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that Longfellow is still the favorite of the American home, the most honored of all our elder poets; that in foreign schools his works are commonly used as an introduction to English verse, and that he has probably led more young people to appreciate poetry than any other poet who ever wrote our language. That strange literary genius Lafcadio Hearn advised his Japanese students to begin the study of poetry with Longfellow, saying that they might learn to like other poets better in later years, but that Longfellow was most certain to charm them at the beginning.

The reason for this advice, given to the antipodes, was probably this, that young hearts and pure hearts are the same the world over, and Longfellow is the poet of the young and pure in heart.

LIFE. The impression of serenity in Longfellow’s work may be explained by the gifts which Fortune offered him in the way of endowment, training and opportunity. By nature he was a gentleman; his home training was of the best; to his college education four years of foreign study were added, a very unusual thing at that time; and no sooner was he ready for his work than the way opened as if the magic _Sesame_ were on his lips. His own college gave him a chair of modern languages and literature, which was the very thing he wanted; then Harvard offered what seemed to him a wider field, and finally his country called him from the professor’s chair to teach the love of poetry to the whole nation. Before his long and beautiful life ended he had enjoyed for half a century the two rewards that all poets desire, and the most of them in vain; namely, fame and love. The first may be fairly won; the second is a free gift.


Longfellow was born (1807) in the town of Falmouth, Maine, which has since been transformed into the city of Portland. Like Bryant he was descended from Pilgrim stock; but where the older poet’s training had been strictly puritanic, Longfellow’s was more liberal and broadly cultured. Bryant received the impulse to poetry from his grandfather’s prayers, but Longfellow seems to have heard his first call in the sea wind. Some of his best lyrics sing of the ocean; his early book of essays was called _Driftwood_, his last volume of poetry _In the Harbor_; and in these lyrics and titles we have a reflection of his boyhood impressions in looking forth from the beautiful Falmouth headland, then a wild, wood-fringed pasture but now a formal park:

I remember the black wharves and the slips, And the sea tides tossing free,
And Spanish sailors with bearded lips, And the beauty and mystery of the ships, And the magic of the sea.


This first call was presently neglected for the more insistent summons of literature; and thereafter Longfellow’s inspiration was at second hand, from books rather than from nature or humanity. Soon after his graduation from Bowdoin (1825) he was offered a professorship in modern languages on condition that he prepare himself for the work by foreign study. With a glad heart he abandoned the law, which he had begun to study in his father’s office, and spent three happy years in France, Spain and Italy. There he steeped himself in European poetry, and picked up a reading knowledge of several languages. Strangely enough, the romantic influence of Europe was reflected by this poet in a book of prose essays, _Outre Mer_, modeled on Irving’s _Sketch Book_.


For five years Longfellow taught the modern languages at Bowdoin, and his subject was so new in America that he had to prepare his own textbooks. Then, after another period of foreign study (this time in Denmark and Germany), he went to Harvard, where he taught modern languages and literature for eighteen years. In 1854 he resigned his chair, and for the remainder of his life devoted himself whole-heartedly to poetry.

His literary work began with newspaper verses, the best of which appear in the “Earlier Poems” of his collected works. Next he attempted prose in his _Outre Mer_, _Driftwood Essays_ and the romances _Hyperion_ and _Kavanagh_. In 1839 appeared his first volume of poetry, _Voices of the Night_, after which few years went by without some notable poem or volume from Longfellow’s pen. His last book, _In the Harbor_, appeared with the news of his death, in 1882.

[Sidenote: HIS SERENITY]

Aside from these “milestones” there is little to record in a career so placid that we remember by analogy “The Old Clock on the Stairs.” For the better part of his life he lived in Cambridge, where he was surrounded by a rare circle of friends, and whither increasing numbers came from near or far to pay the tribute of gratitude to one who had made life more beautiful by his singing. Once only the serenity was broken by a tragedy, the death of the poet’s wife, who was fatally burned before his eyes,–a tragedy which occasioned his translation of Dante’s _Divina Commedia_ (by which work he strove to keep his sorrow from overwhelming him) and the exquisite “Cross of Snow.” The latter seemed too sacred for publication; it was found, after the poet’s death, among his private papers.


Reading Longfellow’s poems one would never suspect that they were produced in an age of turmoil. To be sure, one finds a few poems on slavery (sentimental effusions, written on shipboard to relieve the monotony of a voyage), but these were better unwritten since they added nothing to the poet’s song and took nothing from the slave’s burden. Longfellow has been criticized for his inaction in the midst of tumult, but possibly he had his reasons. When everybody’s shouting is an excellent time to hold your tongue. He had his own work to do, a work for which he was admirably fitted; that he did not turn aside from it is to his credit and our profit. One demand of his age was, as we have noted elsewhere, to enter into the wealth of European poetry; and he gave thirty years of his life to satisfying that demand. Our own poetry was then sentimental, a kind of “sugared angel-cake”; and Longfellow, who was sentimental enough but whose sentiment was balanced by scholarship, made poetry that was like wholesome bread to common men. Lowell was a more brilliant writer, and Whittier a more inspired singer; but neither did a work for American letters that is comparable to that of Longfellow, who was essentially an educator, a teacher of new ideas, new values, new beauty. His influence in broadening our literary culture, in deepening our sympathy for the poets of other lands, and in making our own poetry a true expression of American feeling is beyond measure.

MINOR POEMS. It was by his first simple poems that Longfellow won the hearts of his people, and by them he is still most widely and gratefully remembered. To name these old favorites (“The Day is Done,” “Resignation,” “Ladder of St. Augustine,” “Rainy Day,” “Footsteps of Angels,” “Light of Stars,” “Reaper and the Flowers,” “Hymn to the Night,” “Midnight Mass,” “Excelsior,” “Village Blacksmith,” “Psalm of Life”) is to list many of the poems that are remembered and quoted wherever in the round world the English language is spoken.

[Sidenote: VESPER SONGS]

Ordinarily such poems are accepted at their face value as a true expression of human sentiment; but if we examine them critically, remembering the people for whom they were written, we may discover the secret of their popularity. The Anglo-Saxons are first a busy and then a religious folk; when their day’s work is done their thoughts turn naturally to higher matters; and any examination of Longfellow’s minor works shows that a large proportion of them deal with the thoughts or feelings of men at the close of day. Such poems would be called _Abendlieder_ in German; a good Old-English title for them would be “Evensong”; and both titles suggest the element of faith or worship. In writing these poems Longfellow had, unconsciously perhaps, the same impulse that leads one man to sing a hymn and another to say his prayers when the day is done. Because he expresses this almost universal feeling simply and reverently, his work is dear to men and women who would not have the habit of work interfere with the divine instinct of worship.

Further examination of these minor poems shows them to be filled with sentiment that often slips over the verge of sentimentality. The sentiments expressed are not of the exalted, imaginative kind; they are the sentiments of plain people who feel deeply but who can seldom express their feeling. Now, most people are sentimental (though we commonly try to hide the fact, more’s the pity), and we are at heart grateful to the poet who says for us in simple, musical language what we are unable or ashamed to say for ourselves. In a word, the popularity of Longfellow’s poems rests firmly on the humanity of the poet.


Besides these vesper songs are a hundred other short poems, among which the reader must make his own selection. The ballads should not be neglected, for Longfellow knew how to tell a story in verse. If he were too prone to add a moral to his tale (a moral that does not speak for itself were better omitted), we can overlook the fault, since his moral was a good one and his readers liked it. The “occasional” poems, also, written to celebrate persons or events (such as “Building of the Ship,” “Hanging of the Crane,” “Morituri Salutamus,” “Bells of Lynn,” “Robert Burns,” “Chamber over the Gate”) well deserved the welcome which the American people gave them. And the sonnets (such as “Three Friends,” “Victor and Vanquished,” “My Books,” “Nature,” “Milton,” “President Garfield,” “Giotto’s Tower”) are not only the most artistic of Longfellow’s works but rank very near to the best sonnets in the English language.

AMERICAN IDYLS. In the same spirit in which Tennyson wrote his _English Idyls_ the American poet sent forth certain works reflecting the beauty of common life on this side of the ocean; and though he never collected or gave them a name, we think of them as his “American Idyls.” Many of his minor poems belong to this class, but we are thinking especially of _Evangeline_, _Miles Standish_ and _Hiawatha_. The last-named, with its myths and legends clustering around one heroic personage, is commonly called an epic; but its songs of Chibiabos, Minnehaha, Nokomis and the little Hiawatha are more like idyllic pictures of the original Americans.

[Sidenote: EVANGELINE]

_Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie_ (1847) met the fate of Longfellow’s earlier poems in that it was promptly attacked by a few critics while a multitude of people read it with delight. Its success may be explained on four counts. First, it is a charming story, not a “modern” or realistic but a tender, pathetic story such as we read in old romances, and such as young people will cherish so long as they remain young people. Second, it had a New World setting, one that was welcomed in Europe because it offered readers a new stage, more vast, shadowy, mysterious, than that to which they were accustomed; and doubly welcomed here because it threw the glamor of romance over familiar scenes which deserved but had never before found their poet. Third, this old romance in a new setting was true to universal human nature; its sentiments of love, faith and deathless loyalty were such as make the heart beat faster wherever true hearts are found. Finally, it was written in an unusual verse form, the unrimed hexameter, which Longfellow handled as well, let us say, as most other English poets who have tried to use that alluring but difficult measure. For hexameters are like the Italian language, which is very easy to “pick up,” but which few foreigners ever learn to speak with the rhythm and melody of a child of Tuscany.

Longfellow began his hexameters fairly well, as witness the opening lines of _Evangeline_:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms. Loud from its rocky caverns the deep-voiced neighboring ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

Occasionally also he produced a very good but not quite perfect line or passage:

And as the voice of the priest repeated the service of sorrow, So with a mournful sound, like the voice of a vast congregation, Solemnly answered the sea, and mingled its roar with the dirges.

One must confess, however, that such passages are exceptional, and that one must change the proper stress of a word too frequently to be enthusiastic over Longfellow’s hexameters. Some of his lines halt or hobble, refusing to move to the chosen measure, and others lose all their charm when spoken aloud:

When she had passed it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.

That line has been praised by critics, but one must believe that they never pronounced it. To voice its sibilant hissing is to understand the symbol for a white man in the Indian sign language; that is, two fingers of a hand extended before the face, like the fork of a serpent’s tongue. [Footnote: This curious symbol, a snake’s tongue to represent an Englishman, was invented by some Indian whose ears were pained by a language in which the _s_ sounds occur too frequently. Our plurals are nearly all made that way, unfortunately; but Longfellow was able to make a hissing line without the use of a single plural.] On the whole, Longfellow’s verse should be judged not by itself but as a part of the tale he was telling. Holmes summed up the first impression of many readers by saying that he found these “brimming lines” an excellent medium for a charming story.

