In my last blog, I examined the role of Longfellow as a translator while a Smith Professor of Modern Language at Harvard University, specifically the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [see post Longfellow Translating Goethe]. During this critical period of establishing an identity in the early Nineteenth Century, Americans had looked to England for guidance in intellectual and literary ideas. This would soon change during Longfellow’s tenure as he introduced American culture to the works of Goethe. In addition, the German institutions became an area of interest as their efficiency in schools and intellectual accomplishments became more known among U. S. scholars.
German was first introduced as a subject of study at Harvard in 1825. Harvard had quite a collection of German books, including thirty works by Goethe, which were presented by Joseph Coggswell (Goethe-Jarbuch, XXV, 15). Even though American scholars had been reluctant to encourage German literature in university life due to their doubts of the religious and moral views of these works, interest in German subjects was rapidly increasing. Enter Longfellow!
Longfellow quickly became a prominent figure in Modern Languages at Harvard. He had just returned from Europe where he traveled and lectured from 1826-1829. Longfellow studied in Weimar, Goethe’s home, but did not have the opportunity to meet him personally (Chamberlain, 59). He was greatly influenced, however, by Goethe’s literature of poetry and romance during this time. While on his European tour, in Rotterdam, his wife unexpectedly died and he would turn for relief to the study of German poetry. According to Chamberlain, “His religious and intellectual character was broadened and his courage aroused by communion with the German poets…Heidelberg, Goethe, and Uhland were his favorite companions of his lonely hours ” (65).These German writings would now be infused by Longfellow into the spirit of the American mind in his classroom and translations.
Artist’s Evening Song by Goethe
Oh, for some inner creative force
Through my mind, echoing!
That through my hands might course
A sap-filled blossoming.
I only shudder, I only stutter,
And yet can’t halt: at last,
I feel I know you, Nature,
And must hold you fast.
When I think how all these years
My powers have been growing,
And where barren heath appeared
Now streams of joy are flowing:
How I yearn for you, Nature, then,
And long for you, with faith and love!
For me you’ll be the leaping fountain,
A thousand springs will hurl above.
And every single power
In my mind you’ll heighten,
And this narrow being-here
To Eternity you’ll widen.
Longfellow offered six lectures on German literature, three of which highlighted Goethe’s life and writings. Part of these lectures included his translations of Goethe’s Faust which he would later use in his own poem, Hyperion. In an entry of Longfellow’s journal, he writes: “’Today a new class in college wants to read Faust. And I cannot in good conscience say No. Inclination to do everything for the youngster prompts me to say Yes; accordingly I do say Yes. (Chamberlain, 64).’”
Longfellow followed the philosophy of Goethe which can be found in Wilhelm Meister Book VII:
“Look not mournfully into the Past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the Present. It is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy Future, without fear, and with a manly heart…Art is long, life short, judgement difficult, the opportunity fleeting…The heights attract us, but not the steps; the summit in view, we gladly wander in the plain” (p.8).
Longfellow would use this philosophy in many of his poems [see my blog Psalm of Life]. Goethe’s expressions of the intimate relationship between God and Nature is also evident in Longfellow’s Flowers:
Spake full well, in language quaint and olden,
One who dwelleth by the castled Rhine,
When he called the flowers, so blue and golden,
Stars, that in earth’s firmament do shine.
Stars they are, wherein we read our history,
As astrologers and seers of eld;
Yet not wrapped about with awful mystery,
Like the burning stars, which they beheld.
Wondrous truths, and manifold as wondrous,
God hath written in those stars above;
But not less in the bright flowerets under us
Stands the revelation of his love.
Bright and glorious is that revelation,
Written all over this great world of ours;
Making evident our own creation,
In these stars of earth, these golden flowers.
And the Poet, faithful and far-seeing,
Sees, alike in stars and flowers, a part
Of the self-same, universal being,
Which is throbbing in his brain and heart.
Gorgeous flowerets in the sunlight shining,
Blossoms flaunting in the eye of day,
Tremulous leaves, with soft and silver lining,
Buds that open only to decay;
Brilliant hopes, all woven in gorgeous tissues,
Flaunting gayly in the golden light;
Large desires, with most uncertain issues,
Tender wishes, blossoming at night!
These in flowers and men are more than seeming,
Workings are they of the self-same powers,
Which the Poet, in no idle dreaming,
Seeth in himself and in the flowers.
Everywhere about us are they glowing,
Some like stars, to tell us Spring is born;
Others, their blue eyes with tears o’erflowing,
Stand like Ruth amid the golden corn;
Not alone in Spring’s armorial bearing,
And in Summer’s green-emblazoned field,
But in arms of brave old Autumn’s wearing,
In the centre of his brazen shield;
Not alone in meadows and green alleys,
On the mountain-top, and by the brink
Of sequestered pools in woodland valleys,
Where the slaves of nature stoop to drink;
Not alone in her vast dome of glory,
Not on graves of bird and beast alone,
But in old cathedrals, high and hoary,
On the tombs of heroes, carved in stone;
In the cottage of the rudest peasant,
In ancestral homes, whose crumbling towers,
Speaking of the Past unto the Present,
Tell us of the ancient Games of Flowers;
In all places, then, and in all seasons,
Flowers expand their light and soul-like wings,
Teaching us, by most persuasive reasons,
How akin they are to human things.
And with childlike, credulous affection,
We behold their tender buds expand;
Emblems of our own great resurrection,
Emblems of the bright and better land.
Many critics of American Literature credit Longfellow of “interpreting the spirit of European culture to America”(65). Longfellow desired to broaden the horizon of his comrades and his students. What was accomplished can best be judged in the enlargement of American though and ideals that took place during his generation. Through his teaching and translations, he opened up the treasures of German literature to English readers.
Finally, to experience these inspired ideals of Goethe in which Longfellow based many of his own poems, I have ordered Uber allen Gipfeln and Goethe’s Complete Poetry from Abe Books. The first is in German and the second is a translation of poems (some from Longfellow). Happy Mother’s Day to me!!
Chamberlain, W. A. “Longfellow’s Attitude toward Goethe.” Modern Philology, vol. 16, no. 2, June 1918, pp. 57-76. www.jstor.org/stable/433174.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)