Cambridge Sketches by Frank Preston Stearns

Produced by Eric Eldred, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team CAMBRIDGE SKETCHES CAMBRIDGE SKETCHES BY FRANK PRESTON STEARNS AUTHOR OF “TRUE REPUBLICANISM,” “LIFE OF PRINCE OTTO VON BISMARCK,” “SKETCHES FROM CONCORD AND APPLEDORE,” ETC. 1905 PREFACE It has never been my practice to introduce myself to distinguished persons, or to attempt in any
This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days

Produced by Eric Eldred, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team


[Illustration: CHARLES SUMNER]







It has never been my practice to introduce myself to distinguished persons, or to attempt in any way to attract their attention, and I now regret that I did not embrace some opportunities which occurred to me in early life for doing so; but at the time I knew the men whom I have described in the present volume I had no expectation that I should ever write about them. My acquaintance with them, however, has served to give me a more elevated idea of human nature than I otherwise might have acquired in the ordinary course of mundane affairs, and it is with the hope of transmitting this impression to my readers that I publish the present account. Some of them have a world-wide celebrity, and others who were distinguished in their own time seem likely now to be forgotten; but they all deserve well of the republic of humanity and of the age in which they lived.



* * * * *


















* * * * *


Never before hast thou shone
So beautifully upon the Thebans;
O, eye of golden day:

–_Antigone of Sophocles_.

One bright morning in April, 1865, Hawthorne’s son and the writer were coming forth together from the further door-way of Stoughton Hall at Harvard College, when, as the last reverberations of the prayer-bell were sounding, a classmate called to us across the yard: “General Lee has surrendered!” There was a busy hum of voices where the three converging lines of students met in front of Appleton Chapel, and when we entered the building there was President Hill seated in the recess between the two pulpits, and old Doctor Peabody at his desk, with his face beaming like that of a saint in an old religious painting. His prayer was exceptionally fervid and serious. He asked a blessing on the American people; on all those who had suffered from the war; on the government of the United States; and on our defeated enemies. When the short service had ended, Doctor Hill came forward and said: “It is not fitting that any college tasks or exercises should take place until another sun has arisen after this glorious morning. Let us all celebrate this fortunate event.”

On leaving the chapel we found that Flavius Josephus Cook, afterwards Rev. Joseph Cook of the Monday Lectureship, had collected the members of the Christian Brethren about him, and they were all singing a hymn of thanksgiving in a very vigorous manner.

There were some, however, who recollected on their way to breakfast the sad procession that had passed through the college-yard six months before,–the military funeral of James Russell Lowell’s nephews, killed in General Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Run. There were no recent graduates of Harvard more universally beloved than Charles and James Lowell; and none of whom better things were expected. To Lowell himself, who had no other children, except a daughter, they were almost like his own sons, and the ode he wrote on this occasion touches a depth of pathos not to be met with elsewhere in his poetry. There was not at that time another family in Cambridge or Boston which contained two such bright intellects, two such fine characters. It did not seem right that they should both have left their mother, who was bereaved already by a faithless husband, to fight the battles of their country, however much they were needed for this. Even in the most despotic period of European history the only son of a widow was exempt from conscription. Then to lose them both in a single day! Mrs. Lowell became the saint of Quincy Street, and none were so hardened or self-absorbed as not to do her reverence.

But now the terrible past was eclipsed by the joy and pride of victory. The great heroic struggle was over; young men could look forward to the practice of peaceable professions, and old men had no longer to think of the exhausting drain upon their resources. Fond mothers could now count upon the survival of their sons, and young wives no longer feared to become widows in a night. Everywhere there was joy and exhilaration. To many it was the happiest day they had ever known.

President Hill was seen holding a long and earnest conversation with Agassiz on the path towards his house. The professors threw aside their contemplated work. Every man went to drink a glass of wine with his best friend, and to discuss the fortunes of the republic. The ball-players set off for the Delta, where Memorial Hall now stands, to organize a full match game; the billiard experts started a tournament on Mr. Lyon’s new tables; and the rowing men set off for a three-hours’ pull down Boston harbor. Others collected in groups and discussed the future of their country with the natural precocity of youthful minds. “Here,” said a Boston cousin of the two young Lowells, to a pink-faced, sandy-haired ball-player, “you are opposed to capital punishment; do you think Jeff. Davis ought to be hung?” “Just at present,” replied the latter, “I am more in favor of suspending Jeff. Davis than of suspending the law,”–an opinion that was greeted with laughter and applause. The general sentiment of the crowd was in favor of permitting General Lee to retire in peace to private life; but in regard to the president of the Southern Confederacy the feeling was more vindictive.

We can now consider it fortunate that no such retaliatory measures were taken by the government. Much better that Jefferson Davis, and his confederates in the secession movement, should have lived to witness every day the consequences of that gigantic blunder. The fact that they adopted a name for their newly-organized nation which did not differ essentially from the one which they had discarded; that their form of government, with its constitution and laws, differed so slightly from those of the United States, is sufficient to indicate that their separation was not to be permanent, and that it only required the abolition of slavery to bring the Southern States back to their former position in the Union. If men and nations did what was for their true interests, this would be a different world.

* * * * *

At that time the college proper consisted of three recitation buildings, and four or five dormitories, besides Appleton Chapel, and little old Holden Chapel of the seventeenth century, which still remains the best architecture on the grounds. The buildings were mostly old, plain, and homely, and the rooms of the students simply furnished. In every class there were twelve or fifteen dandies, who dressed in somewhat above the height of the fashion, but they served to make the place more picturesque and were not so likely to be mischievous as some of the rougher country boys. It was a time of plain, sensible living. To hire a man to make fires in winter, and black the boots, was considered a great luxury. A majority of the students blacked their own boots, although they found this very disagreeable. The college pump was a venerable institution, a leveller of all distinctions; and many a pleasant conversation took place about its wooden trough. No student thought of owning an equipage, and a Russell or a Longworth would as soon have hired a sedan chair as a horse and buggy, when he might have gone on foot. Good pedestrianism was the pride of the Harvard student; and an honest, wholesome pride it was. There was also some good running. Both Julian Hawthorne and Thomas W. Ward ran to Concord, a distance of sixteen miles, without stopping, I believe, by the way. William Blaikie, the stroke of the University crew, walked to New York during the Thanksgiving recess–six days in all.

The undergraduates had not yet become acquainted with tennis, the most delightful of light exercises, and foot-ball had not yet been regulated according to the rules of Rugby and Harrow. The last of the pernicious foot-ball fights between Sophomores and Freshmen took place in September, 1863, and commenced in quite a sanguinary manner. A Sophomore named Wright knocked over Ellis, the captain of the Freshman side, without reason or provocation, and was himself immediately laid prostrate by a red-headed Scotch boy named Roderick Dhu Coe, who seemed to have come to college for the purpose, for he soon afterwards disappeared and was never seen there again. With the help of Coe and a few similar spirits, the Freshmen won the game. It was the first of President Hill’s reforms to abolish this brutal and unseemly custom.

The New York game of base-ball, which has since assumed such mammoth proportions, was first introduced in our colleges by Wright and Flagg, of the Class of ’66; and the first game, which the Cambridge ladies attended, was played on the Delta in May of that year with the Trimountain Club of Boston. Flagg was the finest catcher in New England at that time; and, although he was never chosen captain, he was the most skillful manager of the game. It was he who invented the double-play which can sometimes be accomplished by muffing a fly-catch between the bases. He caught without mask or gloves and was several times wounded by the ball.

Let us retrace the steps of time and take a look at the old Delta on a bright June evening, when the shadows of the elms are lengthening across the grass. There are from fifty to a hundred students, and perhaps three or four professors, watching the Harvard nine practise in preparation for its match with the formidable Lowell nine of Boston. Who is that slender youth at second base,–with the long nose and good-humored twinkle in his eye,–who never allows a ball to pass by him? Will he ever become the Dean of the Harvard Law School? And that tall, olive-complexioned fellow in the outfield, six feet two in his ball-shoes,–who would suppose that he is destined to go to Congress and serve his country as Minister to Spain! There is another dark-eyed youth leaning against the fence and watching the ball as it passes to and fro. Is he destined to become Governor of Massachusetts? And that sturdy-looking first-baseman,–will he enter the ministry and preach sermons in Appleton Chapel? These young men all live quiet, sensible lives, and trouble themselves little concerning class honors and secret societies. If they have a characteristic in common it is that they always keep their mental balance and never go to extremes; but neither they nor others have any suspicion of their several destinies. Could they return and fill their former places on the ground, how strangely they would feel! But the ground itself is gone; their youth is gone, and the honors that have come to them seem less important than the welfare of their families and kindred.

Misdemeanors, great and small, on the part of the students were more common formerly than they have been in recent years, for the good reason that the chances of detection were very much less. Some of the practical jokes were of a much too serious character. The college Bible was abstracted from the Chapel and sent to Yale; the communion wine was stolen; a paper bombshell was exploded behind a curtain in the Greek recitation-room; and Professor Pierce discovered one morning that all his black-boards had been painted white. All the copies of Cooke’s Chemical Physics suddenly disappeared one afternoon, and next morning the best scholars in the Junior Class were obliged to say, “Not prepared.”

A society called the Med. Fac. was chiefly responsible for these performances; but so secret was it in its membership and proceedings that neither the college faculty nor the great majority of the students really knew whether there was such a society in existence or not. A judge of the United States Circuit Court, who had belonged to it in his time, was not aware that his own son was a member of it.

Some of the members of this society turned out well, and others badly; but generally an inclination for such high pranks shows a levity of nature that bodes ill for the future. A college class is a wonderful study in human nature, from the time it enters until its members have arrived at forty or fifty years of age. There was one young man at Harvard in those days who was so evidently marked out by destiny for a great public career that when he was elected to Congress in 1876 his classmates were only surprised because it seemed so natural that this should happen. Another was of so depraved a character that it seemed as if he was intended to illustrate the bad boy in a Sunday-school book. He was so untrustworthy that very soon no one was willing to associate with him. He stole from his father, and, after graduating, went to prison for forgery and finally was killed by a tornado. There was still another, a great fat fellow, who always seemed to be half asleep, and was very shortly run over and killed by a locomotive. Yet if we could know the whole truth in regard to these persons it might be difficult to decide how much of their good and evil fortune was owing to themselves and how much to hereditary tendencies and early influences. The sad fact remains that it is much easier to spoil a bright boy than to educate a dull one.

The undergraduates were too much absorbed in their own small affairs to pay much attention to politics, even in those exciting times. For the most part there was no discrimination against either the Trojans or Tyrians; but abolitionists were not quite so well liked as others, especially after the close of the war; and it was noticed that the sons of pro-slavery families commonly seemed to have lacked the good moral training (and the respect for industry) which is youth’s surest protection against the pitfalls of life. The larger proportion of suspended students belonged to this class.

During the war period Cambridge social life was regulated by a coterie of ten or twelve young ladies who had grown up together and who were generally known as the “Spree,”–not because they were given to romping, for none kept more strictly within the bounds of a decorous propriety, but because they were accustomed to go off together in the summer to the White Mountains or to some other rustic resort, where they were supposed to have a perfectly splendid time; and this they probably did, for it requires cultivation and refinement of feeling to appreciate nature as well as art. They decided what students and other young ladies should be invited to the assemblies in Lyceum Hall, and they arranged their own private entertainments over the heads of their fathers and mothers; and it should be added that they exercised their authority with a very good grace. They had their friends and admirers among the collegians, but no young man of good manners and pleasing address, and above all who was a good dancer, needed to beg for an invitation. The good dancers, however, were in a decided minority, and many who considered themselves so in their own habitats found themselves much below the standard in Cambridge.

