From the moment I read “The Belfry in Bruges” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I felt an instant connection to this prolific and resourceful translator.
Longfellow uses the tool of language to enrich his characters in most of his works. How did he acquire this knowledge of the Modern Languages and Cultures of Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian?
In the early nineteenth century, the newly formed United States did not have much access to this literature and could not match the rich educational structure and culture of Europe. If American writers wanted to read literature in these Modern Languages, they had to travel to Europe, as did Longfellow. After receiving a professorship of Modern Languages from Bowdoin, the trustees recommended that Longfellow should prepare himself for this role as a young professor by traveling and studying abroad in Europe. He spent a little more than three years abroad. No other American writer had had this experience, and few would have it later. This immersion experience would fuse the native and the foreign!
Longfellow stated of this experience abroad,
“I have traversed France from Normandy to Navarre; smoked my pipe in a Flemish Inn; floated through Holland in a Trekschuit; and trimmed my midnight lamp in a German university… There is one kind of wisdom which we learn from the world, and another kind which can be acquired in solitude only (5, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea).”
This is where my connection to Longfellow came in. I too sought to be immersed in the French culture in order to learn the language and culture during a semester graduate internship at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Part of my thesis was to compare the acquisition of French language in an American university classroom with an immersion experience in a French speaking country.
[After being immersed in the traditional French language classroom for seven hours a day, I would then attempt to use my French skills in my Latin Quarter neighborhood of boulangeries and cafes with much success. On the weekends, I would travel across the various regions of France to experience the culture and different dialects of French in les Flamands in the northeast, les Alsaciens in the east [in my family home of Strasbourg on the border of Germany, there is still a heavy influence of the Alemannic German dialect of Alsace]; les Normands in the north, and la Provencaux in the south.]
Many critics of American Literature credit Longfellow of “interpreting the spirit of European culture to America”. Longfellow immersed himself in European life and culture naturally. He put his first stay in Europe to the best possible use. What was accomplished can best be judged in the enlargement of American through ideals that took place during his generation. Through his teaching and translations, he opened up the treasures of European literature to English Readers (57, Chamberlain).
According to his letters, he never enrolled formally in any university, except for Göttingen. He also attended lectures in Paris and immersed himself in systematic readings instead and studied German under the guidance of Professor Georg Benecke who had taught other Americans who were studying abroad.
His goal was to learn three to four languages as thoroughly as possible; his way of learning them was to hear them spoken, and to speak them himself, as constantly as might be, and meanwhile to read and even to write them. Longfellow quicky came to speak several languages with ease and even to write them. From Venice, on his way to Dresden, he wrote to his Father: “With the French and Spanish Languages I am familiarly conversant with as much ease and fluency as I do the English. He would soon write “Il Ponte Vecchio de Firenze”, an Italian sonnet a French Christmas poem “Quand les astres de Noël” and the German verse “Verlangst du, Erdgeboren!” (26, Arvin).
Even though Longfellow studied at three of the most prestigious colleges in the United States, William and Mary, Harvard, and University of Virginia, he received no formal language teaching as there were not any satisfactory textbooks nor teachers of foreign language at that time. Longfellow viewed the teaching of languages as a far greater importance than mere linguistic training; it was more of “the progress of the human mind, an enrichment of the understanding of becoming a “citizen of the world”(27). During his years at Bowdoin, he would write, translate, and publish language textbooks for students of French, Spanish, Italian as well as many works in German to introduce this new language to his American students [see my post “Longfellow and Goethe: Two Kindred Spirits from Different Worlds”]
In 1836, Longfellow began a professorship at Harvard as the Smith Professor . He lectured on the history of French language, Anglo-Saxon literature, Swedish literature, the life and writings of Goethe, and the life and writings of Jean Paul Richter. He was the first American professor to teach German literature, through a a course in Faust, and Italian, with the focus on Dante.
He would continue with to research and translate languages including Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf), Danish, Swedish, German, Dutch, French (Hugo!), Italian (Dante), Spanish and Portuguese. He compiled a collection of poetry from rich histories of these European countries in The Poets and Poetry of Europe [see my post: “Longfellow: Translation of 8th century Runic Literature from Iceland”].
Each chronological section of Europe is introduced by Longfellow in The Poets with cultural and linguistic history that, in most cases, he observed personally.
Teaching languages so fully committed as this must have given not only pleasure to the taught but joy to Longfellow, the teacher. Noting in his journal in 1847 that in that term he had two classes in Molière and Dante, he remarked: “No college work could be possibly pleasanter” (47, Arvin).
A good lesson to heed for this college professor of English!
Copyright 2022 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962.
Chamberlain, W. A. “Longfellow’s Attitude toward Goethe.” Modern Philology, vol. 16, no. 2, June 1918, pp. 57-76.