National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better. All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855 (Photo courtesy the Longfellow National Historic Site)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read!

Martin Goldsmith reads from "Paul Revere's Ride"...

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, ‘If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arms.

Reed: That was the beginning of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic poem, "Paul Revere's Ride," as read by author and radio host Martin Goldsmith. Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

I'm Josephine Reed and this is the first edition of American Literary Landmarks, the series that celebrates the nation's great poets and the historic houses that inform their work. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: It's good to join you for American Literary Landmarks. Today, we're going to talk about the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was not merely the most popular American poet who ever lived, but he enjoyed a type of fame almost impossible to imagine by contemporary standards. His books enjoyed such remarkable success that he eventually became the most popular living author in any genre in 19th century America. His readers spanned every social class from laborers to royalty, from professors to politicians.

Many of his lines became so much a part of the English language that even a century and a half later people who have never read Longfellow quote him:


“Ships that pass in the night”
“Footprints on the sands of time”
“When she was good she was very, very good”
“In to each life some rain must fall”
“The patter of little feet”

Gioia: His words are in the DNA of the American language, even if we don't recognize his poems.

One anecdote will serve to illustrate Longfellow's astonishing breadth and prominence. In 1868, the poet visited England, and the Royal Family was eager to meet him. On July 4th, he visited Windsor Castle to meet Queen Victoria. Although the ironic timing of his arrival, America's Independence Day, was lost on the Empress of India, Her Majesty did make an interesting observation in her diary:

I noticed an unusual interest among the attendants and servants. I could scarcely credit that they so generally understood who he was. When he took leave they concealed themselves in places from which they could get a good look at him as he passed. I have since inquired among them and am surprised and pleased to find that many of his poems are familiar to them. No other distinguished person has come here that has excited so peculiar an interest. Such poets wear a crown that is imperishable.

Both the monarch of the world's most powerful nation wanted to meet him and her servants had read his work.

Longfellow's fame went beyond the English-speaking world. His work traveled through Europe and Latin America in translation. When the playboy emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, visited America, he asked to dine with Longfellow and returned the hospitality by translating his work into Portuguese. Franz Liszt set his poetry to music as did composers as various as Arthur Sullivan, Charles Gounod, Frederick Delius, and Charles Ives. In England, he eventually outsold Tennyson and Browning. Tennyson once bragged to a friend that he made 2,000 pounds a year from poetry, then grumbled, “But Longfellow, alas, receives 3,000.”

Longfellow's beautiful "Hymn to the Night" appears in his 1839 book of poems Voices of the Night. Of this poem Edgar Allan Poe—who was bitterly jealous of Longfellow's success—said, “No poem ever opened with a beauty more august.”

Once again here is Martin Goldsmith.

Martin Goldsmith reads from "Hymn to the Night "...

I heard the trailing garments of the Night
Sweep through her marble halls!
I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light
From the celestial walls!

I felt her presence, by its spell of might,
Stoop o'er me from above;
The calm, majestic presence of the Night,

As of the one I love.
I heard the sounds of sorrow and delight,
The manifold, soft chimes,
That fill the haunted chambers of the Night
Like some old poet's rhymes.

From the cool cisterns of the midnight air
My spirit drank repose;
The fountain of perpetual peace flows there,—
From those deep cisterns flows.

O holy Night! from thee I learn to bear
What man has borne before!
Thou layest thy finger on the lips of Care,
And they complain no more.

Peace! Peace! Orestes-like I breathe this prayer!
Descend with broad-winged flight,
The welcome, the thrice-prayed for, the most fair,
The best-beloved Night!

Gioia: "Surely,” a friend told him, “no poet was ever so fully recognized in his lifetime as you.” Yet nothing in Longfellow's respectable and uneventful youth would have predicted his great future. He was born in 1807 in the New England shipping town of Portland, Maine. The son of a prosperous lawyer who wished him to study for the bar, Longfellow wanted only to be a writer. Brilliant, handsome, charming, and extraordinarily kind, the young poet never experienced anything but immense success in his public life whether in academia, publishing, or society, but his private life was interrupted by several tragedies. His first wife, Mary, died in childbirth and the young poet lost both his new bride and first child at a stroke. Years later he married again happily and had five children. One died young with her bereft father sitting powerlessly at her bedside. But the poet's greatest sorrow was still to come.

One day in 1861, while his second wife, Frances, was melting wax to seal the curls of her daughter's hair her light summer dress caught fire.

Frances rushed into her husband's study enveloped in flames. The poet tried to suffocate the flames by holding a thin rug tightly around her with his arms but she was already too badly burned and the next day she died in excruciating pain. During the rescue attempt, the poet's famously handsome face and hands had been burned so badly that he could not attend the funeral and he had to grow a beard to cover the hideous scars. He never remarried nor entirely recovered from his wife's death. The many official portraits of the gray-bearded Longfellow show the stately public man but they hide the suffering father and husband. He almost never spoke of his sorrows but one sees them indirectly in his poems, as in these lines from the sonnet "Holidays":

“The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart.”

