AbstractsLanguage, Literature & Linguistics

Longfellow's Lehjahre

by Robert Stafford Ward

Institution: Boston University
Year: 1951
Record ID: 1542490
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/2144/6344


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 The (hitherto unpublished) Copy Book does, however, show that the literary atmosphere at the Academy was one of interest in contemporary American writing.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…