Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow worked in two entirely different poetic forms: short lyrical sketches that tried to point out similarities between passing, subjective emotions and lasting, objective settings or locations and long historical narratives that aimed at celebrating inspirational events. Like other Fireside poets, Longfellow tailored both kinds of verse to an audience that, he envisioned, would read them aloud in front of the family hearth. He once defined the persona for most of these public works as “no unwelcomed guest,” who, he “hoped, would have [his] place reserved among the rest” at “your warm fireside.” Appropriately, his subjects were often chosen so that young and old might be elevated by his treatment of traditional values. They stressed home, family, romantic love, dutiful children, quiet acceptance of suffering and death, and the appreciation of nature, God, and country. He wrote in traditional metrical patterns that would be easy for his readers to follow. He selected a solemn, sometimes archaic, diction that might add a devotional tone to the after-dinner recitations. He characteristically kept his symbols and images simple, so that even his youngest listeners might understand his homilies at first hearing. After the shocking death of his second wife, it became more difficult for Longfellow to confine himself to the expectations of such an audience and to such a rigid series of poetic restrictions. Yet the progress of his work showed a single-minded commitment to continue fulfilling the dictates of this public role, long after he himself had outgrown them. Increasingly, Longfellow’s later lyrics and narratives showed a quiet subversion of the subjects and styles that his adoring audience expected of their laureate. The later poems proposed the same simple formulas in the same simple intonations as the earlier works had, but they seemed to waver, often undercutting themselves with a quiet pessimism that directly contradicted their superficial cheeriness.
“The Bells of San Blas”
In the last lyric he wrote, “The Bells of San Blas,” Longfellow seemed to reevaluate his poetic career and to dismiss it as belonging to a “dreamer of dreams” to “whom what is and what seems” were frequently “the same.” Like the bells of the decaying Catholic Church, he claimed that the voice of his public persona had tried “to bring us back once more” to the “vanished days of yore,” when the world was still “filled with faith, with zeal.” But like many a nineteenth century artist, Longfellow concluded that such sounds were probably “in vain”: The past could not successfully be called back again. The struggle to affirm publicly traditional values while privately doubting their efficacy provided the central tension in much of his poetry. Even the twenty-seven short poems he composed during his college days and published in a variety of little magazines and academic journals were prophetic of the difficulties that Longfellow would encounter whenever he attempted to bring together the spirituality of the past with the progress of the present. Like “The Bells of San Blas,” they were tinged with a solemn, mournful sense of desperation, rueful that the traditions, values, and wisdom painfully accumulated over humankind’s previous three thousand years of history no longer offered much guidance to the present. The young Longfellow examined the deaths of a variety of heroic Indians, stoic ship captains, and brave infantrymen who had given their lives for some noble cause. He concluded sadly that such nobility produced little lasting effect: Theirs had been moments of brightness darkened by an unappreciative and uncaring present. In Voices of the Night (1839), a slim collection of nine short poems, Longfellow amplified the melancholy and focused it through a spokesperson who was both confused and troubled by “life’s deep storm.” While striving to balance his images of life’s forms,...
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