A Poet of Our Own
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland Maine in 1807, Educated at Bowdoin College, and then immediately invited to the faculty there. He came to Cambridge when he was called to occupy the Smith Chair at Harvard College in 1834, just three years before Emerson’s Divinity School Adress. Longfellow’s younger brother, Samuel, born in 1818, was educated at Harvard College and then Harvard Divinity School in preparation for a long career in Unitarian ministry and composition of hymn lyrics. The four hymns in this morning’s service, all of them with Samuel Longfellow lyrics, are only four out of nine Samuel Longfellow hymns in our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, over a century later. Thy hymns have worn well.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow the poet was born as New England was about to flower religiously and intellectually, and became one of the nation’s most popular and widely published poets. Very learned, and yet quite sensitive to the moods of the broader public, he had a way of capturing trends among his literary colleagues and, at the same time, the temper of the wider population. He was the poet of the people, the “national bard,” one critic called him. When Tales of a Wayside Inn was published in 1863, the publisher printed an unprecedented 15,000 copies. Longfellow was read not only in this country but also widely in Europe, especially in England, where his popularity rivaled that of his contemporary, Tennyson. A bust of Longfellow, the only American poet to be so honored, can be found in the poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey.
From his house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, this meeting house was only a pleasant stroll away and, as we know from his journals, he was often in worship, recording his impressions later in his journal. Like his younger brother, the minister, and many of his intellectual colleagues, he practiced the new faith of Unitarianism. His daughter, Alice, once said her father “was born a Unitarian and remained one all his life. He never changed.” Surely, then, the famous poet was very familiar with the inside of this Meeting House and must have visited here often in his life, for worship as well as for Harvard convocations and graduations, and the weddings and funerals of friends and colleagues. Almost certainly, he was here as a young faculty person for Emerson’s famous Phi Beta Kappa Address, The American Scholar, in 1837. Of course, like some of his learned friends, who bored easily of the mundane preaching in Unitarian meeting houses, Longfellow sometimes went to Boston to the Seaman’s chapel where the self-educated preacher, Edmond Taylor, held audiences spellbound. Taylor, whose wild and glorious preaching eventually captured the attention of Dickens, Melville, Whitman, and Daniel Webster. Whitman described Taylor as the only “essentially perfect orator.” In spite of those occasional excursions, First Parish was Longfellow’s church and it is little wonder that there have been in the safe of our church for many, many years copies of four books of Longfellow’s poems, first editions, dedicated to the people of this congregation. Countless times, he walked these very streets and visited this sacred space, the Unitarian, now Unitarian Universalist meeting house, where, to this day, we worship. There is even a Longfellow poem entitled “In the Churchyard at Cambridge,” that describes the poet’s experience of walking through the burial ground outside the wall of the meeting house. He is one of our own.
Longfellow lived in one of New England’s brightest periods. Unitarianism was spreading through the churches, transcendentalism had captured the religious imagination of some and taunted the sacred religious truths of others; and New England giants such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a friend of Longfellow’s from college days, and James Russell Lowell stirred the minds and spirits of a new generation of Americans. I know that’s a very male list, but the Harvard men of that time, according to a well-informed feminist scholar friend, formed exclusive male alliances in that time, and Longfellow was no better than the rest. It was, though, without a doubt, a time of exciting ferment, at least for those who valued learning. Moving to Cambridge in 1834, Longfellow became a frequent presence among the Harvard, Boston, and New England literati at dinners, lectures, and other learned occasions. He was a friend and acquaintance of most and Craigie House became a house of hospitality for local celebrities and writers visiting from abroad. As he became more famous as a poet, he was one of those persons whom writers from Europe sought out on their visits to the States and New England. Longfellow was even invited on the famous Adirondak trip organized for August of 1858 by Emerson, who, hoping to shoot a deer in the wilderness, had purchased a new double-barreled shotgun and taken lessons in how to use it. When Longfellow heard that, he excused himself from the trip, afraid, he said, that somebody might get shot. Emerson’s last trip from Concord to Cambridge, a month before his death, was to attend the funeral of his friend, Longfellow, which, though I could not find proof of it, must have been held in this very meeting house.
The spirit of skepticism that had spread among philosophers in the eighteenth century reached into the world of theology in the nineteenth century. Evangelicals were quite right to fear that the rise of rationalism represented serious dangers for their religious beliefs. In the hands of the most venturesome, theology broke loose from the traditional moorings of Puritanism and followed instead the new lights of science, the intuitions of romanticism, and he rational leanings of secular philosophy. In that exciting environment, we might expect that Longfellow, as a Unitarian, would have been a leading visionary, at the forefront of religious change, along with Emerson, Thoreau, and Parker. But we search his poems to no avail for innovative theological leanings. He was a second-generation Unitarian, quite content with the early Unitarian Christian vision of the founders from his parents’ generation. A great Unitarian poet he was, but poet with a new spiritual vision he was not. That is not to say that he was irreligious, an aloof intellectual, that he was religiously uninformed, or that his poetry lacks religious insight. He was, after all, the translator of one of the finest English editions of Dante in the nineteenth century and there are religious allusions throughout his poetry. It is merely to say that the religious vision in his poems is, by and large, traditional, more reflective of the early Christian Unitarianism of William Ellery Channing than the later work of Emerson, the Transcendentalists, or the free religious thinkers. The hymn lyrics of his younger brother, Samuel, are much more progressive theologically than the older brother’s poetry. That makes good sense, given that Samuel was eleven years younger and attended the liberal Harvard College and the new Harvard Divinity School with its faculty of Unitarian professors.
