The Book of Sonnet Sequences

By Houston Peterson | Go to book overview

IX -- HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
[1807-1882]

COMPARING the gaunt features of the Florentine with the placid countenance of the American Tennyson, it seems strange to find the name of Dante recur continually in the letters and journals of Longfellow. Yet not so strange after all, for he was primarily the poetic scholar, the gracious Harvard professor steeped in the literatures of Europe and most apt to feel deeply in the presence of another's words.

As early as 1838, soon after he came to Cambridge, Longfellow was lecturing on Dante and making translations of noteworthy passages for use in class; some of them were published in his first volume of poems, Voices of the Night. In 1843, a few weeks before his second marriage, he was beginning the day with Dante: "I write a few lines every day before breakfast. It is the first thing I do, -- the morning prayer, the keynote of the day." Ten years later, when he was forty-six and almost at the height of his fame he noted in the journal: "In weariness of spirit and despair of writing anything original, I turned again, today, to dear old Dante, and resumed my translation of the Purgatorio where I left it in 1843 -- I find great delight in the work. It diffused its benediction through the day." But it was not until after his wife's pathetic death in 1861, when he was already sorrowing over the outbreak of the Civil War, that he turned desperately to Dante; and for more than five years he was absorbed in completing and annotating his translation of the Divine Comedy. The final revision was discussed before the weekly meetings of the Dante Club, a small group of Longfellow's close friends in Cambridge, and as a result what warmth and unity of spirit there might have been in

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