If there is one poet whose name has come to be associated with cliches of the genre, that would be Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “You’re a poet / and you didn’t know it / but your feet show it / they’re long fellows!” A sad pun which sums up most critics’ opinion. I am biased the other way – after reading a substantial selection of Longfellow’s poetry, I was left overall impressed, even in a comparison with Wordsworth. That is more or less how I decided to read Hyperion (1839), one of his more obscure, prose works.
The book follows a young American, Paul Flemming, on his travels through the scenery of Germany and Switzerland. Recently in mourning for his childhood friend (girlfriend?), Flemming finds comfort in studying the lives of the people he meets, as well as in conversing upon philosophy and religion with his various travelling companions. His life changes upon meeting the beautiful Mary Ashburton, an intellectual Englishwoman with a talent for drawing. For Flemming, it is love at first sight, but does Mary feel the same for him?
In spite of its rambling digressions, I find it hard to dislike Hyperion. It is what Werther should have been, and, for all that, there are enough similarities to detect where Longfellow might have drawn inspiration from Goethe. You have a troubled, poetic young man searching for peace in the beauty of the countryside; he falls in love, and there goes his peace of mind (or does it?). This is a book for us Romantics, even if we are just wannabes. Nothing recommends it more strongly than Longfellow’s assurance of our actual legitimacy:
But perhaps, gentle reader, thou art one of those, who think the days of Romance gone forever. Believe it not! O, believe it not! Thou hast at this moment in thy heart as sweet a romance as was ever written. Thou art not less a woman, because thou dost not sit aloft in a tower, with a tassel-gentle on thy wrist! Thou art not less a man, because thou wearest no hauberk, nor mail-sark, and goest not on horseback after foolish adventures! Nay, nay! Every one has a Romance in his own heart.
All is not poetic and idealistic, however. There are moments in Hyperion that bring to mind the Dark Romanticism of Hawthorne, such as Emma and the seductive Count, or the ballerina whose husband sells her talent from city to city, treating her like a “favorite horse.” Flemming is a Romantic with a heart; he does not ignore the realities around him. He does not claim to know all the answers, either.
If you like literature and travelogues from the Romantic era, you would probably like Hyperion. 3.5 out of 5 stars.