Mrs. James Russell Lowell was one of the lady patronesses of the assemblies, and her husband sometimes came to them for an hour or so before escorting her home. He watched the performance with a poet’s eye for whatever is graceful and charming, but sometimes also with a humorous smile playing upon his face. There were some very good dancers among the ladies who skimmed the floor almost like swallows; but the finest waltzer in Cambridge or Boston was Theodore Colburn, who had graduated ten years previously, and with the advantage of a youthful figure, had kept up the pastime ever since. The present writer has never seen anywhere another man who could waltz with such consummate ease and unconscious grace. Lowell’s eyes followed him continually; but it is also said that Colburn would willingly dispense with the talent for better success in his profession. Next to him comes the tall ball-player, already referred to, and it is delightful to see the skill with which he adapts his unusual height to the most _petite_ damsel on the floor. Here the “Spree” is omnipotent, but it does not like Class Day, for then Boston and its suburbs pour forth their torrent of beauty and fashion, and Cambridge for the time being is left somewhat in the shade.

Henry James in his “International Episode” speaks as if New York dancers were the best in the world, and they are certainly more light-footed than English men and women; but a New York lady, with whom Mr. James is well acquainted, says that Bostonians and Austrians are the finest dancers. The true Bostonian cultivates a sober reserve in his waltzing which, if not too serious, adds to the grace of his movement. Yet, when the german is over, we remember the warning of the wealthy Corinthian who refused his daughter to the son of Tisander on the ground that he was too much of a dancer and acrobat.

* * * * *

From 1840 to 1860 Harvard University practically stagnated. The world about it progressed, but the college remained unchanged. Its presidents were excellent men, but they had lived too long under the academic shade. They lacked practical experience in the great world. There were few lectures in the college course, and the recitations were a mere routine. The text-books on philosophical subjects were narrow and prejudiced. Modern languages were sadly neglected; and the tradition that a French instructor once entertained his class by telling them his dreams, if not true, was at least characteristic. The sons of wealthy Bostonians were accustomed to brag that they had gone through college without doing any real studying. To the college faculty politics only meant the success of Webster and the great Whig party. The anti-slavery agitation was considered inconvenient and therefore prejudicial. During the struggle for free institutions in Kansas, the president of Harvard College undertook to debate the question in a public meeting, but he displayed such lamentable ignorance that he was soon obliged to retire in confusion.

The war for the Union, however, waked up the slumbering university, as it did all other institutions and persons. Rev. Thomas Hill was chosen president in 1861, and was the first anti-slavery president of the college since Josiah Quincy; and this of itself indicated that he was in accord with the times,–had not set his face obstinately against them. He was not so practical a man as President Quincy, but he was one of the best scholars in America. His administration has not been looked upon as a success, but he served to break the ice and to open the way for future navigation. He accepted the position with definite ideas of reform; but he lacked skill in the adaptation of means to ends. He was determined to show no favoritism to wealth and social position, and he went perhaps too far in the opposite direction. One day when the workmen were digging the cellar of Gray’s Hall, President Hill threw off his coat, seized a shovel, and used it vigorously for half an hour or more. This was intended as an example to teach the students the dignity of labor; but they did not understand it so. At the faculty meetings he carried informality of manner to an excess. He depended too much on personal influence, which, as George Washington said formerly, “cannot become government.” He wrote letters to the Sophomores exhorting them not to haze the Freshmen, and, as a consequence, the Freshmen were hazed more severely than ever. Then he suspended the Sophomores in a wholesale manner, many of them for slight offences. However, he stopped the foot- ball fights, and made the examinations much more strict than they had been previously. He endeavored to inculcate the true spirit of scholarship among the students,–not to study for rank but from a genuine love of the subject. The opposition that his reforms excited made him unpopular, and Freshmen came to college so prejudiced against him that all his kindness and good will were wasted upon them.

“There goes the greatest man in this country,” said a fashionable Boston youth, one day in the spring of 1866. It was Louis Agassiz returning from a call on President Hill. Such a statement shows that the speaker belonged to a class of people called Tories, in 1776, and who might properly be called so still. As a matter of fact, Agassiz had long since passed the meridian of his reputation, and his sun was now not far from setting. He had returned from his expedition to South America with a valuable collection of fishes and other scientific materials; but his theory of glaciers; which he went there to substantiate, had not been proven. Darwin’s “Origin of Species” had already swept his nicely- constructed plans of original types into the fire of futile speculation. Yet Agassiz was a great man in his way, and his importance was universally recognized. He had given a vigorous and much-needed impetus to the study of geology in America, and as a compendium of all the different branches of natural history there was nobody like him. In his lifelong single-minded devotion to science he had few equals and no superiors. He cared not for money except so far as it helped the advancement of his studies. For many years Madam Agassiz taught a select school for young ladies (to which Emerson, among others, sent his daughters), in order to provide funds for her husband to carry on his work. It is to be feared that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was rather stingy to him. Edward Everett once made an eloquent address in his behalf to the legislature, but it had no effect. Louis Napoleon’s munificent offers could not induce him to return to Paris, for he believed that more important work was to be done in the new world,– which, by the way, he considered the oldest portion of the globe.

In height and figure Agassiz was so much like Doctor Hill that when the two were together this was very noticeable. They were both broad- shouldered, deep-chested men, and of about the same height, with large, well-rounded heads; but Agassiz had an elastic French step, whereas Doctor Hill walked with something of a shuffle. One might even imagine Agassiz dancing a waltz. Lowell said of him that he was “emphatically a man, and that wherever he went he made a friend.” His broad forehead seemed to smile upon you while he was talking, and from his simple- hearted and genial manners you felt that he would be a friend whenever you wanted one. He was the busiest and at the same time one of the most accessible persons in the university.

On one occasion, happening to meet a number of students at the corner of University Building, one of them was bold enough to say to him: “Prof. Agassiz, would you be so good as to explain to us the difference between the stone of this building and that of Boylston Hall? We know that they are both granite, but they do not look alike.” Agassiz was delighted, and entertained them with a brief lecture on primeval rocks and the crust of the earth’s surface. He told them that Boylston Hall was made of syenite; that most of the stone called granite in New England was syenite, and if they wanted to see genuine granite they should go to the tops of the White Mountains. Then looking at his watch he said: “Ah, I see I am late! Good day, my friends; and I hope we shall all meet again.” So off he went, leaving each of his hearers with the embryonic germ of a scientific interest in his mind.

Longfellow tells in his diary how Agassiz came to him when his health broke down and wept. “I cannot work any longer,” he said; and when he could not work he was miserable. The trouble that afflicted him was congestion of the base of the brain, a disorder that is not caused so frequently by overwork as by mental emotion. His cure by Dr. Edward H. Clarke, by the use of bromides and the application of ice, was considered a remarkable one at the time; but five years later the disorder returned again and cost him his life.

He believed that the Laurentian Mountains, north of the St. Lawrence River, was the first land which showed itself above the waste of waters with which the earth was originally surmounted.

Perhaps the most picturesque figure on the college grounds was the old Greek professor, Evangelinus Apostolides Sophocles; a genuine importation from Athens, whom the more imaginative sort of people liked to believe was descended from the Greek poet Sophocles of the Periclean age. He was much too honest himself to give countenance to this rumor, and if you inquired of him concerning it, he would say that he should like very well to believe it, and it was not impossible, although there were no surnames in ancient Greece before the time of Constantine; he had not found any evidence in favor of it. He was a short, thick-set man with a large head and white Medusa-like hair; but such an eye as his was never seen in an Anglo-Saxon face. It reminded you at once of Byron’s Corsair, and suggested contingencies such as find no place in quiet, law-abiding New England,–the possibility of sudden and terrible concentration. His clothing had been long since out of fashion, and he always wore a faded cloth cap, such as no student would dare to put on. He lived like a hermit in No. 3 Holworthy, where he prepared his own meals rather than encounter strange faces at a boarding-house table. Once he invited the president of the college to supper; and the president went, not without some misgivings as to what his entertainment might be. He found, however, a simple but well-served repast, including a French roll and a cup of black coffee with the grounds in it. The coffee loosened Sophocles’s usually reticent tongue, and after that, as the president himself expressed it, they had a delightful conversation. Everybody respected Sophocles in spite of his eccentric mode of life, and the Freshmen were as much afraid of him as if he had been the Minotaur of Crete.

The reason for his economy did not become apparent until after his death. When he first came to the university he made friends with a gentleman in Cambridge to whom he was much attached, but who, at the time we write of, had long since been dead. It was to support the daughters of his friend, who would have otherwise been obliged to earn their own living, that he saved his money; and in his will he left them a competency of fifty thousand dollars or more.

On one occasion a Freshman was sent to him to receive a private admonition for writing profane language on a settee; but the Freshman denied the accusation. Sophocles’s eyes twinkled. “Did you not,” said he, “write the letters d-a-m-n?” “No,” said the boy, laughing; “it must have been somebody else.” Sophocles laughed and said he would report the case back to the college faculty. A few days later he stopped the youth in the college yard and, merely saying “I have had your private admonition revoked,” passed on. Professor Sophocles was right. If the Freshman had tried to deceive him he would not have laughed but looked grave.

The morning in April, 1861, after President Lincoln had issued his call for 75,000 troops, a Harvard Senior mentioned it to Sophocles, who said to him: “What can the government accomplish with 75,000 soldiers? It is going to take half a million of men to suppress this rebellion.”

He was a good instructor in his way, but dry and methodical. Professor Goodwin’s recitations were much more interesting. Sophocles did not credit the tradition of Homer’s wandering about blind and poor to recite his two great epics. He believed that Homer was a prince, or even a king, like the psalmist David, and asserted that this could be proved or at least rendered probable by internal evidence. This much is morally certain, that if Homer became blind it must have been after middle life. To describe ancient battle-scenes so vividly he must have taken part in them; and his knowledge of anatomy is very remarkable. He does not make such mistakes in that line as bringing Desdemona to life after she has been smothered.

How can we do justice to such a great-hearted man as Dr. Andrew P. Peabody? He was not intended by nature for a revolutionary character, and in that sense he was unsuited, like Everett, for the time in which he lived. If he had been chosen president of the university after the resignation of Doctor Hill, as George S. Hillard and other prominent graduates desired, the great broadening and liberalizing of the university, which has taken place since, would have been deferred for the next fifteen years. He had little sympathy with the anti-slavery movement, and was decidedly opposed to the religious liberalism of his time; but Doctor Peabody’s interest lay in the salvation of human souls, and in this direction he had no equal. He felt a personal regard in every human being with whom he was acquainted, and this seemed more important to him than abstract schemes for the improvement of the race in general. He was a man of peace and wished all others to be at peace; the confusion and irritation that accompanies reform was most disagreeable to him. Many a Harvard student who trembled on the brink of an abyss, far from home and left to his own devices, afterwards looked back to Doctor Peabody’s helping hand as to the hand of a beneficent providence held out to save him from destruction; and those whom he was unable to save thought of him no less gratefully.

