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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)

Longfellow and Other Arts

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. His poems became subjects for songs, choral works, operas, musicals, plays, paintings, symphonies, pageants, and eventually films. Evangeline, for instance, was adapted into an opera, a cantata, a tone poem, a song cycle, and even a touring musical burlesque show. Later, it became a movie five times—the last in 1929 starring Dolores Del Rio, who sang two songs to celebrate Longfellow’s arrival in talkies. “The Village Blacksmith” became a film at least eight times, if one counts cartoons and parodies, including John Ford’s 1922 adaptation, which updated the protagonist into an auto mechanic.

The Song of Hiawatha not only provided American artists, composers, cartoonists, and directors with a popular subject, it gave Antonín Dvorák the inspiration for two movements of his “New World” symphony. It also provided the Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with texts for three immensely popular cantatas, which until World War II were performed annually in a two-week festival at Royal Albert Hall by almost a thousand British choristers dressed as Indians. Hiawatha's cultural currency was so high that it was not only translated into virtually every modern European language but also into 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 written in Longfellow's original meter.

"Paul Revere’s Ride" prompted too many adaptations to list, though painter Grant Wood's witty version underlines the poem's status as national icon. Composer Charles Ives's setting of "The Children's Hour" (later choreographed by Jerome Robbins for Ives Songs) may also have a touch of irony, but it mainly luxuriates in the poem's celebration of domesticity, for Longfellow's emotional directness appealed immensely to composers. There are over seven hundred musical settings of his work in the Bowdoin College Library.

"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."
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from his poem, The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls

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