
Down to the haven
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam!
Thus bravely he went northward to Baltimore, taking his flute with him. He was evidently a wonderful artist, playing not by the score but making his instrument his voice, so that his audience seemed to hear a soul speaking in melody. His was a magic flute. Soon he was supporting himself by playing in the Peabody Orchestra, living joyously meanwhile in an atmosphere of music and poetry and books; for he was always a student, determined to understand as well as to practice his art. He wrote poems, stories, anything to earn an honest dollar; he gave lectures on music and literature; he planned a score of books that he did not and could not write, for he was living in a fever of mind and body. Music and poetry were surging within him for expression; but his strength was failing, his time short.
In 1879 he was appointed lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and for the first time he had an assured income, small, indeed, but very heartening since it was enough to support his family. He began teaching with immense enthusiasm; but presently he was speaking in a whisper from an invalid’s chair. Under such circumstances were uttered some of our most cheering words on art and poetry. Two years later he died in a tent among the hills, near Asheville, North Carolina, whither he had gone in a vain search for health.
There is in all Lanier’s verse a fragmentariness, a sense of something left unsaid, which we may understand better if we remember that his heart was filled with the noblest emotions, but that when he strove to write them his pen failed for weariness. Read the daily miracle of dawn in “Sunrise,” for example, and find there the waiting oaks, the stars, the tide, the marsh with its dreaming pools, light, color, fragrance, melody,--everything except that the hand which wrote the poem was too weak to guide the pencil. The rush of impressions and memories in “Sunrise,” its tender beauty and vague incompleteness, as of something left unsaid, may be explained by the fact that it was Lanier’s last song.
WORKS OF LANIER. Many readers have grown familiar with Lanier’s name in connection with The Boy’s Froissart, The Boy’s King Arthur, The Boy’s Mabinogion and The Boy’s Percy, four books in which he retold in simple language some of the old tales that are forever young. His chief prose works, The English Novel and The Science of English Verse, are of interest chiefly to critics; they need not detain us here except to note that the latter volume is devoted to Lanier’s pet theory that music and poetry are governed by the same laws. Of more general interest are his scattered “Notes,” which contain suggestions for many a poem that was never written, intermingled with condensed criticisms. Of the poet Swinburne he says, “He invited me to eat; the service was silver and gold, but no food therein except salt and pepper.” One might say less than that with more words, or read a whole book to arrive at this summary of Whitman’s style and bottomless philosophy: “Whitman is poetry’s butcher; huge raw collops slashed from the rump of poetry, and never mind the gristle, is what he feeds our souls with.... His argument seems to be that because the Mississippi is long, therefore every American is a god.”
Those who read Lanier’s poems should begin with the simplest, with his love songs, “My Springs” and “In Absence,” or his “Ballad of Trees and the Master,” or his outdoor poems, such as “Tampa Robins,” “Song of the Chattahoochee,” “Mocking Bird,” and “Evening Song.” In the last-named lyrics he began the work (carried out more fully in his later poems) of interpreting in words the harmony which his sensitive ear detected in the manifold voices of nature.
Next in order are the poems in which is hidden a thought or an ideal not to be detected at first glance; for to Lanier poetry was like certain oriental idols which when opened are found to be filled with exquisite perfumes. “The Stirrup Cup” is one of the simplest of these allegories. It was a custom in olden days when a man was ready to journey, for one who loved him to bring a glass of wine which he drank in the saddle; and this was called the stirrup or parting cup. In the cup offered Lanier was a rare cordial, filled with “sweet herbs from all antiquity,” and the name of the cordial was Death:
Then, Time, let not a drop be spilt:
Hand me the cup whene’er thou wilt;
‘T is thy rich stirrup cup to me;
I’ll drink it down right smilingly.
In four stanzas of “Night and Day” he compresses the tragedy of Othello, not the tragedy that Shakespeare wrote but the tragedy that was in the Moor’s soul when Desdemona was gone. In “Life and Song” he sought to express the ideal of a poet, and the closing lines might well be the measure of his own heroic life:
His song was only living aloud,
His work a singing with his hand.
In “How Love Looked for Hell” the lesson is hidden deeper; for the profound yet simple meaning of the poem is that, search high or low, Love can never find hell because he takes heaven with him wherever he goes. Another poem of the same class, but longer and more involved, is “The Symphony.” Here Lanier faces one of the greatest problems of the age, the problem of industrialism with its false standards and waste of human happiness, and his answer is the same that Tennyson gave in his later poems; namely, that the familiar love in human hearts can settle every social question when left to its own unselfish way:
Vainly might Plato’s brain revolve it,
Plainly the heart of a child might solve it.
The longer poems of Lanier are of uneven merit and are all more or less fragmentary. The chief impression from reading the “Psalm of the West,” for example, is that it is the prelude to some greater work that was left unfinished. More finely wrought and more typical of Lanier’s mood and method is “The Marshes of Glynn,” his best-known work. It is a marvelous poem, one of the most haunting in our language; yet it is like certain symphonies in that it says nothing, being all feeling,--vague, inexpressible feeling. Some readers find no meaning or satisfaction in it; others hail it as a perfect interpretation of their own mood or emotion when they stand speechless before the sunrise or the afterglow or a landscape upon which the very spirit of beauty and peace is brooding.
THE QUALITY OF LANIER. In order to sympathize with Lanier, and so to understand him, it is necessary to keep in mind that he was a musician rather than a poet in our ordinary understanding of the term. In his verse he used words, exactly as he used the tones of his flute, not so much to express ideas as to call up certain emotions that find no voice save in music. As he said, “Music takes up the thread that language drops,” which explains that beautiful but puzzling line which closes “The Symphony”:
Music is Love in search of a word.
We have spoken of “The Symphony” as an answer to the problem of industrial waste and sorrow, but it contains also Lanier’s confession of faith; namely, that social evils arise among men because of their lack of harmony; and that spiritual harmony, the concord of souls which makes strife impossible, may be attained through music. The same belief appears in Tiger Lilies (a novel written by Lanier in his early days), in which a certain character makes these professions:
“To make a home out of a household, given the raw materials—to wit, wife, children, a friend or two and a house—two other things are necessary. These are a good fire and good music. And inasmuch as we can do without the fire for half the year, I may say music is the one essential.”
“Late explorers say they have found some nations that have no God; but I have not read of any that had no music.” “Music means harmony, harmony means love, love means—God!”
One may therefore summarize Lanier by saying that he was poet who used verbal rhythm, as a musician uses harmonious chords, to play upon our better feelings. His poems of nature give us no definite picture of the external world but are filled with murmurings, tremblings, undertones,--all the vague impressions which one receives when alone in the solitudes, as if the world were alive but inarticulate:
Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-witholding and free Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea! Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun, Ye spread and span like the catholic man that hath mightily won God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.
His poems of life have similar virtues and weaknesses: they are melodious; they are nobly inspired; they appeal to our finest feelings; but they are always vague in that they record no definite thought and speak no downright message.
The criticism may be more clear if we compare Lanier with Whittier, a man equally noble, who speaks a language that all men understand. The poems of the two supplement each other, one reflecting the reality of life, the other its mysterious dreams. In Whittier’s poetry we look upon a landscape and a people, and we say, “I have seen that rugged landscape with my own eyes; I have eaten bread with those people, and have understood and loved them.” Then we read Lanier’s poetry and say, “Yes, I have had those feelings at times; but I do not speak of them to others because I cannot tell what they mean to me.” Both poets are good, and both fail of greatness in poetry, Whittier because he has no exalted imagination, Lanier because he lacks primitive simplicity and strength. One poet sings a song to cheer the day’s labor, the other makes a melody to accompany our twilight reveries.
* * * * *
“WALT” WHITMAN (1819-1892)
Since Whitman insisted upon being called “Walt” instead of Walter, so let it be. The name accords with the free-and-easy style of his verse. If you can find some abridged selections from that verse, read them by all means; but if you must search the whole of it for the passages that are worth reading, then pass it cheerfully by; for such another vain display of egotism, vulgarity and rant never appeared under the name of poetry. Whitman was so absurdly fond of his “chants” and so ignorant of poetry that he preserved the whole of his work in a final edition, and his publishers still insist upon printing it, rubbish and all. The result is that the few rare verses which stamp him as a poet are apt to be overlooked in the multitudinous gabblings which, of themselves, might mark him as a mere freak or “sensation” in our modest literature.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. Ordinarily when we read poetry we desire to know something of the man who wrote it, of his youth, his training, the circumstance of his work and the personal ideals which made him view life steadily in one light rather than in another. In dealing with Whitman it is advisable to leave such natural curiosity unsatisfied, and for two reasons: first, the man was far from admirable or upright, and to meet him at certain stages is to lose all desire to read his poetry; and second, he was so extremely secretive about himself, while professing boundless good-fellowship with all men, that we can seldom trust his own record, much less that of his admirers. There are great blanks in the story of his life; his real biography has not yet been written; and in the jungle of controversial writings which has grown up around him one loses sight of Whitman in a maze of extravagant or contradictory opinions.