That is more than one can truthfully say of the next important idyl, _The Courtship of Miles Standish_ (1858). The story is a good one and, more than all the histories, has awakened a romantic interest in the Pilgrims; but its unhappy hexameters go jolting along, continually upsetting the musical rhythm, until we wish that the tale had been told in either prose or poetry.


_The Song of Hiawatha_ (1855) was Longfellow’s greatest work, and by it he will probably be longest remembered as a world poet. The materials for this poem, its musical names, its primitive traditions, its fascinating folklore, were all taken from Schoolcraft’s books about the Ojibway Indians; its peculiar verse form, with its easy rhythm and endless repetition, was copied from the _Kalevala_, the national epic of Finland. Material and method, the tale and the verse form, were finely adapted to each other; and though Longfellow showed no originality in _Hiawatha_, his poetic talent or genius appears in this: that these tales of childhood are told in a childlike spirit; that these forest legends have the fragrance of hemlock in them; and that as we read them, even now, we seem to see the wigwam with its curling smoke, and beyond the wigwam the dewy earth, the shining river, and the blue sky with its pillars of tree trunks and its cloud of rustling leaves. The simplicity and naturalness of primitive folklore is in this work of Longfellow, who of a hundred writers at home and abroad was the first to reveal the poetry in the soul of an Indian.

As the poem is well known we forbear quotation; as it is too long, perhaps, we express a personal preference in naming “Hiawatha’s Childhood,” his “Friends,” his “Fishing” and his “Wooing” as the parts most likely to please the beginner. The best that can be said of _Hiawatha_ is that it adds a new tale to the world’s storybook. That book of the centuries has only a few stories, each of which portrays a man from birth to death, fronting the problems of this life, meeting its joy or sorrow in man fashion, and then setting his face bravely to “Ponemah,” the Land of the Hereafter. That Longfellow added a chapter to the volume which preserves the stories of Ulysses, Beowulf, Arthur and Roland is undoubtedly his best or most enduring achievement.


HIS EXPERIMENTAL WORKS. Unless the student wants to encourage a sentimental mood by reading _Hyperion_, Longfellow’s prose works need not detain us. Much more valuable and readable are his translations from various European languages, and of these his metrical version of _The Divine Comedy_ of Dante is most notable. He attempted also several dramatic works, among which _The Spanish Student_ (1843) is still readable, though not very convincing. In _Christus: a Mystery_ he attempted a miracle play of three acts, dealing with Christianity in the apostolic, medieval and modern eras; but not even his admirers were satisfied with the result. “The Golden Legend” (one version of which Caxton printed on the first English press, and which a score of different poets have paraphrased) is the only part of _Christus_ that may interest young readers by its romantic portrayal of the Middle Ages. To name such works is to suggest Longfellow’s varied interests and his habit of experimenting with any subject or verse form that attracted him in foreign literatures.

The _Tales of a Wayside Inn_ (1863-1873) is the most popular of Longfellow’s miscellaneous works. Here are a score of stories from ancient or modern sources, as told by a circle of the poet’s friends in the Red Horse Inn, at Sudbury. The title suggests at once the _Canterbury Tales_ of Chaucer; but it would be unwise to make any comparison between the two works or the two poets. The ballad of “Paul Revere’s Ride” is the best known of the _Wayside Inn_ poems; the Viking tales of “The Saga of King Olaf” are the most vigorous; the mellow coloring of the Middle Ages appears in such stories as “The Legend Beautiful” and “The Bell of Atri.”

CHARACTERISTICS OF LONGFELLOW. The broad sympathy of Longfellow, which made him at home in the literatures of a dozen nations, was one of his finest qualities. He lived in Cambridge; he wrote in English; he is called the poet of the American home; but had he lived in Finland and written in a Scandinavian tongue, his poems must still appeal to us. Indeed, so simply did he reflect the sentiments of the human heart that Finland or any other nation might gladly class him among its poets.


For example, many Englishmen have written about their Wellington, but, as Hearn says, not even Tennyson’s poem on the subject is quite equal to Longfellow’s “Warden of the Cinque Ports.” The spirit of the Spanish missions, with their self-sacrificing monks and their soldiers “with hearts of fire and steel,” is finely reflected in “The Bells of San Blas.” The half-superstitious loyalty of the Russian peasant for his hereditary ruler has never been better reflected than in “The White Czar.” The story of Belisarius has been told in scores of histories and books of poetry; but you will feel a deeper sympathy for the neglected old Roman soldier in Longfellow’s poem than in anything else you may find on the same theme. And there are many other foreign heroes or brave deeds that find beautiful expression in the verse of our American poet. Of late it has become almost a critical habit to disparage Longfellow; but no critic has pointed out another poet who has reflected with sympathy and understanding the feelings of so many widely different peoples.


Naturally such a poet had his limitations. In comparison with Chaucer, for example, we perceive instantly that Longfellow knew only one side of life, the better side. Unhappy or rebellious or turbulent souls were beyond his ken. He wrote only for those who work by day and sometimes go to evensong at night, who hopefully train their children or reverently bury their dead, and who cleave to a writer that speaks for them the fitting word of faith or cheer or consolation on every proper occasion. As humanity is largely made of such men and women, Longfellow will always be a popular poet. For him, with his serene outlook, there were not nine Muses but only three, and their names were Faith, Hope and Charity.


Concerning his faults, perhaps the most illuminating thing that can be said is that critics emphasize and ordinary readers ignore them. The reason for this is that every poem has two elements, form and content: a critic looks chiefly at the one, an ordinary reader at the other. Because the form of Longfellow’s verse is often faulty it is easy to criticize him, to show that he copies the work of others, that he lacks originality, that his figures are often forced or questionable; but the reader, the young reader especially, may be too much interested in the charm of the poet’s story or the truth of his sentiment to dissect his poetic figures. Thus, in the best-known of his earlier poems, “A Psalm of Life,” he uses the famous metaphor of “footprints on the sands of time.” That is so bad a figure that to analyze is to reject it; yet it never bothers young people, who would understand the poet and like him just as well even had he written “signboards” instead of “footprints.” The point is that Longfellow is so obviously a true and pleasant poet that his faults easily escape attention unless we look for them. There is perhaps no better summary of our poet’s qualities than to record again the simple fact that he is the poet of young people, to whom sentiment is the very breath of life. Should you ask the reason for his supremacy in this respect, the answer is a paradox. Longfellow was not an originator; he had no new song to sing, no new tale to tell. He was the poet of old heroes, old legends, old sentiments and ideals. Therefore he is the poet of youth.

* * * * *


The strange mixture of warrior and peace lover in Whittier has led to a strange misjudgment of his work. From the obscurity of a New England farm he emerged as the champion of the Abolitionist party, and for thirty tumultuous years his poems were as war cries. By such work was he judged as “the trumpeter of a cause,” and the judgment stood between him and his audience when he sang not of a cause but of a country. Even at the present time most critics speak of Whittier as “the antislavery poet.” Stedman, for example, focuses our attention on certain lyrics of reform which he calls “words wrung from the nation’s heart”; but the plain fact is that only a small part of the nation approved these lyrics or took any interest in the poet who wrote them.

Such was Whittier on one side, a militant poet of reform, sending forth verses that had the brattle of trumpets and the waving of banners in them:

Lift again the stately emblem on the Bay State’s rusted shield, Give to Northern winds the Pine Tree on our banner’s tattered field. Sons of men who sat in council with their Bibles round the board, Answering England’s royal missive with a firm, “Thus saith the Lord!” Rise again for home and freedom! set the battle in array! What the fathers did of old time we their sons must do to-day.

On the other side he was a Friend, or Quaker, and the peaceful spirit of his people found expression in lyrics of faith that have no equal in our poetry. He was also a patriot to the core. He loved America with a profound love; her ideals, her traditions, her epic history were in his blood, and he glorified them in ballads and idyls that reflect the very spirit of brave Colonial days. To judge Whittier as a trumpeter, therefore, is to neglect all that is important in his work; for his reform poems merely awaken the dying echoes of party clamor, while his ballads and idyls belong to the whole American people, and his hymns of faith to the wider audience of humanity.

LIFE. The span of Whittier’s life was almost the span of the nineteenth century. He was born (1807) in the homestead of his ancestors at Haverhill, Massachusetts, and spent his formative years working in the fields by day, reading beside the open fire at night, and spending a few terms in a “deestrict” school presided over by teachers who came or went with the spring. His schooling was, therefore, of the scantiest kind; his real education came from a noble home, from his country’s history, from his toil and outdoor life with its daily contact with nature. The love of home and of homely virtues, the glorification of manhood and womanhood, the pride of noble traditions, and always a background of meadow or woodland or sounding sea,–these were the subjects of Whittier’s best verse, because these were the things he knew most intimately.

[Sidenote: FIRST VERSES]

It was a song of Burns that first turned Whittier to poetry; but hardly had he begun to write songs of his own when Garrison, the antislavery agitator, turned his thought from the peaceful farm to the clamoring world beyond. Attracted by certain verses (Whittier’s sister Elizabeth had sent them secretly to Garrison’s paper) the editor came over to see his contributor and found to his surprise a country lad who was in evident need of education. Instead of asking for more poetry, therefore, Garrison awakened the boy’s ambition. For two terms he attended the Haverhill Academy, supporting himself meanwhile by making shoes. Then his labor was needed at home; but finding his health too delicate for farm work he chose other occupations and contributed manfully to the support of his family.


For several years thereafter Whittier was like a man trying to find himself. He did factory work; he edited newspapers; he showed a talent for political leadership; he made poems which he sold at a price to remind him of what he had once received for making shoes. While poetry and politics both called to him alluringly a crisis arose; Garrison summoned him; and with a sad heart, knowing that he left all hope of political or literary success behind, he went over to the Abolitionist party. That was in 1833, when Whittier was twenty-six years old. At that time the Abolitionists were detested in the North as well as in the South, and to join them was to become an outcast.


Then came the militant period of Whittier’s life. He became editor of antislavery journals; he lectured in the cause; he was stoned for his utterances; his printing shop was burned by a mob. Meanwhile his poems were sounding abroad like trumpet blasts, making friends, making enemies. It was a passionate age, when political enemies were hated like Hessians, but Whittier was always chivalrous with his opponents. Read his “Randolph of Roanoke” for a specific example. His “Laus Deo” (1865), a chant of exultation written when he heard the bells ringing the news of the constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery, was the last poem of this period of storm and stress.


