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Longfellow Sends an Early Draft of “Excelsior”

LONGFELLOW, HENRY WADSWORTH. (English) Early Draft Autograph Manuscript of “Excelsior,” incorporated into an Autograph Letter Signed to Samuel Cutler Ward (“My dear Excelsior”).

Cambridge, 30 September 1841

4to. 3 1/2 pages. Silked, seal tear at outer edge of address leaf expertly repaired with paper. Very good.

“today I send you something much better; indeed one of the best things, if not the best, that I have written”

In this outstanding literary letter, Longfellow writes in full and sends an early draft of his beloved poem “Excelsior,” commenting on its meaning and significance and writing out all thirty-six lines. The poet states that the work is among the best he has written, describes the circumstances of its writing, and points out its central theme. He observes that only one person has seen it and that Ward should “keep it quietly to yourself.” Longfellow writes in part,

“I am glad you liked Endymion, for sympathy is sweet. But today I send you something much better; indeed one of the best things, if not the best, that I have written. The other night, about one o’clock, as I was smoking a cigar preparatory to going to bed, it came into my mind; but as it was late, I thought I would not write it out till the morning. Accordingly, I went to bed; but I could not sleep. That voice kept ringing in my ears; and finally, I jumped out of bed, lighted my lamp, and set to work. The result was this poem, and a dreadful cold and rheumatism, which have confined me to my chamber for two days. The idea of the poem is the Life of Genius; This you will comprehend at a glance. Many people will not comprehend it at all. I send it to you because I know you will like it. No one has seen it but [Cornelius Conway] Felton; who found less than usual to criticize. Don’t give it to anyone; but keep it quietly to yourself. . . .”

Longfellow met Samuel Ward, the recipient of this letter, in Europe in 1836, and the two became lifelong friends. “Ward was easily the wildest friend Longfellow ever had, and Longfellow’s letters to him are among his most exuberant” (Longfellow Companion). Beginning in 1838 Ward served as Longfellow’s literary agent, selling his poems to New York periodicals.

This early draft of the poem, written two days after the first draft (now at Harvard), differs in a number of points from the final version, including the lack of the exclamation point after the word “Excelsior” ending each stanza.

The much-anthologized “Excelsior” has long been among the poet’s best-known works. Eight stanzas appear on the facing pages 2-3, making this exceptional manuscript ideally suited for display.

“The idea of the poem is the Life of Genius; This you will comprehend at a glance. Many people will not comprehend it at all. I send it to you because I know you will like it. No one has seen it but [Cornelius Conway] Felton; who found less than usual to criticize. Don’t give it to anyone; but keep it quietly to yourself.”

$20,000