Let it suffice then to record, in catalogue fashion, that Whitman was born (1819) on Long Island, of stubborn farmer stock; that he spent his earliest years by the sea, which inspired his best verse; that he grew up in the streets of Brooklyn and was always fascinated by the restless tide of city life, as reflected in such poems as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”; that his education was scanty and of the “picked up” variety; that to the end of his life, though ignorant of what literary men regard as the a-b-c of knowledge, he was supremely well satisfied with himself; that till he was past forty he worked irregularly at odd jobs, but was by choice a loafer; that he was a man of superb physical health and gloried in his body, without much regard for moral standards; that his strength was broken by nursing wounded soldiers during the war, a beautiful and unselfish service; that he was then a government clerk in Washington until partly disabled by a paralytic stroke, and that the remainder of his life was spent at Camden, New Jersey. His Leaves of Grass (published first in 1855, and republished with additions many times) brought him very little return in money, and his last years were spent in a state of semipoverty, relieved by the gifts of a small circle of admirers.
WHITMAN’S VERSE. In a single book, Leaves of Grass, Whitman has collected all his verse. This book would be a chaos even had he left his works in the order in which they were written; but that is precisely what he did not do. Instead, he enlarged and rearranged the work ten different times, mixing up his worst and his best verses, so that it is now very difficult to trace his development as a poet. We may, however, tentatively arrange his work in three divisions: his early shouting to attract attention (as summarized in the line “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”), his war poems, and his later verse written after he had learned something of the discipline of life and poetry.
The quality of his early work may be judged from a few disjointed lines of his characteristic “Song of Myself”:
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am
not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready,
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,
The clear light plays on the brown, gray and green intertinged,
The armfuls are pack’d to the sagging mow.
I am there, I help, I came stretch’d atop of the load,
I felt its soft jolts, one leg reclined on the other,
I jump from the cross-beams and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels and tangle my hair full of wisps.
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
Thus he rambles on, gabbing of every place or occupation or newspaper report that comes into his head. When he ends this grotesque “Song of Myself” after a thousand lines or more, he makes another just like it. We read a few words here and there, amazed that any publisher should print such rubbish; and then, when we are weary of Whitman’s conceit or bad taste, comes a flash of insight, of imagination, of poetry:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight
expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts
descend upon me?
There are, in short, hundreds of pages of such “chanting” with its grain of wheat hid in a bushel of chaff. We refer to it here not because it is worth reading but to record the curious fact that many European critics hail it as typical American poetry, even while we wonder why anybody should regard it as either American or poetic.
The explanation is simple. Europeans have not yet rid themselves of the idea that America is the strange, wild land Cooper’s Pioneers, and that any poetry produced here must naturally be uncouth, misshapen, defiant of all poetic laws or traditions. To such critics Whitman’s crudity seems typical of a country where one is in nightly danger of losing his scalp, where arguments are settled by revolvers, and where a hungry man needs only to shoot a buffalo or a bear from his back door. Meanwhile America, the country that planted colleges and churches in a wilderness, that loves liberty because she honors law, that never saw a knight in armor but that has, even in her plainsmen and lumberjacks, a chivalry for woman that would adorn a Bayard,--that real America ignores the bulk of Whitman’s work simply because she knows that, of all her poets, he is the least representative of her culture, her ideals, her heroic and aspiring life.
The second division of Whitman’s work is made up chiefly of verses written in war time, to some of which he gave the significant title, Drum Taps. In such poems as as “Beat, Beat, Drums,” “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” and “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame” he reflected the emotional excitement of ‘61 and the stern days that followed. Note, for example, the startling vigor of “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” which depicts an old negro woman by the roadside, looking with wonder on the free flag which she sees for the first time aloft over marching men:
Who are you, dusky woman, so ancient, hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban’d head and bare bony feet?
Why, rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?
Another side of the war is reflected in such poems as “Come up from the Fields, Father,” an exquisite picture of an old mother and father receiving the news of their son’s death on the battlefield. In the same class belong two fine tributes, “O Captain, My Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” written in moments of noble emotion when the news came that Lincoln was dead. The former tribute, with its rhythmic swing and lyric refrain, indicates what Whitman might have done in poetry had he been a more patient workman. So also does “Pioneers,” a lyric that is wholly American and Western and exultant:
Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
In the third class of Whitman’s works are the poems written late in life, when he had learned to suppress his blatant egotism and to pay some little attention to poetic form and melody. Though his lines are still crude and irregular, many of them move to a powerful rhythm, such as the impressive “With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea,” which suggests the surge and beat of breakers on the shore. In others he gives finely imaginative expression to an ideal or a yearning, and his verse rises to high poetic levels. Note this allegory of the spider, an insect that, when adrift or in a strange place, sends out delicate filaments on the air currents until one thread takes hold of some solid substance and is used as a bridge over the unknown:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Among the best of Whitman’s works are his poems to death. “Joy, Shipmate, Joy,” “Death’s Valley,” “Darest Thou Now, O Soul,” “Last Invocation,” “Good-Bye, My Fancy,”—in such haunting lyrics he reflects the natural view of death, not as a terrible or tragic or final event but as a confident going forth to meet new experiences. Other notable poems that well repay the reading are “The Mystic Trumpeter,” “The Man-of-War Bird,” “The Ox Tamer,” “Thanks in Old Age” and “Aboard at a Ship’s Helm.”
In naming the above works our purpose is simply to lure the reader away from the insufferable Whitmanesque “chant” and to attract attention to a few poems that sound a new note in literature, a note of freedom, of joy, of superb confidence, which warms the heart when we hear it. When these poems are known others will suggest themselves: “Rise, O Days, from Your Fathomless Deeps,” “I Hear America Singing,” “There was a Boy Went Forth,” “The Road Unknown,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” There is magic in such names; but unfortunately in most cases the reader will find only an alluring title and a few scattered lines of poetry; the rest is Whitman.
The author of the “Song of Myself” proclaimed himself the poet of democracy and wrote many verses on his alleged subject; but those who read them will soon tire of one whose idea of democracy was that any man is as good, as wise, as godlike as any other. Perhaps his best work in this field is “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood,” a patriotic poem read at “Commencement” time in Dartmouth College (1872). There is too much of vainglorious boasting in the poem (for America should be modest, and can afford to be modest), but it has enough of prophetic vision and exalted imagination to make us overlook its unworthy spread-eagleism.
As a farewell to Whitman one should read what is perhaps his noblest single work, “The Prayer of Columbus.” The poem is supposed to reflect the thought of Columbus when, as a worn-out voyager, an old man on his last expedition, he looked out over his wrecked ships to the lonely sea beyond; but the reader may see in it another picture, that of a broken old man in his solitary house at Camden, writing with a trembling hand the lines which reflect his unshaken confidence:
My terminus near,
The clouds already closing in upon me,
The voyage balk’d, the course disputed, lost,
I yield my ships to Thee.
My hands, my limbs grow nerveless,
My brain feels rack’d, bewilder’d;
Let the old timbers part, I will not part,
I will cling fast to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me,
Thee, Thee at least I know.
Is it the prophet’s thought I speak, or am I raving?
What do I know of life? what of myself?
I know not even my own work past or present;
Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me,
Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition,
Mocking, perplexing me.
And these things I see suddenly, what mean they?
As if some miracle, some hand divine, unseal’d my eyes,
Shadowy vast shapes smile through the air and sky,
And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.
* * * * *
THE PROSE WRITERS
RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882)
Emerson is the mountaineer of our literature; to read him is to have the impression of being on the heights. It is solitary there, far removed from ordinary affairs; but the air is keen, the outlook grand, the heavens near. Our companions are the familiar earth by day or the mysterious stars by night, and these are good if only to recall the silent splendor of God’s universe amid the pother of human inventions. There also the very spirit of liberty, which seems to have its dwelling among the hills, enters into us and makes us sympathize with Emerson’s message of individual freedom.
