Time raises Longfellow, like Lazarus, from the dead

PAUL JOHNSON

It is good news that Longfellow is at last enjoying a revival, happily coinciding this year with the 200th anniversary of his birth. He is far and away America’s greatest poet.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(1807-1882)

In his own time this was the general verdict on both sides of the Atlantic, and critical approval joined with popular success. His narrative poem ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish’ (1858) sold 15,000 copies on its first day of publication, in Boston and London. His home, Craigie House, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a place of pilgrimage. When he came to England in 1868, he breakfasted with Mr Gladstone, the incoming prime minister, lunched with Earl Russell, the outgoing one, spent two days with Tennyson at his house on the Isle of Wight and two days at Gadshill with Dickens, who hired two postilions in historic red jackets in his honour. He was invited to Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to Windsor by the lady whom Dickens called ‘Old Cross Patch’, given honorary degrees by Oxford and Cambridge, and made an honorary member of the Athenaeum. Dean Stanley took him to Westminster Abbey to hear Benjamin Jowett preach and he visited Poets’ Corner where, after he died in 1882, a tablet was erected to his memory, the only American, I think, to be thus honoured.

Yet since his death Longfellow has been reviled, degraded, sneered at, brutally parodied and dismissed in a cruel manner, to a degree no other American writer has had to suffer. His ‘Hiawatha’ evokes gales of laughter on the campus on the rare occasions it is mentioned (the usual treatment is total suppression), and is now further demonised by being denounced as politically incorrect. His poem ‘Excelsior’, the American equivalent of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ — and a finer piece of versification — is also laughed at, for no other reason than that it is moral, memorable and popular. His exquisite verse ‘The Children’s Hour’, which describes the evening descent upon Longfellow’s study, interrupting his work, by his three daughters, the ‘blue-eyed banditti ...grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, and Edith with golden hair’, had its title stolen by the awful Lillian Hellman for her gruesome play about a malicious infant and lesbianism. One recent (1991) judgment says the only real contribution he made to American literature was to publish ‘an influential review’ of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. For many decades now he has not been taught on campus except to be cited as an example of what to avoid in reading and writing.

The assault on Longfellow has been comparable to the academic and establishment hatred of Kipling during the last three quarters of a century. But whereas there were strong passions involved in the attack on Kipling — militant pacifism, anti-imperialism and the reaction against patriotism in England following the first world war — no such political factors energised the destruction of Longfellow.


Longfellow was kind, affectionate, generous, hospitable, always anxious to give practical help to other writers, and indeed anyone else, and quite without malice. He was humble, too, and never set great value on his own productions, seeing himself as a craftsman whose verses, like the potter’s dishes, served their turn and then were broken and reduced to dust.


His life was blameless by any standards. He was hard-working, dutiful to a fault, a tireless and inspiring teacher who did more than any other man to bring the delights of European literature to an American audience; he spent years of his life translating Dante and other great Continental authors, and encouraged his pupils to master foreign languages (he himself had some knowledge of 11). His domestic life was exemplary. He lost his first wife young, and his second burned to death after her clothes caught fire, despite his desperate efforts to save her, which left him badly scarred, so that he was never after able to shave, and grew a funny beard. His grief for her was the central emotion for the rest of his life, as is testified by his beautiful and transfixing poem ‘The Cross of Snow’, written nearly 20 years after her death. Longfellow was kind, affectionate, generous, hospitable, always anxious to give practical help to other writers, and indeed anyone else, and quite without malice. He was humble, too, and never set great value on his own productions, seeing himself as a craftsman whose verses, like the potter’s dishes, served their turn and then were broken and reduced to dust.

As his great poem ‘The Village Blacksmith’ showed, he liked honest work, which he saw as the duty and pride of humanity. I suspect that all these qualities, which in his own day were regarded as virtues, came to stink in the nostrils of disdainful academics and ‘progressive’ writers who find goodness, as traditionally defined, suspect and even repellent, and usually concealing a cesspit. Yet there was nothing evil or even faintly disreputable in Longfellow’s life, no hidden sin for an investigative biographer to get his or her avenging teeth into — no secrets at all. Even worse, there were no obscurities. Longfellow’s poetry almost defies commentary. It is plain, simple, straightforward and unambiguous. It can be understood by any alert teenager, and any adult whose education has been confined largely to the public library. That, indeed, is the real objection to him in academic eyes. There is no role for dons as an intermediary, nothing for them to do. He revolts their instinctive trade unionism by appealing directly and in full to the reader without their assistance. All they can say to pupils and public is, ‘There is Longfellow. Read him — if you must.’ Latterly they have been adding, ‘But you mustn’t, if you want to keep your minds pure of cant and condescension.’ For more than two generations, Longfellow has been effectively censored and suppressed in leading universities.

But it is a strong belief of mine that no poet can be kept down indefinitely if he is capable of creating verbal and musical images which stay in the mind, that indeed cling to the mind despite oneself — like a piece of mental chewing-gum or verbal Scotch tape, or the piece of annoying Blu-Tack which some mysterious child Christmas visitor has deposited on my study chair, much to the regret of my trousers. In short, Longfellow was, is and will remain quotable. Quotability is the last defence of a stricken poet. It saved Pope from the Romantics, and he still has 175 entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. It saved Kipling from Bloomsbury — he still has 82, many of them long ones. Most of these are genuine quotes, too, often in the mouths of ordinary people. It is the same with Longfellow, who had a rare gift for the memorable phrase, the blissful or poignant image, the magic junction of two words, like ‘forest primeval’ or ‘God’s acre’ or Arabs folding their tents and silently stealing away. He left, to use his own phrase, footprints on the sands of time, or on our memories. We don’t all like to be told life is real, life is earnest, but enough of us do to have kept his flame alive during the dark years. And now it seems the dawn is coming again, and I rejoice. Once more, I trust, children will read that truly great poem ‘The Psalm of Life’, and that superb evocation of boyhood ‘My Lost Youth’. My own favourite, however, is ‘The Building of the Ship’. I never fail to feel tears welling when I recite its last verse:

 

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all its hopes of further years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

 

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Johnson. "Time raises Longfellow, like Lazarus, from the dead." The Spectator (January 20, 2007).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author, Paul Johnson.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Johnson


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