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and, by observation rather than experience of human life, a thinker :-such appear to be Longfellow's main qualifications for delighting and instructing mankind. To his scholarship, in particular, we are indebted for that absence of extravagance in thought and diction, and that transparency of meaning, which render his compositions classic; for nothing can be more alien from the classic models than the substitution of the outré for the forcible, and the pretension to profundity in the palpably obscure.
Of his smaller pieces, “ Excelsior” bears away the palm. It is just in conception as well as spirited in execution; and, because reflecting exactly the ideal of the age, was no sooner pronounced, than the listening generation treasured it up as
“household word.” A youthful tourist, such as Longfellow may often have seen in Switzerland, toiling up a mountain pass, with a leathern scrip swung from his shoulders, and a long Alpine shepherd's staff in hand, is taken as the emblem of that progress which is the destiny of our race, and should be the aim of every individual. In the “ Village Blacksmith,” which is scarcely inferior in beauty, though pitched on a lower key of inspiration, labour, the means to progress, is inculcated; and these two elements, labour the duty, and progress the reward, constitute the sum of Longfellow's teaching to mankind. In this he identifies himself with a very influential class of cotemporary writers. Surely it is a painful indication of a transitionperiod, in which old faiths have lost their empire over men, and new ones have not yet acquired it, that the oracles of our age have reduced their utterances to the merest rudiments of practical wisdom :
-Work and live, labour and prosper.
Yes; Do whatever lies nearest you, thus only will you see what to do next, is the response to all inquirers. Thus, Longfellow, in one of his “Poems by the Fireside," entitled “ The Builders :"
“ Build to-day, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base,
Shall to-morrow find its place.” This, truly, is living from hand to mouth. If there be no other gospel than this, why, then, alas, poor mortals! you
are but darkling pilgrims, iron-shod indeed for the journey of life, but unguided by any light greater or lesser in the firmament above, and expected to illumine fitfully your own path by momentary gleams struck out from the flints over which you travel. The reader will not find so much satisfaction in consulting Longfellow the philosopher, as pleasure in listening to Longfellow the poet.
Of the larger pieces, Evangeline is by far the best. It went through several editions in America in the course of a few months; and its great charm lies in the minute, yet graceful delineation of primitive country life and American scenery. Even on this side the Atlantic, one almost hears the extravaganza of the mocking bird in the following description :
“ Then from a neighbouring thicket the mocking bird, wildest of
singers, Swinging aloft on a willow spray that hung o'er the water, Shook from his little throat such floods of delicious music, That the whole air, and the ds, and the waves seemed silent to
listen. Plaintive at first were the tones and sad, then, soaring to madness, Seemed they to follow or guide the revels of frenzied Bacchantes. Then single notes were heard in sorrowful low lamentation ; Till, having gathered them all, he flung them abroad in derision, As when, after a storm, a gust of wind through the tree-tops Shakes down the rattling rain in a crystal shower on the branches."
Then again, what a fine illustration of a mystery in human experience does he borrow from the botany of the prairies :
“ As, at the tramp of a horse's hoof on the turf of the prairies,
It is much to be regretted that this fine poem is in the scarcely rhythmical English hexameter, and that Longfellow should have blemished it here and there by inappropriate scriptural allusions, after the manner of Bishop Tegnér in his “Children of the Lord's Supper," on Longfellow's own translation of which, Evangeline seems to have been modelled. The Swedish congregation, joining in the music of the organ, is thus described :-
Like as Elias in heaven, when he cast off from him his mantle, Even so cast off the soul its garments of earth; and with one voice Chim ed in the congregation, and sang an anthem immortal Of the sublime Wallin, of David's harp in the Northland, Tuned to the choral of Luther; the song on its powerful pinions Took every living soul, and lifted it gently to heaven, And every face did shine, like the Holy One's face upon Tabor."
In this short passage are two impertinent illustrations of the kind referred to. It is surprising that Longfellow's admiration of Tegnér could beguile his usually severe taste into the perpetration of the following in Evangeline:
And, wild with the winds of September, Wrestled the trees of the forest, as Jacob of old with the angel.”
Of course, when the illustration is carried out into detail, it becomes ludicrous and irreverent, as in the following: • Swinging from its great arms, the trumpet flower and the grape-vine Hung their ladder of ropes aloft, like the ladder of Jacob, On whose pendulous stairs the angels ascending, descending, Were the swift humming birds, that flitted from blossom to blossom.”
About a dozen such examples might be culled from Evangeline. There are a few instances too of incongruity in the sense, arising from mere carelessness, which is rare in Longfellow. For instance, when the herds return to the Acadian homestead,“ Pawing the ground they came, and resting their necks on each other, And with their nostrils distended inhaling the freshness of evening.”
Now the pawing of the ground, and the distention of the nostrils, indicate rather the excitement and unrest of stallfed cattle on being let out after a winter's confinement, than the sedate complacency of oxen returning from the fields of labour or pasture; at all events, these indications are inconsistent with “resting their necks on each other.” However, even Homer nods sometimes.
The “Spanish Student” has no dramatic effect, but is a sprightly delineation of manners. The most powerful passage in it contains a finely-applied classical allusion. Vic
torian is venting his despair at being, as he supposes, deceived in love.
“ Yet I would fain die !
The“ Golden Legend " bears the impress of Longfellow's European travels and studies more than any other of his works. It may be called Longfellow's version of Goethe's Faust, the subject being the same, and the treatment akin. But it is the outcome of his reading and reflection, rather than of his native vein ; and, though characterized by artistic elegance, is an unsatisfactory poem, in no small measure certainly because it is on an unsatisfactory subject.
To conclude, Longfellow is pre-eminently the interpreter of all that is peaceful, lovely, and cheering in external nature and human life. He has neither ascended the bright mountains of transport, where the beautiful is transfigured into the glorious, nor descended into the dark mines of misery where even the beautiful is deformed into the frightful. He dwells between these extremes, which are the zenith and nadir of human experience, and he sings so sweetly in the intermediate region of every-day nature and life, that all jaded or irritated spirits may have recourse to his muse for refreshment and soothing, even as king Saul, when the evil spirit from God was upon him, called for David the harper.