It is still a question whether Emerson should be classed with the poets or prose writers, and our only reason for placing him with the latter is that his “Nature” seems more typical than his “Wood Notes,” though in truth both works convey precisely the same message. He was a great man who used prose or verse as suited his mood at the moment; but he was never a great poet, and only on rare occasions was he a great prose writer.
LIFE. Emerson has been called “the wingéd Franklin,” “the Yankee Shelley” and other contradictory names which strive to express the union of shrewd sense and lofty idealism that led him to write “Hitch your wagon to a star” and many another aphorism intended to bring heaven and earth close together. We shall indicate enough of his inheritance if we call him a Puritan of the Puritans, a moralist descended from seven generations of heroic ministers who had helped to make America a free nation, and who had practiced the love of God and man and country before preaching it to their congregations.
The quality of these ancestors entered into Emerson and gave him the granite steadfastness that is one of his marked characteristics. Meeting him in his serene old age one would hardly suspect him of heroism; but to meet him in childhood is to understand the kind of man he was, and must be. If you would appreciate the quality of that childhood, picture to yourself a bare house with an open fire and plenty of books, but little else of comfort. There are a mother and six children in the house, desperately poor; for the father is dead and has left his family nothing and everything,--nothing that makes life rich, everything in the way of ideals and blessed memories to make life wealthy. The mother works as only a poor woman can from morning till night. The children go to school by day; but instead of playing after school-hours they run errands for the neighbors, drive cows from pasture, shovel snow, pick huckleberries, earn an honest penny. In the evening they read together before the open fire. When they are hungry, as they often are, a Puritan aunt who shares their poverty tells them stories of human endurance. The circle narrows when an older brother goes to college; the rest reduce their meals and spare their pennies in order to help him. After graduation he teaches school and devotes his earnings to giving the next brother his chance. All the while they speak courteously to each other, remember their father’s teaching that they are children of God, and view their hard life steadily in the light of that sublime doctrine.
The rest of the story is easily told. Emerson was born in Boston, then a straggling town, in 1803. When his turn came he went to Harvard, and largely supported himself there by such odd jobs as only a poor student knows how to find. Wasted time he called it; for he took little interest in college discipline or college fun and was given to haphazard reading, “sinfully strolling from book to book, from care to idleness,” as he said. Later he declared that the only good thing he found in Harvard was a solitary chamber.
After leaving college he taught school and shared his earnings, according to family tradition. Then he began to study for the ministry; or perhaps we should say “read,” for Emerson never really studied anything. At twenty-three he was licensed to preach, and three years later was chosen pastor of the Second Church in Boston. It was the famous Old North Church in which the Mathers had preached, and the Puritan divines must have turned in their graves when the young radical began to utter his heresies from the ancient pulpit. He was loved and trusted by his congregation, but presently he differed with them in the matter of the ritual and resigned his ministry.
Next he traveled in Europe, where he found as little of value as he had previously found in college. The old institutions, which roused the romantic enthusiasm of Irving and Longfellow, were to him only relics of barbarism. He went to Europe, he said, to see two men, and he found them in Wordsworth and Carlyle. His friendship with the latter and the letters which passed between “the sage of Chelsea” and “the sage of Concord” (as collected and published by Charles Eliot Norton in his Correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson) are the most interesting result of his pilgrimage.
On his return he settled in the village of Concord, which was to be his home for the remainder of his long life. He began to lecture, and so well was the “Lyceum” established at that time that he was soon known throughout the country. For forty years this lecturing continued, and the strange thing about it is that in all that time he hardly met one audience that understood him or that carried away any definite idea of what he had talked about. Something noble in the man seemed to attract people; as Lowell said, they did not go to hear what Emerson said but to hear Emerson.
Meanwhile he was writing prose and poetry. His literary work began in college and consisted largely in recording such thoughts or quotations as seemed worthy of preservation. In his private Journal (now published in several volumes) may be found practically everything he put into the formal works which he sent forth from Concord. These had at first a very small circle of readers; but the circle widened steadily, and the phenomenon is more remarkable in view of the fact that the author avoided publicity and had no ambition for success. He lived contentedly in a country village; he cultivated his garden and his neighbors; he spent long hours alone with nature; he wrote the thoughts that came to him and sent them to make their own way in the world, while he himself remained, as he said, “far from fame behind the birch trees.”
The last years of his life were as the twilight of a perfect day. His mental powers failed slowly; he seemed to drift out of the present world into another of pure memories; even his friends became spiritualized, lost the appearance of earth and assumed their eternal semblance. When he stood beside the coffin of Longfellow, looking intently into the poet’s face, he was heard to murmur, “A sweet, a gracious personality, but I have forgotten his name.” To the inevitable changes (the last came in 1882) he adapted himself with the same serenity which marked his whole life. He even smiled as he read the closing lines of his “Terminus”:
As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.”
EMERSON’S POETRY. There is a ruggedness in Emerson’s verse which attracts some readers while it repels others by its unmelodious rhythm. It may help us to measure that verse if we recall the author’s criticism thereof. In 1839 he wrote:
“I am naturally keenly susceptible to the pleasures of rhythm, and cannot believe but one day I shall attain to that splendid dialect, so ardent is my wish; and these wishes, I suppose, are ever only the buds of power; but up to this hour I have never had a true success in such attempts.”
One must be lenient with a poet who confesses that he cannot attain the “splendid dialect,” especially so since we are inclined to agree with him. In the following passage from “Each and All” we may discover the reason for his lack of success:
Little thinks, in the field, yon red-cloaked clown
Of thee from the hill-top looking down;
The heifer that lows in the upland farm,
Far-heard, lows not thine ear to charm;
The sexton, tolling his bell at noon,
Deems not that great Napoleon
Stops his horse, and lists with delight,
Whilst his files sweep round yon Alpine height;
Nor knowest thou what argument
Thy life to thy neighbor’s creed has lent.
All are needed by each one;
Nothing is fair or good alone.
I thought the sparrow’s note from heaven,
Singing at dawn on the alder bough;
I brought him home in his nest at even;
He sings the song, but it cheers not now,
For I did not bring home the river and sky:
He sang to my ear; they sang to my eye.
The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave,
And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me.
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore
With the sun and the sand and the wild uproar.
Our first criticism is that the poem contains both fine and faulty lines, and that the total impression is an excellent one. Next, we note that the verse is labored; for Emerson was not a natural singer, like Whittier, and was hampered by his tendency to think too much instead of giving free expression to his emotion. [Footnote: Most good poems are characterized by both thought and feeling, and by a perfection of form that indicates artistic workmanship. With Emerson the thought is the main thing; feeling or emotion is subordinate or lacking, and he seldom has the patience to work over his thought until it assumes beautiful or perfect expression.] Finally, he is didactic; that is, he is teaching the lesson that you must not judge a thing by itself, as if it had no history or connections, but must consider it in its environment, as a part of its own world.
As in “Each and All” so in most of his verse Emerson is too much of a teacher or moralist to be a poet. In “The Rhodora,” one of his most perfect poems, he proclaims that “Beauty is its own excuse for being”; but straightway he forgets the word and devotes his verse not to beauty but to some ethical lesson. Very rarely does he break away from this unpoetic habit, as when he interrupts the moralizing of his “World Soul” to write a lyric that we welcome for its own sake:
Spring still makes spring in the mind
When sixty years are told;
Love wakes anew this throbbing heart,
And we are never old.
Over the winter glaciers
I see the summer glow,
And through the wide-piled snowdrift
The warm rosebuds below.
The most readable of Emerson’s poems are those in which he reflects his impressions of nature, such as “Seashore,” “The Humble-Bee,” “The Snow-Storm,” “Days,” “Fable,” “Forbearance,” “The Titmouse” and “Wood-Notes.” In another class are his philosophical poems devoted to transcendental doctrines. The beginner will do well to skip these, since they are more of a puzzle than a source of pleasure. In a third class are poems of more personal interest, such as the noble “Threnody,” a poem of grief written after the death of Emerson’s little boy; “Good-Bye,” in which the poet bids farewell to fame as he hies him to the country; “To Ellen,” which half reveals his love story; “Written in Rome,” which speaks of the society he found in solitude; and the “Concord Hymn,” written at the dedication of Battle Monument, with its striking opening lines:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
PROSE WORKS. Perhaps the most typical of Emerson’s prose works is his first book, to which he gave the name Nature (1836). In this he records not his impressions of bird or beast or flower, as his neighbor Thoreau was doing in Walden, but rather his philosophy of the universe. “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit”; “Every animal function, from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the ten commandments”; “The foundations of man are not in matter but in spirit, and the element of spirit is eternity,”—scores of such expressions indicate that Emerson deals with the soul of things, not with their outward appearance. Does a flower appeal to him? Its scientific name and classification are of no consequence; like Wordsworth, he would understand what thought of God the flower speaks. To him nature is a mirror in which the Almighty reflects his thought; again it is a parable, a little story written in trees or hills or stars; frequently it is a living presence, speaking melodiously in winds or waters; and always it is an inspiration to learn wisdom at first hand:
“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, criticisms. The foregoing generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight, and not of tradition?”
