'Footprints on the sands of time'
In search of forgotten Longfellow, once the world's most popular poet
Tongues all over the world once recited the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Students use to memorize "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and lines from "Evangeline" and "Hiawatha." Longfellow's literary reputation once rivaled that of Tennyson and Dickens, and after his death, the American poet was singularly honored by having his bust placed in Westminster Abbey with the greatest English poets.
But when Longfellow is mentioned at all today, he is held up to ridicule by modern academics. In this sympathetic and welcome biography, Charles Calhoun writes, "Longfellow never recovered from the battering he received at the hands of the Modernists." The process began with George Saintsbury who in 1907 "dismissed many of Longfellow's better known poems." By 1932, Ludwig Lewisohn would write that, "Longfellow gives pleasure to a subliterary public." Hereafter he was barely mentioned even in classes dealing with 19th-century poetry.
Longfellow would have accepted his waning reputation tranquilly. Perhaps he would even quote from one of his poems: "The tide rises and the tide falls/ The twilight darkens, the curlew calls."
But Calhoun hopes to rescue Longfellow from the surrounding darkness. A staff member on the Maine Humanities Council, he's a skilled biographer and his book is a pleasure to read. His comments on Longfellow's poetry are sensible and persuasive, righting a great wrong in American literary history. This renewed Longfellow speaks to our time. He is a man of deep sensibilities who sympathized with the dispossessed, who spoke out against slavery in 1843 before Emerson, and who recognized the dignity of native Americans, singing the beauty of their folklore in "Song of Hiawatha." Calhoun shows that the epic "Evangeline" is "not a conventional idea of 19th-century patriarchy," but a more profound argument that "only a woman can set things to order [and] heal the wounds men have inflicted."
Born in Maine in 1807 (when that state was part of Massachusetts), Longfellow led an interesting life. His father, a prominent lawyer, sent him to Bowdoin College, where he graduated with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow then spent three years studying languages in Europe. An accomplished linguist, he once had to produce an American passport to prove he was not a native Italian. Upon return, he taught modern languages at Bowdoin. Six years later, he again set out for Europe, returning a widower after his first wife died in Rotterdam. He took up his new professorship at Harvard.
But Longfellow was eager to retire from teaching to devote himself to poetry. He remarried Fanny Appleton and purchased a house in Cambridge that had once served as George Washington's headquarters. Here the founding father of poetry produced his great works.
Neglected today, Longfellow's sonnets are among the finest in the English language. Those dedicated to Dante come from his beautiful translation of "The Divine Comedy" and are tinged with the sadness Longfellow felt over the frightful death of his beloved Fanny, who burned to death in 1861.
Calhoun has written a fine book but seems a bit tentative defending Longfellow. He need not be; he's presented plenty of convincing evidence here. No rational argument can defend a poem, but the beauty of Longfellow's defend themselves.
• Patrick Walsh is a freelance writer in Quincy, Mass.