Longfellow and the Faith

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

These lines of the Carol “I heard the bells on Christmas Day” resound with me every Christmas – and often enough thereafter, when matters in Church, State, or Society at large horrify or disgust me. Their author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was at one time the best known poet in America – even after his early 20th century fall from critical grace, generations of school children were exposed to his work; now, however, he is best known for this poem – if at all. Nevertheless, our national landscape is littered with reminders of his work including his homes in Cambridge, MA and Portland, ME; the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA; the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site in Louisiana; the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan; and even the Church of the Hills at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills out here in California – an “authentic reproduction” of the church of his childhood in Maine. Despite the modern poetic establishment’s condemnation of his use of rhyme and metre, he has left his mark on the American mind.

Indeed, by any standard save that of the academic, his work was extraordinary. By location, Longfellow’s work ranged from New England to Louisiana and Nova Scotia to all of Europe; by time, from the earliest ages to the 19th century. He attempted, in Hiawatha, to create for the nation from what he believed to be authentic American Indian legends a truly national epic – but at the same time created the first English translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. A disciple of Washington Irving, close friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and sometime friend and enemy of Edgar Allan Poe, Longfellow was a key player in the creation not merely of American literature, but of American identity. In such poems as “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Courtship of Myles Standish” he determined how at least four generations would look at such key points in our history as the Revolution and the Pilgrims at Plymouth – regardless of how accurate or otherwise his version of events might have been. At the same time he saw both our national literature and nature as distinct from and yet integrally linked to those of Old Europe: not merely Great Britain, but France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and the rest of the Mother Continent.

In the latter half of the 19th and the better part of the 20th centuries, Longfellow was lumped in the popular mind with John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant as the so-called “Fireside Poets” – so called because their pleasant rhyme and metre and often sentimental treatment of even controversial topics lent themselves to home and school recitation. We have come a long way since poetry was considered popular entertainment! But at that time, these five were the first to rival English poets (even Lord Tennyson) in acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. At first glance these facts – and their common New England origin – would seem to be enough to warrant their being so grouped.

But Longfellow stands out from that crowd for two reasons: first, his afore-mentioned cosmopolitan interests. Even Hiawatha, although stitched together from various more-or-less authentic Indian legends, was set to the rhyme scheme of the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic. Fluent in Latin at an early age, his ease and joy in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian gave him a breadth of vision few Americans today could match, let alone his more provincial contemporaries.

This in turn allowed him to appreciate not merely European culture but the religion that had ultimately produced that culture in a way foreign to the other “Fireside Poets.” Certainly, his labors translating Dante had an effect on him, as may be seen in his cycle of six sonnets, “Divina Commedia.” These serve as a personal prelude to his edition of Dante, in which he likens the Florentine’s masterpiece to an ancient cathedral:

Oft have I seen at some cathedral door
A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat,
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o’er;
Far off the noises of the world retreat;
The loud vociferations of the street
Become an undistinguishable roar.
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 the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.

In a time when New England’s polite society regarded Catholic worship as mere superstition, this was a telling description. Although Longfellow, like most his friends, was a member of the Unitarian Church, he was fascinated by Jesus and orthodox Christianity’s claims for His divinity in a way that reminds one of Flannery O’Connor’s description of the South: to put it plainly, he was “Christ-haunted.” As early as 1849, he conceived a plan for a great cycle of poetry in three parts that he would call Christus: A Mystery. Although the second portion would actually appear first, in 1851, and the third eight years later, both were presented as independent and unrelated works: he finished the first section in 1871, and Christus finally appeared the following year as a complete work.

The first part of the cycle had given him enormous trouble for a very good reason; entitled “The Divine Tragedy,” it is a rendering of the public ministry of Christ as told in Gospels into verse, beginning with St. John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. Culminating with His appearance to the Apostles in the boat after the Resurrection, its shocking – to a Unitarian audience – affirmation of orthodoxy finished with an epilogue wherein each of the twelve Apostles offers a line from the Apostles’ Creed. The “Divine Tragedy” then closes out with an epilogue featuring Joachim of Flora preaching his apocalyptic views.

