‘Wishiwasha’: Longfellow’s Adventures in Pre-Raphaelite London
In 1868, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited England, where he was feted by the great and the good. America’s premiere poet received honourary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge and even called on Queen Victoria. Julia Margaret Cameron (close friend to the Pre-Raphaelites) took his portrait, portraying him as every inch the poet-sage. The dramatic profile portrait, with its emphasis on his flowing white beard and veritable mane of hair, presents him as the embodiment of a literary lion.
The Rossetti brothers, however, did not care to hear him roar. Gabriel dismissed Longfellow’s famous Song of Hiawatha as ‘Wishiwasha’, while his little brother William decalred Walt Whitman the superior poet. In his introduction to a selection of Longfellow’s work, William wrote that ‘it would not be true to say that his art is of the intensest kind or most magical potency.’ This was partly jealousy; Longfellow’s English translation of Dante’s Commedia had come out in the same year as William’s translation of the Inferno, torpedoing William’s sales. Longfellow didn’t help his case when, during a visit to Gabriel’s studio, it became clear that he didn’t realise Gabriel was a poet as well as a painter.
The Rossetti brothers weren’t the only ones who thought Longfellow could do with being taken down a peg. When the American poet told the Queen he was surprised at how famous he was in England, she replied: ‘O, I assure you, Mr. Longfellow, you are very well known. All my servants read you.’