In the following year Whittier produced _Snow-Bound_, his masterpiece. Though he had been writing for half a century, he had never won either fame or money by his verse; but the publication of this beautiful idyl placed him in the front rank of American poets. Thereafter he was a national figure, and the magazines which once scorned his verses were now most eager to print them. So he made an end of the poverty which had been his portion since childhood.


For the remainder of his life he lived serenely at Amesbury, for the most part, in a modest house presided over by a relative. He wrote poetry now more carefully, for a wider audience, and every few years saw another little volume added to his store: _Ballads of New England_, _Miriam and Other Poems_, _Hazel Blossoms_, _Poems of Nature_, _St. Gregory’s Quest_, _At Sundown_. When he died (1892) he was honored not so widely perhaps as Longfellow, but more deeply, as we honor those whose peace has been won through manful strife. Holmes, the ready poet of all occasions, expressed a formal but sincere judgment in the lines:

Best loved and saintliest of our singing train, Earth’s noblest tributes to thy name belong: A lifelong record closed without a stain, A blameless memory shrined in deathless song.

EARLIER WORKS. [Footnote: Though we are concerned here with Whittier’s poetry, we should at least mention certain of his prose works, such as _Legends of New England_, _Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal_ and _Old Portraits and Modern Sketches_. The chief value of these is in their pictures of Colonial life.] In Whittier’s poetry we note three distinct stages, and note also that he was on the wrong trail until he followed his own spirit. His earliest work was inspired by Burns, but this was of no consequence. Next he fell under the spell of Scott and wrote “Mogg Megone” and “The Bridal of Pennacook.” These Indian romances in verse are too much influenced by Scott’s border poems and also by sentimental novels of savage life, such as Mrs. Child’s _Hobomok_; they do not ring true, and in this respect are like almost everything else in literature on the subject of the Indians.

[Sidenote: REFORM POEMS]

In _Voices of Freedom_ (1849) and other poems inspired by the antislavery campaign Whittier for the first time came close to his own age. He was no longer an echo but a voice, a man’s voice, shouting above a tumult. He spoke not for the nation but for a party; and it was inevitable that his reform lyrics should fall into neglect with the occasions that called them forth. They are interesting now not as poems but as sidelights on a critical period of our history. Their intensely passionate quality appears in “Faneuil Hall,” “Song of the Free,” “The Pine Tree,” “Randolph of Roanoke” and “The Farewell of an Indian Slave Mother.”

There is a fine swinging rhythm in these poems, in “Massachusetts to Virginia” especially, which recalls Macaulay’s “Armada”; and two of them at least show astonishing power and vitality. One is “Laus Deo,” to which we have referred in our story of the poet’s life. The other is “Ichabod” (1850), written after the “Seventh of March Speech” of Webster, when that statesman seemed to have betrayed the men who elected and trusted him. Surprise, anger, scorn, indignation, sorrow,–all these emotions were loosed in a flood after Webster’s speech; but Whittier waited till he had fused them into one emotion, and when his slow words fell at last they fell with the weight of judgment and the scorching of fire upon their victim. If words could kill a man, these surely are the words. “Ichabod” is the most powerful poem of its kind in our language; but it is fearfully unjust to Webster. Those who read it should read also “The Lost Occasion,” written thirty years later, which Whittier placed next to “Ichabod” in the final edition of his poems. So he tried to right a wrong (unfortunately after the victim was dead) by offering generous tribute to the statesman he had once misjudged.

BALLADS AND AMERICAN IDYLS. Whittier’s manly heart and his talent for flowing verse made him an excellent ballad writer; but his work in this field is so different from that of his predecessors that he came near to inventing a new type of poetry. Thus, many of the old ballads celebrate the bravery that mounts with fighting; but Whittier always lays emphasis on the higher quality that we call moral courage. “Barclay of Ury” will illustrate our criticism: the verse has a martial swing; the hero is a veteran who has known the lust of battle; but his courage now appears in self-mastery, in the ability to bear in silence the jeers of a mob. Again, the old ballad aims to tell a story, nothing else, and drives straight to its mark; but Whittier portrays the whole landscape and background of the action. He deals largely with Colonial life in New England, and his descriptions of place and people are unrivaled in our poetry. Read one of his typical ballads, “The Wreck of Rivermouth” or “The Witch’s Daughter” or “The Garrison of Cape Ann” or “Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” and see how closely he identifies himself with the place and time of his story.

[Illustration: STREET IN OLD MARBLEHEAD Skipper Ireson’s home on extreme right]


There is one quality, however, in which our Quaker poet resembles the old ballad makers, namely, his intense patriotism, and this recalls the fact that ballads were the first histories, the first expression not only of brave deeds but of the national pride which the deeds symbolized. Though Whittier keeps himself modestly in the background, as a story teller ought to do, he can never quite repress the love of his native land or the quickened heartbeats that set his verse marching as if to the drums. This patriotism, though intense, was never intolerant but rather sympathetic with men of other lands, as appears in “The Pipes at Lucknow”, a ballad dealing with a dramatic incident of the Sepoy Rebellion. The Scotsman who could read that ballad unmoved, without a kindling of the eye or a stirring of the heart, would be unworthy of his clan or country.

Even better than Whittier’s ballads are certain narrative poems reflecting the life of simple people, to which we give the name of idyls. “Telling the Bees,” “In School Days,” “My Playmate,” “Maud Muller,” “The Barefoot Boy,”–there are no other American poems quite like these, none so tender, none written with such perfect sympathy. Some of them are like photographs; and the lens that gathered them was not a glass but a human heart. Others sing the emotion of love as only Whittier, the Galahad of poets, could have sung it,–as in this stanza from “A Sea Dream”:

Draw near, more near, forever dear!
Where’er I rest or roam,
Or in the city’s crowded streets,
Or by the blown sea foam,
The thought of thee is home!

SNOW-BOUND. The best of Whittier’s idyls is _Snow-Bound_ (1866), into which he gathered a boy’s tenderest memories. In naming this as the best poem in the language on the subject of home we do not offer a criticism but an invitation. Because all that is best in human life centers in the ideal of home, and because Whittier reflected that ideal in a beautiful way, _Snow-Bound_ should be read if we read nothing else of American poetry. There is perhaps only one thing to prevent this idyl from becoming a universal poem: its natural setting can be appreciated only by those who live within the snow line, who have seen the white flakes gather and drift, confining every family to the circle of its own hearth fire in what Emerson calls “the tumultuous privacy of storm.”

The plan of the poem is simplicity itself. It opens with a description of a snowstorm that thickens with the December night. The inmates of an old farmhouse gather about the open fire, and Whittier describes them one by one, how they looked to the boy (for _Snow-Bound_ is a recollection of boyhood), and what stories they told to reveal their interests. The rest of the poem is a reverie, as of one no longer a boy, who looks into his fire and sees not the fire-pictures but those other scenes or portraits that are graved deep in every human heart.


To praise such a work is superfluous, and to criticize its artless sincerity is beyond our ability. Many good writers have explained the poem; yet still its deepest charm escapes analysis, perhaps because it has no name. The best criticism that the present writer ever heard on the subject came from a Habitant farmer in the Province of Quebec, a simple, unlettered man, who was a poet at heart but who would have been amazed had anyone told him so. His children, who were learning English literature through the happy medium of _Evangeline_ and _Snow-Bound_, brought the latter poem home from school, and the old man would sit smoking his pipe and listening to the story. When they read of the winter scenes, of the fire roaring its defiance up the chimney-throat at the storm without,

What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved? Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire’s ruddy glow,–

then he would stir in his chair, make his pipe glow fiercely, and blow a cloud of smoke about his head. But in the following scene, with its memories of the dead and its immortal hope, he would sit very still, as if listening to exquisite music. When asked why he liked the poem his face lighted: “W’y I lak heem, M’sieu Whittier? I lak heem ’cause he speak de true. He know de storm, and de leetle _cabane_, and heart of de boy an’ hees moder. _Oui, oui_, he know de man also.”

Nature, home, the heart of a boy and a man and a mother,–the poet who can reflect such elemental matters so that the simple of earth understand and love their beauty deserves the critic’s best tribute of silence.

POEMS OF FAITH AND NATURE. Aside from the reform poems it is hard to group Whittier’s works, which are all alike in that they portray familiar scenes against a natural background. In his _Tent on the Beach_ (1867) he attempted a collection of tales in the manner of Longfellow’s _Wayside Inn_, but of these only one or two ballads, such as “Abraham Davenport” and “The Wreck of Rivermouth,” are now treasured. The best part of the book is the “Prelude,” which pictures the poet among his friends and records his impressions of sky and sea and shore.


The outdoor poems of Whittier are interesting, aside from their own beauty, as suggesting two poetic conceptions of nature which have little in common. The earlier regards nature as a mistress to be loved or a divinity to be worshiped for her own sake; she has her own laws or mercies, and man is but one of her creatures. The Anglo-Saxon scops viewed nature in this way; so did Bryant, in whose “Forest Hymn” is the feeling of primitive ages. Many modern poets (and novelists also, like Scott and Cooper) have outgrown this conception; they regard nature as a kind of stage for the drama of human life, which is all-important.

Whittier belongs to this later school; he portrays nature magnificently, but always as the background for some human incident, sad or tender or heroic, which appears to us more real because viewed in its natural setting. Note in “The Wreck of Rivermouth,” for example, how the merry party in their sailboat, the mowers on the salt marshes, the “witch” mumbling her warning, the challenge of a careless girl, the skipper’s fear, the river, the breeze, the laughing sea,–everything is exactly as it should be. It is this humanized view of the natural world which makes Whittier’s ballads unique and which gives deeper meaning to his “Hampton Beach,” “Among the Hills,” “Trailing Arbutus,” “The Vanishers” and other of his best nature poems.


Our reading of Whittier should not end until we are familiar with “The Eternal Goodness,” “Trust,” “My Soul and I,” “The Prayer of Agassiz” and a few more of his hymns of faith. Our appreciation of such hymns will be more sympathetic if we remember, first, that Whittier came of ancestors whose souls approved the opening proposition of the Declaration of Independence; and second, that he belonged to the Society of Friends, who believed that God revealed himself directly to every human soul (the “inner light” they called it), and that a man’s primal responsibility was to God and his own conscience. The creed of Whittier may therefore be summarized in two articles: “I believe in the Divine love and in the equality of men.” The latter article appears in all his poems; the former is crystallized in “The Eternal Goodness,” a hymn so trustful and reverent that it might well be the evensong of humanity.