On the other hand, while Longfellow was theologically more traditional, he was also more open to marginal movements in spirituality such as dream interpretation, numerology, reincarnation (then called “animal magnetism”), extrasensory perception, astrology, spiritualism (which was quite popular at the time), “rapping” (seeking to be transported by rapture), or employing the services of a “medium.” In 1835, just after joining the faculty at Harvard College, we find him writing:
I think we have at times a presentiment—not to say a consciousness—of a former state of existence. These glimpses of the past—these vague and shadowy images of a previous state of being, of which memory takes no certain cognizance—arise unbidden before the mind’s eye—and pass like apparitions through the chamber of the soul.
In these more marginal interests, he reminds us somewhat of the later William James several decades later in his Varieties of Religious Experience.
What we find in Longfellow is a solid Unitarian, traditional in the early theology of the founders, though, in fact, not much interested in theology. He was, however, fascinated by spiritual experience, including his own, and the animated preaching of spirited pulpiteers such as Taylor. His marginal religious interests must have distinguished him somewhat from the traditional Unitarianism of his time and from this congregation here at First Parish. It doesn’t seem that he was a close friend of Emerson, and there is little to suggest that he was much touched by Transcendentalism, or that he ever was a regular among the members of the Transcendentalist Club, though he knew Emerson and most of the distinguished members of the Club very well as his professional friends and colleagues.
So, what are we to make of Longfellow, this poet of our own? Critics have treated him sometimes as a fine poet and a subtle writer, and other times as a poet of flabby ideas. Few criticize the craftsmanship of his poems. He was a fine linguist and eloquent writer. One critic grouped Longfellow with those Brahmin poets of the time who ignored the changing world around them and “withdrew into their libraries” contenting themselves “with re-echoings of the old music,” while ignoring the challenging social changes that were taking place. Longfellow, after the death of his first wife, married into wealth and his father-in-law made to the new couple a gift of Craigie House, the finest house in Cambridge, where his daughter and son-in-law lived a life of conspicuous plenty. Everyone concedes Longfellow’s great success as a poet of the people and his far-reaching popularity as the poet of the American experience. Some more perceptive readers believe that Longfellow is underrated as a venturesome thinker, that he was far more perceptive than many readers are willing to grant.
While we can be proud of our link with him and of his success, the question is, how does he speak to us now? We are reminded of the reading this morning from Cleanth Brooks, “that every poem is an expression of its age; that we must be careful to ask of it only what its own age asked.” I am not willing to let the case rest there. I want from Longfellow, as I want from any poet, as Brooks wants from any poet, something more than cultural anthropology, something for us, something for my own life, something that rises above the generations. What I find in Longfellow is a figure who lived among the great of his time, whose work stood up to the work of his colleagues in many, if not in all, ways. I also find a man of rather distinctive and sensitive piety who had what one of his biographers called “that basic essential in religion, the will to believe.” I am especially struck by the short poem that Longfellow wrote as an introduction to a section of his translations of the Divine Comedy, the poem that Layne Longfellow read as part of our meditation. That poem ends:
So, as I enter here from day to day,
And leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of our time disconsolate, dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.
First, I suggest that the words, “As I enter here from day to day…,” may very well refer to this very meeting house; and, if not, the reference in the poem is at least a symbol for all church doors of which this was the most familiar in the poet’s life, the door that he entered most frequently to kneel in prayer.
In answer to his critics, Longfellow makes very clear in this short poem that he is well aware of the spiritual tumult of that time. “The tumult of our time disconsolate,” he wrote, the tumult that is inconsolable, for which there is no relief, no escape, points to the deep agonies of mind and spirit that tortured his generation—the new science, questions about the existence of God and the inspiration of the Bible, industrialization, immigration, a burgeoning suffragist movement, abolitionism, and the spread of the frontier. This awareness may not absolve Longfellow from isolating himself from the social tumult around him, but it surely conveys his awareness of a world in profound change and stress. That stress was more evident in the writings of some of his contemporaries. Melville is an obvious example, who wrote in Moby Dick, “All deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore.” There is the “tumult of the time disconsolate.” For Longfellow, that tumult briefly died away inside the gate where he knelt, unashamed, in prayer. For Melville and others, it never died. But, that too may illustrate the difference between the believer and the non believer—the will to believe. The reference to himself as “unashamed to pray” points to his understanding of the clear choice intellectuals like himself felt in choosing traditional reverence, and it also announces his choice—he was unashamed to pray. That, I believe, sets an example, a challenging example that transcends the generations.
Belief is surely as challenging today as it was in Longfellow’s time. Our time is no less a tumultuous time disconsolate. It is no easier in this time to leave our burden at the gate, and “to kneel in prayer, unashamed to pray…while the eternal ages watch and wait.” By making his choice so clearly in his time among his esteemed colleagues, he speaks to us in our time, reminding us that we have our own choices to make.