Today is the birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Longfellow is woefully out of favor today, a state of affairs that would have shocked most Americans as recently as the 1950s. Until that time he was thought of as both our national poet as well as our founding one. The enhanced reputations of Whitman in the first case, and Poe in the second (along with others), have served to undermine Longfellow’s claims to both. We have gone from a state of affairs in which, within living memory, every American schoolchild knew some Longfellow, to one in which his name is virtually unknown. I think this is a doleful development.
Having just spent a good deal of time with him (after a lifelong glancing acquaintance) I am well aware of his limitations. I read his complete works after spending a month reading Byron, and to a modern sensibility it felt like a distinct step down. Byron is full of lightning flashes; he comes from a place of passion, with an imagination so fertile he transcends formal strictures. By comparison, in Longfellow, the takeaway is the regularity of the rhythm and rhyme and the effect can be plodding. He is never morbid like Poe, or immoderate like Whitman. His works seems to lack forcefulness and freedom. A number of his exertions strike the modern reader as childlike, unsophisticated, dishing out bromides, commonplaces and clichés.
The major poet he seems to me to resemble most is Tennyson (and he had been accused by some critics of plagiarizing him). But there were important differences. The mid 19th century saw the birth of modern nationalism. Tennyson was the poet laureate of a great empire, the court poet of Queen Victoria, and the official, anointed heir of all those interred in the South Transept at Westminster. Longfellow on the other hand wrote as an obscure professor in an upstart backwater of the same culture. He saw what America needed (a national poet), became one, and maintained that position until well after his death. But much like Eugene O’Neill who did the same thing for American drama several decades later, Longfellow’s genius was more in the aspiration than the fulfillment.
This is not to say he was without virtues, and characteristically American ones. The first is his productivity. Seeing a void, he proceeded to fill it and fill it and fill it, as though he were burdened with the task not only of being America’s poet, but ALL of its poets. For him, not a quill, but a grindstone. He was ambitious and he understood scale; he was most daring in that he dared at all. He made mountains. If they are Appalachians rather than Rockies, he made them. They still stand. They are there. His other virtue is good old fashioned Yankee craftsmanship. And what’s a Yankee got to do with passion, anyway? Like the yeoman or the shopkeeper, he gets up at dawn and WORKS. There is no fever in his brain. He is not dashing off, sword in hand, to liberate Greece from the Ottomans. He is erecting a stone wall. Discipline is what he admired; he once wrote that his great unseen effort lay in making poetry that was apparently simple. And simplicity was the virtue he prized above all things. (I don’t know why I keep thinking of dramatists except that it’s my natural frame of reference, but this instinct on Longfellow’s part reminds me of Ibsen, too, who was a natural poet, but through a great effort of will MADE himself write simply). In the democratic spirit, Longfellow wrote for readers, not critics, and if the critics were too thick to perceive the accomplishment, that’s as may be. His hero, as we glean from his 1840 poem is “The Village Blacksmith” who simply goes about his work all day, come what may.
It seems to me that most modern criticism of Longfellow is rather beside the point. His mission was to write on native themes, to give epic importance to American stories. Nowadays his poems like Evangeline (1847 – a romance epic set amongst the Arcadians, or as we call them today Cajuns), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” (from Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863) are put down for their “mythology” and their “bad history” or in the case of The Song of Hiawatha (1855), “bad anthropology”. It seems to me criticisms on this basis are rather beside the point. These are POEMS. Mythological truth is a different kind of truth, but a valid one. It seems to me we kill that spirit much to our peril. The modern attitude seems to be “Santa Claus doesn’t exist, so why waste your time?” Which is so over-simplified as to be false. Myths exist metaphorically. Santa Claus KIND OF exists. Of course he does. We all summon him into existence by a collective force of will. The 19th century mind was much more sophisticated about this sort of thing than we are. I suppose the objection might be made that school kids used to learn to recite Longfellow as history as much as poetry. Well, sure. Then supplement them with footnotes, disclaimers, a concordance. But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because right now, you know what poetry the kids are getting? Nada. Nothing. I’m not saying no schoolchild in America is ever exposed to poetry. But I do have a strong sense that they aren’t all learning and retaining a national poetry in common, which is quite a different thing. Go ask the nearest kid to recite a poem, any poem. Ask them if they can identify Longfellow. Teachers don’t teach him any more because of some misguided notion that he is “simple” or simplistic”. That was once seen as a virtue. And at rate, that’s what makes him especially appropriate for children.
I shot an arrow into the air
It fell to earth, I know not where
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
By the shores of Gitchee-Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water
Is the last one (from The Song of Hiawatha) problematic? Absolutely. In the same way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is. The guy meant well, but couldn’t transcend the historical attitudes of his own times. Which is why it ought to be taught, explained, and discussed.
At any rate, I summoned those little snatches from memory, which is kind of my whole point. Do you know what’s filling the voids in the heads of American schoolchildren? Do you?
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