Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Poetry: American Poets Analysis - Essay

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

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, which could bring both “sorrow and delight,” and life’s sounds, which could both “soothe or affright,” the collection kept straying to the darker, more negative pole.

Ballads, and Other Poems

Each of the nine major collections of lyrics that followed these tentative beginnings sustained his sense of confusion and foreboding. In Ballads, and Other Poems, Longfellow examined the traditional lifestyles of a Viking warrior, a New England sea captain, and a simple village blacksmith with the same effusive sentimentality he had employed on a similar grouping during his undergraduate years. He characterized these simple lives as an accumulation of “toiling and rejoicing and sorrowing,” emphasizing heavily “the sorrowing,” and dismissed them as incapable of providing workable models for surviving the modern world. The tone of the collection was established by the resignation inherent in “The Goblet of Life,” whose brim, Longfellow concluded, tended too often to overflow “with bitter drops of woe.” The best anyone could hope for, given such pessimism, was the “strength to bear a portion of the care” that “crushes one half of humanity with despair.”

The Belfry of Bruges, and Other Poems

This pessimism was repeated throughout The Belfry of Bruges, and Other Poems, whose title piece forced a tenuous metaphorical comparison between the “sweet sonorous clangor” of a city’s bell tower and the poet’s own “airy chimes,” anticipating the image he would execute with greater skill in “The Bells of San Blas” almost forty years later. In 1845, Longfellow could only claim that the sounds from “the belfry of his brain” were, like the city’s bells themselves, “scattered downward, though in vain” to a world no longer moved by “the hollow sound of brass.” He complained that producing such irrelevant music might only “overburden his brain” and fill him with a sense of weariness and pain. He ended the collection with a downtrodden portrait of a morose poet, despondent because his book was “completed and closed.” Painfully, he sensed that “dim” would “grow its fantasies”; soon “forgotten” they would “lie, like coals in the ashes . . . darken and die.” Such abjection, Longfellow suggested, could only partially be relieved with a night that grew “darker and darker” as the “black shadows fall” and with the troubled observation that shortly “sleep and oblivion will reign over all.”

The Seaside and the Fireside

Longfellow was never exactly sure which names or shapes to give the fears that haunted his early lyrics. It is true that the undifferentiated anxiety seldom paraded itself in his more frequently read historical narratives, but the fears had much to do with his sense that traditional solutions were failing to answer modern questions. In The Seaside and the Fireside, he conjured up a slightly paranoid image of a fisherman’s daughter staring dumbly “out into the night” from behind the window of her family’s cottage, hoping to see “some form arise.” The child remained incapable of discerning what “tales the roaring ocean and the night wind, bleak and wild” might have to tell. But at the poem’s end, those projected fears could beat “at the heart” of the child’s mother and “drive the color from her cheek.” It was more than a child’s fascination mingled with fear of night mysteries that colored much of Longfellow’s lyricism; it was a vague but omnipresent fear that something was dreadfully wrong with the direction of modern civilization. Keener minds than Longfellow’s remained similarly mystified, unable to articulate the questions that by the twentieth century would evolve into a systematic pattern of angst.

“Birds of Passage”

The “Birds of Passage” sequence, which he distributed throughout many of the later collections of lyrics, confronted these fears as directly as Longfellow could. The poems purported to reproduce the sounds of modern life, “murmurs of delight or woe” and the “murmurs of pleasures and pains and wrongs” that comprised his polarized judgment. Like his earlier efforts, however, these dwelt on the negative side, frequently echoing “the only sound we can discern,” the “sound of lament.” Even these, “all this toiling for human culture,” he worried, might prove to be “unavailing.” The sequence showed Longfellow at his best: His lines filled with sophisticated internal rhymes, with sometimes startling end rhymes (“Flanders” and “commanders,” “unafraid” and “cannonade,” “mountbanks” and “tan and planks”), with easy musical rhythms.

The “Birds of Passage” sequence is representative of Longfellow at the height of his powers, groping sometimes toward a Whitmanesque mysticism that might redeem his early fears and negativities. “All the houses where men have lived and died are haunted houses,” he offered as the cornerstone of his belief-system in one poem in the sequence: “The spirit world around this world of sense floats like an atmosphere.” In the lyrics that transcended his sense of despair, Longfellow began to avow his own personal, haphazard mixture of New England mysticism, Bostonian New Thought, spiritualism, numerology, astrology, and staid Unitarianism, hoping to offer some redemptive spirituality to a world that frequently defined itself as a “dark abyss.” “To the dark problems, there is no other solution possible,” he wrote to James Russell Lowell, “except the one word, Providence.”