The last quotation might well be an introduction to Emerson’s second work, The American Scholar (1837), which was a plea for laying aside European models and fronting life as free men in a new world. Holmes called this work “our intellectual Declaration of Independence,” and it was followed by a succession of volumes--Essays, Representative Men, Conduct of Life, Society and Solitude and several others—all devoted to the same two doctrines of idealism and individuality.
Among these prose works the reader must make his own selection. All are worth reading; none is easy to read; even the best of them is better appreciated in brief instalments, since few can follow Emerson long without wearying. English Traits is a keen but kindly criticism of “our cousins” overseas, which an American can read with more pleasure than an Englishman. Representative Men is a series of essays on Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon and other world figures, which may well be read in connection with Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship, since the two books reflect the same subject from widely different angles. Carlyle was in theory an aristocrat and a force-worshiper, Emerson a democrat and a believer in ideals. One author would relate us to his heroes in the attitude of slave to master, the other in the relation of brothers and equals.
Of the shorter prose works, collected in various volumes of Essays, we shall name only a few in two main groups, which we may call the ideal and the practical. In the first group are such typical works as “The Over-Soul,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws” and “History”; in the latter are “Heroism,” “Self-Reliance,” “Literary Ethics” (an address to young collegians), “Character” and “Manners.”
It is difficult to criticize such writings, which have a daring originality of thought and a springlike freshness of expression that set them apart from all other essays ancient or modern. They are the most quotable, the fittest to “point a moral or adorn a tale” that have ever appeared in our literature; but they are also disjointed, oracular, hard to follow; and the explanation is found in the manner of their production. When Emerson projected a new lecture or essay he never thought his subject out or ordered it from beginning to end. That would have been another man’s way of doing it. He collected from his notebooks such thoughts as seemed to bear upon his subject, strung them together, and made an end when he had enough. The connection or relation between his thoughts is always frail and often invisible; some compare it with the thread which holds the pearls of a necklace together; others quote with a smile the epigram of Goldwin Smith, who said that he found an Emersonian essay about as coherent as a bag of marbles. And that suggests a fair criticism of all Emerson’s prose; namely, that it is a series of expressions excellent in themselves but having so little logical sequence that a paragraph from one essay may be placed at the beginning, middle or end of any other, where it seems to be equally at home.
THE DOCTRINE OF EMERSON. Since we constantly hear of “idealism” in connection with Emerson, let us understand the word if we can; or rather the fact, for idealism is the most significant quality of humanity. The term will be better understood if we place it beside “materialism,” which expresses an opposite view of life. The difference may be summarized in the statement that the idealist is a man of spirit, or idea, in that he trusts the evidence of the soul; while the materialist is a man of flesh, or sense, in that he believes only what is evident to the senses. One judges the world by himself; the other judges himself by the world.
To illustrate our meaning: the materialist, looking outward, sees that the world is made up of force-driven matter, of gas, carbon and mineral; and he says, “Even so am I made up.” He studies an object, sees that it has its appointed cycle of growth and decay, and concludes, “Even so do I appear and vanish.” To him the world is the only reality, and the world perishes, and man is but a part of the world.
The idealist, looking first within, perceives that self-consciousness is the great fact of life, and that consciousness expresses itself in words or deeds; then he looks outward, and is aware of another Consciousness that expresses itself in the lowly grass or in the stars of heaven. Looking inward he finds that he is governed by ideas of truth, beauty, goodness and duty; looking outward he everywhere finds evidence of truth and beauty and moral law in the world. He sees, moreover, that while his body changes constantly his self remains the same yesterday, to-day and forever; and again his discovery is a guide to the outer world, with its seedtime and harvest, which is but the symbol or garment of a Divine Self that abides without shadow of change in a constantly changing universe. To him the only reality is spirit, and spirit cannot be harmed by fire or flood; neither can it die or be buried, for it is immortal and imperishable.
Such, in simple words, was the idealism of Emerson, an idealism that was born in him and that governed him long before he became involved in transcendentalism, with its scraps of borrowed Hindu philosophy. It gave message or meaning to his first work, Nature, and to all the subsequent essays or poems in which he pictured the world as a symbol or visible expression of a spiritual reality. In other words, nature was to Emerson the Book of the Lord, and the chief thing of interest was not the book but the idea that was written therein.
Having read the universe and determined its spiritual quality, Emerson turned his eyes on humanity. Presently he announced that a man’s chief glory is his individuality; that he is a free being, different from every other; that his business is to obey his individual genius; that he should, therefore, ignore the Past with its traditions, and learn directly “from the Divine Soul which inspires all men.” Having announced that doctrine, he spent the rest of his life in illustrating or enlarging it; and the sum of his teaching was, “Do not follow me or any other master; follow your own spirit. Never mind what history says, or philosophy or tradition or the saints and sages. The same inspiration which led the prophets is yours for the taking, and you have your work to do as they had theirs. Revere your own soul; trust your intuition; and whatever you find in your heart to do, do it without doubt or fear, though all the world thunder in your ears that you must do otherwise. As for the voice of authority, ‘Let not a man quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the anointed and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.’”
Such was Emerson’s pet doctrine of individualism. It appeared with startling vigor in The American Scholar at a time when our writers were prone to imitate English poetry, German sentimentality or some other imported product. It came also with good grace from one whose life was noble, but it had a weak or dangerous or grotesque side that Emerson overlooked. Thus, every crank or fanatic or rainbow-chaser is also an individualist, and most of them believe as strongly as Emerson in the Over-Soul. The only difference is that they do not have his sense or integrity or humor to balance their individualism. While Emerson exalted individual liberty he seemed to forget that America is a country devoted to “liberty under law,” and that at every period of her history she has had need to emphasize the law rather than the liberty. Moreover, individualism is a quality that takes care of itself, being finest in one who is least conscious of his own importance; and to study any strongly individual character, a Washington or a Lincoln for example, is to discover that he strove to be true to his race and traditions as well as to himself. Hence Emerson’s doctrine, to live in the Present and have entire confidence in yourself, needs to be supplemented by another: to revere the Past with its immortal heroes, who by their labor and triumph have established some truths that no sane man will ever question.
There are other interesting qualities of Emerson, his splendid optimism, for instance, which came partly from his spiritual view of the universe and partly from his association with nature; for the writer who is in daily contact with sunshine or rain and who trusts his soul’s ideals of truth and beauty has no place for pessimism or despair; even in moments of darkness he looks upward and reads his lesson:
Teach me your mood, O patient stars,
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die!
Though he was and still is called a visionary, there is a practical quality in his writing which is better than anything you will find in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Thus the burden of Franklin’s teaching was the value of time, a lesson which the sage of Concord illuminates as with celestial light in his poem “Days,” and to which he brings earth’s candle in his prose essay “Work and Days.” [Footnote: The two works should be read in connection as an interesting example of Emerson’s use of prose and verse to reflect the same idea. Holmes selects the same two works to illustrate the essential difference between prose and poetry. See Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 310.] Indeed, the more one reads Emerson the more is one convinced that he is our typical New World writer, a rare genius who combines the best qualities of Franklin and Edwards, having the practical sense of the one and the spiritual insight of the other. [Footnote: In 1830 Channing published an essay, “National Literature,” in which he said that Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards were the only writers up to that time who had worthily presented the American mind, with its practical and ideal sides, to foreign readers.] With his idealism and individuality, his imagination that soars to heaven but is equally at home on solid earth, his sound judgment to balance his mysticism, his forceful style that runs from epigram to sustained eloquence, his straight-fibered manhood in which criticism finds nothing to pardon or regret,--with all these sterling qualities he is one of the most representative writers that America has ever produced.
* * * * *
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE (1804-1864)
Some great writers belong to humanity, others to their own land or people. Hawthorne is in the latter class apparently, for ever since Lowell rashly characterized him as “the greatest imaginative genius since Shakespeare” our critics commonly speak of him in superlatives. Meanwhile most European critics (who acclaim such unequal writers as Cooper and Poe, Whitman and Mark Twain) either leave Hawthorne unread or else wonder what Americans find in him to stir their enthusiasm.
