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.
Other Books You Might Enjoy
Paul Revere's Ride
by David Hackett Fischer (1994)
The Dante Club
by Matthew Pearl (2003)
Songs of Ourselves: The Uses
of Poetry in America
by Joan Shelley Rubin (2007)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, c. 1855 (Photo courtesy the Longfellow National Historic Site)
Yakushima Forest (Copyright Jeremy Hedley)
Statue of Evangeline in Nova Scotia, Canada (Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario, Ministry of Government Services)