In the autumn of 1864 a strange sort of student joined the Sophomore class. He soon proved that he was one of the best scholars in it; but to judge from his recitations it was long since he had been to school or received any regular instruction. He lived chiefly on bread and milk, and seemed not to have learned how to take exercise. It is feared that he suffered much from loneliness in that busy hive, where everyone has so many small affairs of his own to attend to. Just before the annual examinations he was seized with brain-fever and died. Doctor Peabody conducted the funeral services at the boarding-house of the unfortunate youth, and the plainness of the surroundings heightened the eloquence of his address. His prayer on that occasion was so much above the average character of his religious discourses that it seemed to come from a secret fountain of the man’s nature, which could only be drawn upon for great occasions.

With all his tenderness of feeling Doctor Peabody could be a very vigorous debater. He once carried on a newspaper argument with Rev. Dr. Minor, of Boston, on the temperance question, in which he took the ground that drinking wine and beer did not necessarily lead to intemperance,– which, rightly considered, indicates a lack of self-control; and he made this point in what his friends, at least, considered a satisfactory and conclusive manner.

It is pleasant to think that such a man should have met with unusual prosperity in his old age–and the person to whom he owed this improvement of his affairs was Nathaniel Thayer, of Boston. Mr. Thayer took charge of Doctor Peabody’s property and trebled or quadrupled it in value. Mr. Thayer was very fond of doing such kindnesses to his friends, especially to clergymen. He liked the society of clergymen, and certainly in this he showed excellent judgment. During the last ten years of his life he spent his summers at the Isles of Shoals, and generally with one or more reverend gentlemen in his company. He was besides a most munificent patron of the university. He provided the means for Agassiz to go on his expedition to South America, and in conjunction with Doctor Hill reestablished commons for the students–a reform, as he once stated, as advantageous to their morals as to their purses. He afterwards built the dormitory which is known by his name. He was so kind-hearted, that he was said to have given up banking because he was not hard-hearted enough for the profession. After his death his family received letters upon letters from persons of whom they had never heard, but who wished to express their gratitude for his generosity.

Prof. Benjamin Pierce, the mathematician, was rather an awe-inspiring figure as he strolled through the college grounds, recognizing few and speaking to none–apparently oblivious to everything except the internal life which he led in the “functions of curves” and “celestial mechanics.” He was a fine-looking man, with his ashen-gray hair and beard, his wide brow and features more than usually regular. When he was observed conversing with President Hill the fine scholars shook their heads wisely as if something remarkable was taking place. The president had said in one of his addresses to the Freshmen that it would require a whole generation to utilize Professor Pierce’s discoveries in algebra; and I believe, at last accounts, they have not been utilized yet. He would often be seen in the horse-cars making figures on scraps of paper, which he carried with him for the purpose, oblivious as ever to what was taking place about him. To “have a head like old Benny Pierce” has become a proverb in Boston and Cambridge.

Neither did he lack independence of character. In his later years he not unfrequently attended the meetings of the Radical Club, or Chestnut Street Club, at Mrs. John T. Sargent’s, in Boston, a place looked upon with pious horror by good Doctor Peabody, and equally discredited by the young positivists whom President Eliot had introduced in the college faculty. His remarks on such occasions were fresh, original, and very interesting; and once he brought down the house with laughter and applause by explaining the mental process which prevented him from appreciating a joke until after all others had done so. This naive confession made his audience like him.

It is a curious geneological fact that Professor Pierce had a son named after him who would seem to have been born in mirth, to have lived in comedy, and died in a jest. He was a college Yorick who produced roars of laughter in the Dicky and Hasty Pudding clubs. Another son, called affectionately by the students “Jimmy Mills,” was also noted for his wit, and much respected as an admirable instructor.

Doctor Holmes says, in Parson Turell’s Legacy:

“Know old Cambridge? Hope you do,–
Born there? Don’t say so! I was too. Born in a house with a gambrel-roof,–
Standing still, if you must have proof.–

* * * * *

–Nicest place that ever was seen,– Colleges red and Common green,
Sidewalks brownish with trees between.”

This describes Cambridge as it was forty years since. In spite of its timid conservatism and rather donnish society, as Professor Child termed it, it was one of the pleasantest places to live in on this side the Atlantic. It was a community of a refined and elegant industry, in which every one had a definite work to do, and seemed to be exactly fitted to his or her place,–not without some great figures, too, to give it exceptional interest. There was peace and repose under the academic shade, and the obliviousness of its inhabitants to the outside world only rendered this more restful.

How changed is it now! The old Holmes house has been long since pulled down to make way for the new Law-School building. Red-gravel paths have been replaced by brick sidewalks; huge buildings rise before the eye; electric cars whiz in every direction; a tall, bristling iron fence surrounds the college yard; and an enormous clock on the tower of Memorial Hall detonates the hours in a manner which is by no means conducive to the sleep of the just and the rest of the weary. The elderly graduate, returning to the dreamland of his youth, finds that it has actually become a dreamland and still exists only in his imagination.

The university has broadened and extended itself wonderfully under the present management, but the simple classic charm of the olden time is gone forever.


Fifty years ago it was the fashion at Harvard, as well as at other colleges, for professors to cultivate an austere dignity of manner for the purpose of preserving order and decorum in the recitation-room; but this frequently resulted in having the opposite effect and served as a temptation to the students to play practical jokes on their instructors. The habitual dryness of the college exercises in Latin, Greek, and mathematics became still more wearisome from the manner in which these were conducted. The youthful mind thirsting for knowledge found the road to it for the most part a dull and dreary pilgrimage.

Professor Francis J. Child would seem to have been the first to break down this barrier and establish more friendly relations with his classes. He was naturally well adapted to this. Perfectly frank and fearless in his dealings with all men, he hated unnecessary conventionality, and at the same time possessed the rare art of preserving his dignity while associating with his subordinates on friendly terms. Always kindly and even sympathetic to the worst scapegraces in the division, he could assert the superiority of his position with a quickness that often startled those who were inclined to impose on him. He did not call out the names of his class as if they were exceptions to a rule in Latin grammar, but addressed each one of them as if he felt a personal interest in the man; so that they felt encouraged to speak out what they knew and even remembered their lessons so much the better. As a consequence he was universally respected, and there were many who felt an affection for him such as he could never have imagined. His cordial manner was sufficient of itself to make his instruction effective.

Francis J. Child was the first scholar in his class at the Boston Latin School, and afterwards at Harvard. That first scholars do not come to much good in the world is an illusion of the envious. It is true that they sometimes break down their health by too strenuous an effort, but this may happen to an ambitious person in any undertaking. In Professor Child’s case, as in many another, it proved the making of his fortune, for which he did not possess any exceptional advantages. Being of an amiable disposition and good address, he was offered a tutorship on graduation, and rose from one position in the university to another until he became the first authority on the English language in America. His whole life was spent at Harvard College, with the exception of a few short expeditions to Europe; and his influence there steadily increased until it became a power that was universally recognized.

He was a short, thick-set man, like Sophocles, but as different as possible in general aspect. Sophocles was always slow and measured, but Professor Child was quick and lively in all his movements; and his face wore an habitual cheerfulness which plainly showed the sunny spirit within. Most characteristic in his appearance was the short curly yellow hair, so light in color that when it changed with age, his friends scarcely noticed the difference.

During his academic years he created a sensation by declining to join the Hasty Pudding Club. This was looked upon as a piece of inordinate self- conceit; whereas, the true reason for it was that he had little money and preferred to spend it in going to the theatre. He said afterwards, in regard to this, that he was not sorry to have done it, for “the students placed too much importance on such matters.”

Through his interest in fine acting, he became one of the best judges of oratory, and it was always interesting to listen to him on that subject. He considered Wendell Phillips the perfection of form and delivery, and sometimes very brilliant, but much too rash in his statements. Everett was also good, but lacked warmth and earnestness. Choate was purely a legal pleader, and outside of the court-room not very effective. He thought Webster one of the greatest of orators, fully equal to Cicero; but they both lacked the poetical element. Sumner’s sentences were florid and his delivery rather mechanical, but he made a strong impression owing to the evident purity of his motives. The general public, however, had become suspicious of oratory, so that it was no longer as serviceable as formerly.

“After all,” he would say, “the main point for a speaker is to have a good cause. Then, if he is thoroughly in earnest, we enjoy hearing him.” He once illustrated his subject by the story of a Union general who tried to rally the fugitives at Pittsburg Landing, and said, waving his sword in the air: “In the name of the Declaration of Independence, I command, I exhort you,” etc., while a private soldier leaning against a tree, with a quid of tobacco in his mouth, remarked, “That man can make a good speech,” but showed no intentions of moving. This summary, however, gives no adequate idea of the brightness of Professor Child’s conversation. He was an animated talker, full of wit and originality.

When the classes at Harvard were smaller than at present, he would arrange them in University Hall for declamation, so as to cover as much space as possible. They did not understand this until he said, “Now we have a larger audience, if not more numerous;” and this placed every one in the best of humor.

Besides his regular college duties, Professor Child had three distinct interests to which he devoted himself in leisure hours with all the energy of an ardent nature. The first of these, editing a complete edition of the old English ballads, was the labor of his life, and with it his name will always be associated, for it is a work that can neither be superseded nor excelled. He was the first to arouse English scholars to the importance of this, as may be read in the dedication of a partial edition taken from the Percy manuscripts and published in London in 1861. He recognized in them the true foundation of the finest literature of the modern world, and he considered them so much the better from the fact that they were not composed to be printed, but to be recited or sung. Matthew Arnold wrote in a letter from America: “After lecturing at Taunton, I came to Boston with Professor Child of Harvard, a very pleasant man, who is a great authority on ballad poetry,” very warm praise, considering the source whence it came. Late in life Professor Child edited separate versions in modern English of some curious old ballads, and sent them as Christmas presents to his friends. It is not surprising that he should have been interested as well in the rude songs of the British sailors, which he heard on crossing the ocean. He was mightily amused at their simple refrain:

“Haul in the bowlin’, long-tailed bowlin’, Haul in the bowlin’ Kitty, O, my darlin’.”

“That rude couplet,” he said, “contains all the original elements of poetry. Firstly, the anthropomorphic element; the sailor imagines his bowline as if it had life. Secondly, the humorous element, for the bowline is all tail. Thirdly, the reflective element; the monotonous motion makes him think of home,–of his wife or sweetheart,–and he ends the second line with ‘Kitty, O, my darlin’.’ I like such primitive verses much better than the ‘Pike County Ballads,’ a mixture of sentiment and profanity.”

Then he went on to say: “I want my children, when they grow up, to read the classics. My boy will go to college, of course; and he will translate Homer and Virgil, and Horace,–I think very highly of Horace; but the literal meaning is a different thing from understanding the poetry. Then my daughters will learn French and German, and I shall expect them to read Schiller and Goethe, Moliere and Racine, as well as Shakespeare and Milton. After that they can read what they like, but they will have a standard by which to judge other authors.” He was afraid that the students wasted too much time in painting play-bills and other similar exercises of ingenuity, which lead to nothing in the end.