The explanation is that Hawthorne’s field was so intensely local that only those who are familiar with it can appreciate him. Almost any reader can enjoy Cooper, since he deals with adventurous men whom everybody understands; but Hawthorne deals with the New England Puritan of the seventeenth century, a very peculiar hero, and to enjoy the novelist one must have some personal or historic interest in his subject. Moreover, he alienates many readers by presenting only the darker side of Puritanism. He is a man who never laughs and seldom smiles in his work; he passes over a hundred normal and therefore cheerful homes to pitch upon some gloomy habitation of sin or remorse, and makes that the burden of his tale. In no other romancer do we find genius of such high order at work in so barren a field.
LIFE. There is an air of reserve about Hawthorne which no biography has ever penetrated. A schoolmate who met him daily once said, “I love Hawthorne; I admire him; but I do not know him. He lives in a mysterious world of thought and imagination which he never permits me to enter.” That characterization applies as well to-day as when it was first spoken, almost a century ago. To his family and to a very few friends Hawthorne was evidently a genial man, [Footnote:
Intimate but hardly trustworthy pictures of Hawthorne and his family are presented by his son, Julian Hawthorne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife. A dozen other memoirs have appeared; but Hawthorne did not want his biography written, and there are many unanswered questions in the story of his life.] but from the world and its affairs he always held aloof, wrapped in his mantle of mystery.
A study of his childhood may help us to understand the somber quality of all his work. He was descended from the Puritans who came to Boston with John Winthrop, and was born in the seaport of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. He was only four years old when his father, a sea captain, died in a foreign port; whereupon the mother draped herself in weeds, retired from the sight of neighbors, and for the next forty years made life as funereal as possible. Besides the little boy there were two sisters in the family, and the elder took her meals in her own room, as did the mother. The others went about the darkened house on tiptoe, or peeped out at the world through closed shutters.
The shadow of that unnatural home was upon Hawthorne to the end of his life; it accounts in part for his shyness, his fear of society, his lack of interest in his own age or nation.
At seventeen Hawthorne went to Bowdoin College, where Longfellow was his classmate and Franklin Pierce (later President of the United States) one of his friends. His college life seems to have been happy, even gay at times; but when he graduated (1825) and his classmates scattered to find work in the world he returned to his Salem home and secluded himself as if he had no interest in humanity. It was doubtful, he said afterwards, whether a dozen people knew of his existence in as many years.
All the while he was writing, gathering material for his romances or patiently cultivating his fine style. For days he would brood over a subject; then he would compose a story or parable for the magazines. The stamp of originality was on all these works, but they were seldom accepted. When they returned to him, having found no appreciative editor, he was apt to burn them and complain that he was neglected. Studying the man as he reveals himself at this time in his Note-Books (published in a garbled edition by the Hawthorne family), one has the impression that he was a shy, sensitive genius, almost morbidly afraid of the world. From a distance he sent out his stories as “feelers”, when these were ignored he shrank into himself more deeply than before.
Love brought him out of his retreat, as it has accomplished many another miracle. When he became engaged his immediate thought was to find work, and one of his friends secured a position for him in the Boston customhouse, where he weighed coal until he was replaced by a party spoilsman. [Footnote: Hawthorne profited three times by the spoils system. When his Boston experience was repeated at Salem he took his revenge in the opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter, which ridicules those who received political jobs from the other party.] There were no civil-service rules in those days. Hoping to secure a home, he invested his savings in Brook Farm, worked there for a time with the reformers, detested them, lost his money and gained the experience which he used later in his Blithedale Romance. Then he married, and lived in poverty and great happiness for four years in the “Old Manse” at Concord. Another friend obtained for him political appointment as surveyor of the Salem customhouse; again he was replaced by a spoilsman, and again he complained bitterly. The loss proved a blessing, however, since it gave him leisure to write The Scarlet Letter, a novel which immediately placed Hawthorne in the front rank of American writers.
He was now before an appreciative world, and in the flush of fine feeling that followed his triumph he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, A Wonder Book and The Snow Image. Literature was calling him most hopefully when, at the very prime of life, he turned his back on fortune. His friend Pierce had been nominated by the Democrats (1852), and he was asked to write the candidate’s biography for campaign purposes. It was hardly a worthy task, but he accepted it and did it well. When Pierce was elected he “persuaded” Hawthorne to accept the office of consul at Liverpool. The emoluments, some seven thousand dollars a year, seemed enormous to one who had lived straitly, and in the four years of Pierce’s administration our novelist saved a sum which, with the income from his books, placed him above the fear of want. Then he went for a long vacation to Italy, where he collected the material for his Marble Faun. But he wrote nothing more of consequence.
The remainder of his life was passed in a pleasant kind of hermitage in Emerson’s village of Concord. His habits of solitude and idleness (“cursed habits,” he called them) were again upon him; though he began several romances--Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, Septimius Felton, The Ancestral Footstep and The Dolliver Romance--he never made an end of them. In his work he was prone to use some symbol of human ambition, and the symbol of his own later years might well have been the unfinished manuscript which lay upon the coffin when his body was laid under the pines in the old Concord burying ground (1864). His friend Longfellow has described the scene in his beautiful poem “Hawthorne.”
SHORT STORIES AND SKETCHES. Many young people become familiar with Hawthorne as a teller of bedtime stories long before they meet him in the role of famous novelist. In his earlier days he wrote Grandfather’s Chair (modeled on a similar work by Scott), dealing with Colonial legends, and broadened his field in Biographical Stories for Children. Other and better works belonging to the same juvenile class are A Wonder Book (1851) and Tanglewood Tales (1853), which are modern versions of the classic myths and stories that Greek mothers used to tell their children long ago.
The best of Hawthorne’s original stories are collected in Twice-Told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse and The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales. As the bulk of this work is rather depressing we select a few typical tales, arranging them in three groups. In the first are certain sketches, as Hawthorne called them, which aim not to tell a story but to give an impression of the past. “The Old Manse” (in Mosses from an Old Manse) is an excellent introduction to this group. Others in which the author comes out from the gloom to give his humor a glimpse of pale sunshine are “A Rill from the Town Pump,” “Main Street,” “Little Annie’s Ramble,” “Sights from a Steeple” and, as suggestive of Hawthorne’s solitary outings, “Footprints on the Seashore.”
In the second group are numerous allegories and symbolical stories. To understand Hawthorne’s method of allegory [Footnote: An allegory is a figure of speech (in rhetoric) or a story (in literature) in which an external object is described in such a way that we apply the description to our own inner experience. Many proverbs, such as “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” are condensed allegories. So also are fables and parables, such as the fable of the fox and the grapes, or the parable of the lost sheep. Bunyan’s famous allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, describes a journey from one city to another, but in reading it we are supposed to think of a Christian’s experience in passing through this world to the next.] read “The Snow Image,” which is the story of a snowy figure that became warm, living and companionable to some children until it was spoiled by a hard-headed person, without imagination or real sense, who forgot that he was ever a child himself or that there is such a beautiful and precious thing as a child-view of the universe.
In his constant symbolism (that is, in his use of an outward sign or token to represent an idea) Hawthorne reflected a trait that is common to humanity in all ages. Thus, every nation has its concrete symbol, its flag or eagle or lion; a great religion is represented by a cross or a crescent; in art and poetry the sword stands for war and the dove for peace; an individual has his horseshoe or rabbit’s foot or “mascot” as the simple expression of an idea that may be too complex for words. Among primitive people such symbols were associated with charms, magic, baleful or benignant influences; and Hawthorne accepted this superstitious idea in many of his works, though he was apt to hint, as in “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle,” that the magic of his symbol might have a practical explanation. In this story the lady’s gorgeous mantle is a symbol of pride; its blighting influence may be due to the fact that,--but to tell the secret is to spoil the story, and that is not fair to Hawthorne or the reader.
Some of these symbolic tales are too vague or shadowy to be convincing; in others the author makes artistic use of some simple object, such as a flower or an ornament, to suggest the mystery that broods over every life. In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” for example, a clergyman startles his congregation by appearing with a dark veil over his face. The veil itself is a familiar object; on a woman or a bonnet it would pass unnoticed; but on the minister it becomes a portentous thing, at once fascinating and repellent. Yesterday they knew the man as a familiar friend; to-day he is a stranger, and they fear him with a vague, nameless fear. Forty years he wears the mysterious thing, dies and is buried with it, and in all that time they never have a glimpse of his face. Though there is a deal of nonsense in the story, and a hocus-pocus instead of a mystery, we must remember that veil as a striking symbol of the loneliness of life, of the gulf that separates a human soul from every other.