CHARACTERISTICS OF WHITTIER. One may summarize Whittier in the statement that he is the poet of the home and the hills, and of that freedom without which the home loses its chief joy and the hill its inspiration. In writing of such themes Whittier failed to win the highest honors of a poet; and the failure was due not to his lack of culture, as is sometimes alleged (for there is no other culture equal to right living), but rather to the stern conditions of his life, to his devotion to duty, to his struggle for liberty, to his lifelong purpose of helping men by his singing. Great poems are usually the result of seclusion, of aloofness, but Whittier was always a worker in the world.


His naturalness is perhaps his best poetic virtue. There is in his verse a spontaneous “singing” quality which leaves the impression that poetry was his native language. It is easy to understand why Burns first attracted him, for both poets were natural singers who remind us of what Bede wrote of Cadmon: “He learned not the art of poetry from men.” Next to his spontaneity is his rare simplicity, his gift of speaking straight from a heart that never grew old. Sometimes his simplicity is as artless as that of a child, as in “Maud Muller”; generally it is noble, as in his modest “Proem” to _Voices of Freedom_; occasionally it is passionate, as in the exultant cry of “Laus Deo”; and at times it rises to the simplicity of pure art, as in “Telling the Bees.” The last-named poem portrays an old Colonial custom which provided that when death came to a farmhouse the bees must be told and their hives draped in mourning. It portrays also, as a perfect, natural background, the path to Whittier’s home and his sister’s old-fashioned flower garden, in which the daffodils still bloom where she planted them long ago.


That Whittier was not a great poet, as the critics assure us, may be frankly admitted. That he had elements of greatness is also without question; and precisely for this reason, because his power is so often manifest in noble or exquisite passages, there is disappointment in reading him when we stumble upon bad rimes, careless workmanship, mishandling of his native speech. Our experience here is probably like that of Whittier’s friend Garrison. The latter had read certain poems that attracted him; he came quickly to see the poet; and out from under the barn, his clothes sprinkled with hayseed, crawled a shy country lad who explained bashfully that he had been hunting hens’ nests. Anything could be forgiven after that; interest in the boy would surely temper criticism of the poet.

Even so our present criticism of Whittier’s verse must include certain considerations of the man who wrote it: that he smacked of his native soil; that his education was scanty and hardly earned; that he used words as his father and mother used them, and was not ashamed of their rural accent. His own experience, moreover, had weathered him until he seemed part of a rugged landscape. He knew life, and he loved it. He had endured poverty, and glorified it. He had been farm hand, shoemaker, self-supporting student, editor of country newspapers, local politician, champion of slaves, worker for reform, defender of a hopeless cause that by the awful judgment of war became a winning cause. And always and everywhere he had been a man, one who did his duty as he saw it, spake truth as he believed it, and kept his conscience clean, his heart pure, his faith unshaken. All this was in his verse and ennobled even his faults, which were part of his plain humanity. As Longfellow was by study of European literatures the poet of books and culture, so Whittier was by experience the poet of life. The homely quality of his verse, which endears it to common men, is explained on the ground that he was nearer than any other American poet to the body and soul of his countrymen.

* * * * *


The work of Lowell is unusual and his rank or position hard to define. Though never a great or even a popular writer, he was regarded for a considerable part of his life as the most prominent man of letters in America. At the present time his reputation is still large, but historians find it somewhat easier to praise his works than to read them. As poet, critic, satirist, editor and teacher he loomed as a giant among his contemporaries, overtopping Whittier and Longfellow at one time; but he left no work comparable to _Snow-Bound_ or _Hiawatha_, and one is puzzled to name any of his poems or essays that are fairly certain to give pleasure. To read his volumes is to meet a man of power and brilliant promise, but the final impression is that the promise was not fulfilled, that the masterpiece of which Lowell was capable was left unwritten.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. Lowell came from a distinguished family that had “made history” in America. His father was a cultured clergyman; he grew up in a beautiful home, “Elmwood,” in the college town of Cambridge; among his first companions were the noble books that filled the shelves of the family library. From the beginning, therefore, he was inclined to letters; and though he often turned aside for other matters, his first and last love was the love of poetry.

At fifteen he entered Harvard, where he read almost everything, he said, except the books prescribed by the faculty. Then he studied law and opened an office in Boston, where he found few clients, being more interested in writing verses than in his profession. With his marriage in 1844 the first strong purpose seems to have entered his indolent life. His wife was zealous in good works, and presently Lowell, who had gayly satirized all reformers, joined in the antislavery campaign and proceeded to make as many enemies as friends by his reform poems.


[Sidenote: VARIED TASKS]

Followed then a period of hard, purposeful work, during which he supported himself by editing _The Pennsylvania Freeman_ and by writing for the magazines. In 1848, his banner year, he published his best volume of _Poems_, _Sir Launfal_, _A Fable for Critics_ and the first series of _The Biglow Papers_. It was not these volumes, however, but a series of brilliant lectures on the English poets that caused Lowell to be called to the chair in Harvard which Longfellow had resigned. He prepared for this work by studying abroad, and for some twenty years thereafter he gave courses in English, Italian, Spanish and German literatures. For a part of this time he was also editor in turn of _The Atlantic Monthly_ and _The North American Review_.

[Sidenote: LIFE ABROAD]

In the simpler days of the republic, when the first question asked of a diplomat was not whether he had money enough to entertain society in a proper style, the profession of letters was honored by sending literary men to represent America in foreign courts, and Lowell’s prominence was recognized by his appointment as ambassador to Spain (1877) and to England (1880). It was in this patriotic service abroad that he won his greatest honors. In London especially he made his power felt as an American who loved his country, as a democrat who believed in democracy, and as a cultured gentleman who understood Anglo-Saxon life because of his familiarity with the poetry in which that life is most clearly reflected. Next to keeping silence about his proper business, perhaps the chief requirement of an ambassador is to make speeches about everything else, and no other foreign speaker was ever listened to with more pleasure than the witty and cultured Lowell. One who summed up his diplomatic triumph said tersely that he found the Englishmen strangers and left them all cousins.

He was recalled from this service in 1885. The remainder of his life was spent teaching at Harvard, writing more poetry and editing his numerous works. His first volume of poems, _A Year’s Life_, was published in 1841; his last volume, _Heartsease and Rue_, appeared almost half a century later, in 1888. That his death occurred in the same house in which he was born and in which he had spent the greater part of his life is an occurrence so rare in America that it deserves a poem of commemoration.

LOWELL’S POETRY. There are golden grains everywhere in Lowell’s verse but never a continuous vein of metal. In other words, even his best work is notable for occasional lines rather than for sustained excellence. As a specific example study the “Commemoration Ode,” one of the finest poems inspired by the Civil War. The occasion of this ode, to commemorate the college students who had given their lives for their country, was all that a poet might wish; the brilliant audience that gathered at Cambridge was most inspiring; and beyond that local audience stood a nation in mourning, a nation which had just lost a million of its sons in a mighty conflict. It was such an occasion as Lowell loved, and one who reads the story of his life knows how earnestly he strove to meet it. When the reading of his poem was finished his audience called it “a noble effort,” and that is precisely the trouble with the famous ode; it is too plainly an effort. It does not sing, does not overflow from a full heart, does not speak the inevitable, satisfying word. In consequence (and perhaps this criticism applies to most ambitious odes) we are rather glad when the “effort” is at an end. Yet there are excellent passages in the poem, notably the sixth and the last stanzas, one with its fine tribute to Lincoln, the other expressive of deathless loyalty to one’s native land.

[Sidenote: LYRICS]

The best of Lowell’s lyrics may be grouped in two classes, the first dealing with his personal joy or grief, the second with the feelings of the nation. Typical of the former are “The First Snowfall” and a few other lyrics reflecting the poet’s sorrow for the loss of a little daughter,–simple, human poems, in refreshing contrast with most others of Lowell, which strive for brilliancy. The best of the national lyrics is “The Present Crisis” (1844). This was at first a party poem, a ringing appeal issued during the turmoil occasioned by the annexation of Texas; but now, with the old party issues forgotten, we can all read it with pleasure as a splendid expression of the American heart and will in every crisis of our national history.

In the nature lyrics we have a double reflection, one of the external world, the other of a poet who could not be single-minded, and who was always confusing his own impressions of nature or humanity with those other impressions which he found reflected in poetry. Read the charming “To a Dandelion,” for example, and note how Lowell cannot be content with his

Dear common flower that grow’st beside the way, Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,

but must bring in Eldorado and twenty other poetic allusions to glorify a flower which has no need of external glory. Then for comparison read Bryant’s “Fringed Gentian” and see how the elder poet, content with the flower itself, tells you very simply how its beauty appeals to him. Or read “An Indian-Summer Reverie” with its scattered lines of gold, and note how Lowell cannot say what he feels in his own heart but must search everywhere for poetic images; and then, because he cannot find exactly what he seeks or, more likely, because he finds a dozen tempting allusions where one is plenty, he goes on and on in a vain quest that ends by leaving himself and his reader unsatisfied.

[Sidenote: SIR LAUNFAL]

The most popular of Lowell’s works is _The Vision of Sir Launfal_ (1848), in which he invents an Arthurian kind of legend of the search for the Holy Grail. Most of his long poems are labored, but this seems to have been written in a moment of inspiration. The “Prelude” begins almost spontaneously, and when it reaches the charming passage “And what is so rare as a day in June?” the verse fairly begins to sing,–a rare occurrence with Lowell. Critical readers may reasonably object to the poet’s moralizing, to his imperfect lines and to his setting of an Old World legend of knights and castles in a New World landscape; but uncritical readers rejoice in a moral feeling that is fine and true, and are content with a good story and a good landscape without inquiring whether the two belong together. Moreover, _Sir Launfal_ certainly serves the first purpose of poetry in that it gives pleasure and so deserves its continued popularity among young readers.

[Sidenote: SATIRES]

Two satiric poems that were highly prized when they were first published, and that are still formally praised by historians who do not read them, are _A Fable for Critics_ and _The Biglow Papers_. The former is a series of doggerel verses filled with grotesque puns and quips aimed at American authors who were prominent in 1848. The latter, written in a tortured, “Yankee” dialect, is made up of political satires and conceits occasioned by the Mexican and Civil wars. Both works contain occasional fine lines and a few excellent criticisms of literature or politics, but few young readers will have patience to sift out the good passages from the mass of glittering rubbish in which they are hidden.

