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Literature, Poetry, and Books

Longfellow

A Happy Fourth!  In between celebrations and riding Isabella I have been reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that much ignored poet of the young Union, one of those "unacknowledged legislators of the world" (Shelley).  I once asked an "academic poet" (read, austere and cold and boring, a literary theorist, in short, one who would rather talk about himself than the poet) what he thought of Longfellow and he said something like "too simple, too accessible, too petty."  That he is accessible is true, and there is nothing wrong in that (unless you think that all poets should be like T.S. Eliot; I don't).  Longfellow should be popular still, and should be praised for many things, including his wonderful sense of the sounds and rhythms of words; see his (of course) Paul Revere's Ride, and also, The Building of the Ship.

Discussions - 7 Comments

Longfellow is really best when read aloud. Then that "wonderful sense of the sounds and rhythms of words" is alive as it never is on the page.

Agreed! Try this: (My Books)
Sadly as some old mediaeval knight
Gazed at the arms he could no longer wield,
The sword two-handed and the shining shield
Suspended in the hall, and full in sight,
While secret longings for the lost delight
Of tourney or adventure in the field
Came over him, and tears but half concealed
Trembled and fell upon his beard of white,
So I behold these books upon their shelf,
My ornaments and arms of other days;
Not wholly useless, though no longer used,
For they remind me of my other self,
Younger and stronger, and the pleasant ways
In which I walked, now clouded and confused.

Thank you, I love that, though it pushes me back firmly into things that depress me lately. Maybe I can't like where it pushes, but I can't resist loving the truth it tells that does the pushing. And it does sound good, though my voice is pitched too high for Longfellow.

My favorite, "A Psalm of Life"

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, - act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Becalmed

Becalmed upon the sea of Thought,
Still unattained the land it sought,
My mind, with loosely-hanging sails,
Lies waiting the auspicious gales.

On either side, behind, before,
The ocean stretches like a floor,--
A level floor of amethyst,
Crowned by a golden dome of mist.

Blow, breath of inspiration, blow!
Shake and uplift this golden glow!
And fill the canvas of the mind
With wafts of thy celestial wind.

Blow, breath of song! until I feel
The straining sail, the lifting keel,
The life of the awakening sea,
Its motion and its mystery!

"A Psalm of Life" and "The Bells of San Blas" are Longfellow's greatest works. But I think HWL has a lot more depth than he's given credit for. Why do we think he's too simple or too petty? With a collection of nearly 300 poems, it's impossible to generalize the man. I usually tell people to skill the famous ones like "The Village Blacksmith" and "Paul Revere's Ride" because we're already biased against them (him?). His best stuff is more obscure. I, for one, am quite thankful that not all poets are like T. S. Eliot, but I think we should give HWL another shot!

Where else but in poetry and legal documents is inaccessibility considered a positive attribute?

Why are those his greatest poems? I liked others I read more than those. I think I prefer his simpler themes, as in "The Children's Hour" because he catches the delight we have in children and that what they were they always are because the memory of them is ours. He does that kind of thing so well. Therefore, those are the kinds of poems of his I think are great, greater than than those with big themes.

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