HOW THE CHILDREN HONORED THE POET.
When General George Washington, on a
February day in I 776, walked into his study in the Craigie house,
at Cambridge, he was cheered by a glad surprise. It was his
birthday, and as his best present came Colonel Henry Knox, the Boston
bookseller, with tidings that he had safely sledded across the snow from
Canada fifty cannon, with ammunition and supplies for the American
army besieging Boston.
It was precisely the birthday present that Washington
most desired. "Nothing could
be more apropos," he exclaimed joyfully. And
then he went to work to
drive the British from Boston.
One hundred and three years later, on a February day
in 1879, another dearly loved and famous American walked into the same
study in the same Cambridge house, to be greeted with an equally glad
It was the seventy-second birthday of Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, owner and occupant of that historic Craigie house which had
been the headquarters of Washington during the siege of Boston. And in
that pleasant front room that was his as it had been Washington’s
study, the " white Mr.
Longfellow," as the great Norwegian writer called him, spied
something new,—a big armchair, cleverly framed and artistically
carved, in the seat of which was sunk a brass plate upon which this
greeting was inscribed: "To the author of ‘The Village Blacksmith’
this chair, made from the wood of the ‘spreading chestnut tree,’ is
presented as an expression of grateful regard and veneration by the
children of Cambridge, who, with their friends, join in
the best wishes and congratulations on this anniversary, February 27,
Seven hundred boys and girls had joined forces to
present to the beloved poet this gracious token of their affection. It
was also a memorial of the famous" spread-
ing chestnut tree" of Brattle
Street in Cambridge, under which, for so many years, had stood the
"village smithy" which Longfellow’s verse had made known to
seventy times seven hundred American school children.
It was, in its way, as agreeable a surprise to him as Colonel Knox’s
ox loads of cannon and shot had been to Washington,—though one was the
emblem of war and action, while the other spoke of peace and ease. And
if you wish to know how appropriate Longfellow considered the gift, take
down his poems, and turn to the verses which he entitled "From my
Arm-chair," and which begin:
"Am I a king, that I should call my own
This splendid ebon throne?"
At that time Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was esteemed the children’s
poet, the king of American bards, the fruitage of all those long years
of Massachusetts genius and thought and culture which culminated in the
four eminent American and Massachusetts poets who stood beside the open
grave of their common friend Charles Sumner in Mount Auburn, when
Massachusetts laid her champion to rest, —Longfellow, Whittier,
Emerson, and Holmes.
That chair still stands in the poet’s study
in Craigie house; and if one of the boys or girls who know so many of
the ennobling poems of
Longfellow could sit in that carven
chair, and with closed eyes could look back along the years of
Massachusetts’s literary growth, what would be seen?
Something should be seen from it, certainly. It was a
magic chair, if we may trust Longfellow’s own words:
"The Danish king could not, in all his
pride, Repel the ocean tide;
But, seated in this chair, I can, in rhyme,
Roll back the tide of Time."
So, seated in that magic chair, the boy or girl who
looks into the past should be able to "roll back the tide of
Time," and exclaim, with the poet, its owner:
"I see again as one in vision sees!" What
would he see?
A long procession of earnest, gifted, and laborious
workers with the pen—Massachusetts men and women, all—coming out of
the past and filing before the youthful watcher in the chair,—the
twentieth-century boy or girl, for whose enlightenment, education, and
culture these men and women of the commonwealth have all recorded,
reasoned, romanced, taught, or sung.
First, the heralds, trumpeting forth in martial or in
soberer strains the merits of Massachusetts as a home for those across
the sea: doughty Captain John Smith, with dinted corselet and battered
morion, equally handy with the sword or pen, writing down with the
latter: "Of all
the parts of the world I
have yet seen not inhabited, I
would rather live here than anywhere; "
gentle William Bradford, the Moses of the
wilderness, the second governor of Plymouth colony, writing the first
of Massachusetts almost before
there was any Massachusetts to write the history of; stately John
Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay, proclaiming that
Massachusetts was "a paradise," and writing
that noble essay on liberty, at once patriotic and
eloquent, in which he said: "This liberty is the proper end and
object of authority. . . . This
liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard, not only of your goods,
but of your lives, if need be." And so the heralds pass.
Then come, with slow and solemn steps, in black
Geneva cloaks and starched white bands, the ministers of the colony,
well meaning but tyrannical teachers, writing little that is palatable
or digestible in these gentler days of wider love and broader
brotherhood, but with an enthusiasm for learning and a fervor of
expression that entered into the education of the people and laid the
foundation for a permanent and broadening culture when the tyranny of
theology should at last be broken:
John Cotton and Roger Williams, Nathaniel Ward and
Michael Wigglesworth, and those two pompous hut stalwart preachers, half
prophets of liberty, Increase and Cotton Mather, tireless and often
tiresome writers. Among these preachers walks the figure of a woman,—
the first American woman writer and poet, Mistress Anne Bradstreet, who
called herself, with a quaint egotism, "the tenth muse,"
possibly because she thought the other nine would not recognize her as
really a member of their tuneful sisterhood.