Another and better symbolic tale is “The Great Stone Face,” which appeals strongly to younger readers, especially to those who have lived much out of doors and who cherish the memory of some natural object, some noble tree or mossy cliff or singing brook, that is forever associated with their thoughts of childhood. To others the tale will have added interest in that it is supposed to portray the character of Emerson as Hawthorne knew him.
In the third group are numerous stories dealing with Colonial history, and of these “The Gray Champion” and “The Gentle Boy” are fairly typical. Hawthorne has been highly praised in connection with these tales as “the artist who created the Puritan in literature.” Most readers will gladly recognize the “artist,” since every tale has its line or passage of beauty; but some will murmur at the “creation.” The trouble with Hawthorne was that in creating his Puritan he took scant heed of the man whom the Almighty created. He was not a scholar or even a reader; his custom was to brood over an incident of the past (often a grotesque incident, such as he found in Winthrop’s old Journal), and from his brooding he produced an imaginary character, some heartless fanatic or dismal wretch who had nothing of the Puritan except the label. Of the real Puritan, who knew the joy and courtesy as well as the stern discipline of life, our novelist had only the haziest notion. In consequence his “Gentle Boy” and parts also of his Scarlet Letter leave an unwarranted stain on the memory of his ancestors.
THE FOUR ROMANCES. The romances of Hawthorne are all studies of the effects of sin on human development. If but one of these romances is to be read, let it be The House of the Seven Gables (1851), which is a pleasanter story than Hawthorne commonly tells, and which portrays one character that he knew by experience rather than by imagination. Many of Hawthorne’s stories run to a text, and the text here is, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The characters are represented as “under a curse”; [Foonote: This is a reflection of a family tradition. An ancestor of Hawthorne was judge at the Salem witch trials, in 1692. One of the poor creatures condemned to death is said to have left a curse on the judge’s family. In his Note Books Hawthorne makes mention of the traditional curse, and analyzes its possible effect on his own character.] that is, they are bearing the burden and sorrow of some old iniquity committed before they were born; but the affliction is banished in a satisfactory way without leaving us in the haze of mystery that envelops so much of Hawthorne’s work. His humor is also in evidence, his interest in life overcomes for a time his absorption in shadowy symbols, and his whole story is brightened by his evident love of Phoebe Pyncheon, the most natural and winsome of all his characters.
The other romances deal with the same general theme, the blighting effect of sin, but vary greatly in their scenes and characters. The Marble Faun (published in England as Transformation, 1860) is the most popular, possibly because its scene is laid in Rome, a city to which all travelers go, or aspire to go, before they die; but though it moves in “an atmosphere of art,” among the studios of “the eternal city,” it is the least artistic of all the author’s works. [Footnote: The Marble Faun ends in a fog, as if the author did not know what to do with his characters. It has the amateurish fault of halting the narrative to talk with the reader; and it moralizes to such an extent that the heroine (who is pictured as of almost angelic virtue) eventually becomes a prig and a preacher,--two things that a woman must never be. Nevertheless, the romance has a host of enthusiastic readers, and to criticize it adversely is to bring a storm about one’s ears.] In The Blithedale Romance (1852) Hawthorne deals with the present rather than the past and apparently makes use of his observation, since his scenes and characters are strongly suggestive of the Brook Farm community of reformers, among whom he spent one critical and unhappy year. The Scarlet Letter (1850) is not only the most original and powerful of the romances but is commonly ranked by our critics at the head of American fiction. The scene is laid in Boston, in the old Puritan days; the main characters are vividly drawn, and the plot moves to its gloomy but impressive climax as if Wyrd or Fate were at the bottom of it.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HAWTHORNE. Almost the first thing we notice in Hawthorne is his style, a smooth, leisurely, “classic” style which moves along, like a meadow brook, without hurry or exertion. Gradually as we read we become conscious of the novelist’s characters, whom he introduces with a veil of mystery around them. They are interesting, as dreams and other mysterious things always are, but they are seldom real or natural or lifelike. At times we seem to be watching a pantomime of shadows, rather than a drama of living men and women.
The explanation of these shadowy characters is found in Hawthorne’s method of work, as revealed by the Note-Books in which he stored his material. Here is a typical record, which was occasioned, no doubt, by the author’s meeting with some old nurse, whom he straightway changed from her real semblance to a walking allegory:
“Change from a gay young girl to an old woman. Melancholy events, the effects of which have clustered around her character.... Becomes a lover of sick chambers, taking pleasure in receiving dying breaths and laying out the dead. Having her mind full of funeral reminiscences, and possessing more acquaintances beneath the turf than above it.”
This is enough of a story in itself; we need not read “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” to see how Hawthorne filled in the details. The strange thing is that he never studied or questioned the poor woman to discover whether she was anything like what he imagined her to be. On another page we read:
“A snake taken into a man’s stomach and nourished there from fifteen to thirty five years, tormenting him most horribly.” [Then follows the inevitable moral.] “Type of envy or some other evil passion.”
There are many such story-records in the Note-Books, but among them you will find no indication that the story-teller ever examined the facts with a purpose to discover whether a snake could survive thirty-five years, or minutes, in the acids of a human stomach, or how long a Puritan church would tolerate a minister who went about with a veil on his face, or whether any other of his symbols had any vital connection with human experience. In a word, Hawthorne was prone to make life conform to his imagination, instead of making his imagination conform to life. Living as he did in the twilight, between the day and the night, he seems to have missed the chief lesson of each, the urge of the one and the repose of the other; and especially did he miss the great fact of cheerfulness. The deathless courage of man, his invincible hope that springs to life under the most adverse circumstances, like the cyclamen abloom under the snows of winter,--this primal and blessed fact seems to have escaped his notice. At times he hints at it, but he never gives it its true place at the beginning, middle and end of human life.
Thus far our analysis has been largely negative, and Hawthorne was a very positive character. He had the feeling of an artist for beauty; and he was one of the few romancers who combine a strong sense of art with a puritanic devotion to conscience and the moral law. Hence his stories all aim to be both artistic and ethical, to satisfy our sense of beauty and our sense of right. In his constant moralizing he was like George Eliot; or rather, to give the figure its proper sequence, George Eliot was so exclusively a moralist after the Hawthornesque manner that one suspects she must have been familiar with his work when she began to write. Both novelists worked on the assumption that the moral law is the basis of human life and that every sin brings its inevitable retribution. The chief difference was that Hawthorne started with a moral principle and invented characters to match it, while George Eliot started with a human character in whose experience she revealed the unfolding of a moral principle.
The individuality of Hawthorne becomes apparent when we attempt to classify him,--a vain attempt, since there is no other like him in literature. In dealing with almost any other novelist we can name his models, or at least point out the story-tellers whose methods influenced his work; but Hawthorne seems to have had no predecessor. Subject, style and method were all his own, developed during his long seclusion at Salem, and from them he never varied. From his Twice-Told Tales to his unfinished Dolliver Romance he held steadily to the purpose of portraying the moral law against a background of Puritan history.
Such a field would have seemed very narrow to other American writers, who then, as now, were busy with things too many or things too new; but to Hawthorne it was a world in itself, a world that lured him as the Indies lured Columbus. In imagination he dwelt in that somber Puritan world, eating at its long-vanished tables or warming himself at its burnt-out fires, until the impulse came to reproduce it in literature. And he did reproduce it, powerfully, single-heartedly, as only genius could have done it. That his portrayal was inaccurate is perhaps a minor consideration; for one writer must depict life as he meets it on the street or in books, while another is confined to what Ezekiel calls “the chambers of imagery.” Hawthorne’s liberties with the facts may be pardoned on the ground that he was not an historian but an artist. The historian tells what life has accomplished, the artist what life means.
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SECONDARY WRITERS OF PROSE OR VERSE
THE POETS. Among the fifty or more poets of the period of conflict Henry Timrod, Paul Hamilton Hayne and Abram J. Ryan are notable for this reason, that their fame, once local, seems to widen with the years. They are commonly grouped as southern poets because of the war lyrics in which they voiced the passionate devotion of the South to its leaders; but what makes them now interesting to a larger circle of readers are their poems of an entirely different kind,--poems that reflect in a tender and beautiful way the common emotions of men in all places and in all ages. Two other prominent singers of the southern school are Theodore O’Hara and James Ryder Randall.