He gave some excellent advice to a young lady who was about visiting Europe for the first time, who doubted if she could properly appreciate the works of art and other fine things that she would be called upon to admire. “Don’t be afraid of that,” said Professor Child; “you will probably like best just those sights which you do not expect to; but if you do not like them, say so, and let that be the end of it. Now, I am so unfortunate as not to appreciate Michel Angelo. His great horned Moses is nothing more to me than a Silenus in a garden. The fact does not trouble me much, for I find enough to interest me as it is, and I can enjoy life without the Moses.”

After mentioning a number of desirable expeditions, he added: “You will go to Dresden, of course, to see Raphael’s Madonna and Titian’s ‘Tribute Money’; and then there are the Green Vaults. I have known the Green Vaults to have an excellent effect on some ladies of my acquaintance. They did not care one-quarter as much for a diamond ring as they did before they went into the Green Vaults. You will see a jewelled fireplace there which is worth more than all I own in the world.” The young lady looked, however, as if it would take more than the Green Vaults to cure her love for jewelry.

* * * * *

Professor Child’s second important interest was politics, and as a rule he much preferred talking on this to literary subjects.

Josiah Quincy was the most distinguished president that Harvard College has had, unless we except President Eliot; and his admirers have been accustomed to refer to his administration as “Consule Planco.” His politics did not differ widely from those of John Quincy Adams, who was the earliest statesman of the anti-slavery struggle, and a true hero in his way. After Quincy, the presidents of the university became more and more conservative, until Felton, who was a pronounced pro-slavery Whig, and even attempted to defend the invasion of Kansas in a public meeting. The professors and tutors naturally followed in the train of the president, while a majority of the sons of wealthy men among the undergraduates always took the southern side. The son of an abolitionist who wished to go through Harvard in those days found it a penitential pilgrimage. He was certain to suffer an extra amount of hazing, and to endure a kind of social ostracism throughout the course.

For many years before the election of Lincoln, Professors Child, Lowell, and Jennison were the only pronounced anti-slavery members of the faculty; and this left Francis J. Child to hear the brunt of it almost alone, for Lowell’s connection with the university was semi-detached, and although he was always prepared to face the enemy in an honest argument, he was not often on the ground to do so.

Now that the most potent cause of political agitation resides in the far- off problem of the Philippine Islands it is difficult to realize the popular excitement of those times, when both parties believed that the very existence of the nation depended on the result of the elections. Professor Child was not the least of an alarmist, and deprecated all unnecessary controversy. In 1861 he even cautioned Wendell Phillips Garrison against introducing too strong an appeal for emancipation in his commencement address; but he was as firm as a granite rock on any question of principle, and when he considered a protest in order he was certain to make one. He did not trust party newspapers for his information, but obtained it from persons who were in a position to know, and his facts were so well supported by the quick sallies of his wit that those who interfered with him once rarely attempted it again. Moreover, as we all see now, he had the right on his side.


He was proud of having voted twice for Abraham Lincoln. What he thought of John Brown, at the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, is uncertain; but many years later, when one of his friends published a small book in vindication of Brown against the attack of Lincoln’s two secretaries, he wrote to him:

“I congratulate you on the success of your statement, which I have read with very great interest. John Brown was like a star and still shines in the firmament. We could not have done without him.”

He considered Governor Andrew’s approbation of John Brown as more important than anything that would be written about him in the future.

He did not trouble himself much in regard to Lincoln’s second election, for he saw that it was a foregone conclusion; but after Andrew Johnson’s treachery in 1866, he felt there was a need of unusual exertion. When the November elections arrived, he told his classes: “Next Tuesday I shall have to serve my country and there will be no recitations.” When Tuesday came we found him on the sidewalk distributing Republican ballots and soliciting votes; and there he remained until the polls closed in the afternoon. He had little patience with educated men who neglected their political duties. “Why are you discouraged?” he would ask. “Times will change. Remember the Free-soil movement!” He attended caucuses as regularly as the meetings of the faculty, and served as a delegate to a number of conventions. More than once he aroused the good citizens of Cambridge to the danger of insidious plots by low demagogues against the public welfare. The poet Longfellow took notice of this and spoke of him as an invaluable man.

On another occasion Professor Child was discoursing to his class on oratory and mentioned the fact that Webster and Choate both came from Dartmouth; that Wendell Phillips graduated at Harvard, but the university had not seen much of him since. At the mention of Wendell Phillips some of the boys from pro-slavery families began to sneer. Professor Child raised himself up and said determinedly, “Wendell Phillips is as good an orator as either of them!” He was chagrined, however, at Phillips’s later public course,–his support of Socialism and General Butler. Neither did he like Phillips’s Phi Beta Kappa oration, in which he advocated the dagger and dynamite for tyrants. “A tyrant,” said Professor Child, “is what anyone chooses to imagine. My hired man may consider me a tyrant and blow me up according to Mr. Phillips’s principle.” The assassins of Garfield and McKinley evidently supposed that they were ridding the earth of two of the worst tyrants that ever existed. Professor Child was exceptionally liberal. He even supported Woman Suffrage for a time, but he held Socialism in a kind of holy horror,–such as one feels of a person who is always making blunders.

In 1878 Professor Child and some other political reformers were elected to a Congressional convention and went with the hope of securing a candidate who would represent the educated classes,–the incumbent at that time being a shoe manufacturer. They argued and worked hard all day, but without success. Late in the afternoon the shoe manufacturer, a worthy man but very ignorant, who afterwards became governor of the State, was renominated; and when it was proposed to make the nomination unanimous Professor Child called out such an emphatic No that it seemed to shake the whole assembly. Not content with this he entered a protest next day in the Boston _Advertiser_. He was so much used up by the exertion that he was unable to attend to his classes. Some years later he enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing his candidate, Theodore Lyman, nominated and elected.

Emerson once delivered a lecture in Boston on university life in which he made the rather bold statement that “in the course of twenty years the rank-list is likely to become inverted.” One of Professor Child’s class paraphrased this lecture for a theme, and against the sentence above quoted the Professor wrote: “A statement frequently made, but what is the fact?” I do not think he liked Emerson quite so well after this, and he can hardly be blamed for feeling so. It was not only a disparagement of good scholarship but like a personal slight upon himself. That Emerson graduated near the foot of his class ought not to prove that an idle college life is a sign of genius.

Professor Child talked freely in regard to the meetings of the college faculty, for he believed that graduates had a right to know about them. He quoted some amusing anecdotes of a certain professor who led the opposition against President Eliot and praised the dignified manner with which Eliot regarded him. In 1879 he said one day:

“We are in the half-way stage between a college and a university, and there is consequently great confusion. If we once became a university, pure and simple, all that would be over; but the difficulty is that the material which comes to us is so poor. I do not mean that the young men are lacking in intelligence, but the great majority of them do not brace themselves to the work. As Doctor Hedge says, the heart of the college is in the boating and ball-playing and not in its studies.”

His third occupation and chief recreation was his rose-garden. The whole space between his front piazza and Kirkland Street was filled with rose- bushes which he tended himself, from the first loosening of the earth in spring until the straw sheaf-caps were tied about them in November. What more delightful occupation for a scholar than working in a rose-garden! There his friends were most likely to find him in suitable weather, and when June came they were sure to receive a share of the bountiful blossoms; nor did he ever forget the sick and suffering.

He was greatly interested to hear of a German doctor at Munich who had a rose-garden with more than a hundred varieties in it. “I should like to know that man,” he said; “wouldn’t we have a good talk together?” He complained that although everybody liked roses few were sufficiently interested in them to distinguish the different kinds. Naturally rose- bugs were his special detestation. “Saving your presence,” he said to President Felton’s daughter, “I will crush this insect;” to which she aptly replied, “I certainly would not have my presence save him.” When he heard of the Buffalo-bug he exclaimed: “Are we going to have another pest to contend with? I think it is a serious question whether the insect world is not going to get the better of us.”

After his painful death at the Massachusetts Hospital in September, 1896, the president and fellows of the university voted to set apart little Holden Chapel, the oldest building on the college grounds, and yet one of the most dignified, for an English library dedicated to the memory of Francis J. Child. Such an honor had never been decreed for president or professor before; and it gives him the distinction that we all feel he deserved. It is much more appropriate to him, and satisfactory than a marble statue in Saunders Theatre would have been, or a stained-glass window in Memorial Hall. Yet his presence still lingers in the memory of his friends, like the fragrance of his own roses, after the petals have fallen from their stems.


It has been estimated that there were four hundred poets in England in the time of Shakespeare, and in the century during which Dante lived Europe fairly swarmed with poets, many of them of high excellence. Frederick II. of Germany and Richard I. of England were both good poets, and were as proud of their verses as they were of their military exploits. Frederick II. may be said to have founded the vernacular in which Dante wrote; and Longfellow rendered into English a poem of Richard’s which he composed during his cruel imprisonment in Austria. A knight who could not compose a song and sing it to the guitar was as rare as a modern gentleman of fashion who cannot play golf. When James Russell Lowell resigned the chair of poetry at Harvard no one could be found who could exactly fill his place, and it was much the same at Oxford after Matthew Arnold retired.

The difference between then and now would seem to reside in the fact, that poetry is more easily remembered than prose. From the time of Homer until long after the invention of printing, not only were ballad-singers and harpers in good demand, but the recital of poetry was also a favorite means of livelihood to indigent scholars and others, who wandered about like the minstrels. The “article,” as Tom Moore called it, was in active request. Poetry was recited in the camp of Alexander, in the Roman baths, in the castles on the Rhine, and English hostelries. Now it is replaced by novel-reading, and there are few who know how much pleasure can be derived on a winter’s evening by impromptu poetic recitations. If a popular interest in poetry should revive again, I have no doubt that hundreds of poets would spring up, as it were, out of the ground and fill the air with their pleasant harmonies. The editor of the _Atlantic_ informed Professor Child that he had a whole barrelful of poetry in his house, much of it excellent, but that there was no use he could make of it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was as irrepressible a rhymer as John Watts himself, and fortunately he had a father who recognized the value of his talent and assisted him in a judicious manner, instead of placing obstacles in his way, as the father of Watts is supposed to have done. The account that Rev. Samuel Longfellow has given us of the youth of his brother is highly instructive, and ought to be of service to all young men who fancy they are destined by nature for a poetic career. He tells us how Henry published his first poem in the Portland _Gazette_, and how his boyish exultation was dashed with cold water the same evening by Judge —-, who said of it in his presence: “Stiff, remarkably stiff, and all the figures are borrowed.”

The “Fight at Lovell’s Pond” would not have been a remarkable poem for a youth of nineteen, but it showed very good promise for the age at which it was written. Few boys at that age can write anything that will hang together as a poem. Young Longfellow was a better poet at thirteen than his father’s friend, the Judge, was a critic. His verses were by no means stiff, but on the contrary showed indications of that natural grace and facility of expression for which he became afterwards distinguished. As for the originality of his comparisons it is doubtful also if the Judge could have proved his point on that question. They were original to Henry, if to nobody else.

Fortunately for Henry he was also a fine scholar. The following year saw him enter as a Freshman at Bowdoin College, which was equal to entering Harvard at the age of fifteen. Look out for the youngest members of a college class! They may not distinguish themselves at the university, but they are the ones who, if they live, outstrip all others. But Longfellow did distinguish himself. In his Junior year he composed seventeen poems which were published, then and afterwards, in the _United States Literary Gazette_, where his name appeared beside that of William Cullen Bryant. This was quite exceptional in the history of American literature, and as the editor of the _Literary Gazette_ stated it: “A young tree which puts forth so many blossoms is likely to bear good fruits.”