Much more worthy of the reader’s attention are certain neglected works, such as Lowell’s sonnets, his “Prometheus,” “Columbus,” “Agassiz,” “Portrait of Dante,” “Washers of the Shroud,” “Under the Old Elm” (with its noble tribute to Washington) and “Stanzas on Freedom,” It is a pity that such poems, all of which contain memorable lines, should be kept from the wide audience they deserve, and largely because of the author’s digressiveness. To examine them is to conclude that, like most of Lowell’s works, they are not simple enough in feeling to win ordinary readers, like the poetry of Longfellow, and not perfect enough in form to excite the admiration of critics, like the best of Poe’s melodies.


LOWELL’S PROSE. In brilliancy at least Lowell has no peer among American essayists, though others excel him in the better qualities of originality or charm or vigor. The best of his prose works are the scintillating essays collected in _My Study Window_ and _Among My Books_. In his political essays he looked at humanity with his own eyes, but the titles of the volumes just named indicate his chief interest as a prose writer, which was to interpret the world’s books rather than the world’s throbbing life. For younger readers the most pleasing of the prose works are the comparatively simple sketches, “My Garden Acquaintance,” “Cambridge Thirty Years Ago” and “On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners.” In these sketches we meet the author at his best, alert, witty and so widely read that he cannot help giving literary flavor to whatever he writes. Among the best of his essays on literary subjects are those on Chaucer, Dante Keats, Walton and Emerson.


One who reads a typical collection of Lowell’s essays is apt to be divided between open admiration and something akin to resentment. On the one hand they are brilliant, stimulating, filled with “good things”; on the other they are always digressive, sometimes fantastic and too often self-conscious; that is, they call our attention to the author rather than to his proper subject. When he writes of Dante he is concerned to reveal the soul of the Italian master; but when he writes of Milton he seems chiefly intent on showing how much more he knows than the English editor of Milton’s works. When he presents Emerson he tries to make us know and admire the Concord sage; but when he falls foul of Emerson’s friends, Thoreau and Carlyle, his personal prejudices are more in evidence than his impersonal judgment. In consequence, some of the literary essays are a better reflection of Lowell himself than of the men he wrote about.

An author must be finally measured, however, by his finest work, by his constant purpose rather than by his changing mood; and the finest work of Lowell, his critical studies of the elder poets and dramatists, are perhaps the most solid and the most penetrating that our country has to show. He certainly kept “the great tradition” in criticism, a tradition which enjoins us, in simple language, to seek only the best and to reverence it when we find it. As he wrote:

Great truths are portions of the soul of man; Great souls are portions of eternity;
Each drop of blood that e’er through true heart ran With lofty message, ran for thee and me.

* * * * *


It is a sad fate for a writer to be known as a humorist; nobody will take him seriously ever afterward. Even a book suffers from such a reputation, the famous _Don Quixote_ for example, which we read as a type of extravagant humor but which is in reality a tragedy, since it portrays the disillusionment of a man who believed the world to be like his own heart, noble and chivalrous, and who found it filled with villainy. Because Holmes (who was essentially a moralist and a preacher) could not repress the bubbling wit that was part of his nature, our historians must set him down as a humorist and name the “One-Hoss Shay” as his most typical work. Yet his best poems are as pathetic as “The Last Leaf,” as sentimental as “The Voiceless,” as patriotic as “Old Ironsides,” as worshipful as the “Hymn of Trust,” as nobly didactic as “The Chambered Nautilus”; his novels are studies of the obscure problems of heredity, and his most characteristic prose work, _The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table_, is an original commentary on almost everything under the sun.

Evidently we prize a laugh above any other product of literature, and because there is a laugh or a smile hidden in many a work of Holmes he must still keep the place assigned to him as an “American” humorist. Even so, he is perhaps our most representative writer in this field; for he is as thoroughly American as a man can be, and his rare culture and kindness are in refreshing contrast to the crude horseplay or sensationalism that is unfortunately trumpeted abroad as New World humor.

A PLACID LIFE. Though Holmes never wrote a formal autobiography he left a very good reflection of himself in his works, and it is in these alone that we become acquainted with him,–a genial, witty, observant, kind-hearted and pure-hearted man whom it is good to know.

He belonged to what he called “the Brahmin caste” of intellectual aristocrats (as described in his novel, _Elsie Venner_), for he came from an old New England family extending back to Anne Bradstreet and the governors of the Bay Colony. He was born in Cambridge; he was educated at Andover and Harvard; he spent his life in Boston, a city which satisfied him so completely that he called it “the hub of the solar system.” Most ambitious writers like a large field with plenty of change or variety, but Holmes was content with a small and very select circle with himself at the center of it.

For his profession he chose medicine and studied it four years, the latter half of the time in Paris. At that period his foreign training was as rare in medicine as was Longfellow’s in poetry. He practiced his profession in Boston and managed to make a success of it, though patients were a little doubtful of a doctor who wrote poetry and who opened his office with the remark that “small fevers” would be “gratefully received.” Also he was for thirty-five years professor of anatomy at the Harvard Medical School. What with healing or teaching or learning, this doctor might have been very busy; but he seems to have found plenty of leisure for writing, and the inclination was always present. “Whoso has once tasted type” he said, “must indulge the taste to the end of his life.”


[Sidenote: THE WRITER]

His literary work began at twenty-one, when he wrote “Old Ironsides” in protest against the order to dismantle the frigate _Constitution_, which had made naval history in the War of 1812. That first poem, which still rings triumphantly in our ears, accomplished two things: it saved the glorious old warship, and it gave Holmes a hold on public attention which he never afterward lost. During the next twenty-five years he wrote poetry, and was so much in demand to furnish verses for special occasions that he was a kind of poet-laureate of his college and city. He was almost fifty when the _Atlantic Monthly_ was projected and Lowell demanded, as a condition of his editorship, that Holmes be engaged as the first contributor. Feeling in the mood for talk, as he commonly did, Holmes responded with _The Autocrat_. Thereafter he wrote chiefly in prose, making his greatest effort in fiction but winning more readers by his table talk in the form of essays. His last volume, _Over the Teacups_, appeared when he was past eighty years old.


We have spoken of the genial quality of Holmes as revealed in his work, but we would hardly be just to him did we fail to note his pet prejudices, his suspicion of reformers, his scorn of homeopathic doctors, his violent antipathy to Calvinism. Though he had been brought up in the Calvinistic faith (his father was an old-style clergyman), he seemed to delight in clubbing or satirizing or slinging stones at it. The very mildest he could do was to refer to “yon whey-faced brother” to express his opinion of those who still clung to puritanic doctrines. Curiously enough, he still honored his father and was proud of his godly ancestors, who were all stanch Puritans. The explanation is, of course, that Holmes never understood theology, not for a moment; he only disliked it, and was consequently sure that it must be wrong and that somebody ought to put an end to it. In later years he mellowed somewhat. One cannot truthfully say that he overcame his prejudice, but he understood men better and was inclined to include even reformers and Calvinists in what he called “the larger humanity into which I was born so long ago.”

WORKS OF HOLMES. In the field of “occasional” poetry, written to celebrate births, dedications, feasts and festivals of every kind, Holmes has never had a peer among his countrymen. He would have made a perfect poet-laureate, for he seemed to rise to every occasion and have on his lips the right word to express the feeling of the moment, whether of patriotism or sympathy or sociability. In such happy poems as “The Boys,” “Bill and Jo,” “All Here” and nearly forty others written for his class reunions he reflects the spirit of college men who gather annually to live the “good old days” over again. [Footnote: It may add a bit of interest to these poems if we remember that among the members of the Class of ’29 was Samuel Smith, author of “America,” a poem that now appeals to a larger audience than the class poet ever dreamed of.] He wrote also some seventy other poems for special occasions, the quality of which may be judged from “Old Ironsides,” “Under the Violets,” “Grandmother’s Story” and numerous appreciations of Lowell, Burns, Bryant, Whittier and other well-known poets.

Among poems of more general interest the best is “The Chambered Nautilus,” which some read for its fine moral lesson and others for its beautiful symbolism or almost perfect workmanship. Others that deserve to be remembered are “The Last Leaf” (Lincoln’s favorite), “Nearing the Snow Line,” “Meeting of the Alumni,” “Questions and Answers” and “The Voiceless,”–none great poems but all good and very well worth the reading.


“The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” is the most popular of the humorous poems. Many readers enjoy this excellent skit without thinking what the author meant by calling it “a logical story.” It is, in fact, the best pebble that he hurled from his sling against his _bete noire_; for the old “shay” which went to pieces all at once was a symbol of Calvinistic theology. That theology was called an iron chain of logic, every link so perfectly forged that it could not be broken at any point. Even so was the “shay” built, unbreakable in every single part; but when the deacon finds himself sprawling and dumfounded in the road beside the wrecked masterpiece the poet concludes:

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.

Other typical verses of the same kind are “The Height of the Ridiculous,” “Daily Trials,” “The Comet” and “Contentment.” In the last-named poem Holmes may have been poking fun at the Brook Farmers and other enthusiasts who were preaching the simple life. Poets and preachers of this gospel in every age are apt to insist that to find simplicity one must return to nature or the farm, or else camp in the woods and eat huckleberries, as Thoreau did; but Holmes remembered that some people must live in the city, while others incomprehensibly prefer to do so, and wrote his “Contentment” to express their idea of the simple life:

Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone
(A _very plain_ brown stone will do) That I may call my own;
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.

I care not much for gold or land;
Give me a mortgage here and there, Some good bank-stock, some note of hand, Or trifling railroad share.
I only ask that Fortune send
A _little_ more than I shall spend.

[Sidenote: THE AUTOCRAT]

The most readable of the prose works is _The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table_ (1858), a series of monologues in which Holmes, who was called the best talker of his age, transferred his talk in a very charming way to paper. As the book professes to record the conversation at the table of a certain Boston boarding-house, it has no particular subject; the author rambles pleasantly from one topic to another, illuminating each by his wisdom or humor or sympathy. Other books of the same series are _The Professor at the Breakfast Table_, _The Poet at the Breakfast Table_ and _Over the Teacups_. Most critics consider _The Autocrat_ the best and _The Poet_ second best of the series; but there is a tender vein of sentiment and reminiscence in the final volume which is very attractive to older readers.

The slight story element in the breakfast-table books probably led Holmes to fiction, and he straightway produced three novels, _Elsie Venner_, _The Guardian Angel_ and _A Mortal Antipathy_. These are studies of heredity, of the physical element in morals, of the influence of mind over matter and other subjects more suitable for essays than for fiction; but a few mature readers who care less for a story than for an observation or theory of life will find _The Guardian Angel_ an interesting novel. And some will surely prize _Elsie Venner_ for its pictures of New England life, its description of boarding school or evening party or social hierarchy, at a time when many a New England family had traditions to which it held as firmly and almost as proudly as any European court.

