HWL. "The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz." Autograph manuscript, 1857.


Longfellow Miscellaneous Papers MS Am 1370. Houghton Library.

In May 1857, the fiftieth birthday of the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz was celebrated in Cambridge as if it were a national holiday. Longfellow, normally reluctant to deliver poems-made-to-order, wrote a few lines for the occasion, clearly intended as a special gift for a dear friend. In the poem, he stressed especially the textual basis of Agassiz's science, the idea that Nature could be read as if were God's "manuscript." Longfellow had met the "exceedingly agreeable" Agassiz at his friend Conrad Felton's house in 1847. Although he did not approve of Agassiz's racial views, he and Fanny cherished the ease and European grace that Agassiz had brought into their lives. Agassiz was born on 28 May 1807 in Môtier, Switzerland, and thus shares the 2007 bicentennial with his friend Longfellow.