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HENRY W. LONGFELLOW
(Address by Henry W. Longfellow, poet (born in Portland, Me., February 27, 1807; died in Cambridge, Mass., March 24, 1882), delivered in Boston, December 15, 1859, at a memorial meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society called for the purpose of taking action on the death of Washington Irving.)
Every reader has his first book. I mean to say, one book among all others, which in early youth first fascinates his imagination, and at once excites and satisfies the desires of his mind. To me this first book was the “Sketch Book" of Washington Irving. I was a schoolboy when it was published, and read each succeeding number with ever-increasing wonder and delight; spellbound by its pleasant humor, its melancholy tenderness, its atmosphere of reverie, nay, even by its gray-brown covers, the shaded letters of the titles, and the fair, clear type, which seemed an outward symbol of the style.
How many delightful books the same author has given us, written before and since-volumes of history and fiction, most of which illustrate his native land, and some of which illumine it, and make the Hudson, I will not say as classic, but as romantic as the Rhine! Yet still the charm of the “Sketch Book” remains unbroken; the old fascination still lingers about it; and whenever I open its pages, I open also that mysterious door which leads back into the haunted chambers of youth.
Many years afterwards I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Irving in Spain, and found the author, whom I had loved, repeated in the man. The same playful humor; the same touches of sentiment; the same poetic atmos
phere; and, what I admired still more, the entire absence of all literary jealousy, of all that mean avarice of fame, which counts what is given to another as so much taken from one's self
“ And rustling hears in every breeze,
The laurels of Miltiades."
At this time Mr. Irving was at Madrid, engaged upon his “Life of Columbus"; and if the work itself did not bear ample testimony to his zealous and conscientious labor, I could do so from personal observation. He seemed to be always at work. “Sit down,” he would say; “I will talk with you in a moment, but I must first finish this sentence."
One summer morning, passing his house at the early hour of six, I saw his study window already wide open. On my mentioning it to him afterwards, he said: “Yes, I am always at my work as early as six.” Since then I have often remembered that sunny morning and that open window, so suggestive of his sunny temperament and his open heart, and equally so of his patient and persistent toil; and have recalled those striking words of Dante:
“Seggendo in piuma,
Seated upon down,
Remembering these things, I esteem it a great though a melancholy privilege to lay upon his hearse the passing tribute of these resolutions :
Resolved, That while we deeply deplore the death of our friend and associate, Washington Irving, we rejoice in the completeness of his life and labors, which, closing together, have left behind them so sweet a fame, and a memory so precious.
Resolved, That we feel a just pride in his renown as an author, not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honorable name and position in the History of Letters.
Resolved, That we hold in affectionate remembrance the noble example of his long literary career, extending through half a century of unremitted labors, graced with all the amenities of authorship, and marred by none of its discords and contentions.
Resolved, That as members of this Historical Society, we regard with especial honor and admiration his Lives of Columbus, the Discoverer, and of Washington, the Father of our Country.
(Address by James Russell Lowell, poet, critic, Minister to England 1880-1885 (born in Cambridge, Mass., February 22, 1819; died there, August 12, 1891), delivered at Birmingham, England, October 6, 1884, on assuming the Presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute.)
He must be a born leader or misleader of men, or must have been sent into the world unfurnished with that modulating and restraining balance-wheel which we call a sense of humor, who, in old age, has as strong a confidence in his opinions and in the necessity of bringing the universe into conformity with them as he had in youth. In a world the very condition of whose being is that it should be in perpetual Aux, where all seems mirage, and the one abiding thing is the effort to distinguish realities from appearances, the elderly man must be indeed of a singularly tough and valid fibre who is certain that he has any clarified residuum of experience, any assured verdict of reflection, that deserves to be called an opinion, or who, even if he had, feels that he is justified in holding mankind by the button while he is expounding it. And in a world of daily-nay, almost hourly-journalism, where every clever man, every man who thinks himself clever, or whom anybody else thinks clever, is called upon to deliver his judgment point-blank and at the word of command on every conceivable subject of human thought, or, on what sometimes seems to him very much the same thing, on every inconceivable display of human want of thought, there is such a spendthrift waste of all those commonplaces which furnish the permitted staple of public dis
course that there is little chance of beguiling a new tune out of the one-stringed instrument on which we have been thrumming so long.
In this desperate necessity one is often tempted to think that, if all the words of the dictionary were tumbled down in a heap and then all those fortuitous juxtapositions and combinations that made tolerable sense were picked out and pieced together, we might find among them some poignant suggestions towards novelty of thought or expression. But, alas! it is only the great poets who seem to have this unsolicited profusion of unexpected and incalculable phrase, this infinite variety of topic. For everybody else everything has been said before, and said over again after. He who has read his Aristotle will be apt to think that observation has on most points of general applicability said its last word, and he who has mounted the tower of Plato to look abroad from it will never hope to climb another with so lofty a vantage of speculation. Where it is so simple if not so easy a thing to hold one's peace, why add to the general confusion of tongues?
There is something disheartening, too, in being expected to fill up not less than a certain measure of time, as if the mind were an hour-glass, that need only be shaken and set on one end or the other, as the case may be, to run its allotted sixty minutes with decorous exactitude. I recollect being once told by the late eminent naturalist Agassiz that when he was to deliver his first lecture as professor (at Zürich, I believe) he had grave doubts of his ability to occupy the prescribed three-quarters of an hour. He was speaking without notes, and glancing anxiously from time to time at the watch that lay before him on the desk. “When I had spoken a half hour,” he said, “I had told them everything I knew in the world, everything! Then I began to repeat myself,” he added, roguishly, “and I have done nothing else ever since.” Beneath the humorous exaggeration of the story I seemed to see the face of a very serious and improving moral. And yet if one were to say only what he had to say and then stopped, his audience would feel defrauded of their honest measure. Let us take courage by the example of the French, whose exportation of Bordeaux wines increases as the area of their land in vineyards is diminished.