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As a young man Longfellow was pretty much like other young men, fond of society and fond of dress. At Cambridge the sober-minded were a little disturbed by the brilliancy of his waistcoats. In the Thirties it was permitted men, if they would, to array themselves like birds of paradise. Longfellow appears in some degree to have availed himself of the privilege. After a visit to Dickens in London in 1842 the novelist wrote Longfellow that boot-maker, hosier, trousers-maker, and coatcutter had all been at the point of death. “The 'medical gentlemen agreed that it was exhaustion occasioned by early rising wait
upon you at those unholy hours !' An English' visitor who saw Longfellow in 1850 thought him too fashionably dressed with his 'blue frock-coat of Parisian 'cut, a handsome waistcoat, faultless pantaloons, and primrose colored “kids.'
In middle age his social instinct was as strong as ever, but he cared less for society. He restricted himself to the companionship of his friends, holding always in reserve time for his dependants, of whom he had more than a fair share. Longfellow was large-hearted. He liked people
if they were likable and sympathized with them if they were unattractive or unfortunate. He was open-handed, a liberal giver. Adventurers preyed upon him. He endured them with patient strength. When their exactions became outrageous, he made an effort to be rid of them. If unsuccessful, he laughed at his own want of skill and resigned himself to be imposed on a little longer. A weaker man would have sent these bores and parasites about their business at once.
Incapable of giving pain to any living creature, he could not understand the temper which prompts another to do so. Fortunately the violence or malignity of criticism had little effect on him. He could even be amused by it. Of Margaret Fuller's ‘furious onslaught' on him in the New York Tribune,' Longfellow said, “It is what 'might be called a bilious attack.'
He disliked publicity whether in the form of newspaper chronicle of his doings or recognition in public places. He thought it absurd that because Fechter had dined with him this unimportant item must be telegraphed to Chicago and printed in the morning journals. Fond as he was of the theatre, he sometimes hesitated to go because of the interest his presence excited. It was thought extraordinary that he was willing to read his poem 'Morituri Salutamus' at the fiftieth anniversary of his class at Bowdoin. He was delighted when he found he was to stand behind the old-fashioned
high pulpit; “Let me cover myself as much as possible. I wish it might be entirely.'
One trait of Longfellow's character has been over-emphasized — his gentleness. He was indeed gentle; but continual harping on that string has created the impression that he was gentle rather than anything else. In consequence we have a legendary Longfellow in whom all other traits of character are subordinated to the one. His amiability, his sense of justice, his entire freedom from selfishness and vanity, and his genuine modesty, which led him even when he was right and his neighbor wrong to avoid giving needless pain by intimating to the neighbor how wrong he was — all contributed to hide the more forceful and emphatic qualities. But the qualities were there.
Nothing is easier than to multiply illustrations of this poet's gracious traits of character. Holmes epitomized all eulogy when he said of Longfellow : His life was so exceptionally sweet and musical
that any voice of praise sounds almost like a discord after it.'
AMERICANS sometimes disturb themselves needlessly over the question whether Longfellow was a great poet. It is absolutely of no importance whether he was or was not. Of one thing they may be sure, — he was a poet. Song was his natural vehicle of expression. He had a masterly command of technical difficulties of his art. Language became pliant under his touch. Taking into account the range of his metres, the uniform precision with which he handled words, and the purity of his style, Longfellow is eminent among American poetical masters.
His sonnets are exquisite. His ballads, like 'The Skeleton in Armor,' have no little of the fresh unstudied character which charms us in old English ballad literature, a something not to be traced to the spirit alone but to the technique as well. The twenty-two poems of “The Saga of
King Olaf' show an almost extraordinary metrical
It must also be remembered that Longfellow popularized for modern readers the so-called English hexameter. Evangeline was a metrical triumph, considering it wholly aside from the innate beauty of the story or the artistic handling of the incidents. The poet did not foresee his success. In fact, as early as 1841, in the preface to his translation of Tegnér's Children of the Lord's Supper, Longfellow speaks of the 'inexorable hexameter, ‘in which, it must be confessed, the motions of 'the English muse are not unlike those of a pris'oner dancing to the music of his chains. But here he was hampered by his theory of translation,
by his anxiety to render as literally as he could the text of the original. When he took the matter into his own hands and moulded the verse according to his own artistic sense, it became another thing. Wholly aside from the pleasure Evangeline has given countless readers, it is something to have broken down prejudice against the hexameter to the extent of drawing out an indirect compliment from Matthew Arnold, whose self-restraint in the matter of giving praise was notorious. Scholars have by no means withdrawn their opposition to the English hexameter. That a more liberal temper prevails is largely due to Longfellow.
Evangeline had a stimulating effect on one English poet of rare genius, Arthur Hugh Clough. A reading of the Tale of Acadie immediately after a reperusal of the Iliad led to the composition of The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich.?
Another of Longfellow's triumphs was so great as to make it difficult for any one to follow him. Hiawatha succeeded both because of the metre and in spite of it. Any one can master this self-writing jingle. ’T is as easy as lying. One hardly knows how facile newspaper parodists amused themselves before they got Hiawatha. Holmes explained the ease of the measure on physiological grounds. We do not lisp in numbers, but breathe in them. Did we but know it, we pass our lives in exhaling
Lectures On Translating Homer.