Why is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow not a Transcendentalist poet? One has only to read Longfellow’s verse in close proximity to that of Emerson or Thoreau or Jones Very in order to recognize that he is the better poet, and his themes mark him as clearly a romantic in orientation, far more inclined in that direction than, for example, Washington Irving. Longfellow’s sympathies lay with the Unitarian cause, virtually a prerequisite for Transcendentalist membership. And although Longfellow seems to be a product of a previous generation, he was four years the junior of Emerson and attended Bowdoin with Hawthorne, who might have become a Transcendentalist under different circumstances. Where, then, does Longfellow not fit into this camp, an outsider status that, in my opinion stands to his credit?
Both Emerson and Longfellow wrote considerably on the topic of nature, in fact, both penning a work with that single word as the title. Longfellow’s “Nature,” far less significant than Emerson’s, is a sonnet that can be seen to illustrate the distinction between the Transcendentalist and this poet.
As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
Henry James, Sr. famously declared Emerson as our “fair unfallen friend,” pronouncing him “literally the most childlike, unconscious and unblushing egoist it has ever been my forgune to encounter in the ranks of manhood.” Such could not be said of Longfellow. Like Hawthorne and perhaps Melville, Longfellow found himself drawn in the direction of the Transcendentalist zeitgeist, but held back by an awareness of the fallenness of human nature. In fact, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Melville could be described as populated different points on a spectrum of awareness of sin from the semi-optimistic Longfellow to the fairly bleak Melville.
What was Longfellow’s view of nature? The poem above, rather like Emerson’s Nature seems at first blush to say very little about nature itself. Where are the flowers and ducks and rocks and trees? That wasn’t what interested the man. Where Emerson sees nature as a source of mystical knowledge, a force that leads to life, Longfellow recognizes nature as a force leading to death with only the hope of a hazy hereafter to lessen the pain. Nature, in Longfellow’s eyes, “takes away our playthings one by one.” Here, the poet describes a very ambivalent view. In the final lines, the subject is “too full of sleep to understand how far the unknown transcends the what we know.” What does that mean? Is Longfellow referring to an ineffable afterlife, something that the dimming faculties of humanity cannot comprehend? Or is he suggesting that this lack of perception has nothing of consequence to perceive? While I incline toward the former, I believe these lines can be read both ways.
As attractive as the Transcendentalist camp might be, I find Longfellow’s view to be more realistic. And as I read him, I wonder whether the little glimmers of a nascent Christian thought that I perceive were placed there by the poet or inserted by the reader.