The Poem

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“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 the next two memories as the poet remembers the terrifying sound of the guns from the naval battle of 1813 between the American ship Enterprise and the British ship Boxer, in which both captains were killed and were buried on a hill overlooking the now “tranquil” bay. In this stanza, the “still” of the seventh line is changed, for the first time, into the exciting word “thrill.” Although the death and burial of the seamen was “mournful” and the memory is “mournful” now for the grown poet, for a six-year-old boy, himself named after a naval hero who died in battle, the event was a “thrill” in keeping with the guns fired from the fort and the drums and bugles of the War of 1812.

A shift in focus occurs in the next lines as the poet leaves off communal geographical and historical reminiscence to dwell on personal moments and friendships. The tone becomes increasingly introspective until the poet summarily stops his description of the past, declaring that “There are things of which I may not speak.” Also, in this eighth stanza, the word “still” changes to the ominous “chill” as the poet confronts memories that he cannot set down on paper.

This fall into sadness is but momentary, however, as the poet utilizes this break in memory to break with time, seemingly leaving the past to return to the present in the final two stanzas. If in the previous lines he could not speak of what has been lost, he goes on to celebrate what still is. He revisits Portland and, even though he does not recognize the passersby, as he walks down the familiar streets the present effortlessly merges into the past, and he and the boy of memory become one again.

Forms and Devices

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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...

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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 quotation by always repeating the word “song,” but, together with the changing perspective of the passages, the objective “Lapland” song of the first stanza immediately transforms itself into a subjective “old,” “wayward,” “mournful,” “sweet,” “fitful,” “fateful,” “beautiful,” and “strange” song of the following verses. The cadence of the song also varies with the memory being relived; it can “haunt,” “murmur,” “whisper,” “throb,” “flutter,” and “sigh.” The song, therefore, both personifies and summarizes the emotional hues of remembrance, and, in the last stanza, the “groves” of memory “are repeating it still.”

With the exception of the continual repetition, including some use of anaphora—the poetic device used most strikingly with the “There are things,” “There are dreams,” “There are thoughts” of the beginning three lines of the eighth stanza to introduce the jarring note of the only negative passage of the poem—there is little utilization of poetic conceits or affectation in “My Lost Youth.” Longfellow was a Romantic poet, and there is present his familiar sentimentalizing and personification of nature. The sea, the hills, and the woods take on human qualities as they sing the poet’s song and echo his moods. In fact, not one friend or acquaintance is mentioned in this poem; the only specific characters are the dead naval heroes, who are not named, and the boy Longfellow, who is the absolute center of the poem.

The poem’s progression can be seen as a voyage in which the initial distance between past and present steadily grows narrower until the final merging of present, past, and physical space, but this poetic structure is also a circular one; the ending is/was also the beginning, the beginning was/is also the past.


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