Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

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.

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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 was written during a contented period in Longfellow’s life before the horrific death of his wife and before he became the living archetype of the bearded, graying, morose, sedate poet.

The picture Longfellow paints of himself as a boy is a Romantic/romantic one as he unconsciously lives as one with nature. A self-identification with his surroundings that leads him to a contemplation of more distant places for the sea is the central image of this landscape, the sea carrying the dual significance of familiarity in his native environment as well as serving as a conduit for his dreams of a wider experience. The sea is seen as both natural and strange, but natural and strange are both “beautiful” in the poet’s mind’s eye.

Everything is equal in this poetic vision; everything is identified with self. In a subjective pantheism, Longfellow dissolves the boundaries between time and space as he literally sees the past as an all-encompassing living entity that is indistinguishable from the present.

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