In another group are such varied singers as Richard Henry Stoddard, George H. Boker, Henry Howard Brownell, Thomas B. Read, John G. Saxe, J. G. Holland and Bayard Taylor. These were all famous poets in their own day, and some of them were prolific writers, Holland and Taylor especially. The latter produced thirty volumes of poems, essays, novels and sketches of travel; but, with the exception of his fine translation of Goethe’s Faust and a few of his original lyrics, the works which he sent forth so abundantly are now neglected. He is typical of a hundred writers who answer the appeal of to-day and win its applause, and who are forgotten when to-morrow comes with its new interests and its new favorites.
FICTION WRITERS. Comparatively few novels were written during this period, perhaps because the terrible shadow of war was over the country and readers were in no mood for fiction. The most popular romance of the age, and one of the most widely read books that America has ever produced, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which has been translated and dramatized into so many tongues that it is known all over the earth. The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), wrote several other stories, all characterized by humor, kindness and intense moral earnestness. Some of these, such as Oldtown Folks, The Minister’s Wooing, The Pearl of Orr’s Island and Oldtown Fireside Stories have decidedly more literary charm than her famous story of slavery.
The mid-century produced some very good sea stories, and in these we see the influence of Cooper, who was the first to use the ocean successfully as a scene of romantic interest. Dana’s Two Years before the Mast (1840) was immensely popular when our fathers were boys. It contained, moreover, such realistic pictures of sailor life that it was studied by aspirants for the British and American navies in the days when the flag rippled proudly over the beautiful old sailing ships. This excellent book is largely a record of personal experience; but in the tales of Herman Melville (1819-1891) we have the added elements of imagination and adventure. Typee, White Jacket, Moby Dick,--these are capital tales of the deep, the last-named especially.
Typee (a story well known to Stevenson, evidently) is remarkable for its graphic pictures of sailor life afloat and ashore in the Marquesas Islands, a new field in those days. The narrative is continued in White Jacket, which tells of the return from the South Pacific aboard a man-of-war. In Moby Dick we have the real experience of a sailorman and whaler (Melville himself) and the fictitious wanderings of a stout captain, a primeval kind of person, who is at times an interesting lunatic and again a ranting philosopher. In the latter we have an echo of Carlyle, who was making a stir in America in 1850, and who affected Melville so strongly that the latter soon lost his bluff, hearty, sailor fashion of writing, which everybody liked, and assumed a crotchety style that nobody cared to read.
A few other novels of the period are interesting as showing the sudden change from romance to realism, a change for which the war was partly responsible, and which will be examined more closely in the following chapter. John Esten Cooke (1830-1886) may serve as a concrete example of the two types of fiction. In his earlier romances, notably in Leather Stocking and Silk and The Virginia Comedians (1854), he aimed to do for the Cavalier society of the South what Hawthorne was doing for the old Puritan régime in New England; but his later stories, such as Surrey of Eagle’s Nest, are chiefly notable for their realistic pictures of the great war.
The change from romance to realism is more openly apparent in Theodore Winthrop and Edward Eggleston, whose novels deal frankly with pioneers of the Middle West; not such pioneers as Cooper had imagined in The Prairie, but such plain men and women as one might meet anywhere beyond the Alleghenies in 1850. Winthrop’s John Brent (1862) and Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster and The Circuit Rider (1874) are so true to a real phase of American life that a thoughtful reader must wonder why they are not better known. They are certainly refreshing to one who tires of our present so-called realism with its abnormal or degenerate characters.
More widely read than any of the novelists just mentioned are certain others who appeared in answer to the increasing demand of young people for a good story. It is doubtful if any American writer great or small has given more pleasure to young readers than Louisa M. Alcott with her Little Women (1868) and other stories for girls, or John T. Trowbridge, author of Cudjo’s Cave, Jack Hazard, A Chance for Himself and several other juveniles that once numbered their boy readers by tens of thousands.
THOREAU. Among the many secondary writers of the period the most original and most neglected was Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862), a man who differed greatly from other mortals in almost every respect, but chiefly in this, that he never was known to “go with the crowd,” not even on the rare occasions when he believed the crowd to be right. He was one of the few persons who select their own way through life and follow it without the slightest regard for the world’s opinion.
Numerous examples of Thoreau’s oddity might be given, but we note here only his strange determination to view life with his own eyes. This may appear a simple matter until we reflect that most men measure life by what others have said or written concerning life’s values. They accept the standards of their ancestors or their neighbors; they conform themselves to a world in which governments and other long-established institutions claim their allegiance; they are trained to win success in such a world by doing one thing well, and to measure their success by the fame or money or office or social position which they achieve by a lifetime of labor and self-denial.
Thoreau sharply challenged this whole conception of life, which, he said, was more a matter of habit than of reason or conviction. He saw in our social institutions as much of harm as of benefit to the individual. He looked with distrust on all traditions, saying that he had listened for thirty years without hearing one word of sound advice from his elders. He was a good workman and learned to do several things passing well; but he saw no reason why a free man should repeat himself daily in a world of infinite opportunities. Also he was a scholar, versed in classical lore and widely read in oriental literature; but unlike his friend Emerson he seldom quoted the ancients, being more concerned with his own thoughts of life than by the words of philosophers, and more fascinated by the wild birds that ate crumbs from his table than by all the fabled gods of mythology. As for success, the fame or money for which other men toiled seemed to him but empty bubbles; the only wealth he prized was his soul’s increase in love and understanding: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like sweet-scented herbs—is more elastic, starry and immortal—that is your success.”
There are other interesting matters in Thoreau’s philosophy, but these will appear plainly enough to one who reads his own record. His best-known work is Walden (1854), a journal in which he recorded what he saw or thought or felt during the two years when he abandoned society to live in a hut on the shore of Walden Pond, near his native village of Concord. If there be any definite lesson in the book, it is the proof of Thoreau’s theory that simplicity is needed for happiness, that men would be better off with fewer possessions, and that earning one’s living should be a matter of pleasure rather than of endless toil and anxiety. What makes Walden valuable, however, is not its theories but its revelation of an original mind fronting the facts of life, its gleams of poetry and philosophy, its startling paradoxes, its first-hand impressions of the world, its nuggets of sense or humor, and especially its intimate observation of the little wild neighbors in feathers or fur who shared Thoreau’s solitude. It is one of the few books in American literature that successive generations have read with profit to themselves and with increasing respect for the original genius who wrote it.
THE HISTORIANS. The honored names of Bancroft, Sparks, Prescott, Motley and Parkman are indicative of the importance attached to history-writing in America ever since Colonial days, and of the remarkably fine and sometimes heroic quality of American historians. Another matter suggested by these names is the changing standard or ideal of historical writing. In an earlier time history was a dry chronicle of important events, or of such events as seemed important to the chronicler; at the present day it threatens to degenerate into an equally dry chronicle of economic forces; and between these thirsty extremes are various highly colored records glorifying kings or conquerors or political parties as the chief things of history.
These American historians had a different standard. They first consulted all available records to be sure of the facts or events. Then they closely examined the scene in which the event had come to pass, knowing that environment is always a factor in human history. Finally they studied historical personages, not as others had described them but as they revealed themselves in letters, diaries, speeches,--personal records revealing human motives that all men understand, because man is everywhere the same. From such a combination of event, scene and characters our historians wrote a dramatic narrative, giving it the heroic cast without which history, the prose epic of liberty, is little better than a dull catalogue. Another very important matter was that they cultivated their style as well as their knowledge; they were literary men no less than historians, and in the conviction that the first object of literature is to give pleasure they produced works that have charmed as well as instructed a multitude of readers. There are chapters in Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru over which one must sit up late, as over a novel of Scott; in Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic and History of the United Netherlands there are scores of glowing passages dealing with great characters or great events which stir the reader like a tale of gallant adventure.
Prescott deals with force in action, and the action at times seems to be an exaltation of violence and cruelty. Motley also delights in action; but he is at heart an apostle of liberty, or perhaps we should say, of the American ideal of liberty, and his narrative often assumes the character of a partisan chant of freedom.
To the native, at least, Francis Parkman (1823-1893) is probably the most interesting of our historians, partly because of his lucid style and partly because of his American theme. Early in life he selected his subject (the Old French Wars) and spent the best part of forty years in making himself familiar not only with what occurred during the struggle between France and England for possession of the New World, but also with the primeval scene and all the motley characters of the fateful drama. It is doubtful if any other historian ever had a more minute knowledge of his subject; and the astonishing, the heroic part of the matter is that he attained this vast knowledge in spite of the handicap of almost constant suffering and blindness. In a dozen volumes he tells his story, volumes crowded with action or adventure, and written in such a vividly convincing style that one has the impression that Parkman must have been an eye-witness of the events which he describes.
