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When writing to his father of the appearance of his new volume of poems, Mr. Longfellow said: “I think the last two pieces the best, — perhaps as good as anything I have written.'' These pieces were the following and Excelsior. Maidenhood was published in the Southern Literary Messenger for January, 1842.
MAIDEN ! with the meek, brown eyes,
Thou whose locks outshine the sun,
Standing, with reluctant feet,
Gazing, with a timid glance,
Deep and still, that gliding stream
Then why pause with indecision,
Seest thou shadows sailing by,
Hearest thou voices on the shore,
Oh, thou child of many prayers !
Like the swell of some sweet tune,
Childhood is the bough, where slumbered Birds and blossoms many-numbered ; Age, that bough with snows encumbered.
Gather, then, each flower that grows,
Bear a lily in thy hand ;
Bear through sorrow, wrong, and ruth,
Oh, that dew, like balm, shall steal
And that smile, like sunshine, dart
The original manuscript of Excelsior, showing the several drafts and interlineations, is preserved in the library of Harvard University. It was written on the back of a note from Mr. Sumner, and is dated at the close : “September 28, 1841. Half past 3 o'clock, morning. Now to bed.” The suggestion of the poem came to Mr. Longfellow from a scrap of newspaper, a part of the heading of one of the New York journals, bearing the seal of the State, -a shield, with a rising sun, and the motto Excelsior. The intention of the poem was intimated in a letter from Mr. Longfellow written some time after to Mr. C. K. Tuck
"I have had the pleasure of receiving your note in regard to the poem Excelsior and very willingly give you my intention in writing it. This was no more than to display, in a series of pictures, the life of a man of genius, resisting all temptations, laying aside all fears, heedless of all warnings, and pressing right on to accomplish his purpose. His motto is Excelsior — 'higher.' He passes through the Alpine village — through the rough, cold paths of the world — where the peasants cannot understand him, and where his watchword is in an unknown tongue.' He disregards the happiness of domestic peace and sees the glaciers — his fate - before him. He disregards the warning of the old man's wisdom and the fascinations of woman's love. He answers to all, ‘Higher yet!' The monks of St. Bernard are the representatives of religious forms and ceremonies, and with their oftrepeated prayer mingles the sound of his voice, telling them there is something higher than forms and ceremonies. Filled with these aspirations, he perishes ; without having reached the perfection he longed for; and the voice heard in the air is the promise of immortality and progress ever upward. You will perceive that Excelsior, an adjective of the comparative degree, is used adverbially; a use justified by the best Latin writers." This he afterwards found to be a mistake, and explained excelsior as the last word of the phrase Scopus meus excelsior.
Five years after writing this poem, Mr. Longfellow made the following entry in his diary: “ December 8, 1846. Looking over Brainard's poems, I find, in a piece called The Mocking-Bird, this
Now his note
Now, when in Excelsior I said :
A voice fell like a falling star,
Brainard's poem was not in my mind, nor had I in all probability ever read it. Felton said at the time that the same image was in Euripides, or Pindar, I forget which. Of a truth, one cannot strike a spade into the soil of Parnassus, without disturbing the bones of some dead poet.”
In the notes at the end of this volume will be found an analysis of the poem by the editor, based upon the changes made by the poet in original drafts. Dr. Holmes remarks of Excelsior that the repetition of the aspiring exclamation which gives its name to the poem, lifts every stanza a step higher than the one which preceded it.”
The shades of night were falling fast,
His brow was sad ; his eye beneath,
In happy homes he saw the light
Try not the Pass !
the old man said; “ Dark lowers the tempest overhead, The roaring torrent is deep and wide !” And loud that clarion voice replied,
“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “ and rest
“ Beware the pine-tree's withered branch!
At break of day, as heavenward
A traveller, by the faithful hound,