Holmes’s birthplace, at Cambridge]

THE QUALITY OF HOLMES. The intensely personal quality of the works just mentioned is their most striking characteristic; for Holmes always looks at a subject with his own eyes, and measures its effect on the reader by a previous effect produced upon himself. “If I like this,” he says in substance, “why, you must like it too; if it strikes me as absurd, you cannot take any other attitude; for are we not both human and therefore just alike?” It never occurred to Holmes that anybody could differ with him and still be normal; those who ventured to do so found the Doctor looking keenly at them to discover their symptoms. In an ordinary egoist or politician or theologian this would be insufferable; but strange to say it is one of the charms of Holmes, who is so witty and pleasant-spoken that we can enjoy his dogmatism without the bother of objecting to it. In one of his books he hints that talking to certain persons is like trying to pet a squirrel; if you are wise, you will not imitate that frisky little beast but assume the purring-kitten attitude while listening to the Autocrat.


Another interesting quality of Holmes is what we may call his rationalism, his habit of taking nothing for granted, of judging every matter by observation rather than by tradition or sentiment or imagination; and herein he is in marked contrast with Longfellow and other romantic writers of the period. We shall enjoy him better if we remember his bent of mind. As a boy he was fond of tools and machinery; as a man he was interested in photography, safety razors, inventions of every kind; as a physician he rebelled against drugs (then believed to have almost magical powers, and imposed on suffering stomachs in horrible doses) and observed his patients closely to discover what mentally ailed them; and as boy or man or physician he cared very little for books but a great deal for his own observation of life. Hence there is always a surprise in reading Holmes, which comes partly from his flashes of wit but more largely from his independent way of looking at things and recording his first-hand impressions. His _Autocrat_ especially is a treasure and ranks with Thoreau’s _Walden_ among the most original books of American literature.

* * * * *

SIDNEY LANIER (1842-1881)

The name of Lanier is often associated with that of Timrod, and the two southern poets were outwardly alike in that they struggled against physical illness and mental depression; but where we see in Timrod the tragedy of a poet broken by pain and neglect, the tragedy of Lanier’s life is forgotten in our wonder at his triumph. It is doubtful if any other poet ever raised so pure a song of joy out of conditions that might well have occasioned a wail of despair.

[Illustration: SIDNEY LANIER]

The joyous song of Lanier is appreciated only by the few. He is not popular with either readers or critics, and the difficulty of assigning him a place or rank may be judged from recent attempts. One history of American literature barely mentions Lanier in a slighting reference to “a small cult of poetry in parts of America”; [Footnote: Trent, _History of American Literature_ (1913), p. 471.] another calls him the only southern poet who had a national horizon, and accords his work ample criticism; [Footnote: Moses, _Literature of the South_ (1910), pp 358-383] a third describes him as “a true artist” having “a lyric power hardly to be found in any other American,” but the brief record ends with the cutting criticism that his work is “hardly national.” [Footnote: Wendell, _Literary History of America_ (1911), pp 495-498.] And so with all other histories, one dismisses him as the author of a vague rhapsody called “The Marshes of Glynn,” another exalts him as a poet who rivals Poe in melody and far surpasses him in thought or feeling. Evidently there is no settled criticism of Lanier, as of Bryant or Longfellow; he is not yet secure in his position among the elder poets, and what we record here is such a personal appreciation as any reader may formulate for himself.

LIFE. America has had its Puritan and its Cavalier writers, but seldom one who combines the Puritan’s stern devotion to duty with the Cavalier’s joy in nature and romance and music. Lanier was such a poet, and he owed his rare quality to a mixed ancestry. He was descended on his mother’s side from Scotch-Irish and Puritan forbears, and on his father’s side from Huguenot (French) exiles who were musicians at the English court. One of his ancestors, Nicholas Lanier, is described as “a musician, painter and engraver” for Queen Elizabeth and King James, and as the composer of music for some of Ben Jonson’s masques.

[Sidenote: EARLY TRAITS]

His boyhood was spent at Macon, Georgia, where he was born in 1842. A study of that boyhood reveals certain characteristics which reappear constantly in the poet’s work. One was his rare purity of soul; another was his brave spirit; a third was his delight in nature; a fourth was his passion for music. At seven he made his first flute from a reed, and ever afterwards, though he learned to play many instruments, the flute was to him as a companion and a voice. With it he cheered many a weary march or hungry bivouac; through it he told all his heart to the woman he loved; by it he won a place when he had no other means of earning his bread. Hence in “The Symphony,” a poem which fronts one of life’s hard problems, it is the flute that utters the clearest and sweetest note.

[Sidenote: IN WAR TIME]

Lanier had finished his course in Oglethorpe University (a primitive little college in Midway, Georgia) and was tutoring there when the war came, and the college closed its doors because teachers and students were away at the first call to join the army. For four years he was a Confederate soldier, serving in the ranks with his brother and refusing the promotion offered him for gallant conduct in the field. There was a time during this period when he might have sung like the minstrels of old, for romance had come to him with the war. By day he was fighting or scouting with his life in his hand; but when camp fires were lighted he would take his flute and slip away to serenade the girl who “waited for him till the war was over.”

We mention these small incidents with a purpose. There is a delicacy of feeling in Lanier’s verse which might lead a reader to assume that the poet was effeminate, when in truth he was as manly as any Norse scald or Saxon scop who ever stood beside his chief in battle. Of the war he never sang; but we find some reflection of the girl who waited in the poem “My Springs.”


Lanier was at sea, as signal officer on a blockade runner, when his ship was captured by a Federal cruiser and he was sent to the military prison at Point Lookout (1864). A hard and bitter experience it was, and his only comfort was the flute which he had hidden in his ragged sleeve. When released the following year he set out on foot for his home, five hundred miles away, and reached it more dead than alive; for consumption had laid a heavy hand upon him. For weeks he was desperately ill, and during the illness his mother died of the same wasting disease; then he rose and set out bravely to earn a living,–no easy matter in a place that had suffered as Georgia had during the war.

[Sidenote: THE GLEAM]

We shall not enter into his struggle for bread, or into his wanderings in search of a place where he could breathe without pain. He was a law clerk in his father’s office at Macon when, knowing that he had but a slender lease of life, he made his resolve. To the remonstrances of his father he closed his ears, saying that music and poetry were calling him and he must follow the call. The superb climax of Tennyson’s “Merlin and the Gleam” was in his soul:

O young mariner,
Down to the haven
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam!

Thus bravely he went northward to Baltimore, taking his flute with him. He was evidently a wonderful artist, playing not by the score but making his instrument his voice, so that his audience seemed to hear a soul speaking in melody. His was a magic flute. Soon he was supporting himself by playing in the Peabody Orchestra, living joyously meanwhile in an atmosphere of music and poetry and books; for he was always a student, determined to understand as well as to practice his art. He wrote poems, stories, anything to earn an honest dollar; he gave lectures on music and literature; he planned a score of books that he did not and could not write, for he was living in a fever of mind and body. Music and poetry were surging within him for expression; but his strength was failing, his time short.

[Sidenote: THE STRUGGLE]

In 1879 he was appointed lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and for the first time he had an assured income, small, indeed, but very heartening since it was enough to support his family. He began teaching with immense enthusiasm; but presently he was speaking in a whisper from an invalid’s chair. Under such circumstances were uttered some of our most cheering words on art and poetry. Two years later he died in a tent among the hills, near Asheville, North Carolina, whither he had gone in a vain search for health.

[Illustration: THE VILLAGE OF McGAHEYSVILLE, VIRGINIA Near here Lanier spent his summers during the last years of his life]

There is in all Lanier’s verse a fragmentariness, a sense of something left unsaid, which we may understand better if we remember that his heart was filled with the noblest emotions, but that when he strove to write them his pen failed for weariness. Read the daily miracle of dawn in “Sunrise,” for example, and find there the waiting oaks, the stars, the tide, the marsh with its dreaming pools, light, color, fragrance, melody,–everything except that the hand which wrote the poem was too weak to guide the pencil. The rush of impressions and memories in “Sunrise,” its tender beauty and vague incompleteness, as of something left unsaid, may be explained by the fact that it was Lanier’s last song.

WORKS OF LANIER. Many readers have grown familiar with Lanier’s name in connection with _The Boy’s Froissart_, _The Boy’s King Arthur_, _The Boy’s Mabinogion_ and _The Boy’s Percy_, four books in which he retold in simple language some of the old tales that are forever young. His chief prose works, _The English Novel_ and _The Science of English Verse_, are of interest chiefly to critics; they need not detain us here except to note that the latter volume is devoted to Lanier’s pet theory that music and poetry are governed by the same laws. Of more general interest are his scattered “Notes,” which contain suggestions for many a poem that was never written, intermingled with condensed criticisms. Of the poet Swinburne he says, “He invited me to eat; the service was silver and gold, but no food therein except salt and pepper.” One might say less than that with more words, or read a whole book to arrive at this summary of Whitman’s style and bottomless philosophy: “Whitman is poetry’s butcher; huge raw collops slashed from the rump of poetry, and never mind the gristle, is what he feeds our souls with…. His argument seems to be that because the Mississippi is long, therefore every American is a god.”

[Sidenote: HIS BEST POEMS]

Those who read Lanier’s poems should begin with the simplest, with his love songs, “My Springs” and “In Absence,” or his “Ballad of Trees and the Master,” or his outdoor poems, such as “Tampa Robins,” “Song of the Chattahoochee,” “Mocking Bird,” and “Evening Song.” In the last-named lyrics he began the work (carried out more fully in his later poems) of interpreting in words the harmony which his sensitive ear detected in the manifold voices of nature.

Next in order are the poems in which is hidden a thought or an ideal not to be detected at first glance; for to Lanier poetry was like certain oriental idols which when opened are found to be filled with exquisite perfumes. “The Stirrup Cup” is one of the simplest of these allegories. It was a custom in olden days when a man was ready to journey, for one who loved him to bring a glass of wine which he drank in the saddle; and this was called the stirrup or parting cup. In the cup offered Lanier was a rare cordial, filled with “sweet herbs from all antiquity,” and the name of the cordial was Death:

Then, Time, let not a drop be spilt: Hand me the cup whene’er thou wilt;
‘T is thy rich stirrup cup to me;
I’ll drink it down right smilingly.

In four stanzas of “Night and Day” he compresses the tragedy of _Othello_, not the tragedy that Shakespeare wrote but the tragedy that was in the Moor’s soul when Desdemona was gone. In “Life and Song” he sought to express the ideal of a poet, and the closing lines might well be the measure of his own heroic life:

His song was only living aloud,
His work a singing with his hand.

