O fear not in a world like this,

And thou shalt know ere long,

Know how sublime a thing it is

To suffer and be strong.

In Voices of the Night, a series of poems inspired by the German poets, Longfellow expresses the benignant forces which effected his restoration and confirms the sentiments of German literature. This was quite a remarkable feat considering that before the 1800’s, there was almost no knowledge of German literature in America. There were very few German language books in New England in order to learn the language as there were grave doubts about the religious and moral views of these works.

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). 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. Therefore, interest in German subjects was rapidly increasing.

Enter Longfellow!

Longfellow was introduced to the rich European languages at an early age.  A student of Latin in his early years of education, he would visit Europe from 1826-1829 and live in Germany, England, Sweden and the Netherlands. Throughout his career, Longfellow wrote poetry and prose reflecting these travels as seen in the Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and the Belfry of Bruges.

Longfellow became the Librarian and a Professor of Modern Languages at his alma mater, Bowdoin University, in 1829 and began translating textbooks in French, Spanish and Italian. Longfellow himself felt strongly that Americans should be able to read one or more foreign languages when they graduate from college. According to Charles Calhoun, Longfellow was a “pioneer multiculturalist” who promoted the idea of a poet as one who champions non-English writers and thinkers (34).

During this critical period of establishing an identity in the early Nineteenth Century, Americans were looking 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 German writers, particularly Goethe.

Longfellow became acquainted with the works of Goethe while living in Weimar, Germany, Goethe’s home. He was greatly influenced, however, by Goethe’s literature of poetry and romance during this time. While on his European tour, in Rotterdam, Longfellow’s wife unexpectedly died, and he would turn for relief to the study of German poetry. According to  W.A. Chamberlin, “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.

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.

According to Chamberlin, Longfellow’s gift was more lyrical than narrative, so his best efforts are the songs and short poems that he wrote using the influence of the German language and the philosophy of Goethe:

 “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).

A series of short poems, Voices of the Night, is the first collection inspired by the works of Goethe after Longfellow’s German sojourn.  Longfellow declares the change that came over him as he gained a new view of life and art. Through German literature, he had found the sources of true poetry and its themes. “Reviewing the inclinations of his youth, his (Longfellow) delight in the silent woodlands and in lonely musings, he bids farewell to such fancies and turns to real objects”(Chamberlain, 68).Longfellow would learn these ingenuous, instinctive outpourings of the heart which were the foundations of Romantic theory from Goethe’s works.

I recently began to examine Voices of the Night and was drawn to an inspiring poem “The Light of Stars”. In Light, the author is stargazing and seeking solace from the “star of strength” for his pain.  He observes that There is no light in earth or heaven, /But the cold light of stars. When first seeing the first watch of night, the red planet Mars, the author sees light: Thou beckonest with thy mailed hand, /And I am strong again.

I have always been a student of Astronomy and frequently gaze into the evening skies, the first watch of night, in order to locate constellations and planets (using the APP “Skyview”). Drops of Jupiter in my hair, hey ay ay ay. I even prayed as a young girl that God would one day put me in charge of the planets.  “Who are we, that You would be mindful of us”(MercyMe)?This brings me great comfort to know that my personal Savior, who created the colossal universe filled with infinite planets and stars, also created me-a tiny spirit with an ardent passion for knowledge-and cares for me and intercedes for me to my Heavenly Father. Heavenly, as of the heavens. He is the Light of Stars and the Universe.  

The Light of Stars, painting by Jules Claire 2017

In light of the upcoming “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, December 21st, I love the intersection of reading Longfellow’s, “The Light of Stars” and this large star conjunction in the winter solstice-the only one I will witness in my lifetime!

(see article from nbc news on Jupiter and Saturn conjunction)

This double planet view happens once every 800 years and is believed to be the Star of Bethlehem that the great astronomers from the East, The Wise Men, followed to find baby Jesus. Longfellow’s theme of the intimate relation of God and Nature was inspired by Goethe. His belief in the divine nature in every human heart can be strengthened by God, even in the darkened soul (73).

During the horrific Covid pandemic of 2020, the Light of Stars continues to beckon us to the One who brings hope for the future: Jesus! Enjoy:

The Light of Stars

The night is come, but not too soon;

And sinking silently,

All silently, the little moon

Drops down behind the sky.

There is no light in earth or heaven,

But the cold light of stars;

And the first watch of night is given

To the red planet Mars.

Is it the tender star of love?

The star of love and dreams?

O no! from that blue tent above,

A hero’s armor gleams.

And earnest thoughts within me rise,

When I behold afar,

Suspended in the evening skies,

The shield of that red star.

O star of strength! I see thy stand

And smile upon my pain;

Thou beckonest with thy mailed hand,

And I am strong again.

Within my breast there is no light,

But the cold light of stars;

I give the first watch of the night

To the red planet Mars.

The star of the unconquered will,

He rises in my breast,

Serene, and resolute, and still,

And calm, and self-possessed.

And thou, too, whosoe’er thou art,

That readest this brief psalm,

As one by one thy hopes depart,

Be resolute and calm.

O fear not in a world like this,

And thou shalt know ere long,

Know how sublime a thing it is

To suffer and be strong.

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

Works Cited

Calhoun, Charles C. “Longfellow for the French Class”. The French Review. 13.2. (Dec.1939): 135-140.

Chamberlain, W. A. “Longfellow’s Attitude toward Goethe”. Modern Philology, 16.2. (June.,1918): 57-76.

Irmsher, Christophe. Public Poet, Private Man, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200. Houghton Library Collections. hcl.harvard.edu.   2008