Longfellow is sometimes criticized for the frank emotionalism of his poems, which seemed too direct and heartfelt for readers raised on modernism; but we should not forget the fragility of domestic happiness in an age of high infant mortality and low life expectancy. Medical progress has been as important as cultural trends in changing literary taste. Look at how rapidly the AIDS epidemic revived Victorian emotionalism in verse and drama. Longfellow was a man who had suffered great losses writing for readers who had shared similar pain, and his readers loved him for it.

Longfellow's fame was not merely literary. His poetry exercised a broad cultural influence that today seems more typical of movies or popular music than anything we might imagine possible for poetry. He was like a 19th century Walt Disney, who created characters and stories that could move effortlessly from medium to medium. His poems became subjects for songs, choral works, operas, musicals, plays, paintings, symphonies, pageants, and eventually, films.

An example would be Longfellow's classic narrative poem, "Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie," which was adapted into an opera, a cantata, a tone poem, a song cycle, and even a touring musical burlesque show.

Here's Martin Goldsmith reading the Prologue to "Evangeline."

Martin Goldsmith reads from "Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie"...

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers,—
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed!
Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October
Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o'er the ocean.
Naught but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand-Pré.

Ye who believe in affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient,
Ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman's devotion,
List to the mournful tradition, still sung by the pines of the forest;
List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.

Gioia: "Evangeline" was so popular that it was made into a movie three times, the last in 1929 starring the Mexican screen star Dolores del Rio, who sang two songs to mark Longfellow's arrival in talkies. "The Song of Hiawatha" provided American artists, composers, cartoonists, and directors with a popular subject and inspired Dvorak's New World Symphony. It also provided the Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with texts for three immensely popular cantatas in the early 1900s, which until World War II were performed annually in a two-week festival at the Royal Albert Hall by a thousand British choristers dressed as Indians. "Hiawatha's" cultural currency was so high that it was translated in to virtually every modern European language as well as Latin. It was even recast as English prose the way a popular movie today is novelized in paperback, and it eventually became a comic book.

Gioia: Here is Martin Goldsmith reading a selection from "The Song of Hiawatha." In this scene, taken from the last chapter, the hero Hiawatha prepares for his final departure towards the sunset. Notice how Longfellow incorporates Ojibway words into an English poem.

Martin Goldsmith reads from "The Song of Hiawatha"...

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,
In the pleasant Summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.
All the air was full of freshness,
All the earth was bright and joyous,
And before him, through the sunshine,
Westward toward the neighboring forest
Passed in golden swarms the Ahmo,
Passed the bees, the honey-makers,
Burning, singing in the sunshine.
Bright above him shone the heavens,
Level spread the lake before him;
From its bosom leaped the sturgeon,
Sparkling, flashing in the sunshine;
On its margin the great forest
Stood reflected in the water,
Every tree-top had its shadow,
Motionless beneath the water.
From the brow of Hiawatha
Gone was every trace of sorrow,
As the fog from off the water,
As the mist from off the meadow.
With a smile of joy and triumph,
With a look of exultation,
As of one who in a vision
Sees what is to be, but is not,
Stood and waited Hiawatha.

Gioia: Book sales and royalty figures, patronage of kings and playboy emperors, comic books and movies, Dolores del Rio, and red-faced English squires are not valuable tokens today in establishing a poet's literary merit. But I offer these anecdotes not to argue the intrinsic worth of Longfellow's poetry, which I believe is considerable, but to make a simple point.

There is something singularly odd in Longfellow's case that makes him extraordinarily difficult for contemporary critics to discuss. He is as much a part of our history as of our literature. To approach the place he occupies at the center of mid-19th century Anglo-American culture, a critic must cross a minefield of explosive issues from the nature of popular art to the depiction of native Americans by a white male author.

I could go on here as well but this catalog is already long enough to make the point. There are many cultural barriers between Longfellow's age and our own but if we put aside these critical issues and experience Longfellow simply as a writer, we find an exceptional poet of transparent grace and memorable emotion.

Although he sometimes wrote in the high style, he was first and foremost a popular poet who purposely addressed his songs and stories to a broad and mixed audience. There've probably been fewer than a dozen English language poets who have managed to create significant and enduring bodies of work in such an accessible style, poets like Robert Burns or A.E. Housman. To this select, if unfashionable, company we must add Longfellow. His special gift was to bring an intense musicality and powerful atmosphere to the light texture of the popular lyric, which one sees in his best work like "The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls."

Martin Goldsmith reads from "The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls "...

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Gioia: “Such poets,” as Queen Victoria remarked, “wear a crown which is imperishable.”

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This introduction to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has been made possible, in part, with support from the Poetry Foundation.   

It was written and narrated by Dana Gioia, produced by Pepper Smith with help from Adam Kampe and Liz Mehaffey. With special thanks to Erika Koss, Deidre Levinson, and Bill O'Brien. Readings of Longfellow's poetry by Martin Goldsmith.

Selections from Dvorak's Symphony #9 "From the New World," were performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop conducting.

Selections from Frederick Delius's “American Rhapsody,” were performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with David Lloyd-Jones conducting.

And selections from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's “Hiawatha Overture Op. 30” were performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra, Dublin, with Adrian Leaper conducting.

All music used by permission of Naxos of America.

I'm the executive producer, Josephine Reed for the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks for listening.

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