The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XII. Longfellow

§ 4. Harvard

But the greatest influence of that sojourn, exhibited after he took up his duties at Harvard in December, 1836, is to be seen in the simple, wholesomely emotional, and unblushingly didactic poems with which Longfellow now began to win the hearts of his provincial readers. The Psalm of Life is perhaps the best known and the best chosen example of these “household poems,” shall we call them? With its companion pieces The Reaper and the Flowers, The Light of Stars, and Footsteps of Angels, it is undoubtedly amenable to some of the harsh criticism it has received from those persons who seem to imagine that taste thrives only on its own exigency. But it is hard to see how verses of subtler quality would have so sung themselves through the length and breadth of young America, or could have laid so broad and deep a foundation for the fame of the most heartily loved poet of his generation.

Long before that poet had reached the zenith of his reputation the professor had grown weary of his chair. At first he worked hard enough to justify weariness, particularly at the uncongenial task of supervising the instruction in the elementary language courses given by his assistants; but gradually, whatever enthusiasm he may have had for a scholarly, academic career wore itself out, and toward the end of his eighteen years of service—he resigned in 1854—he was almost querulous in his attitude toward a calling without the aid of which he would probably have remained a somewhat local and minor writer, his disposition scarcely prompting him to draw inspiration from Transcendentalism or the anti-slavery movement, and his genius not qualifying him to probe the heart or to wander in shadowland.

Whatever its irksomeness, however, his position at Harvard brought with it compensations. He soon secured a congenial habitat—the now famous Craigie House—he gathered about him a group of sympathetic friends, he became a distinguished figure in the most cultured community in America, the Cambridge of Lowell’s essay and of Colonel Higginson’s books, he added to his happiness and his income by a second marriage—to Miss Frances Elizabeth Appleton in 1843—and he found time and incentive to write whatever he had in his mind and heart to say. Reading his letters and his diaries, putting together the biographical details furnished by others, and constructing as best one can the man’s life and spirit from his writings, one is forced to the conclusion that except for a single great tragedy—the accidental burning to death of his wife in 1861—Longfellow’s is one of the most serenely fortunate careers ever led by a man of letters. Some of his critics have wished that it might have been otherwise, apparently supposing that, if he had been more unfortunate, his poetry would have been more to their liking. It is not, however, on record that any critic had deliberately wooed infelicity in order to qualify himself for a fuller enjoyment of Longfellow’s placid verses.