Ward, Robert Stafford
MetadataShow full item record
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's literary theories are of interest both for finding the reason for his ten-year period of prose and in connection with the problem of literature in a democratic culture. It therefore seems worth while to trace them from the beginning. His first literary venture was not the apocryphal "Mr. Finney's Turnip." Nor is there any certainty that the Copy Book, which he kept at Portland Academy, contains any of his own original compositions. The (hitherto unpublished) Copy Book does, however, show that the literary atmosphere at the Academy was one of interest in contemporary American writing. It was one of jingoistic patriotism consistent with his family background. His own account of his first attempt at verse connected it with the study of Virgil. His first published verse was on a martial American theme, and his second injected a patriotic tinge into its treatment of nature. As an undergraduate at Bowdoin he showed an enthusiasm for Gray's poetry and a belief in the value of originality and easy composition. He also embraced Burke's doctrine that obscurity tends toward sublimity. His critical opinions were formulated by reading the contemporary reviews. He early made a distinction between genius and talent. His juvenile publications in the American Monthly Magazine show the influence of Scott and Shakespeare. They also show an otherworldly philosophic attitude and an affectation of melancholy inconsistent with his personality. Through The United States Literary Gazette he became acquainted with the poetry of Bryant. His publications in the same periodical show a close imitation of Bryant's verse. He was thus of the first generation of American writers to have eminent American models: Irving for his prose and Bryant for his verse. "Italian Scenery" and "Venetian Gondolier" are rare instances of his youthful treatment of foreign themes. They and "Jepthah's Daughter" may reflect the influence of Byron. The success of his contributions to The United States Literary Gazette had just persuaded him to undertake literature as a career when he came under the influence of Thomas Cogswell Upham, the new professor of mental and moral philosophy at Bowdoin. At this time he wrote his father asking that he be permitted to devote his life to literature. His father insisted upon law as a career because of his belief that no one could support himself in literature in America. Longfellow accepted a compromise; the law was to be his vocation but literature his avocation, and his preparation for the latter was to include a post-graduate year at Harvard to study Romance languages and literature. He expressed a strong ambition for future eminence in literature. His "Lay Monastery," a series of essays published in the Gazette, showed a strong philosophical bent for the theories of the Common Sense school as taught by Upham. This influence led to realism in literary theory and pragmatism in thought. In the spring of 1825 his published verse shifted to Indian themes and local legends in an attempt to carry out Upham's theory of making America "a classic land." In a review of Grattan's High-Ways and By-Ways he used the critical formula of first analyzing the author's style, treatment of natural scenery, and character; then weighing the merits against the demerits. In "Poets and Common Sense Men" of the Lay Monastery Series he asserted that the secret of poetic creation was a mystery and defined poetry as the product of thought and love. In his Commencement Address at Bowdoin he asserted that poetry would be ascendant in America as an expression of all that was noble in national character. Beauty and sublimity would be attained through the influence of our natural scenery. He expressed regret that we could not yet cast off our allegiance to British literature. Acquisitive materialism was to him the great enemy of poetry. Election to the newly created chair of Modern Languages at Bowdoin made possible his long desired literary career. Realization that poetry was to be his career led him to give serious concern to his future. In a series of letters to Miss Caroline Doane he expressed a preference for the poetry of Bryant over that of Percival because of the former's thought content as opposed to the latter's sensuous appeal. He also expressed a theory that the poet should use eclectic selection from the beautiful features of real life to form an ideal picture of beauty. For this theory he claimed originality. To her he expressed a belief in the need of careful revision and a preference for freely flowing verse. And in her he confided that he proposed to cease publishing, but not writing, poetry. Accordingly the verses which he left with Carey and Lea for the Atlantic Souvenir, in the spring of 1826, were the last original verse he was to publish for over ten years. Professor Thompson, in his Young Longfellow, was misled by a failure to realize the literary purpose which both Longfellow and his father attributed to the period of European study. He therefore thought Longfellow was neglecting his duty whenever he made conscious preparation for a literary career. The period of study in Europe was a substitution for the earlier projected post-graduate year at Harvard. Longfellow had early asserted the need for knowledge as a prerequisite to poetic success. He shows the influence of Sismondi's theory that the highest poetic excellence, universality, can only be attained through subsuming the literary culture of all nations and deriving from them the secret of universal appeal. The study of Romance languages and literature was, therefore, part of Longfellow's plan for accomplishing what Sismondi had recommended. He could have learned of Sismondi from Upham or from Dr. Wells of the Bowdoin medical faculty. In Italy he had artistic experience for the first time. From Germany he wrote to his sister that he had ceased writing original verse, that his muse had been put in the "House of Correction." His return to Bowdoin, after three years of European study, found him expressing Sismondi's theories in his inaugural address and in the North American Review articles which he wrote on the origin and progress of the Romance Languages. His literary campaign was opened with prose essays which he put into book form in Outre-Mer. His literary theory displayed an other-worldly philosophy consistent with that expressed in his translation of the "Coplas" of Don Jorge Manrique. The offer of the chair at Harvard being vacated by Ticknor gave him an opportunity for another European trip to complete his project for subsuming the literary culture of Europe. He could complete the study of Old Norse, Old English, and German which he had already begun at Bowdoin. In Europe again he commenced his study of Old English in London. At Stockholm he studied Swedish, Old Norse, and Finnish, his major interest being the Old Norse documents such as Codex Argentius at Upsula. In Copenhagen he continued his philological studies. On the way to Heidelberg, however, he suffered the tragic loss of his young wife. His immediate reaction was renunciation of ambition for literary fame. This he expressed to his friend Greene in a letter which also contained a reiteration of the need for secrecy about literary projects -- a reticence he had first expressed in Italy eight years before. He threw himself into the intensive study of German literature in order to excape his sorrow. He returned to America having completed the grand project for subsuming the literary culture of Western Europe, but the ambition for literary fame had been subordinated to a desire to devote himself to the service of his fellow man. "Floral Astrology" published in the Knickerbocker Magazine, for December, 1837, over his ovm signature, opened his campaign for poetic eminence which achieved tremendous popular success in the publication of Voices of the Night, 1839. "Floral Astrology" was the first original verse he had published for over ten years. The interval had been devoted to translation from the literature of Western Europe and study of the progress of human thought through language for the purpose of achieving universality by the method urged by Sismondi. He also wished to avoid damage to his reputation through precocious publication.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University
RightsBased on investigation of the BU Libraries' staff, this work is free of known copyright restrictions