A Rediscovered Life
By Charles C. Calhoun
Beacon. 317 pp. $27.50
In 1874, a New York newspaper paid Henry Wadsworth Longfellow $4,000 for his poem "The Hanging of the Crane. " Charles C. Calhoun calls it "the highest price ever paid to that date for a poem. " Given that $4,000 in 1874 was the equivalent in today's money of nearly $59,000, it seems safe to presume that Longfellow's record still holds.
Calhoun makes a good case. The author of Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha may not have been the great poet many of his contemporaries took him to be - among his admirers was Baudelaire - but neither was he as bad as his detractors would have us believe. The problem has less to do with the kind of poet Longfellow was than with the kind he was not. American poets since Whitman and Dickinson have tended to take as their primary subject the storm and stress of their own psyches. Longfellow, on the other hand, almost never wrote about his personal life.
He was a public poet, at his best, usually, telling stories in rhyme. It is worth recalling how many of his lines have entered the language as catchphrases: "ships that pass in the night," "into each life some rain must fall," "footprints on the sands of time. "
There are other ways in which Longfellow doesn't fit what has become a common image of the poet. As Calhoun observes, he was "so very nice a man. He did not sleep with his sister, grow addicted to opium, have to flee college because of his gambling debts, cruise the waterfront, sire an illegitimate child abroad, or drink himself into dementia. . . . his days in general were so placid, his livelihood so secure, his contemporary fame so universal, that . . . he came to be seen as a symbol of everything a writer should not be. "
Yet, as Calhoun also notes, "his life had an uncommon share of . . . personal tragedy. " His first wife died after a miscarriage while the couple were touring Europe. His second died after her dress caught fire in their home. Longfellow's hands and face were seriously burned as he tried to put out the flames. It has been thought that he grew his famous beard to cover up the scars. Calhoun doubts this, but there can be no doubt that the poet aged 20 years practically overnight.
Calhoun's biography is commendable in its economy. He is especially good describing the places associated with Longfellow, in particular Portland, Maine - where Longfellow was born in 1807 - and its environs. His defense of Longfellow's poetry is all the more forceful for never being overstated. The Song of Hiawatha may lend itself to parody, but, as Calhoun points out, "a skillful declaimer can vary its otherwise insistent . . . beat. " Such is the case with much of Longfellow's verse. It needs to be performed, but demands a polished performer. Done right, Evangeline, which has often been criticized for the regularity of its meter, can sound quite impressive.
Calhoun rightly praises the splendid sonnets Longfellow wrote toward the end of his life, and is particularly good in his discussion of Tales of a Wayside Inn. "No other work," he says "better demonstrates Longfellow's breadth of poetic interests . . . and his absolute mastery of English prosody. " This, in fact, is the work that those skeptical of Longfellow's talent should take a closer look at. Poet Dana Gioia, one of Longfellow's most spirited defenders, has pointed out that the best-known of the Tales, "Paul Revere's Ride," is often, in its scene-shifting and forward motion, "quintessentially cinematic. " "Few poets," Gioia writes, "could sustain a single, linear action for nearly forty lines as Longfellow manages so compellingly in the poem's extended climax. "
Not all of his contemporaries were taken with Longfellow's work. Edgar Allan Poe savaged Longfellow repeatedly, calling him on one occasion "singularly deficient in all those important faculties which give artistical power. . . . He has no combining or binding force. He has absolutely nothing of unity. "
Fighting words indeed. But Longfellow bore them with good grace and, when Poe died, wrote that "the harshness of his criticisms I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong. "
He must have meant it. When Poe's aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, wrote to Longfellow asking for a copy of his The Sea and the Fireside, he not only sent her the book, but also began a correspondence with her, and over the next 16 years sent her money and books and did other small favors for her.
He really was a very nice man.