In the beautiful months of October, 1826, Longfellow made a foot-excursion along the banks of the Loire from Orléans to Tours, one continual vineyard. This lovely region is known as the garden of France. “The bright green foliage of the vine spreads, like the undulations of the sea, over all the landscape, with here and there a silver flash of the river, a sequestered hamlet, or the towers of an old château, to enliven and variegate the scene… Everything around me wore that happy look that makes the heart glad” (Outre-Mer, 93).
In Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, Longfellow tells of his travels in France with this sentiment:
I crave thy forbearance for having thought that even the busiest mind might not be a stranger to those moments of repose, when the clock of time clicks drowsily behind the door, and trifles become the amusement of the wise and great (5).
Using a guidebook of France, Itinéraire abrégé du Royaume de France by Hyacinthe Langlois, he was able to reference a large folding map of the Kingdom of France, tables of distances, transportation, historical monuments of the cities, as well as the delicacies peculiar to each province. For this blog, I will focus on Longfellow’s essay “The Valley of the Loire” from Outre-Mer as this is one of my favorite regions of France!
Longfellow visits the Château of Chambord during this pilgrimage through the Loire valley, “one of the finest specimens of the ancient Gothic castle to be found in Europe” (Outre-Mer, 100). At that time, there was a grand moat around Chambord which was deeply filled from the river Cosson, moss grown with age and blackened by the storms of three centuries. As he ascended the principal staircase, Longfellow seemed to have stepped back into the precincts of the feudal ages. “The distant past came back to me”; the times of clang of arms and the tramp of mail-clad men; when the “sounds of music and revelry and wassail, echoed along those high-vaulted and solitary chambers (101).
[This passage reminded me of Longfellow’s poem“ The Belfry in Bruges” [see post] in which he steps back into the medieval times as he stands in the belfort tower of Bruges. Here he summons the ghosts of Flemish past of 870 AD. ]
Longfellow then travels by foot to the city of Amboise. This was my favorite chateau of the Loire valley; however, Longfellow only refers to the landscape of Amboise. In 1516, da Vinci came to Amboise, France at the invitation of King Francois I, who provided the Chateau du Clos Lucé for him. The Chateau was only a few meters away from the Royal Chateau and the King and da Vinci soon began a great friendship. Leonardo brought three paintings with him to France all of which hang in the Louvre today. Da Vinci became a mentor to the King in the final three years of his life and Francois I was at his side when he died. I had the opportunity to visit da Vinci’s home at Clos Lucé and see his paintings, drawings, inventions as well as his gardens where he studied the biological life of the plants that he used in his paintings. [see post]
The last chateau that Longfellow visited was Chenonceau, a “dwelling for a warrior”(103). The armor of Francois 1st still hands upon the wall—his shield, and helm and lance—as if the chivalrous but dissolute prince had just exchanged them for the silken robes of the drawing room”(104). (I don’t remember seeing this in Chenonceau so I’m not sure if it is still there).
In the Château de Chenonceau, Francois 1st provided housing for both his wife, Catherine de Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
In the apartment for Catherine, Longfellow sees an autograph letter of Henry the Fourth, an old laboratory, drums, trumpets, skins of wild beasts in which “one expects to see the gallant princes and courtly dames enter those halls again and sweep in stately procession along the silent corridors”(105). In Diane’s bed-chamber, he finds antique chairs covered with faded damask and embroidery and a portrait of the royal favorite hanging over the mantelpiece.
In addition to the benefits of traveling the Loire valley to experience the French culture of the Renaissance, Longfellow remarks that the increased knowledge to be gained from contact with Europe—a land whose wealth is to be measured in the rich diversity of its people, languages, and literature—will add a valuable dimension to the American mind. Personally, I have enjoyed this experience of increased knowledge as well as profound pleasure in my travels across Europe.
Longfellow’s attitude towards literature was revealed in Outre-Mer. He passionately believed that great authors could exercise a profound influence on shaping men’s lives, according to Thomas H. Pauly in his article in the New England Quarterly (Mar. 1977). He believed strongly in the value of being “learned” but also in experiencing pleasure along the way. This is obvious in his travelogue of Outre-Mer. Pauly states that Longfellow’s “schoolmaster point of view” remains firm in these critical essays and “channeled these lessons into optimistic moral verities”(51). Consequently, Longfellow’s pleasure tour of France and Belgium gradually became a guided expedition into the educational benefits of European literature.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Longfellow, Henry W. Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. Philadelphia: McKay Publisher.
Pauly, Thomas H. “Outre-Mer and Longfellow’s Quest for a Career”. The New England Quarterly, 50,1. (Mar., 1977). JSTOR.org