In “How Love Looked for Hell” the lesson is hidden deeper; for the profound yet simple meaning of the poem is that, search high or low, Love can never find hell because he takes heaven with him wherever he goes. Another poem of the same class, but longer and more involved, is “The Symphony.” Here Lanier faces one of the greatest problems of the age, the problem of industrialism with its false standards and waste of human happiness, and his answer is the same that Tennyson gave in his later poems; namely, that the familiar love in human hearts can settle every social question when left to its own unselfish way:

Vainly might Plato’s brain revolve it, Plainly the heart of a child might solve it.


The longer poems of Lanier are of uneven merit and are all more or less fragmentary. The chief impression from reading the “Psalm of the West,” for example, is that it is the prelude to some greater work that was left unfinished. More finely wrought and more typical of Lanier’s mood and method is “The Marshes of Glynn,” his best-known work. It is a marvelous poem, one of the most haunting in our language; yet it is like certain symphonies in that it says nothing, being all feeling,–vague, inexpressible feeling. Some readers find no meaning or satisfaction in it; others hail it as a perfect interpretation of their own mood or emotion when they stand speechless before the sunrise or the afterglow or a landscape upon which the very spirit of beauty and peace is brooding.

THE QUALITY OF LANIER. In order to sympathize with Lanier, and so to understand him, it is necessary to keep in mind that he was a musician rather than a poet in our ordinary understanding of the term. In his verse he used words, exactly as he used the tones of his flute, not so much to express ideas as to call up certain emotions that find no voice save in music. As he said, “Music takes up the thread that language drops,” which explains that beautiful but puzzling line which closes “The Symphony”:

Music is Love in search of a word.


We have spoken of “The Symphony” as an answer to the problem of industrial waste and sorrow, but it contains also Lanier’s confession of faith; namely, that social evils arise among men because of their lack of harmony; and that spiritual harmony, the concord of souls which makes strife impossible, may be attained through music. The same belief appears in _Tiger Lilies_ (a novel written by Lanier in his early days), in which a certain character makes these professions:

“To make a _home_ out of a household, given the raw materials–to wit, wife, children, a friend or two and a house–two other things are necessary. These are a good fire and good music. And inasmuch as we can do without the fire for half the year, I may say music is the one essential.”

“Late explorers say they have found some nations that have no God; but I have not read of any that had no music.” “Music means harmony, harmony means love, love means–God!”

One may therefore summarize Lanier by saying that he was poet who used verbal rhythm, as a musician uses harmonious chords, to play upon our better feelings. His poems of nature give us no definite picture of the external world but are filled with murmurings, tremblings, undertones,–all the vague impressions which one receives when alone in the solitudes, as if the world were alive but inarticulate:

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-witholding and free Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea! Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun, Ye spread and span like the catholic man that hath mightily won God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

His poems of life have similar virtues and weaknesses: they are melodious; they are nobly inspired; they appeal to our finest feelings; but they are always vague in that they record no definite thought and speak no downright message.


The criticism may be more clear if we compare Lanier with Whittier, a man equally noble, who speaks a language that all men understand. The poems of the two supplement each other, one reflecting the reality of life, the other its mysterious dreams. In Whittier’s poetry we look upon a landscape and a people, and we say, “I have seen that rugged landscape with my own eyes; I have eaten bread with those people, and have understood and loved them.” Then we read Lanier’s poetry and say, “Yes, I have had those feelings at times; but I do not speak of them to others because I cannot tell what they mean to me.” Both poets are good, and both fail of greatness in poetry, Whittier because he has no exalted imagination, Lanier because he lacks primitive simplicity and strength. One poet sings a song to cheer the day’s labor, the other makes a melody to accompany our twilight reveries.

* * * * *

“WALT” WHITMAN (1819-1892)

Since Whitman insisted upon being called “Walt” instead of Walter, so let it be. The name accords with the free-and-easy style of his verse. If you can find some abridged selections from that verse, read them by all means; but if you must search the whole of it for the passages that are worth reading, then pass it cheerfully by; for such another vain display of egotism, vulgarity and rant never appeared under the name of poetry. Whitman was so absurdly fond of his “chants” and so ignorant of poetry that he preserved the whole of his work in a final edition, and his publishers still insist upon printing it, rubbish and all. The result is that the few rare verses which stamp him as a poet are apt to be overlooked in the multitudinous gabblings which, of themselves, might mark him as a mere freak or “sensation” in our modest literature.

[Illustration: WALT WHITMAN]

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. Ordinarily when we read poetry we desire to know something of the man who wrote it, of his youth, his training, the circumstance of his work and the personal ideals which made him view life steadily in one light rather than in another. In dealing with Whitman it is advisable to leave such natural curiosity unsatisfied, and for two reasons: first, the man was far from admirable or upright, and to meet him at certain stages is to lose all desire to read his poetry; and second, he was so extremely secretive about himself, while professing boundless good-fellowship with all men, that we can seldom trust his own record, much less that of his admirers. There are great blanks in the story of his life; his real biography has not yet been written; and in the jungle of controversial writings which has grown up around him one loses sight of Whitman in a maze of extravagant or contradictory opinions. [Footnote: Of the many biographies of Whitman perhaps the best for beginners is Perry’s _Walt Whitman_ (1906), in American Men of Letters Series.]


Let it suffice then to record, in catalogue fashion, that Whitman was born (1819) on Long Island, of stubborn farmer stock; that he spent his earliest years by the sea, which inspired his best verse; that he grew up in the streets of Brooklyn and was always fascinated by the restless tide of city life, as reflected in such poems as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”; that his education was scanty and of the “picked up” variety; that to the end of his life, though ignorant of what literary men regard as the _a-b-c_ of knowledge, he was supremely well satisfied with himself; that till he was past forty he worked irregularly at odd jobs, but was by choice a loafer; that he was a man of superb physical health and gloried in his body, without much regard for moral standards; that his strength was broken by nursing wounded soldiers during the war, a beautiful and unselfish service; that he was then a government clerk in Washington until partly disabled by a paralytic stroke, and that the remainder of his life was spent at Camden, New Jersey. His _Leaves of Grass_ (published first in 1855, and republished with additions many times) brought him very little return in money, and his last years were spent in a state of semipoverty, relieved by the gifts of a small circle of admirers.

WHITMAN’S VERSE. In a single book, _Leaves of Grass_, Whitman has collected all his verse. This book would be a chaos even had he left his works in the order in which they were written; but that is precisely what he did not do. Instead, he enlarged and rearranged the work ten different times, mixing up his worst and his best verses, so that it is now very difficult to trace his development as a poet. We may, however, tentatively arrange his work in three divisions: his early shouting to attract attention (as summarized in the line “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”), his war poems, and his later verse written after he had learned something of the discipline of life and poetry.

The quality of his early work may be judged from a few disjointed lines of his characteristic “Song of Myself”:

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots, And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good, The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready, The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon, The clear light plays on the brown, gray and green intertinged, The armfuls are pack’d to the sagging mow. I am there, I help, I came stretch’d atop of the load, I felt its soft jolts, one leg reclined on the other, I jump from the cross-beams and seize the clover and timothy, And roll head over heels and tangle my hair full of wisps.

The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me, I tuck’d my trowser ends in my boots and went and had a good time; You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.

Thus he rambles on, gabbing of every place or occupation or newspaper report that comes into his head. When he ends this grotesque “Song of Myself” after a thousand lines or more, he makes another just like it. We read a few words here and there, amazed that any publisher should print such rubbish; and then, when we are weary of Whitman’s conceit or bad taste, comes a flash of insight, of imagination, of poetry:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank? Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?

There are, in short, hundreds of pages of such “chanting” with its grain of wheat hid in a bushel of chaff. We refer to it here not because it is worth reading but to record the curious fact that many European critics hail it as typical American poetry, even while we wonder why anybody should regard it as either American or poetic.


The explanation is simple. Europeans have not yet rid themselves of the idea that America is the strange, wild land Cooper’s _Pioneers_, and that any poetry produced here must naturally be uncouth, misshapen, defiant of all poetic laws or traditions. To such critics Whitman’s crudity seems typical of a country where one is in nightly danger of losing his scalp, where arguments are settled by revolvers, and where a hungry man needs only to shoot a buffalo or a bear from his back door. Meanwhile America, the country that planted colleges and churches in a wilderness, that loves liberty because she honors law, that never saw a knight in armor but that has, even in her plainsmen and lumberjacks, a chivalry for woman that would adorn a Bayard,–that real America ignores the bulk of Whitman’s work simply because she knows that, of all her poets, he is the least representative of her culture, her ideals, her heroic and aspiring life.

[Sidenote: DRUM TAPS]

The second division of Whitman’s work is made up chiefly of verses written in war time, to some of which he gave the significant title, _Drum Taps_. In such poems as as “Beat, Beat, Drums,” “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” and “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame” he reflected the emotional excitement of ’61 and the stern days that followed. Note, for example, the startling vigor of “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” which depicts an old negro woman by the roadside, looking with wonder on the free flag which she sees for the first time aloft over marching men:

Who are you, dusky woman, so ancient, hardly human, With your woolly-white and turban’d head and bare bony feet? Why, rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?

Another side of the war is reflected in such poems as “Come up from the Fields, Father,” an exquisite picture of an old mother and father receiving the news of their son’s death on the battlefield. In the same class belong two fine tributes, “O Captain, My Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” written in moments of noble emotion when the news came that Lincoln was dead. The former tribute, with its rhythmic swing and lyric refrain, indicates what Whitman might have done in poetry had he been a more patient workman. So also does “Pioneers,” a lyric that is wholly American and Western and exultant:

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson, Pioneers! O Pioneers!

[Sidenote: LATER POEMS]

In the third class of Whitman’s works are the poems written late in life, when he had learned to suppress his blatant egotism and to pay some little attention to poetic form and melody. Though his lines are still crude and irregular, many of them move to a powerful rhythm, such as the impressive “With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea,” which suggests the surge and beat of breakers on the shore. In others he gives finely imaginative expression to an ideal or a yearning, and his verse rises to high poetic levels. Note this allegory of the spider, an insect that, when adrift or in a strange place, sends out delicate filaments on the air currents until one thread takes hold of some solid substance and is used as a bridge over the unknown:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself, Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my soul, where you stand, Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul


Among the best of Whitman’s works are his poems to death. “Joy, Shipmate, Joy,” “Death’s Valley,” “Darest Thou Now, O Soul,” “Last Invocation,” “Good-Bye, My Fancy,”–in such haunting lyrics he reflects the natural view of death, not as a terrible or tragic or final event but as a confident going forth to meet new experiences. Other notable poems that well repay the reading are “The Mystic Trumpeter,” “The Man-of-War Bird,” “The Ox Tamer,” “Thanks in Old Age” and “Aboard at a Ship’s Helm.”

