This month, I have been highlighting in my blog posts Voices in the Night, a series of poems written by Longfellow. For background and research on the poems, I am referencing articles from the mid-nineteenth century French authors found in the Revue des Deux Mondes.
In 1849, Émile Montégut wrote the article, “La Littérature en Europe et en Amérique: Oevres de Henri Wadsworth Longfellow” for the journal Revue des Deux Mondes. In his article, Montégutexamines how the nineteenth century literary works of American authors are influencing and shaping the European culture, specifically France.
Montégut’s article was written after the insurrections of the French Revolution and the more recent July Monarchy (1830-1848). He asserts that while the wars and tumultuous governments have “dazed our spirits and fatigued our bodies”, they have been softened by the moments of retiring into the floral lands created by the poets and the artists in the New World (America).
Montégut refers to these authors as the “adolescence of the new peoples of the American civilization”. The United States was in its infancy at this time—it was only a century old. However, this age is only based on the newly formed government. The peoples of the new United States are extensions of the old European civilization. “It is a bizarre menagerie of bureaucracy, theocracy, centralized administration, autocracy in the military, liberal morals, brutal force and diplomatic finesse” (My translation, 325).
All of Europe can be found in the United States, according to Montégut: the French, the English, the Polish, the Spanish, the Irish, all are represented in all sects of all colors, of puritans, of Quakers, Unitarians, Trinitarians, Millenaires, Catholiques, Anglicans, Mormons, Swedenborgiens, universal peace, free commerce, abolition of slaves, for the Bible, and for the poor. Nowhere else on Earth is a better balance of races, sects, religions, ideas, morals as the United States. It resembles an immense gathering where all the peoples of the land come together to know, to discuss the means to remake a new civilization (326).
Most importantly, this extension of Europe can be found in the literature of the United States which has been reproduced in scenes, customs, habits, tendencies, traditions and history. In France, where American poets of equal talent are unknown, Longfellow is the most successful. Montégut states that M. Henri Longfellow is, in effect, the writer who has the most culture in literature (328).
Montégut cites the series of poems by Longfellow, Voices of the Night, where there are certain pieces which utilize the prose of Goethe, sometimes Uhland and are reminiscent of the German ballads. In Voices, Longfellow combines a cultivated spirit, very cultivated, of citations, an immoderate luxury of science and a display of knowledge. His heroes often make an artistic pilgrimage across 19th century Europe.
In his poem The Beleaguered City, the author is retelling an “old marvelous tale” about the beleaguered walls of Prague. I recently visited this enchanted city, full of traditions and history, where the “solemn and deep church-bells entreat the city to pray”.
The Beleaguered City by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I have read, in some old, marvellous* tale,
Some legend strange and vague,
That a midnight host of spectres pale
Beleaguered the walls of Prague.
Beside the Moldau’s rushing stream,
With the wan moon overhead,
There stood, as in an awful dream,
The army of the dead.
White as a sea-fog, landward bound,
The spectral camp was seen,
And, with a sorrowful, deep sound,
The river flowed between.
No other voice nor sound was there,
No drum, nor sentry’s pace;
The mist-like banners clasped the air
As clouds with clouds embrace.
But when the old cathedral bell
Proclaimed the morning prayer,
The white pavilions rose and fell
On the alarmèd air.
Down the broad valley fast and far
The troubled army fled;
Up rose the glorious morning star,
The ghastly host was dead.
I have read, in the marvellous* heart of man,
That strange and mystic scroll,
That an army of phantoms vast and wan
Beleaguer the human soul.
Encamped beside Life’s rushing stream,
In Fancy’s misty light,
Gigantic shapes and shadows gleam
Portentous through the night.
Upon its midnight battle-ground
The spectral camp is seen,
And, with a sorrowful, deep sound,
Flows the River of Life between.
No other voice nor sound is there,
In the army of the grave;
No other challenge breaks the air,
But the rushing of Life’s wave.
And when the solemn and deep church-bell
Entreats the soul to pray,
The midnight phantoms feel the spell,
The shadows sweep away.
Down the broad Vale of Tears afar
The spectral camp is fled;
Faith shineth as a morning star,
Our ghastly fears are dead.
*Longfellow used the British spelling of “marvellous”.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Émile Montégut. La Littérature en Europe et en Amérique. Oeuvres de Henri Wadsworth Longfellow. Revue des Deux Mondes (1829-1971) NOUVELLE PERIODE. Vol 4, 2 (15 Octobre 1849)