Balancing opposites

The last collections of lyrics wavered between the knowledge of how darkly a people tended to live their lives and the hope of how brightly those lives could be lived. The poems tended to deal more directly with the paradoxical ambiguities that had provided many of the tensions in the “Birds of Passage” sequence. They turned on life and death, daylight and moonlight, the heart of man, “blithe as the air is, and as free” and the heart of man so burdened “by the cares of yesterday” that “each today” was “heavier still.” A view of the world in which defeats frequently turned out to be victories in disguise and the lowest ebbs were often only “the turn of tides” bound together The Masque of Pandora, and Other Poems; Kéramos, and Other Poems; and Ultima Thule. These collections suggested a more peaceful and accepting stance toward the dynamic balance of opposites that, Longfellow believed, characterized all life.

Late lyrics

In the later poems, the destructive forces humans could unleash were being quieted by the vaguely meditative and heartfelt notion that “God is All.” His last lyrics, though never completely shaking the sense of despair, transience, and futility that had dogged his poetic vision, showed a Longfellow who was coming to terms with evil and who was growing surer with hope. In the complex polarities of “Victor and Vanquished,” Longfellow seemed to suggest that even the worst of life could lead to the best. The victim, harried into a corner and confronted with certain death, could still stand unmoved and unafraid, taunting the victor with the chivalric challenge, “Do with me what thou wilt.” Such spirit, Longfellow insisted, could make even “the vanquished here,” the “victor of the field.” Whenever “a noble deed is wrought” or “spoken is a noble thought,” Longfellow articulated his redemptive code of hope: “our hearts, in glad surprise to higher levels rise.” In Ultima Thule, he was explaining the presence of evil with the time-honored formula that “noble souls” inevitably “rise from disaster and defeat, the stronger.” The effort would make them more conscious of “the divine with them.” For these traditional platitudes, Longfellow could, at his best, often find fresh and moving imagery.

The collections of late lyrics were probably his most enduring works. They chronicled a troubled soul, torn with the doubts of his age, groping to articulate a sense of mystery, awe, and spirituality that might bring hope to a culture too concerned with its own certitudes and material advances. It was not these lyrics, however, but rather his long historical narratives that had brought him acclaim from his contemporaries. Neither the profound doubts nor the genuine hopes that animated his lyrics could be found in these more saccharine celebrations of traditional values.

At their worst, The Spanish Student (pb. 1843), Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Divine Tragedy, The Golden Legend, and The New England Tragedies were dull prosaic narratives that have done much to discourage modern readers from discovering the strengths of Longfellow’s talents. The Spanish Student was an infelicitous three-act verse comedy intended for the stage. It found no one willing to venture the capital necessary for producing it. Evangeline was the work that first won a mass audience for Longfellow. It was a simple tale, first spun by the clergyman H. L. Conolly while he dined with Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow seized the story line, picked a formal, though not always formally kept, dactylic hexameter metrical pattern for it, and composed a long tale of the French Arcadienne, Evangeline, as she wandered through the forests of eighteenth century New England looking for her kidnapped lover. It was a cliché-ridden effort whose descriptive powers ran to portrayals of Evangeline as “living at peace with God and the World,” to summaries of her relationship with her betrothed as “their two hearts, tender and true,” and to a plot that described her quest for him as searches “in want and cheerless discomfort, bleeding, barefooted, over the shards and thorns of existence.” When at the poem’s and her own life’s end Evangeline finally located her long-lost fiancé, the best Longfellow could fashion for an ending was to have her “meekly bow” her head and “murmur, ’Father, I thank Thee’” just before she died. The popularity of the poem probably revealed more about the tastes of Longfellow’s readers than about his own talents.

The Song of Hiawatha

The same audience responded even more enthusiastically to The Song of Hiawatha. With its two-footed lines vaguely resembling the alliterative verse of traditional northern European epics such as the Finnish Kalevala (1835, enlarged 1849 as Uusi Kalevala; English translation, 1888) by Elias Lönnrot, with its heavy borrowings from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s two volumes on North American Indians, and with its upbeat ending, the appeal of The Song of Hiawatha was quick and widespread. The tale borrowed the grandiose proportions of the European epic, picturing a Hiawatha whose every stride measured “a Mile,” whose canoe needed no paddles “for his thoughts as paddles served,” whose father was “the west wind,” and whose true love was Minnehaha, daughter of the god of arrow makers. The poem’s rhythmic devices could sometimes be interesting. Especially when read aloud, the Indian material could lend a freshness to the overworked conventions of the epic, and Longfellow’s battle scenes, pitting Hiawatha against a variety of mythic creatures, were frequently well-paced. All this technical virtuosity, however, could not hold together the disconnected elements of the plot or prepare the reader for the arbitrarily imposed ending in which Hiawatha vacates his native village so that his fellow Indians might be more inclined to listen to the redeeming gospel of Christianity brought to them by European missionaries.