In naming the above works our purpose is simply to lure the reader away from the insufferable Whitmanesque “chant” and to attract attention to a few poems that sound a new note in literature, a note of freedom, of joy, of superb confidence, which warms the heart when we hear it. When these poems are known others will suggest themselves: “Rise, O Days, from Your Fathomless Deeps,” “I Hear America Singing,” “There was a Boy Went Forth,” “The Road Unknown,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” There is magic in such names; but unfortunately in most cases the reader will find only an alluring title and a few scattered lines of poetry; the rest is Whitman.

[Sidenote: DEMOCRACY]

The author of the “Song of Myself” proclaimed himself the poet of democracy and wrote many verses on his alleged subject; but those who read them will soon tire of one whose idea of democracy was that any man is as good, as wise, as godlike as any other. Perhaps his best work in this field is “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood,” a patriotic poem read at “Commencement” time in Dartmouth College (1872). There is too much of vainglorious boasting in the poem (for America should be modest, and can afford to be modest), but it has enough of prophetic vision and exalted imagination to make us overlook its unworthy spread-eagleism.


As a farewell to Whitman one should read what is perhaps his noblest single work, “The Prayer of Columbus.” The poem is supposed to reflect the thought of Columbus when, as a worn-out voyager, an old man on his last expedition, he looked out over his wrecked ships to the lonely sea beyond; but the reader may see in it another picture, that of a broken old man in his solitary house at Camden, writing with a trembling hand the lines which reflect his unshaken confidence:

My terminus near,
The clouds already closing in upon me, The voyage balk’d, the course disputed, lost, I yield my ships to Thee
My hands, my limbs grow nerveless, My brain feels rack’d, bewilder’d;
Let the old timbers part, I will not part, I will cling fast to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me, Thee, Thee at least I know.

Is it the prophet’s thought I speak, or am I raving? What do I know of life? what of myself? I know not even my own work past or present; Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me, Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition, Mocking, perplexing me.

And these things I see suddenly, what mean they? As if some miracle, some hand divine, unseal’d my eyes, Shadowy vast shapes smile through the air and sky, And on the distant waves sail countless ships, And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.

* * * * *



Emerson is the mountaineer of our literature; to read him is to have the impression of being on the heights. It is solitary there, far removed from ordinary affairs; but the air is keen, the outlook grand, the heavens near. Our companions are the familiar earth by day or the mysterious stars by night, and these are good if only to recall the silent splendor of God’s universe amid the pother of human inventions. There also the very spirit of liberty, which seems to have its dwelling among the hills, enters into us and makes us sympathize with Emerson’s message of individual freedom.

It is still a question whether Emerson should be classed with the poets or prose writers, and our only reason for placing him with the latter is that his “Nature” seems more typical than his “Wood Notes,” though in truth both works convey precisely the same message. He was a great man who used prose or verse as suited his mood at the moment; but he was never a great poet, and only on rare occasions was he a great prose writer.

LIFE. Emerson has been called “the winged Franklin,” “the Yankee Shelley” and other contradictory names which strive to express the union of shrewd sense and lofty idealism that led him to write “Hitch your wagon to a star” and many another aphorism intended to bring heaven and earth close together. We shall indicate enough of his inheritance if we call him a Puritan of the Puritans, a moralist descended from seven generations of heroic ministers who had helped to make America a free nation, and who had practiced the love of God and man and country before preaching it to their congregations.


The quality of these ancestors entered into Emerson and gave him the granite steadfastness that is one of his marked characteristics. Meeting him in his serene old age one would hardly suspect him of heroism; but to meet him in childhood is to understand the kind of man he was, and must be. If you would appreciate the quality of that childhood, picture to yourself a bare house with an open fire and plenty of books, but little else of comfort. There are a mother and six children in the house, desperately poor; for the father is dead and has left his family nothing and everything,–nothing that makes life rich, everything in the way of ideals and blessed memories to make life wealthy. The mother works as only a poor woman can from morning till night. The children go to school by day; but instead of playing after school-hours they run errands for the neighbors, drive cows from pasture, shovel snow, pick huckleberries, earn an honest penny. In the evening they read together before the open fire. When they are hungry, as they often are, a Puritan aunt who shares their poverty tells them stories of human endurance. The circle narrows when an older brother goes to college; the rest reduce their meals and spare their pennies in order to help him. After graduation he teaches school and devotes his earnings to giving the next brother his chance. All the while they speak courteously to each other, remember their father’s teaching that they are children of God, and view their hard life steadily in the light of that sublime doctrine.


The rest of the story is easily told. Emerson was born in Boston, then a straggling town, in 1803. When his turn came he went to Harvard, and largely supported himself there by such odd jobs as only a poor student knows how to find. Wasted time he called it; for he took little interest in college discipline or college fun and was given to haphazard reading, “sinfully strolling from book to book, from care to idleness,” as he said. Later he declared that the only good thing he found in Harvard was a solitary chamber.

[Sidenote: THE PREACHER]

After leaving college he taught school and shared his earnings, according to family tradition. Then he began to study for the ministry; or perhaps we should say “read,” for Emerson never really studied anything. At twenty-three he was licensed to preach, and three years later was chosen pastor of the Second Church in Boston. It was the famous Old North Church in which the Mathers had preached, and the Puritan divines must have turned in their graves when the young radical began to utter his heresies from the ancient pulpit. He was loved and trusted by his congregation, but presently he differed with them in the matter of the ritual and resigned his ministry.

Next he traveled in Europe, where he found as little of value as he had previously found in college. The old institutions, which roused the romantic enthusiasm of Irving and Longfellow, were to him only relics of barbarism. He went to Europe, he said, to see two men, and he found them in Wordsworth and Carlyle. His friendship with the latter and the letters which passed between “the sage of Chelsea” and “the sage of Concord” (as collected and published by Charles Eliot Norton in his _Correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson_) are the most interesting result of his pilgrimage.

[Sidenote: THE LECTURER]

On his return he settled in the village of Concord, which was to be his home for the remainder of his long life. He began to lecture, and so well was the “Lyceum” established at that time that he was soon known throughout the country. For forty years this lecturing continued, and the strange thing about it is that in all that time he hardly met one audience that understood him or that carried away any definite idea of what he had talked about. Something noble in the man seemed to attract people; as Lowell said, they did not go to hear what Emerson said but to hear Emerson.

[Sidenote: THE WRITER]

Meanwhile he was writing prose and poetry. His literary work began in college and consisted largely in recording such thoughts or quotations as seemed worthy of preservation. In his private _Journal_ (now published in several volumes) may be found practically everything he put into the formal works which he sent forth from Concord. These had at first a very small circle of readers; but the circle widened steadily, and the phenomenon is more remarkable in view of the fact that the author avoided publicity and had no ambition for success. He lived contentedly in a country village; he cultivated his garden and his neighbors; he spent long hours alone with nature; he wrote the thoughts that came to him and sent them to make their own way in the world, while he himself remained, as he said, “far from fame behind the birch trees.”

The last years of his life were as the twilight of a perfect day. His mental powers failed slowly; he seemed to drift out of the present world into another of pure memories; even his friends became spiritualized, lost the appearance of earth and assumed their eternal semblance. When he stood beside the coffin of Longfellow, looking intently into the poet’s face, he was heard to murmur, “A sweet, a gracious personality, but I have forgotten his name.” To the inevitable changes (the last came in 1882) he adapted himself with the same serenity which marked his whole life. He even smiled as he read the closing lines of his “Terminus”:

As the bird trims her to the gale, I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail, Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime: “Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near, And every wave is charmed.”

EMERSON’S POETRY. There is a ruggedness in Emerson’s verse which attracts some readers while it repels others by its unmelodious rhythm. It may help us to measure that verse if we recall the author’s criticism thereof. In 1839 he wrote:

“I am naturally keenly susceptible to the pleasures of rhythm, and cannot believe but one day I shall attain to that splendid dialect, so ardent is my wish; and these wishes, I suppose, are ever only the buds of power; but up to this hour I have never had a true success in such attempts.”

One must be lenient with a poet who confesses that he cannot attain the “splendid dialect,” especially so since we are inclined to agree with him. In the following passage from “Each and All” we may discover the reason for his lack of success:

Little thinks, in the field, yon red-cloaked clown Of thee from the hill-top looking down; The heifer that lows in the upland farm, Far-heard, lows not thine ear to charm; The sexton, tolling his bell at noon,
Deems not that great Napoleon
Stops his horse, and lists with delight, Whilst his files sweep round yon Alpine height; Nor knowest thou what argument
Thy life to thy neighbor’s creed has lent. All are needed by each one;
Nothing is fair or good alone.
I thought the sparrow’s note from heaven, Singing at dawn on the alder bough;
I brought him home in his nest at even; He sings the song, but it cheers not now, For I did not bring home the river and sky: He sang to my ear; they sang to my eye. The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave, And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me.
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home; But the poor, unsightly, noisome things Had left their beauty on the shore
With the sun and the sand and the wild uproar.

Our first criticism is that the poem contains both fine and faulty lines, and that the total impression is an excellent one. Next, we note that the verse is labored; for Emerson was not a natural singer, like Whittier, and was hampered by his tendency to think too much instead of giving free expression to his emotion. [Footnote: Most good poems are characterized by both thought and feeling, and by a perfection of form that indicates artistic workmanship. With Emerson the thought is the main thing; feeling or emotion is subordinate or lacking, and he seldom has the patience to work over his thought until it assumes beautiful or perfect expression.] Finally, he is didactic; that is, he is teaching the lesson that you must not judge a thing by itself, as if it had no history or connections, but must consider it in its environment, as a part of its own world.

As in “Each and All” so in most of his verse Emerson is too much of a teacher or moralist to be a poet. In “The Rhodora,” one of his most perfect poems, he proclaims that “Beauty is its own excuse for being”; but straightway he forgets the word and devotes his verse not to beauty but to some ethical lesson. Very rarely does he break away from this unpoetic habit, as when he interrupts the moralizing of his “World Soul” to write a lyric that we welcome for its own sake:

Spring still makes spring in the mind When sixty years are told;
Love wakes anew this throbbing heart, And we are never old.
Over the winter glaciers
I see the summer glow,
And through the wide-piled snowdrift The warm rosebuds below.


The most readable of Emerson’s poems are those in which he reflects his impressions of nature, such as “Seashore,” “The Humble-Bee,” “The