Among these volumes the second part of Pioneers of France in the New World and La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West are recommended to the beginner. The former deals with the career of Champlain, who opened the way for future settlements in the North; the latter with one of the most adventurous, lion-hearted men that ever cheerfully faced toil and endless danger. Standing apart from Parkman’s main theme is a single volume, The California and Oregon Trail (1849), which recounts the picturesque incidents of the author’s trip through the Northwest, then an unknown country, with a tribe of unspoiled Indians. Those who like a tale of adventure need not go to fiction to find it, for it is here in Parkman’s narrative,--a tale of care-free wandering amid plains or mountains and, what is historically more important, a picture of a vanished life that will never be seen here again.
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SUMMARY. The period of conflict has no definite limits on either side, but for convenience we may think of it as included between the years 1840 and 1876. Its earlier years were filled with an ever-increasing agitation of the questions of slavery and state rights; its center was the Civil War; its close was the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, which we have selected as an outward symbol of a reunited country.
The most noticeable feature of the age, apart from the great war, was its ceaseless political turmoil. Of deeper significance to the student of literature was the profound mental unrest which showed itself in reform movements, in various communistic societies like Brook Farm, in an eager interest in the poetry of other nations, in the establishment of college professorships of foreign literatures, in the philosophical doctrine of transcendentalism, and in many other efforts of mid-century Americans to enlarge their mental horizon.
A host of minor writings of the period reflect the sectional passions or interests that stirred our people deeply at the time, but that are now almost forgotten. The comparatively small body of major literature was concerned with the permanent ideals of America or with the simple human feelings that have no age or nationality. In general, it was a time of poetry rather than of prose, being distinguished above all other periods of American literature by the number and quality of its poets.
Our detailed study of the age includes: (1) The major or so-called elder poets, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Holmes, Lanier and Whitman. (2) The life and work of Emerson, who was both poet and prose writer. (3) The career of Hawthorne, the novelist of Puritanism, who is commonly ranked at the head of American fiction-writers. (4) A brief review of the secondary writers of prose and verse. (5) An examination of the work of Thoreau, the most individualistic writer in an age of individualism, and of Parkman, whom we have selected as representative of the American historians.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Typical selections from minor writers of the period in Calhoun and MacAlarney, Readings from American Literature; Stedman and Hutchinson, Library of American Literature, and various other collections. Important works of all major writers are published in inexpensive editions for school use, a few of which are named below. Longfellow’s short poems, Evangeline, parts of Hiawatha and of Tales of a Wayside Inn, in Riverside Literature; selections from the narrative poems in Lake English Classics; selected poems in various other school series.
Whittier’s Snow Bound and selected short poems, in Riverside Literature, Maynard’s English Classics, etc.
Lowell’s Sir Launfal, selected short poems and selected essays, in Riverside Literature, Maynard’s English Classics.
Holmes’s poems, selected, in Maynard’s English Classics; The Autocrat, in Everyman’s Library; selected prose and verse, in Riverside Literature.
Lanier’s poems, with selections from Timrod and Hayne, in Pocket Classics, Maynard’s English Classics, etc.
Whitman’s poems, brief selections, in Maynard’s English Classics; Triggs, Selections from the Prose and Poetry of Walt Whitman.
Emerson’s poems, in Riverside Literature; Representative Men and selected essays, in Pocket Classics; Nature and various essays, in Everyman’s Library.
Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables and selected short stories, in Pocket Classics; Twice-Told Tales and other selections, in Riverside Literature.
Thoreau’s Walden, in Everyman’s Library; Walden and selections from other works, in Riverside Literature.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. For extended works covering the field of American history and literature see the General Bibliography. The following works are useful in a special study of the period of conflict.
HISTORY. Rhodes, History of the United States 1850-1877, 7 vols.; Wilson, Division and Reunion; Stephens, War between the States; Paxson, the Civil War; Rhodes, Lectures on the Civil War; Hart, Romance of the Civil War (supplementary reading for young people). Lives of notable characters in American Statesmen, Great Commanders and other series. Grant, Personal Memoirs; Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War; Alexander Stephens, Recollections; Hoar, Autobiography; Blaine, Twenty Years in Congress; Greeley, Recollections; Booker Washington, Up from Slavery.
LITERATURE,. The great period of American letters is still awaiting its historian. Brief chapters are found in Richardson, Trent, Cairns, Wendell and other general histories of our literature. Good essays on individual authors of the period in Stedman, Poets of America; Brownell, American Prose Masters; Erskine, Leading American Novelists; Vincent, American Literary Masters; Burton, Literary Leaders of America.
Frothingham’s Transcendentalism in New England will throw light on the so-called Concord school. Howells’s Literary Friends and Acquaintance is a fine appreciation of the Cambridge writers. Wauchope’s Writers of South Carolina contains excellent studies of Timrod, Hayne, Simms and other writers of the Palmetto state. Moses’ Literature of the South and Henneman’s Literary and Intellectual Life of the South are among the best works devoted to southern authors exclusively.
Longfellow. Life, by Higginson, in American Men of Letters; by Carpenter (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Robertson, in Great Writers; by S. Longfellow, 3 vols. (the standard biography). Essays by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Mrs. Fields, in Authors and Friends; by Curtis, in Literary and Social Essays; by Higginson, in Old Cambridge; by Howells, in Literary Friends and Acquaintance.
Whittier. Life, by Pickard, 2 vols.; by Carpenter, in American Men of Letters; by Higginson, in English Men of Letters; by Burton (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Perry, by Underwood. Mrs. Claflin, Personal Recollections of Whittier; Hawkins, the Mind of Whittier; Fowler, Whittier: Prophet, Seer and Man; Pickard, Whittier Land. Essays, by Woodberry, in Makers of Literature; by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Higginson, in Contemporaries; by Hazeltine, in Chats about Books; by Mrs. Fields, in Authors and Friends.
Lowell. Life, by Greenslet; by Scudder, 2 vols.; by Hale (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Underwood. Edward Everett Hale, James Russell Lowell and his Friends. Essays, by Higginson, in Old Cambridge; by Woodberry, in Makers of Literature; by Stedman, in Poets of America.
Holmes. Life, by Morse, 2 vols.; by Crothers, in American Men of Letters. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Haweis, in American Humorists; by Noble, in Impressions and Memories; by Stearns, in Cambridge Sketches; by L. Stephen, in Studies of a Biographer. "Oliver Wendell Holmes," by Andrew Lang.
Lanier. Life, by Mims, in American Men of Letters; by West; by Ward, in Preface to Lanier’s Poems (1884). Essays, by Baskerville, in Southern Writers; by Higginson, in Contemporaries; by Gilman, in South Atlantic Quarterly (1905); by Ward, in Century Magazine (1888); by Northrup, in Lippincott’s (1905).
Whitman. Life, by Perry; by Carpenter, in English Men of Letters; by Platt (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Binns, by Bucke. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Stevenson, in Familiar Studies of Men and Books; by Dowden, in Studies in Literature; by Santayana, in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion.
Emerson. Life, by Woodberry; by Cabot (Memoir of Emerson, 2 vols.); by O. W. Holmes, in American Men of Letters; by Garnett, in Great Writers; by Sanborn (brief), in Beacon Biographies. E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord; Conway, Emerson at Home. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Mrs. Fields, in Authors and Friends; by Lowell, in Literary Essays; by Stearns, in Sketches from Concord and Appledore; by Everett, in Essays Theological and Literary; by Beers, in Points at Issue; by Chapman, in Emerson and Other Essays.
Hawthorne. Life, by Woodberry, in American Men of Letters; by Henry James, in English Men of Letters; by Fields (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Conway, in Great Writers. A more intimate but doubtful biography is Julian Hawthorne’s Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife. Bridge, Personal Recollections of Hawthorne. Essays, by Brownell, in American Prose Masters; by Perry, in A Study of Prose Fiction; by Gates, in Studies and Appreciations; by L. Stephen, in Hours in a Library; by Higginson, in Short Studies of American Authors. "Nathaniel Hawthorne," by Andrew Lang.
Thoreau. Life, by Salt, in Great Writers; by Sanborn, in American Men of Letters. Page, Thoreau: his Life and Aims. Essays by Higginson, in Short Studies of American Authors; by Stevenson, in Familiar Studies of Men and Books; by Lowell, in Literary Essays.
Parkman. Life, by Fiske; by Farnham; by Sedgwick. Essays, by Fiske, in introduction to Parkman’s works and in A Century of Science and Other Essays; by Vedder, in American Writers of To-day; by Whipple, in Recollections of Eminent Men.
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