With the close of his college course came the important question of Longfellow’s future occupation. His father, with good practical judgment, foresaw that poetry alone would not serve to make his son self-supporting and independent; but the boy hated to give this up for a more prosaic employment. While the discussion was going on between them, the authorities of Bowdoin solved the problem for them both by offering young Longfellow a professorship of modern languages on condition that he would spend two years in Europe preparing himself for the position. He had graduated fourth in his class.

Does not this prove the advantage of good scholarship? Was the rank list inverted in Longfellow’s case? I think not. He had lived a virtuous and industrious life, not studying for rank or honor, but because he enjoyed doing what was right and fit for a young man to do; and now the reward had come to him, like the sun breaking through the clouds which seemed to obscure his future prospects. Still, there was a hard road before him. It is very pleasant to travel rapidly through foreign countries, seeing the best that is in them and to return home with a multitude of fresh impressions; but living and working a long time in another country seems too much like exile. The loneliness of the situation becomes a weary burden, and it is dangerous from its very loneliness. Many have died or lost their health under such conditions (in fact Longfellow came near losing his life from Roman fever), and he wrote from Paris: “Here one can keep evil at a distance as well as elsewhere, though, to be sure, temptations are multiplied a thousand-fold if he is willing to enter into them.” A young man’s first experience in London or Paris is a dangerous sense of freedom; for all the customary restraints of his daily life have been removed.

Mrs. Stowe says of her beautiful character, “Eva St. Clair,” that all bad influences rolled off from her like dew from a cabbage leaf, and it was the same with Longfellow throughout. He lived in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, and then returned to Portland, the same true American as when he left there, without foreign ways or modes of thinking, and with no more than the slight aroma of a foreign air upon him. Longfellow and his whole family were natural cosmopolitans. There was nothing of the proverbial Yankee in their composition.

Whittier was a Quaker by creed, but he was also much of a Yankee in style and manner. Emerson looked like a Yankee, and possessed the cool Yankee shrewdness. Lowell’s “Biglow Papers” testified to the fundamental Yankee; but the Longfellows were endowed with a peculiar refinement and purity which seemed to distinguish them as much in Cambridge or London as it did in Portland, where there has always been a rather superior sort of society. It was like French refinement without being Gallic. No wonder that a famous poet should emanate from such a family.

What we notice especially in the Longfellow Letters during this European sojourn is the admonition of Henry’s father, that German literature was more important than Italian,–and the poet was always largely influenced by this afterwards; that Henry did not find Paris particularly attractive, and on the whole preferred the Spanish character to the French on account of its deeper under-currents; that he did not seem to realize the danger that menaced him from Spanish brigands, in spite of the black crosses by the roadside; and that he was not vividly impressed by the famous works of art in the Louvre gallery. He only notices that one of Correggio’s figures resembles a young lady in Portland.

Longfellow would seem to have been always the same in regard to his appreciation of art. When he was in Italy, in 1869, he visited all the picture galleries and evidently enjoyed doing so; but it was easy to see that his brother, Rev. Samuel Longfellow, felt a much livelier interest in the subject than he did; and injured frescos or mutilated statues, like the Torso of the Belvidere, were objects of aversion to him. Poets and musical composers see more with their ears than they do with their eyes.

The single work of art that attracted him strongly at this time was a statue of Venus, by Canova, which he compares to the Venus de’ Medici, and his brother Samuel remarks that he was always more attracted by sculpture than painting. Canova was a genius very similar to Longfellow himself, as nearly as an Italian could be made to match an American, and he was then at the height of his reputation.

In 1829 Longfellow returned to Portland and was immediately chosen a professor at Bowdoin College, where he remained for the next seven years. When, in 1836, Professor Ticknor retired from his position as instructor of modern languages at Harvard, his place was offered to Longfellow and accepted. This brought him into the literary centre of New England, and one of the first acquaintances he made there was Charles Sumner, who was lecturing before the Harvard Law-School.

The friendship between these two great men commenced at once and only ceased at Sumner’s death in 1874, when Longfellow wrote one of the finest of his shorter poems in tribute to Sumner’s memory. It was as poetic a friendship as that between Emerson and Carlyle; but whereas Emerson and Carlyle had differences of opinion, Sumner and Longfellow were always of one mind. When Sumner made his Fanueil Hall speech against the fugitive slave law, which was simply fighting revolution with revolution, and Harvard College and the whole of Cambridge turned against him, Longfellow stood firm; and it may be suspected that he had many an unpleasant discussion with his aristocratic acquaintances on this point. It was considered bad enough to support Garrison, but supporting Sumner was a great deal worse, for Sumner was an orator who wielded a power only inferior to Webster. Fortunately for Longfellow, his connection with the university ceased not long after Sumner’s election to the Senate; and the unpleasantness of his position may have been the leading cause of his retirement.

Sumner was the best friend Longfellow had, and perhaps the best that he could have had. There was Emerson, of course, and Longfellow was always on friendly terms with him; but Emerson had a habit of catechising his companions which some of them did not altogether like; and this may have been the case with Longfellow, for they never became very intimate. Sumner, on the contrary, had always a large stock of information to dispense, not only concerning American affairs but those of other nations, in which Longfellow never lost his interest. More important to him even than this is the fact that Sumner’s statements were always to be trusted. It may be surmised that it was not so much similarity of opinion as the purity of their motives that brought the poet and statesman together.

As soon as Sumner returned from Washington, in spring or summer, he would go out to call on Longfellow; and it was a pleasant sight to see them walking together on a June evening beneath the overarching elms of historic Brattle Street. They were a pair of majestic-looking men; and though Longfellow was nearly a head shorter than Sumner, his broad shoulders gave him an appearance of strength, as his capacious head and strong, finely cut features evidently denoted an exceptional intellect. He wore his hair poetically long, almost to his coat collar; and yet there was not the slightest air of the Bohemian about him. They seemed to be oblivious of everything except their conversation; and if this could have been recorded it might prove to be as interesting as the poetry of the one and the orations of the other. They were evidently talking on great subjects, and the earnestness on Sumner’s face was reflected on Longfellow’s as in a mirror.

Hawthorne was a classmate of Longfellow, and in the biography of the latter there are a number of letters from one to the other which are always friendly,–but never more than that on Hawthorne’s side,–with one exception, where he thanks Longfellow for a complimentary review of “Twice-Told Tales” in the _North American_. At that time the _North American_ was considered an authority which could make or unmake an author’s reputation; and Longfellow may be said to have opened the door for Hawthorne into the great world. Hawthorne’s friendship for President Pierce proved an advantage to him financially, but it also became a barrier between him and the other literary men of his time. Of course he believed what his friend Pierce told him concerning public affairs, and when he found that his other friends had not the same faith in Pierce’s veracity he became more strongly a partisan of the pro- slavery cause on that account. Longfellow frankly admitted that he did not understand Hawthorne, and he did not believe that anyone at Bowdoin College understood him. He was the most secretive man that he ever knew; but so far as genius was concerned, he believed that Hawthorne would outlive every other writer of his time. He had the will of a great conqueror.

Goethe has been called the pampered child of genius, of fortune, and the muse; but if Goethe had greater celebrity he never enjoyed half the worldly prosperity of Longfellow. While Emerson was earning a hard livelihood by lecturing in the West, and Whittier was dwelling in a country farm-house, Longfellow occupied one of the most desirable residences in or about Boston, and had all the means at his command that a modest man could wish for. The Craigie House was, and still remains, the finest residence in Cambridge,–“formerly the head-quarters of Washington, and afterwards of the Muses.” Good architecture never becomes antiquated, and the Craigie House is not only spacious within, but dignified without.

One could best realize Longfellow’s opulence by walking through his library adjacent to the eastern piazza, and gazing at the magnificent editions of foreign authors which had been presented to him by his friends and admirers; especially the fine set of Chateaubriand’s works, in all respects worthy of a royal collection. There is no ornament in a house that testifies to the quality of the owner like a handsome library.

Byron would seem to have been the only other poet that has enjoyed such prosperity, although Bryant, as editor of a popular newspaper, may have approached it closely; but a city house, with windows on only two sides, is not like a handsome suburban residence. Longfellow could look across the Cambridge marshes and see the sunsets reflected in the water of the Charles River.

Here he lived from 1843, when he married Miss Appleton, a daughter of one of the wealthiest merchant-bankers of Boston, until his death by pneumonia in March, 1882. The situation seemed suited to him, and he always remained a true poet and devoted to the muses:

Integer vitae scelerisque purus.

He did not believe in a luxurious life except so far as luxury added to refinement, and everything in the way of fashionable show was very distasteful to him. His brother Samuel once said, “I cannot imagine anything more disagreeable than to ride in a public procession;” and the two men were more alike than brothers often are. We notice in the poet’s diary that he abstains from going to a certain dinner in Boston for fear of being called upon to make a speech. Craigie House gave Longfellow the opportunity in which he most delighted,–of entertaining his friends and distinguished foreign guests in a handsome manner; but conventional dinner parties, with their fourteen plates half surrounded by wine- glasses, were not often seen there. He much preferred a smaller number of guests with the larger freedom of discourse which accompanies a select gathering. Many such occasions are referred to in his diary,–as if he did not wish to forget them.

He was the finest host and story-teller in the country. His genial courtesy was simply another expression of that mental grace which made his reputation as a poet, and his manner of reciting an incident, otherwise trivial, would give it the same additional quality as in his verses on Springfield Arsenal and the crooked Songo River, which without Longfellow would be little or nothing. Then his fund of information was what might be expected from a man who had lived in all the countries of western Europe.

He had humble and unfortunate friends whom he seemed to think as much of as though they were distinguished. He recognized fine traits of character, perhaps real greatness of character, in out-of-the-way places,–men whose chief happiness was their acquaintance with Longfellow. It was something much better than charity; and Professor Child spoke of it on the day of Emerson’s funeral as the finest flower in the poet’s wreath.

Longfellow was one of the kindest friends that the Hungarian exiles found when they came to Boston in 1852. Longfellow helped Kossuth, subscribed to Kalapka’s riding-school, and entertained a number of them at his house. Afterwards, when one of the exiles set up a business in Hungarian wines, Longfellow made a large purchase of him, which he spoke of twenty years later with much satisfaction. He liked Tokay, and also the white wine of Capri, which he regretted could not be obtained in America.

Those who supposed that Longfellow was easily imposed upon made a great mistake. He had the reputation among his publishers of understanding business affairs better than any author in New England; but he was almost too kind-hearted. Somewhere about 1859 a photographer made an excellent picture of his daughters–indeed, it was a charming group–and the man begged Mr. Longfellow for permission to sell copies of it as it would be of great advantage to him. Longfellow complied and the consequence was that in 1860 one could hardly open a photograph album anywhere without finding Longfellow’s daughters in it. Then a vulgar story originated that the youngest daughter had only one arm, because her left arm was hidden behind her sister. It is to be hoped that Longfellow never heard of this, for if he did it must have caused him a good deal of pain, in return for his kindness; but that is what one gets. Fortunately the photographs have long since faded out.