The next portion, “The Golden Legend,” is a retelling of a Medieval German folktale whose protagonist, a German Prince, offers his soul to the devil in order to win a fair maiden. But this interesting if obscure story brims with theological cogitations. In a letter to a British friend, Longfellow explained it thusly: “I am glad to know that you find something to like in The Golden Legend. I have endeavored to show in it, among other things, that through the darkness and corruption of the Middle Ages ran a bright, deep stream of Faith, strong enough for all the exigencies of life and death. In order to do this I had to introduce some portion of this darkness and corruption as a background. I am sure you will be glad to know that the monk’s sermon is not wholly of my own invention. The worst passage in it is from a sermon of Fra Gabriella Barletta, an Italian preacher of the fifteenth century. The Miracle Play is founded on the Apocryphal Gospels of James and the Infancy of Christ. Both this and the sermon show how sacred themes were handled in ‘the days of long ago.’” The attached Miracle Play allows Longfellow to tell the story of the Nativity. The Second Interlude here features Martin Luther justifying himself and condemning the Pope and all his enemies – including Erasmus.

The last section is called “The New England Tragedies.” Its first tale speaks of Puritan Governor (and founder of Connecticut) John Endicott, simultaneously praising his bravery and fervor while denouncing his cruelty and fanaticism. The second story is that of Giles Corey, executed as a witch at Salem and cast by Longfellow in the role of a martyr to superstition. Here Longfellow is most like his Fireside brethren; at a time when such folk called Boston the “hub of the Universe,” New England had such a hold upon the imagination of the poet that he rated two episodes of colonial history on a par with the life of Christ and Medieval Christendom. All of Longfellow’s travel and linguistic-cultural cosmopolitanism did not remove him from “the stock of the Puritans.”

Indeed, the Finale that concludes the entire work features St. John the Evangelist bewilderedly recounting the difficult history of Christianity, the various claims and counter-claims, wars and repressions. He closes the work with the lines:

From all vain pomps and shows,
From the pride that overflows,
And the false conceits of men;
From all the narrow rules
And subtleties of Schools,
And the craft of tongue and pen;
Bewildered in its search,
Bewildered with the cry:
Lo, here! lo, there, the Church!
Poor, sad Humanity
Through all the dust and heat
Turns back with bleeding feet,
By the weary road it came,
Unto the simple thought
By the great Master taught,
And that remaineth still:
Not he that repeateth the name,
But he that doeth the will!

So ends his epic on a typically Unitarian note – conduct over Creed. At first thought one might think the whole thing is much more succinctly put by Theosophist, Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and New Thought devotee (as well as New Englander) Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “So many gods, so many creeds, so many paths that wind and wind while just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs.” But where Mrs. Wilcox speaks out of certainty (rather ironic, given the indistinct nature of the vaguely connected doctrines she subscribed to), Longfellow, as shown by the body of his magnum opus, confessed doubts in his own doubt. It is not just that he quotes the Apostle’s Creed, that first victim of the Unitarian revolt; he came to believe in Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception – for which Bl. Pius IX enrolled him in the newly founded Pontifical Academy of the Immaculate, which that Pontiff created for defenders of that then-recently defined dogma. In various poems his innate attraction to Catholicism came out – as when, in a tribute to Florence Nightingale, he compared her to St. Philomena.

Of course, Longfellow’s life had its share of tragedy: his first wife died of a miscarriage in Europe, his second, Frances, of an accidental fire. His son was severely wounded during the Civil War, two years after his mother’s death. It was while Longfellow was very depressed, over this last misfortune, that Christmas found him sitting on the porch of his home in Nahant. Listening to the bells of the churches of Boston ringing out for Christmas across the harbor (a relatively new phenomenon for that city in the winter of 1864) he was inspired to write the poem that we opened with, which gave us the lyrics for the carol, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day.” Despite personal and national tragedy, and his own strange mixture of religious doubt and longing, hope managed to push its way foremost into his head:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

We shall not know this side of the grave what Longfellow’s final dispositions were in the last moments of his life. Faced as we are with a situation in some ways worse than what he saw that Christmas Day, it would be easy to despair. But armed with a certainty which he lacked, and the Sacraments that – save Baptism – he had never enjoyed, we have an obligation to face the future with at least as much confidence as he showed at that moment.