Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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My Last Visit to the Longfellows

The Longfellow party will soon depart for Naples, and I went to the Costanzi to make my final call. Mr. Henry W. Longfellow was alone in his parlor cutting the leaves of a large book. He said that his brother had gone to the Pincion with the ladies, but would probably return soon. Everything this man says and does has the same grace and elevated tone as his poetry. I took a chair and pretty soon he said to me, “How do you like your books, Mr. S——? For my part, I prefer to cut the leaves of a book, for then I feel as if I had earned the right to read it.” I replied that I liked books with rough edges if they were printed on good paper; and then he said, “See this remarkable picture.”

I drew my chair closer to him, and he showed me a large colored chart of Hell and Purgatory, according to the theory that prevailed in Dante’s time. Satan with his three faces was represented in the centre, and on the other side rose the Mount of Purgatory.

“It is an Italian commentary,” he said, “on the Divina Commedia," which had been sent to him that day; and he added that some of the information in it was of a very curious sort.

I asked him if he could read Italian as easily as English. “Very nearly," he replied; “but the fine points of Italian are as difficult as those of German.”

He inquired how I and my friends spent our evenings in Rome, and I said, “In all kinds of study and reading, but just now P—— was at work on Browning’s ’Ring and the Book.’”

Mr. Longfellow laughed. “I do not wonder you call it work,” he said. “It seems to me a story told in so many different ways may be something of a curiosity—not much of a poem.” [Footnote: I have since observed that poets as a class are not fair critics of poetry; for they are sure to prefer poetry which is like their own. This is true at least of Lowell, Emerson, or Matthew Arnold; but when I came to read “The Ring and the Book” I found that Longfellow’s objection was a valid one.]

I remarked that Rev. Mr. Longfellow had a decided partiality for Browning. “Yes,” he said; “Sam likes him, and my friend John Weiss prefers him to Tennyson. My objection is to his diction. I have always found the English language sufficient for my purpose, and have never tried to improve on it. Browning’s ’Saul’ and ’The Ride from Ghent to Aix’ are noble poems.”

“Carlyle also,” I said, “has a peculiar diction.” “That is true,” he replied, “but one can forgive anything to a writer who has so much to tell us as Carlyle. Besides, he writes prose, and not poetry.”

He took up a photograph which was lying on the table and showed it to me, saying, “How do you like Miss Stebbins’s ’Satan’?” I told him I hardly knew how to judge of such a subject. Then we both laughed, and Mr. Longfellow said: “I wonder what our artists want to make Satans for. I doubt if there is one of them that believes in the devil’s existence.”

I noticed on closer examination that the features resembled those of Miss Stebbins herself. Mr. Longfellow looked at it closely, and said, “So it does,—somewhat.” Then I told him that I asked Warrington Wood how he obtained the expression for his head of Satan, and that he said he did it by looking in the glass and making up faces. Mr. Longfellow laughed heartily at this, saying, “I suppose Miss Stebbins did the same, and that is how it came about. Our sculptors should be careful how they put themselves in the devil’s place. Wood has modelled a fine angel, and his group (Michael and Satan) is altogether an effective one.”

Rev. Mr. Longfellow and the ladies now came in, and as it was late I shook hands with them all.

It is reported that when Mr. Longfellow met Cardinal Antonelli he remarked that Rome had changed less in the last fifteen years than other large cities, and that Antonelli replied, “Yes; God be praised for it!”

Feb. 25.—The elder Herbert [Footnote: The elder of two brothers, sons of an English artist.] has painted a fine picture, and we all went to look at it this afternoon, as it will be packed up to-morrow for the Royal Exhibition at London. He has chosen for his subject the verse of a Greek poet, otherwise unknown:

  “Unyoke your oxen, you fellow,
  And take the coulter out of your plough;
  For you are ploughing amid the graves of men,
  And the dust you turn up is the dust of your ancestors.”

Herbert has substituted buffalos for oxen as being more picturesque, though they were not imported into Italy until some time in the Middle Ages. It is generally predicted that Herbert will become an R. A. like his father; but the subject is even more to his credit than his treatment of it. It is discussed at the Lapre whether this verse has been equalled by Tennyson or Longfellow, and the conclusion was: “Not proven.”

March 1.—The Longfellows are gone, and Rome is filling up with a different class of people who have come here to witness the fatiguing spectacles of Easter. One look at Michael Angelo’s “Last Judgment” would be worth the whole of it to me.

P—— is said to have captured his young lady, and it seems probable, for I see very little of him now. He disappears after breakfast, rushes through his dinner, and returns late in the evenings. So all the world changes.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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Cambridge Sketches
By Frank Preston Stearns
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