The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“My Lost Youth,” a lyrical autobiography of the poet’s early life, is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tribute both to his native city of Portland, Maine, and to the boy who climbed its hilly streets and gazed out over its harbor dreaming faraway dreams. The poem consists of ten nine-line stanzas, the last two lines of each being the famous refrain “A boy’s will is the wind’s will,/ And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” which, as is made clear in the first stanza, are verses translated from a Lapland song.

Although the refrain is, perhaps, its most memorable component, the lynchpin of the poem is the oft-repeated word “still.” Longfellow in “My Lost Youth” is describing memories that still come to him from a city that he still visits. The boy may be lost to him, but the place and the dreams still exist.

The poem opens with the well-known description of Portland found in many tourist pamphlets and travel books of the “beautiful town/seated by the sea.” This setting of place is continued into the second stanza, which emphasizes the city’s location on a peninsula surrounded by a sea dotted with islands. These islands fueled the boy Longfellow’s romantic dreams as he watched their silhouettes fade into the horizon. This romanticism is echoed in the “black wharves,” “Spanish sailors,” and “mystery of ships” of the third stanza.

Historical ships and their captains are the subject of...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although Longfellow is generally not considered a poetic innovator, he continually experimented with different metrical forms. Many of his later poems, such as “My Lost Youth,” were in mixed measure or, to use the term made popular by Gerald Manly Hopkins, “sprung rhythm.” In this metrical scheme, the rhythm is based only on the number of stressed syllables in a line, the unstressed syllables being discounted. This metrical freedom facilitates the incorporation of the Laplander translation into the text and allows the verse line to lengthen and slow down in accordance with the “long, long thoughts.”

Memory is the repetition of words and images, and the core device of this memory poem is the repetition of words and entire verse lines to reinforce the poet’s perspective of a past “often” remembered, whose mental pictures float one after another to the surface of his mind. In fact, the first word of the poem is “Often,” and, in keeping with this controlled stream of consciousness, the most repeated initial word is “And.” Fittingly, the last four lines in each stanza rise in a crescendo of repetition from the always repeated word “song” at the end of the sixth line to the “still,” “chill,” or final “still” of the seventh to the climactic insistence of the song itself, “A boy’s will is the wind’s will,/ and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

Longfellow leads into the refrain’s...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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