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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “My Lost Youth,” two of Longfellow’s overriding interests are strongly emphasized. One is his preoccupation with folk poetry and balladry, an avocation shared with his fellow Romantics. The focal lines of the poem are taken from a translation from the original Lapland by the German Romantic writer Johann Gottfried Herder. The second is Longfellow’s insertion into his work of episodes from American history. Longfellow was one of the first American writers to introduce themes from American history and popular story in his writing, a fact of which he was very proud. His Romantic tendencies toward folk literature and indigenous history led him in this direction, and his own family history can be seen as a mini-compendium of early American heroic life—for example, a grandfather who was a general in the Revolution, an uncle who blew up his ship before the walls of Tripoli rather than surrender it to the enemy, another uncle who fought on the USS Constitution, and Longfellow himself, who as a boy was eyewitness to history.

For Longfellow, the past is of paramount importance and “still” lives, and it is this historical perspective, both communal and individual, that explains what “My Lost Youth” is and what it is not. Clearly, the “lost” of the poem’s title notwithstanding, its explicit meaning is the exact opposite of “lost”; it is time regained or better, time never “lost.” Therefore, this poem is not an elegy, it is not a sorrowful lament for a departed time, place, or person, and it is not an ubi sunt questioning of “Where are they now?,” “Where has the time gone?,” or “Why has everything turned to ashes?” The theme of the poem is explicitly the integration of boy, man, time, and place, not its disintegration. Although there are intimations of painful memories in the eighth stanza, this glimpse into a sadder world is not developed, and optimism is the dominant note of the poem, which...

(The entire section is 494 words.)