What are Henry Wadworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes ultimately trying to teach their readers with their poetry?
Cultural icons of the nineteenth century, the Fireside Poets, an appellation given to them because people gathered before their firesides of an evening to read their poetry, extolled the conventional ideals of honor, personal responsibility, duty, and hard work. Indeed, their poetry is didactic in nature and traditional in end rhymes and meter, such as iambic tetrameter.
While they have been criticized for their sentimentality and lack of innovation by modern generations, nineteenth century readers felt that the values these poets reinforced were influential in forming the character of Americans. Although Longfellow's poetry, for instance, endorses his contemporary values, the absence of examination of these values has led to poetry that sometimes offers facile comfort without illumination.
Another characteristic element in the poetry of Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes is their metaphoric employment of nature imagery as connections to forces such as memory, the past, and even death. For example, Whittier's "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll" is a nostalgic poem in which the poet fondly recalls his boyhood experiences of winters on a farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts:
Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost line back with tropic heat....
Longfellow, too, attached Nature to human sentiment. His poignant poem, "The Cross of Snow," connects an image in nature with his great sorrow over the death of his wife:
That, sun-deying, in its [a mountain] deep ravines
Displays a corss of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast....
...changelss since the day she died.
And, his poem, "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" that imitates in its meter the ebb and flow of the sea, employs the symbolism of the tide for the cycles of life. Further, on a more didactic note, Longfellow's legendary poem Evangeline recounts the historic exile of the Acadiens to Louisiana. This poem also narrates with sentiment the separation of lovers as men were placed in certain boats while women and children in others for this long voyage.
Today the poems of the Fireside Poets are not read so much for their spiritual and moral counsels as they are as period pieces that authentically reflect their time. Nonetheless, yet to this date these poems echo an air of piety and sincerity that is, without doubt, able to touch readers of any era.