The Courtship of Miles Standish

The same muddle of values and formlessness of plot marred The Courtship of Miles Standish. The poem returned to the dactylic hexameters of Evangeline and to the romantic love angle shared between two recognizably human historical figures. Set in seventeenth century Puritan New England, The Courtship of Miles Standish wavered between sustaining a heroic view of the Plymouth Colony and a lighthearted glance at the foibles of its founders. Longfellow could never quite make up his mind whether to emphasize the “strong hearts and true” of the pilgrims or to satirize the quirky leader who could lock himself in his room and cheer himself with passages from Julius Caesar: “Better be first, he said, in a little Iberian village/ Than be second in Rome, and I think he was right when he said it.”

The Divine Tragedy

With The Divine Tragedy, an epic about the life of Christ, The Golden Legend, a retelling of the Faust story, and The New England Tragedies, an unfinished grouping about Christianity in the New World, Longfellow began to lose the mass audience he had so carefully cultivated. These works marked the same kind of transition to a tentative but serious spirituality that had characterized his later collections of lyrics. These poems, far more earnest than his early narratives, constituted reevaluations of two thousand years of Western religious thought through which Longfellow hoped to sift beliefs that might still have meaning to his contemporaries. He originally planned a chronicle of the triumph of religious progress in the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds. But his own lack of conviction in doctrinaire Christianity and his own unshakable doubts led him to undercut the tales of triumph by dwelling on those moments in which the purity of the original doctrines were perverted by fallible humans.

The Divine Tragedy set out to recapture the original message, but neither Longfellow’s scattered theology nor his limited talents lent themselves to a subject of Miltonic proportions. His Christ blandly mouthed excerpts from the King James Bible; his apostles turned out to be featureless; his plot was a pastiche of New Testament incidents only vaguely related to one another; and his ending was an inconclusive recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, with each of the twelve taking turns uttering the lines. “Poor sad humanity,” Saint John says, summarizing the effort, “turns back with bleeding feet by the weary road it came.”

The Golden Legend

With Longfellow’s growing need to explain the tragedies that had befallen him, the turning back took the form of The Golden Legend and The New England Tragedies. Both sought to examine the storehouse of Western religious traditions and decide which “messages” from the “world of the spirits” could still animate contemporary humans. “Death is the chilliness that precedes the dawn,” he would declare in Michael Angelo, “then, we awake in the broad sunshine of the other life.”

In The Golden Legend, Longfellow used the character of Prince Henry to examine how that belief in the other life came to be abandoned. His reshaping of both medieval and modern Christianity questioned, not the validity of the original doctrines, but the applications through which their adherents distorted them. His Faust figure in The Golden Legend was tempted by a sophisticated and worldly Lucifer, often disguised as a village priest, who counseled his charge not toward sin but toward a more modern point of view. Prince Henry was led to accept the belief in progress, materialism, the priority of the senses, and the certainty of the here and now. Lucifer eased his conscience. His temptations ran not to rejecting formal Christianity, but to ignoring its underlying sense of the mystical.

The New England Tragedies

In The New England Tragedies, this temptation was accepted with fewer questions. “O silent, sombre, and deserted streets,” says a forlorn John Endicott, noting the emphasis on progress instead of spirituality: “To me, ye’re peopled with a sad procession and echo only to the voice of sorrow.” Where Prince Henry had placed too much faith in the powers of the intellect, the New Englanders had overemphasized the social mission of Calvinism. Both, Longfellow maintained, had lost sight of the underlying mystery and awe evident in the original testament espoused in The Divine Tragedy. Late in his last two narratives, Longfellow came to recommend the same kind of inchoate spirituality that had displayed redemptive powers in the most hopeful of his lyric poems. He was not enough of a theologian to formulate a systematic creed, nor enough of a zealot to recommend one path over another; and he was too much of a symbolist not to believe that all religious systems were only rough approximations of the same underlying unity. Nevertheless, a direct, experiential contact with the mysticism in humanity and the mysticism in nature could, Longfellow felt, explain much of the darkness of life.