Much in the same line was his interest in the children of the poor. A ragged urchin seemed to attract him much more than one that was nicely dressed. Perhaps they seemed more poetic to him, and he could see more deeply into the joys and sorrows of their lives.

Where the Episcopal Theological School now stands on Brattle Street there was formerly a sort of tenement-house; and one day, as we were taking a stroll before dinner, we noticed three small boys with dirty faces standing at the corner of the building; and just then one of them cried out: “Oh, see; here he comes!” And immediately Longfellow appeared leaving the gate of Craigie House. We passed him before he reached the children, but on looking back we saw that he had stopped to speak with them. They evidently knew him very well.

It is remarkable how the impression should have been circulated that Longfellow was not much of a pedestrian. On the contrary, there was no one who was seen more frequently on the streets of Cambridge. He walked with a springy step and a very slight swing of the shoulders, which showed that he enjoyed it. He may not have walked such long distances as Hawthorne, or so rapidly as Dickens, but he was a good walker.

His sister, Mrs. Greenleaf, built a memorial chapel in North Cambridge for the Episcopal society there, and from this Longfellow formed the habit of walking in that direction by way of the Botanic Garden. Somewhere in the cross streets he became acquainted with two children, the son and daughter of a small shop-keeper. They, of course, told their mother about their white-haired acquaintance, and with the fate of Charlie Ross before her eyes, their mother warned them to keep out of his way. He might be a tramp, and tramps were dangerous!

However, it was not long before the children met their white-haired friend again, and the boy asked him: “Are you a tramp? Mother thinks you’re a tramp, and she wants to know what your name is.” It may be presumed that Mr. Longfellow laughed heartily at this misconception, but he said: “I think I may call myself a tramp. I tramp a good deal; but you may tell your mother that my name is Henry W. Longfellow.” He afterwards called on the mother in order to explain himself, and to congratulate her on having such fine children.

When the Saturday Club, popularly known as the Atlantic Club, was organized, one of the first subjects of discussion that came up was the question of autographs. Emerson said that was the way in which he obtained his postage stamps; but Longfellow confessed that he had given away a large number of them. And so it continued to the end. “Why should I not do it,” he would say, “if it gives them pleasure?” Emerson looked on such matters from the stoical point of view as an encouragement to vanity; but he would have been more politic to have gratified his curious, or sentimental admirers; for every autograph he gave would have made a purchaser for his publishers.

Harmony did not always prevail in the Saturday Club, for politics was the all-embracing subject in those days and its members represented every shade of political opinion. Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell were strongly anti-slavery, but they differed in regard to methods. Lowell was what was then called a Seward man, and differed with Emerson in regard to John Brown, and with Longfellow in regard to Sumner. Holmes was still more conservative; and Agassiz was a McClellan Democrat. William Hunt, the painter, believed that the war was caused by the ambition of the leading politicians in the North and South. Longfellow had the advantage of more direct information than the others, and enjoyed the continued successes of the Republican party.

In the spring of 1866 a number of Southerners came to Boston to borrow funds in order to rehabilitate their plantations, and were introduced at the Union League Club. Finding themselves there in a congenial element they made speeches strongly tinged with secession doctrines. Sumner, of course, could not let this pass without making some protest against it, and for this he was hissed. The incident was everywhere talked of, and came under discussion at the next meeting of the Saturday Club. Otto Dresel, a German pianist, who had small reason for being there, said, “It was not Mr. Sumner’s politics but his bad manners that were hissed.” Longfellow set his glass down with emphasis, and replied: “If good manners could not say it, thank heaven bad manners did;” and Lowell supported this with some pretty severe criticism of the Union League Club. In justice to the Union League Club, however, it ought to be said that there was applause as well as hisses for Sumner.

Longfellow had a leonine face, but it was that of a very mild lion; one that had never learned the use of teeth and claws. Yet those who knew him felt that he could roar on occasion, if occasion required it. Once at Longfellow’s own table the conversation chanced upon Goethe, and a gentleman present remarked that Goethe was in the habit of drinking three bottles of hock a day. “Who said he did?” inquired the poet. “It is in Lewes’s biography,” said the gentleman. “I do not believe it,” replied Longfellow, “unless,” he added with a laugh, “they were very small bottles.” A few days afterwards Prof. William James remarked in regard to this incident that the story was quite incredible.

In his youth Longfellow seems to have taken to guns and fishing-rods more regularly than some boys do, but pity for his small victims soon induced him to relinquish the sport. His eldest son, Charles, also took to guns very naturally, and in spite of a severe wound which he received from the explosion of a badly loaded piece, he finally became one of the most expert pigeon-shooters in the State. At the intercession of his father, who considered the game too cruel, he afterwards relinquished this for target-shooting, in which he succeeded equally well. I was talking one day with him on this subject and remarked that I had recently shot two crows with my rifle. “What did you do it for?” interposed his father, in a deprecatory tone. So I explained to him that crows were outside of the pale of the law; that they not only were a pest to the farmers but destroyed the eggs and young of singing birds,–in fact, they were bold, black robbers, whose livery betokened their evil deeds. This evidently interested him, and he finally said with a laugh: “If that is the case, we will give you and Charlie a commission to exterminate them.”

There was a story that when young Nicholas Longworth came to Harvard College in the autumn of 1862 and called on Mr. Longfellow, who had been entertained at his father’s house in Cincinnati, the poet said to him: “It is _worth_ that makes the man; the want of it the _fellow_” –a compliment that almost dumfounded his young acquaintance. It is certain that Longfellow addressed a poem to Mrs. Longworth which will be found in the collection of his minor poems, and in which he speaks of her as–

“The Queen of the West in her garden dressed, By the banks of the beautiful river.”

In the midst of this unrivalled prosperity, this distinction of genius, and public and private honor, on the ninth of July, 1861, there came one of the most harrowing tragedies that has ever befallen a man’s domestic life. Longfellow was widowed for the second time, and five children were left without a mother. It seemed as if Providence had set a limit beyond which human happiness could not pass. It was after this calamity that Longfellow undertook his metrical translation of Dante’s “Divina Commedia,” a much more difficult and laborious work than writing original poetry. As his brother said, “He required an absorbing occupation to prevent him from thinking of the past.”

No wonder that in later years he said, in his exquisite verses on the Mountain of the Holy Cross in Colorado, these pathetic words, “On my heart also there is a cross of snow.” In Longfellow’s diary we meet with the names of many books that he read, and these as well as the pertinent comments on them tell much more of his intellectual life than we derive from his letters. “Adam Bede,” which took the world by storm, did not make so much of an impression on him as Hawthorne’s “Marble Faun,” which he read through in a day and calls a wonderful book. Of “Adam Bede” he says: “It is too feminine for a man; too masculine for a woman.” He says of Dickens, after reading “Barnaby Rudge”: “He is always prodigal and ample, but what a set of vagabonds he contrives to introduce us to!” “Barnaby Rudge” is certainly the most bohemian and esoteric of Dickens’s novels. He liked much better Miss Muloch’s “John Halifax,”–a popular book in its time, but not read very much since. He calls Charles Reade a clever and amusing writer. We find nothing concerning Disraeli, Trollope, or Wilkie Collins. Neither do we hear of critical and historical writers like Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, and Froude. He went, however, to call on Carlyle in England, and was greatly impressed by his conversation. The scope of Longfellow’s reading does not compare with that of Emerson or Marian Evans; but the doctors say that “every man of forty knows the food that is good for him,” and this is true mentally as well as physically.

He refers more frequently to Tennyson than to any other writer, and always in a generous, cordial manner. Of the “Idyls of the King” he says that the first and third Idyls could only have come from a great poet, but that the second and fourth are not quite equal to the others.

Once, at his sister’s house, he held out a book in his hand and said: “Here is some of the finest dramatic poetry that I have ever read.” It was Tennyson’s “Queen Mary;” but there were many who would not have agreed with his estimate of it. Rev. Samuel Longfellow considered the statement very doubtful.

In the summer of 1868 Longfellow went to Europe with his family to see what Henry James calls “the best of it.” Rev. Samuel Longfellow and T. G. Appleton accompanied the party, which, with the addition of Ernest Longfellow’s beautiful bride, made a strong impression wherever they were seen. In fact their tour was like a triumphal procession.

Longfellow was everywhere treated with the distinction of a famous poet; and his fine appearance and dignified bearing increased the reputation which had already preceded him. His meeting with Tennyson was considered as important as the visit of the King of Prussia to Napoleon III., and much less dangerous to the peace of Europe. It was talked of from Edinburgh to Rome.

Longfellow, however, hated lionizing in all its forms, and he avoided ceremonious receptions as much as possible. He enjoyed the entertainment of meeting distinguished people, but he evidently preferred to meet them in an unconventional manner, and to have them as much to himself as possible. Princes and savants called on him, but he declined every invitation that might tend to give him publicity.

His facility in the different languages was much marvelled at. While he was in Florence a delegation from the mountain towns of Tuscany waited upon him and he conversed with them in their own dialect, greatly to their surprise and satisfaction.

From a number of incidents in this journey, related by Rev. Samuel Longfellow, the following has a permanent interest:

When the party came to Verona in May, 1869, they found Ruskin elevated on a ladder, from which he was examining the sculpture on a monument. As soon as he heard that the Longfellow party was below, he came down and greeted them very cordially. He was glad that they had stopped at Verona, which was so interesting and so often overlooked; he wanted them to observe the sculptures on the monument,–the softly-flowing draperies which seemed more as if they had been moulded with hands than cut with a chisel. He then spoke in grievous terms of the recent devastation by the floods in Switzerland, which had also caused much damage in the plains of Lombardy. He thought that reservoirs ought to be constructed on the sides of the mountains, which would stay the force of the torrents, and hold the water until it could be made useful. He wished that the Alpine Club would take an interest in the matter. After enjoying so much in Switzerland it would be only fair for them to do something for the benefit of the country. Mr. Appleton then said: “That is a work for government to do;” to which Ruskin replied: “Governments do nothing but fill their pockets, and issue this,”–taking out a handful of Italian paper currency, which was then much below par.

Everyone has his or her favorite poet or poets, and it is a common practice with young critics to disparage one in order to elevate another. Longfellow was the most popular American poet of his time, but there were others besides Edgar A. Poe who pretended to disdain him. I have met more such critics in Cambridge than in England, Germany, or Italy; and the reason was chiefly a political one. At a distance Longfellow’s politics attracted little attention, but in Cambridge they could not help being felt. In 1862 a strong movement emanated from the Harvard Law-School to defeat Sumner and Andrew, and the lines became drawn pretty sharply. As it happened, the prominent conservatives with one or two exceptions all lived to the east and north of the college grounds, while Longfellow, Lowell, Doctor Francis (who baptized Longfellow’s children), Prof. Asa Gray, and other liberals lived at the west end; and the local division made the contest more acrimonious. The conservatives afterwards felt the bitterness of defeat, and it was many years before they recovered from this. A resident graduate of Harvard, who was accustomed to converse on such subjects as the metaphysics of Hamilton’s quaternions, once said that Longfellow was the paragon of schoolgirls, because he wrote what they would like to so much better than they could. This was contemptible enough; but how can one expect a man who discourses on the metaphysics of Hamilton’s quaternions to appreciate Longfellow’s art, or any art pure and simple. “Evangeline,” which is perhaps the finest of Longfellow’s poems, is not a favorite with youthful readers.