Here, too, in that somewhat somber throng are the
businesslike figures of the recorder Johnson, the "father of
Woburn," and the grim soldier, Captain Mason,
leader and historian of the Pequot War; John Eliot,
"apostle to the Indians" and translator of the famous Indian
Bible; Matthew Byles of Boston, wit, preacher, and poet; jolly Peter
Folger of Nantucket, grandfather of Franklin; sad-eyed Mary Rowlandson
of Lancaster, who told the story of her Indian captivity; Samuel Sewell,
judge and diarist, as great a gossip as the Englishman Pepys; and
closing that long line of stern teachers of a sterner morality, the
greatest and sternest, the wisest and deepest of them all, Jonathan
Edwards, the great preacher of Northampton, to whom a kindlier age has
reared a monument at pleasant Stockbridge. So the pioneers pass.
Then follows the line of new Americans, whose pens,
somewhat uncertain in rhythm or stilted in story, open the way to wider
and nobler views of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the
van walks Dr. Benjamin Franklin, greatest, wisest, noblest of them all,
ever a loyal son of Massachusetts and his "dear Boston,"
though the most of his wonderful life was passed in Philadelphia.
Essayists, orators, and statesmen follow the portly doctor: James Otis,
fiery and fearless; Samuel Adams, dauntless and forcible; John Trumbull,
the wit of the Revolution, who studied law with John Adams, and there
wrote his greatest satire, "McFingal;" fussy old John Adams,
himself the prince of letter-writers and most unselfish of patriots;
Jonathan Mayhew, whose sermons and essays were called the "morning
gun of the Revolution ;" Joseph
Warren, the orator of the Boston Massacre and most famous victim of
Bunker Hill; Thomas Hutchinson, royalist governor
and historian, whose better
qualities are only now becoming rediscovered; and two women to close the
train —Phyllis Wheatley, the remarkable Boston
slave girl and poet, complimented by Washington, and Mercy Warren, the
intrepid sister of James Otis and first historian of the Revolution.
So they pass; but, as they go, they unroll before the
dreamer in the magic chair their greatest, noblest work, the State
Constitution of Massachusetts, and her Declaration of Rights, written
while yet England rode rough-shod through the war-swept colonies,—"a
worthy monument," says Mr. Goddard, "to the intellectual
elevation of the statesman who modeled and the people who accepted
it,"—John Adams being its "chief architect."
Enter the new republic, and with it the writers of
the free commonwealth of Massachusetts. They come in meager numbers, for
the first years of independence and nation-building gave but little time
for writing or story-making. And yet two story-tellers lead, women both
of them,—Hannah Foster of Brighton, who wrote the sentimental"
Coquette," and Susannah Rowson, the Newton school-teacher, with her
tearful tale of "Charlotte Temple." Quite the opposite of
these sentimental ladies, now comes William Tudor with his "North
American Review," in which Massachusetts men, later famous in
letters, wrote with strength, though sometimes, so young people might
think, they were "mighty dry." John Quincy Adams, President,
patriot, essayist, and poet, is in the van, short, stout, and always
active, with Joseph Story (pen couched like a lance to charge against
Thomas Jefferson) and Jared Sparks, first of
American writers of popular history and
biography, to whom all later writers on American history owe a lasting
debt. Two women follow these: Hannah Adams, with her "
History of New England," first to be used
as a schoolbook, and Catherine Sedgwick, whose "Hope Leslie"
was once dear to thousands of children. After them walk two once famous
poets, Richard Henry Dana, who wrote the "
Buccaneer" and discovered Bryant, and
Charles Sprague with his Shakespeare Ode, followed by John Pierpont, the
hymn-writer, and three friends of children whose names the story-crammed
boys and girls of America still know and reverence,—Lydia Maria Child,
Peter Parley (whose real name was Samuel G. Goodrich), and Jacob Abbott,
creator of the "Rollo Books."
Then, with a triumphant burst of welcoming music,
that startles even the dreamer in the magic chair, enter the last and
best,—the giants of this passing show, the top and crown of the Old
Bay State’s two centuries of literary growth. The names alone startle
the ear, brighten the eye, and set the heart astir; for what boy or girl
does not think of them with veneration and and wish he might have seen
those heroes of the pen ?—those clear-eyed reformers Channing,
Garrison, Parker, and Phillips; those wise and practical philosophers
and thinkers Emerson, Alcott, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller; those
stirring historians Bancroft and Motley, Ticknor and Parkman and
Prescott; those splendid orators Webster, Sumner, and Everett; those
matchless story-tellers Hawthorne and Louisa Alcott and Harriet Beecher
Stowe: those greatest of American poets Bryant and Whittier, Holmes and
and, the prince of them all, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in whose
magic birthday chair at Craigie our overfilled dreamer is just now
They are Massachusetts men and women all! What other little patch of
earth of eighty-three hundred square miles can show so noble, so
triumphal a procession? Is it not enough to stir boys and girls to deep
and grateful thoughts, whether Massachusetts or Montana, Boston or New
Orleans, be their home ?—for all were, as are they, Americans.
Wake up! young dreamer in the children’s magic chair. Pass from one
yellow colonial house to another, from one Revolutionary headquarters to
another, from one poet’s home to another, from Longfellow’s at
Craigie house to Lowell’s at Elmwood.
And, as you pass from the home of America’s most famous poet to
that of America’s foremost man of letters, pause at the old-fashioned
gate of Elmwood, and say, as did Longfellow, standing on that very spot:
"Sing to him, say to him, here at his gate,
Where the boughs of the stately
elms are meeting, Some one hath lingered to meditate
And send him unseen this friendly
"That many another bath done the
Though not by a sound was the
The surest pledge of a deathless
Is the silent homage of thoughts