On this day in 1882 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died, at the age of seventy-five. Longfellow was the most venerated and taught American poet of his day. His mythic tones, classical allusions and measured rhythms were a long way from Walt Whitman's "body electric" -- Whitman was just a dozen years his junior -- but they rang like Tennyson in the New World, and were extremely popular in both. This is from "Morituri Salutamus: Poem for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Class of 1825 in Bowdoin College," written in Longfellow's last decade and delivered to his alma mater, as Ulysses to his boatmen:
What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
Even in his own day this could be a target for parody -- or so thought Mark Twain in 1877, at the banquet in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier's seventieth birthday, and attended by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Twain saw these four as representatives of the stuffy, Eastern Literary Establishment -- a club of the great and triple-named in which Samuel Langhorne Clemens eyed a chair, so he wanted to be careful with his jest. The yarn he decided to spin had him recalling a night fifteen years earlier when he was forced to seek refuge in an old prospector's lonely log cabin. The prospector was not happy to hear that his guest was a writer: just the night before Emerson, Holmes and Longfellow had also come by, and their drinking, card-playing and self-quoting had made his life a literary hell:
. . . However, I started to get out my bacon and beans, when Mr. Emerson came and looked on a while, and then he takes me aside by the button-hole and says:
"Give me agates for my meat;
Give me cantharides to eat;
From air and ocean bring me foods,
From all zones and altitudes."
Says I, "Mr. Emerson, if you'll excuse me, this ain't no hotel." You see it sort of riled me; I wasn't used to the ways of littery swells. But I went on a-sweating over my work, and next comes Mr. Longfellow and button-holes me and interrupts me. Says he:
"Honor be to Mudjikeewis!
You shall hear how Pau-Puk-Keewis –"
But I broke in, and says I, "Begging your pardon, Mr. Longfellow, if you'll be so kind as to hold your yawp for about five minutes and let me get this grub ready, you'll do me proud."
The carousing and rhyming went on all night, said the prospector, and when they finally left in the morning, "Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his own under his arm":
Says I, "Hold on there, Evangeline, what you going to do with them?" He says: "Going to make tracks with 'em, because --
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of Time."
As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in 24 hours -- and I'm agoing to move -- I ain't suited to a literary atmosphere.
Twain, and the newspapers, reported that his joke was greeted with horror and silence by all; years later he was still scratching his head "that they didn't shout with laughter, and those deities the loudest of them all."