He was greater as a man, perhaps, than as a poet. Future ages will have to determine this; but he was certainly one of the best poets of his time. Professor Hedge, one of our foremost literary critics, spoke of him as the one American poet whose verses sing themselves; and with the exception of Bryant’s “Robert of Lincoln,” and Poe’s “Raven,” and a few other pieces, this may be taken as a judicious statement.

Longfellow’s unconsciousness is charming, even when it seems childlike. As a master of verse he has no English rival since Spenser. The trochaic meter in which “Hiawatha” is written would seem to have been his own invention; [Footnote: At least I can remember no other long poem composed in it.] and is a very agreeable change from the perpetual iambics of Byron and Wordsworth. “Evangeline” is perhaps the most successful instance of Greek and Latin hexameter being grafted on to an English stem. Matthew Arnold considered it too dactylic, but the lightness of its movement personifies the grace of the heroine herself. Lines like Virgil’s

“Illi inter sese multa vi brachia tollunt In numerum, versantque tenaci forcipe massam,”

would not have been suited to the subject.

It has often been said that “Hiawatha” does not represent the red man as he really is, and this is true. Neither does Tennyson represent the knights of King Arthur’s court as they were in the sixth century A.D. They are more like modern English gentlemen, and when we read the German Neibelungen we recognize this difference. Virgil’s Aeneid does not belong to the period of the Trojan war, but this does not prevent the Aeneid from being very fine poetry. The American Indian is not without his poetic side, as is proved by the squaw who knelt down on a flowery Brussels carpet, and smoothing it with her hands, said: “Hahnsome! hahnsome! heaven no hahnsomer!” There is true poetry in this; and so there is in the Indian cradle-song:

“The poor little bee that lives in the tree; The poor little bee that lives in the tree; Has but one arrow in his quiver.”

Either of these incidents is sufficient to testify to Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”

The best poetry is that which forces itself upon our memories, so that it becomes part of our life without the least effort of recollection. Such are Emerson’s “Problem,” Whittier’s “Barbara Frietchie,” and Longfellow’s “Santa Filomena.”

“Whene’er a noble deed is wrought,
Whene’er is spoken a noble thought, Our hearts in glad surprise
To higher levels rise.”

Those are fortunate in this life who feel the glad surprise of Longfellow.

“Hiawatha” is equally universal in its application to modern life. The questions of the Indian boy and the replies of his nurse, the good Nikomis, are not confined to the life of the aborigines. Every spirited boy is a Hiawatha, and in one form or another goes through the same experiences that Longfellow has represented with such consummate art in his American epic-idyl.


The Lowell family of Boston crossed over from England towards the middle of the seventeenth century. One of their number afterwards founded the city of Lowell, by establishing manufactures on the Merrimac River, late in the eighteenth century; and in more recent times two members of the family have held the position of judge in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. They are a family of refined intellectual tastes, as well as of good business and professional ability, but of a retiring disposition and not often conspicuous in public life,–a family of general good qualities, nicely balanced between liberal and conservative, and with a poetic vein running through it for the past hundred years or more. In the Class of 1867 there was an Edward J. Lowell who was chosen class odist, and who wrote poetry nearly, if not quite, as good as that of his distinguished relative at the same period of life.

James Russell Lowell was born at Elmwood, as it is now called, on Washington’s birthday in 1819,–as if to make a good staunch patriot of him; and, what is even more exceptional in American life, he lived and died in the same house in which he was born. It was not such a house as the Craigie mansion, but still spacious and dignified, and denoted very fair prosperity for those times.

Elmwood itself extends for some thirty rods on Brattle Street, but the entrance to the house is on a cross-road which runs down to the marshes. Beyond Elmwood there is a stonecutter’s establishment, and next to that Mount Auburn Cemetery, which, however, was a fine piece of woodland in Lowell’s youth, called Sweet Auburn by the Harvard students, much frequented by love-sick swains and strolling parties of youths and maidens.

The Lowell residence was well into the country at that time. There were few houses near it, and Boston could only be reached by a long detour in a stage; so that an expedition to the city exhausted the better part of a day. It was practically further in the country than Concord is at present; and it was here that Lowell enjoyed that repose of mind which is essential to vigorous mental development, and could find such interests in external nature as the poet requires for the embellishment of his verse.

He went to college at the age of fifteen, two years older than Edward Everett, but sufficiently young to prove himself a precocious student. Cambridge boys of good families have always been noted at Harvard for their gentlemanly deportment. Besides this, Lowell had an immense fund of wit and good spirits, and the two together served to make him very popular–perhaps too much so for his immediate good. His father had great hopes of his promising son,–that he would prove a fine scholar and take a prominent part in the commencement exercises. He even offered the boy a reward of two hundred dollars in case this should happen; but the attractions of student and social life proved too strong for James. He was quick at languages, but slow in mathematics, and as for Butler’s analogy he cannot be blamed for the aversion with which he regarded it. He writes a letter in which he confesses to peeping over the professor’s shoulder to see what marks have been given for his recitations, so that his father’s exhortation would seem at one time to have been seriously felt by him; but the effort did not last long, and we find him repeatedly reprimanded for neglect of college duties.

He did not live the life of a roaring blade, but more like the humming- bird that darts from one plant to another, and gathers sweetness from every flower in the garden. Finally he was rusticated, just after he had been elected poet of his class, with directions not to return until commencement. We recognize the Puritanic severity of President Quincy in this sentence, which robbed young Lowell of the pleasantest term of college life, as well as the honor of appearing on the stage on Class Day. That his poem should have been read by another to the assembled families of his classmates, served to make his absence more conspicuous. Nor can we discover any sufficient reason for such hard statement.

At the same age that Longfellow was writing for the _United States Literary Gazette_, Lowell was scribbling verses for an undergraduates’ periodical called _Harvardiana_. They were not very serious productions, and might all be included under the head of bric-a-brac; but there was a-plenty of them. While Longfellow’s verse at nineteen was remarkable for its perfection of form, Lowell’s suffered chiefly from a lack of this. He had an idea that poetry ought to be an inspiration of the moment; a good foundation to begin with, but which he found afterwards it was necessary to modify.

In the preface to one of his Biglow Papers he speaks of his life in Concord as being

“As lazy as the bream
Which only thinks to head up stream.”

The men whom he chiefly associated with there were named Barziliai and Ebenezer, and the hoar frost of the Concord meadows would seem to have had a chilling effect on Lowell’s naturally tolerant and amiable disposition. He was not attracted by Emerson at this time, but, on the contrary, would seem to have felt an aversion to him. The following lines in his class poem could not have referred to anyone else:

“Woe for Religion, too, when men who claim To place a ‘Reverend’ before their name Ascend the Lord’s own holy place to preach In strains that Kneeland had been proud to reach; And which, if measured by Judge Thatcher’s scale, Had doomed their author to the county jail! Alas that _Christian ministers_ should dare To preach the views of Gibbon and Voltaire!”

To confound the strong spiritual assertion of Emerson with the purely negative attitude of the French satirist was a common mistake in those days, and the Lowell of 1838 needs small excuse for it. He must have been in a biting humor at this time, for there is a cut all round in his class poem, although it is the most vigorous and highly-finished production of his academic years.

After college came the law, in which he succeeded as well as youthful attorneys commonly do; and at the age of twenty-five he entered into the holy bonds of matrimony.

The union of James Russell Lowell to Maria White, of Watertown, was the most poetic marriage of the nineteenth century, and can only be compared to that of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Miss White was herself a poetess, and full of poetical impulse to the brim. Maria would seem to have been born in the White family as Albinos appear in Africa,–for the sake of contrast. She shone like a single star in a cloudy sky,–a pale, slender, graceful girl, with eyes, to use Herrick’s expression, “like a crystal glasse.” A child was born where she did not belong, and Lowell was the chivalrous knight who rescued her.

It must have been Maria White who made an Emersonian of him. Margaret Fuller had stirred up the intellectual life of New England women to a degree never known before or since, and Miss White was one of those who came within the scope of her influence. [Footnote: Lowell himself speaks of her as being “considered transcendental.”] She studied German, and translated poems from Uhland, who might be called the German Longfellow. Certain it is that from the time of their marriage his opinions not only changed from what they had been previously, but his ideas of poetry, philosophy, and religion became more consistent and clearly defined. The path that she pointed out to him, or perhaps which they discovered together, was the one that he followed all through life; so that in one of his later poems, he said, half seriously, that he was ready to adopt Emerson’s creed if anyone could tell him just what it was.

The life they lived together was a poem in itself, and reminds one of Goethe’s saying, that “he who is sufficiently provided for within has need of little from without.” They were poor in worldly goods, but rich in affection, in fine thoughts, and courageous endeavor. It is said that when they were married Lowell had but five hundred dollars of his own. They went to New York and Philadelphia, and soon discovering that they had spent more than half of it, they concluded to return home.

The next ten years of Lowell’s life might be called the making of the man. He worked hard and lived economically; earning what he could by the law, and what he could not by magazine writing, which paid poorly enough. Publishers had not then discovered that what the general public desires is not literature, but information on current topics, and this is the last thing which the true man of letters is able to provide. A magazine article, or a campaign biography of General Grant, could be written in a few weeks, but a solid historical biography of him, with a critical examination of his campaigns, has not yet been written, and perhaps never will be. A literary venture of Lowell and his friends in 1843, to found a first-rate literary magazine, proved a failure; and it is to be feared that he lost money by it. [Footnote: See Scudder’s Life of Lowell, iii. 109.]

However the world might use him he was sure of comfort and happiness at his own fireside, where he read Shelley, and Keats, and Lessing, while Mrs. Lowell studied upon her German translations. The sympathy of a true- hearted woman is always valuable, even when she does not quite understand the grievance in question, but the sympathy that Maria Lowell could give her husband was of a rare sort. She could sympathize with him wholly in heart and intellect. She encouraged him to fresh endeavors and continual improvement. Thus he went on year by year broadening his mind, strengthening his faculties, and improving his reputation. The days of frolicsome gaiety were over. He now lived in a more serious vein, and felt a deeper, more satisfying happiness. It was much more the ideal life of a poet than that of Thoreau, paddling up and down Concord River in search of the inspiration which only comes when we do not think of it.

It may be suspected that he read more literature than law during these years, and we notice that he did not go, like Emerson, to the great fountain-heads of poetry,–to Homer or Dante, Shakespeare or Goethe,–but courted the muse rather among such tributaries as Virgil, Moliere, Chaucer, Keats, and Lessing. It may have been better for him that he began in this manner; but a remark that Scudder attributes to him in regard to Lessing gives us an insight into the deeper mechanism of his mind. “Shelley’s poetry,” he said, “was like the transient radiance of St. Elmo’s fire, but Lessing was wholly a poet.” This is exactly the opposite of the view he held during his college life, for Lessing worked in a methodical and painstaking manner and finished what he wrote with the greatest care.

