Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

prose style was not unaffected by that of the author of the SketchBook ; some of his contributions to the volume of Miscellaneous Poems from the United States Literary Gasette closely resembled the work, in the same pages, of the writer of Thanatopsis ; still later not only the spirit but the metrical forms of Heine reappeared in many a lyric of the heart, sung by the banks of Charles; the trochaic tetrameter of Hiawatha was an adaptation; and last of all the great Florentine less obviously, but not less truly, dominated the thought and style of his translator.

But if the foreign sketches entitled Outre-Mer, the entire romance of Hyperion, and even the more distinctly New England story of Kavanagh, show little originality, our debt to them remains deep and lasting. It was because Longfellow was so quickly receptive that he caught so much of the sweetness of rural France, the faded grandeur of the Castilian country, the secret of the time of troubadour or minnesinger, and, above all, the perennial fascination of medieval Germany. As an American he well knew and fully shared the aspirations of his own people ; as a citizen of the world he gathered up and brought home rich spoils from foreign lands, to be utilized in the western states in a day when intelligent guidance was peculiarly necessary. No other did, or could do, so much in this line of salutary effort. The prevalent sentimentality of the time, Longfellow raised into sentiment; his panorama of European life was set before American eyes in a suggestive, as well as pleasing, manner; while, in his chief prose work, Hyperion, he caught and kept and made immediately serviceable the very moonshine and mystery of transcendental romance. The chapter near the close of the work, entitled Footprints of Angels, is written in a style which seems as far removed from current literary fashions as the steel-engraved “embellishments" of the Philadelphia magazines of the forties are removed from an etching by Whistler. But such a chapter did more than make the impressionable youths of the period write “how beautiful” upon the margin of the beloved volume; it induced them to transmute feeling into action and vague sentiment into purposeful endeavor. The difference between 1839 and 1870 is merely the difference between the mortuary inscription which Longfellow made the heart of this chapter and the text of the whole romance, and the brisk Saxon motto

which, thirty years after, Edward Everett Hale wrote as the practical creed of Ten Times One Clubs or Look-up Legions. The words are very different; the purpose is one.

One must ask, however, in the case of any work of art, whether its form and inherent value have outlasted the time of production. Utility is good, but it does not make literature. Is Longfellow's prose to be remanded to the shelf of the collection of bibliographical varieties, along with the French and Spanish text-books which he so painstakingly prepared for the crude collegians of our essentially provincial little seminaries of the early day?. Driftwood was the title prefixed by him to his fugitive essays in prose; the very title of Outre-Mer has been used again for the benefit of a generation of readers that knows not Joseph; and few indeed will agree with Emerson - here, as usually, an untrustworthy critic of limited view that Kavanagh was, even in 1849, the best sketch in the direction of the American novel. But if the Concord sage, with many another reader, was surprised to find himself “charmed with elegance in an American book," it was because “elegance" was really present even in parts of Kavanagh, as it was certainly present in Outre-Mer and Hyperion. And elegance, after all, is not a thing to be banished from belles-lettres.

CHARLES F. RICHARDSON

FOOTPRINTS OF ANGELS

It was Sunday morning; and the church bells were all ringing together. From the neighboring villages came the solemn, joyful sounds, floating through the sunny air, mellow and faint and low, — all mingling into one harmonious chime, like the sound of some distant organ in heaven. Anon they ceased; and the woods, and the clouds, and the whole village, and the very air itself seemed to pray, --so silent was it everywhere.

Two venerable old men, — high-priests and patriarchs were they in the land, - went up the pulpit stairs, as Moses and Aaron went up Mount Hor, in the sight of all the congregation, -- for the pulpit stairs were in front, and very high.

Paul Flemming will never forget the sermon he heard that day,

no, not even if he should live to be as old as he who preached it. The text was, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” It was meant to console the pious, poor widow, who sat right below him at the foot of the pulpit stairs, all in black, and her heart breaking. He said nothing of the terrors of death, nor of the gloom of the narrow house, but, looking beyond these things, as mere circumstances to which the imagination mainly gives importance, he told his hearers of the innocence of childhood upon earth, and the holiness of childhood in heaven, and how the beautiful Lord Jesus was once a little child, and now in heaven the spirits of little children walked with him, and gathered flowers in the fields of Paradise. Good old man ! In behalf of humanity, I thank thee for these benignant words! And still more than I, the bereaved mother thanked thee, and from that hour, though she wept in secret for her child, yet

“She knew he was with Jesus,

And she asked him not again.”

After the sermon, Paul Flemming walked forth alone into the churchyard. There was no one there, save a little boy, who was fishing with a pin hook in a grave half full of water. But a few moments afterward, through the arched gateway under the belfry, came a funeral procession. At its head walked a priest in white surplice, chanting. Peasants, old and young, followed him, with burning tapers in their hands. A young girl carried in her arms a dead child, wrapped in its little winding sheet. The grave was close under the wall, by the church door. A vase of holy water stood beside it. The sexton took the child from the girl's arms, and put it into a coffin; and, as he placed it in the grave, the girl held over it a cross, wreathed with roses, and the priest and peasants sang a funeral hymn. When this was over, the priest sprinkled the grave and the crowd with holy water; and then they all went into the church, each one stopping as he passed the grave to throw a handful of earth into it, and sprinkle it with holy water.

A few moments afterwards, the voice of the priest was heard saying mass in the church, and Flemming saw the toothless old sexton, treading the fresh earth into the grave of the little child, with his clouted shoes. He approached him, and asked the age of the deceased. The sexton leaned a moment on his spade, and shrugging his shoulders replied ;

“Only an hour or two. It was born in the night, and died this morning early.”

“A brief existence,” said Flemming. “The child seems to have been born only to be buried, and have its name recorded on a wooden tombstone."

The sexton went on with his work, and made no reply. Flemming still lingered among the graves, gazing with wonder at the strange devices, by which man has rendered death horrible and the grave loathsome.

In the temple of Juno at Elis, Sleep and his twin-brother Death were represented as children reposing in the arms of Night. On various funeral inonuments of the ancients the Genius of Death is sculptured as a beautiful youth, leaning on an inverted torch, in the attitude of repose, his wings folded and his feet crossed. In such peaceful and attractive forms, did the imagination of ancient poets and sculptors represent death. And these were men in whose souls the religion of Nature was like the light of stars, beautiful, but faint and cold! Strange, that in later days, this angel of God, which leads us with a gentle hand, into the “land of the great departed, into the silent land,” should have been transformed into

a monstrous and terrific thing! Such is the spectral rider on the white horse ; — such the ghastly skeleton with scythe and hour-glass,

the Reaper, whose name is Death !

One of the most popular themes of poetry and painting in the Middle Ages, and continuing down even into modern times, was the Dance of Death. In almost all languages is it written, - the apparition of the grim spectre, putting a sudden stop to all business, and leading men away into the “remarkable retirement” of the grave. It is written in an ancient Spanish poem, and painted on a wooden bridge in Switzerland. The designs of Holbein are well known. The most striking among them is that, where, from a group of children sitting round a cottage hearth, Death has taken one by the hand, and is leading it out of the door. Quietly and unresisting goes the little child, and in its countenance no grief, but wonder only; while the other children are weeping and stretching forth their hands in vain towards their departing brother. A beautiful design it is, in all save the skeleton. An angel had been better, with folded wings, and torch inverted !

And now the sun was growing high and warm. A little chapel, whose door stood open, seemed to invite Flemming to enter and enjoy the grateful coolness. He went in. There was no one there. The walls were covered with paintings and sculpture of the rudest kind, and with a few funeral tablets. There was nothing there to move the heart to devotion ; but in that hour the heart of Flemming was weak, — weak as a child's. He bowed his stubborn knees, and wept. And oh ! how many disappointed hopes, how many bitter recollections, how much of wounded pride and unrequited love, were in those tears, through which he read on a marble tablet in the chapel wall opposite, this singular inscription;

“Look not mournfully into the Past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the Present. It is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy Future, without fear, and with a manly heart." It seemed to him, as if the unknown tenant of that grave

had opened his lips of dust, and spoken to him the words of consolation, which his soul needed, and which no friend had yet spoken. In a moment the anguish of his thoughts was still. The stone was

from the door of his heart; death was no longer there, but an angel clothed in white. He stood up, and his eyes were no

rolled away

« AnteriorContinuar »