More than this, Lessing was as Lowell realized afterwards, too critical and polemical to be wholly a poet. His “Emilia Galotti” still holds a high position on the German stage and has fine poetic qualities, but it is written in prose. His “Nathan the Wise” was written in verse, but did not prove a success as a drama. In one he attacked the tyranny of the German petty princes, and in the other the intolerance of the Established Church. We may assume that is the reason why Lowell admired them; but Lowell was also too critical and polemic to be wholly a poet,–except on certain occasions. In 1847 he published the “Fable for Critics,” the keenest piece of poetical satire since Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,”–keen and even saucy, but perfectly good-humored. About the same time he commenced his “Biglow Papers,” which did not wholly cease until 1866, and were the most incisive and aggressive anti-slavery literature of that period. Soon afterwards he wrote “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” which has become the most widely known of all his poems, and which contains passages of the purest a priori verse. Goethe, who exercised so powerful an influence on Emerson, does not appear to have interested Lowell at all.

The most plaintive of Beethoven scherzos,–that in the Moonlight Sonata, –says as if it were spoken in words:

“Once we were happy, now I am forlorn; Fortune has darkened, and happiness gone.”

Lowell’s poetic marriage did not last quite ten years. Maria White was always frail and delicate, and she became more so continually. Longfellow’s clear foresight noticed the danger she was in years before her death, which took place in the autumn of 1853. She left one child, Mabel Lowell, slender and pale like herself, and with poetical lines in her face, too, but fortunately endowed with her father’s good constitution. Only ten years! But such ten years, worth ten centuries of the life of a girl of fashion, who thinks she is happy because she has everything she wants. If the truth were known we might find that in the twilight of his life Lowell thought more of these ten years with Maria White than of the six years when he was Ambassador to England,–with twenty-nine dinner-parties in the month of June.

What would poets do without war? The Trojan war, or some similar conflict, served as the ground-work of Homer’s mighty epic; Virgil followed in similar lines; Dante would never have been famous but for the Guelph and Ghibeline struggle. Shakespeare’s plays are full of war and fighting; and the wars of Napoleon stimulated Byron, Schiller, and Goethe to the best efforts of their lives. In dealing with men like Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell, who were the intellectual leaders of their time, it is impossible to escape their influence in the anti-slavery movement, and its influence upon them, unpopular as that subject is at present. That was the heroic age of American history, and the truth concerning it has not yet been written. It was as heroic to the South as to the North, for, as Sumner said, the slaveholders would never have made their desperate attack on the Government of this country if they had not been themselves the slaves of their own social organization.

It was the solution of a great historical problem, like that of Constitutional Government _versus_ the Stuarts, and it ought to be treated from a national and not a sectional stand-point.

The live men of that time became abolitionists as inevitably as their forefathers became supporters of the Declaration of Independence. If Webster and Everett had been born twenty years later, they must needs have become anti-slavery, too. Those of Lowell’s friends, like George S. Hillard and George B. Loring, who for social or political reasons took the opposite side, afterwards found themselves left in the lurch by an adverse public opinion.

It was the Mexican war that first aroused Lowell to the seriousness of the extension of slavery, and it was meeting a recruiting officer in the streets of Boston, “covered all over with brass let alone that which nature had set on his countenance,” which inspired his writing the first of the “Biglow Papers.” They were hastily and carelessly written, and Lowell himself held them in slight estimation as literature; but they became immediately popular, as no poetry had that he had published previously. Their freshness and directness appealed to the manliness and good sense of the average New Englander, and the whole community responded to them with repeated applause. There is, after all, much poetry in the Biglow Papers, the more genuine because unintentional; but they are full of the keenest wit and a proverbial philosophy which, if less profound than Emerson’s, is more capable of a practical application.

The vernacular in which they are written must have been learned at Concord,–perhaps on the front stoop of the Middlesex Hotel,–while Lowell was listening to the pithy conversation of Yankee farmers, not only about their crops and cattle, but also discussing church affairs and politics, local and national. It was the grandfathers of these men who drove the British back from Concord bridge, and it was their sons who fought their way from the Rapidan to Richmond. With the help of country lawyers they sent Sumner and Wilson to the Senate, and knew what they were about when they did this. For wit, humor, and repartee,–and, it may be added, for decent conversation,–there is no class of men like them. Both Lowell and Emerson have testified to their intrinsic worth.

On one occasion a Concord farmer was driving a cow past Sanborn’s school- house, when an impudent boy called out, “The calf always follows the cow.” “Why aren’t you behind here, then?” retorted the man, with a look that went home like the stroke of a cane. If Lowell had been present he would have been delighted.

The Yankee dialect which he makes use of as a vehicle in these verses is not always as clear-cut as it might be. He says, for instance,

“Pleasure doos make us Yankee kind of winch As if it was something paid for by the inch.”

The true New England countryman never flattens a vowel; if he changes it he always makes it sharp. He would be more likely to say: “Pleasure does make us Yankee kind er winch, as if ’twas suthin’ paid for by the inch.” There are other instances of similar sort; but, nevertheless, if the primitive Yankee should become extinct, as now seems very probable, Lowell’s masterly portrait of him will remain, and future generations can reconstruct him from it, as Agassiz reconstructed an extinct species of mammal from fossil bones.

Lowell did not join the Free-soilers, who were now bearing the brunt of the anti-slavery conflict, but attached himself to the more aristocratic wing of the old abolitionists, which was led by Edmund Quincy, Maria Chapman, and L. Maria Child. Lowell was far from being a non-resistant. In fact, he might be called a fighting-man, although he disapproved of duelling; and this served to keep him at a distance from Garrison, of whom he wisely remarked that “the nearer public opinion approached to him the further he retreated into the isolation of his own private opinions.” He wrote regularly for the _Anti-Slavery Standard_ until 1851, when the death of his father-in-law supplied the long-desired means for a journey to Italy,–more desired perhaps for his wife’s health than for his own gratification. It may be the fault of his biographers, but I cannot discover that Lowell took any share in the opposition to the Fugitive Slave bill, or in the election of Sumner, which was the signal event that followed it. In his whole life Lowell never made the acquaintance of a practical statesman, while Whittier was in constant communication with prominent members of the Free-soil and Republican parties. Sumner went to hear Lowell’s lecture on Milton, and praised it as a work of genius.

I have heard the “Vision of Sir Launfal” spoken of more frequently than any other of Lowell’s poems. Some of the descriptive passages in it would seem to have flowed from his pen as readily as ink from a quill; and there are others which appear to have been evolved with much thought and ingenuity. One cannot help feeling the sudden change from a June morning at Elmwood to a mediaeval castle in Europe as somewhat abrupt; but when we think of it subjectively as a poetic vision which came to Lowell himself seated on his own door-step, this disillusion vanishes, and we sympathize heartily with the writer. There is no place in the world where June seems so beautiful as in New England, on account of the dismal, cutthroat weather in the months that precede it. Perhaps it is so in reality; for what nature makes us suffer from at one time she commonly atones for it another.

The “Fable for Critics” is written in an easy, nonchalant manner, which helps to mitigate its severity. Thoreau could not have liked very well being called an imitator of Emerson; but the wit of it is inimitable. “T. never purloins the apples from Emerson’s trees; it is only the windfalls that he carries off and passes for his own fruit.” Emerson remarked on this, that Thoreau was sufficiently original in his own way; and he always spoke of Lowell in a friendly and appreciative manner. The whole poem is filled with such homely comparisons, which hit the nail exactly on the head. The most subtle piece of analysis, however, is Lowell’s comparison between Emerson and Carlyle:

“There are persons, mole-blind to the soul’s make and style, Who insist on a likeness ‘twixt him and Carlyle; To compare him with Plato would be vastly fairer, Carlyle’s the more burly, but E. is the rarer; He sees fewer objects, but clearlier, truelier, If C.’s as original, E.’s more peculiar; That he’s more of a man you might say of the one, Of the other he’s more of an Emerson;
C.’s the Titan, as shaggy of mind as of limb,– E. the clear-eyed Olympian, rapid and slim; The one’s two-thirds Norseman, the other half Greek, Where the one’s most abounding, the other’s to seek.”

It was the fashion in England at that time to disparage Emerson as an imitator of Carlyle; and this was Lowell’s reply to it.

He told Professor Hedge an amusing incident that happened during his first visit to Rome. Lowell and his wife took lodgings with a respectable elderly Italian woman whose husband was in a sickly condition. One morning she met him in the passageway with tearful eyes and said: “_Un gran’ disgrazie_ happened last night,–my poor husband went to heaven.” Lowell wondered why there was a pope in Rome if going to heaven was considered a disgrace there.

Longfellow’s resignation of his professorship at Harvard was a rare piece of good fortune for Lowell; for it was the only position of the kind that he could have obtained there or anywhere else. In fact, it was a question whether the appointment would be confirmed on account of his transcendental tendencies, and his connection with the _Anti-slavery Standard_; but Longfellow threw the whole weight of his influence in Lowell’s favor, and this would seem to have decided it. From this time till 1873 Lowell was more of a prose-writer than a poet, and his essays on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and other English poets are the best of their kind,–not brilliant, but appreciative, penetrating, and well- considered. Wasson said of him that no other critic in the English tongue came so near to expressing the inexpressible as Lowell.

One could wish that his studies in Shakespeare had been more extended. He treats the subject as if he felt it was too great for him; but he was the first to take notice that the play of Richard III. indicated in its main extent a different hand, and it is now generally admitted to have been the work of Fletcher. With the keenest insight he noticed that the magician Prospero was an impersonation of Shakespeare himself; and George Brandes, the most thoroughgoing of Shakespearean scholars, afterwards came to the same conclusion.

Lowell was the gentlemanly instructor. He appealed to the gentleman in the students who sat before him, and he rarely appealed in vain. Like Longfellow he carried an atmosphere of politeness about him, which was sufficient to protect him from everything rude and common. He would say to his class in Italian: “I shall not mark you if you are tardy, but I hope you will all be here on time.” This was a safer procedure with a small division of Juniors than it would have been with a large division of Freshmen or Sophomores. Neither did he take much personal interest in his classes. He always invited them to an entertainment at Elmwood in June, but two or three years later he could not remember their faces unless they remained in or about Cambridge. In regard to his efficiency as an instructor and lecturer there was a difference of opinion.

He attended the meetings of the college faculty quite regularly considering the distance of Elmwood from the college grounds; and he was once heard to say that there seemed to be more bad weather on Monday nights than at any other time in the week. His presence might have been dispensed with for the most part. He rarely spoke in conclave, and when the question came up in regard to the suspension of students he often declined to vote. His decorum was perfect, but now and then a humorous look could be observed in his eyes, and it may be suspected that he had a quiet laugh all to himself on the way homeward. On one occasion, before the meeting had been called to order, Professor Cutler said to him: “Do you not dread B.’s forthcoming translation of the Iliad?” But Lowell, seeing that he was watched, replied: “Oh, no, not at all,” at the same time nodding to Cutler with his brows.

He was always well-dressed, and pretty close to the conventional in his ways,–noted specially for the nicety of his gloves. This was a kind of safeguard to him. Insidious persons suggested that he perfumed his beard, but I do not believe it. He does not appear to have been fond of walking, for we never met him in any part of Cambridge except on the direct road from Elmwood to the college gate. He had a characteristic gait of his own–walking slowly in rather a dreamy manner, and keeping time to the movement of his feet with his arms and shoulders. He was not, however, lost in contemplation, for he often scrutinized those who passed him as closely as a portrait painter might.

You may also like: