In the Bivouac of Life: Longfellow and the Fate of Poetry
Strolling around Disneyland this summer, re-acquainting myself with Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Mister Toad, Simba, and so on, the following reflection occurred to me: That these strange imagined characters were originally (at one slight remove, in Simba's case) the creations of some very bourgeois persons. Barrie, Grahame, Milne and Kipling were conventional, sober, uxorious, well-dressed gentlemen of respectable employment and opinions; yet the fruits of their imaginations have proved far more durable than those of any bohemian counter-culture you can name. Not a very original reflection, to be sure; but it is something to be able to reflect at all while heading from Fantasyland to Adventureland in ninety-degree heat with a first-grader and a pre-schooler in tow.
Some similar thoughts came to mind as I was reading the new selection of Longfellow's works recently published by the Library of America. Longfellow was as respectable as it is possible for a man to be. Writing and public lecturing apart, his entire paid employment consisted of five and a half years teaching modern languages at Bowdoin and seventeen years teaching the same at Harvard. He had two wives, both of whom he adored, both of whom pre-deceased him. We know of no other liaisons involving physical intimacy, and on both internal and external evidence, it is extremely unlikely that any such connections existed. He was raised in a happy family and begat another, was a filial son and a loving father. He had only the feeblest interest in politics, and never stood for any office. As best I have been able to determine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow never broke the law, never got drunk, never discharged a firearm nor socked anybody on the jaw in anger, never played at cards for money nor speculated on the stock market, never betrayed a friend nor made a pass at another man's wife.
Nor is it in the least probable that this outward sobriety was a lid clamped on some raging inner turmoil. I spoke of internal evidence for Longfellow's character — that is, his own writings, letters, recorded talk and private journals. These are plentiful throughout his life, from a letter written at age six to his father, to journal entries a few days before his death. There is nothing in them to suggest any quirks of personality more extraordinary than a mild and occasional hypochondria. (Longfellow died of peritonitis at age 75, declining from good health to death in just five days.)
It is therefore not very surprising that literary critics in present-day Academia, obsessed as they are with the "transgressive", do not find much of interest in Longfellow's life. There is no scholarly English-language biography of the poet in print, nor has been for decades. A list of materials one might recommend to a non-specialist inquirer into Longfellow's life and work would look very much the same now as it did thirty years ago. At its head I should put Professor Wagenknecht's 1966 sketch, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Portrait of an American Humanist. (For those who are amused by such oddities, I note that this title is misprinted as " … Humorist" in the notes to Mr. Paul Johnson's A History of the American People; yet another in the multitude of errors and misprints that mar — or enliven, depending on your attitude — that otherwise worthy book.) Wagenknecht had a gift for encompassing literary personalities in a couple of hundred pages; he did the same service for Poe, Hawthorne, Irving and other 19th-century American authors. Some civic-spirited publisher could do a service to literature by bringing out a uniform edition of Wagenknecht's little handbooks. Newton Arvin's 1962 Longfellow, His Life and Work has more critical depth so far as the Works are concerned; while the Life by Longfellow's youngest brother, Samuel, gives as much as any non-academic would want to read of the poet's journals and correspondence.
As with the life, so with the verse. Drop Longfellow into a literary conversation nowadays and you will get some odd looks. The exchanges that follow will include words and phrases like "mawkish," "shallow," "trite," "mechanical," "unadventurous," "tame," "jingles," "slave to conventional modes and diction," "the innocence of America's literary youth," and so on. When I produced my own CD of readings from American poetry in 1999, I included more pieces from Longfellow than from any other poet. This, a number of people have told me, was a serious error of judgment. "Four poems by Longfellow," scolded one lady indignantly, "And not one from Vachel Lindsay?" A friend who teaches English in an excellent suburban high school tells me that Longfellow is not on the curriculum. So far as the literary authorities of our time are concerned, Longfellow is not merely a dead poet; he is a dead dead poet.
For all that, Longfellow has been a continuous presence in our language since Voices of the Night was published in 1839, and his lines are still familiar today, though many who know them could not tell you who wrote them. "I shot an arrow into the air"; "Under a spreading chestnut tree"; "A banner with the strange device"; "Ships that pass in the night"; "One, if by land, and two, if by sea"; "Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small." No other American poet has so penetrated the general consciousness of the entire English-speaking world. And, whatever the Eng. Lit. clerisy may feel, he is still with us.
Item: My wife and I arrived early one afternoon for our ballroom dancing lesson. Our instructor, a thoughtful, well-educated man of about thirty-five, was attempting to teach some basic steps to a class of girls from the local high school, who seemed more interested in giggling and shrieking. When it was over he came to sit with us and, with obvious relief, watched the schoolgirls leave. As the door closed behind the last of them he turned to us with an expression of mock desperation and recited through clenched teeth the first stanza of "The Children's Hour":
Between the dark and the daylight,
When night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the children's hour.
Item: Reviewing a book by Amitai Etzioni, guru of the "communitarian" movement, for a political magazine a year or so ago, it occurred to me that many of the author's prescriptions depended on our being able to recapture the social habits and attitudes of an earlier time, and that it was unlikely we could do this because, as we say nowadays, the toothpaste is out of the tube. Seeking for an apt way to phrase the thought in context, I recalled some lines from "The Golden Milestone", which served my purpose very well:
We may build more splendid habitations,
Fill our rooms with paintings and with sculptures,
But we cannot
Buy with gold the old associations!
These items bring to mind a word Samuel Longfellow uses somewhere in respect of his brother's verse: serviceable. You can bring out Longfellow's lines and use them in all kinds of circumstances. He had a knack for expressing commonplace thoughts very memorably.
It is an interesting question why poets of our own time cannot do this. It may be that we have a very limited requirement for such serviceable lines and that the nineteenth century supplied all we need. Much more likely, in my opinion, it is because modern poets are intellectuals, who are expected to have some well-turned ideas about form, system, method and of course politics; and that this precludes them from having commonplace thoughts, or from being willing to express such thoughts in verse.
Longfellow was the very opposite of an intellectual. This might seem an odd thing to say about a man who spoke numerous languages and served on the faculty of Harvard University for seventeen years; yet it is certainly true. To anyone immersed in the literary culture of the present day, Longfellow's utter lack of interest in criticism — much less "critical theory"! — or in abstract systems of any kind, must be astounding. "What is the use of writing about books?" he asked in 1850, "excepting so far as to give information to those who cannot get the books themselves?" Oh, dear. Nor was this just writer's pique at negative reviews, which he took in his gentlemanly stride. Of Edgar Allan Poe's often scathing remarks about his work, he said only: "The harshness of his criticisms, I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong." (Which also happens to wrap up in one sentence an extraordinary amount of insight into Poe.)
Similarly with religion and politics. Longfellow had the typical middle-class American horror of strong opinions. Though deeply religious, he had no patience with theological doctrine, and probably could not understand it. The author of Poems on Slavery was, says Wagenknecht, antislavery but not abolitionist. When he associated with abolitionists he felt "like Alfred among the Danes". There is an entry in his journal that is pertinent here. On November 27th 1861 he records: "George Sumner and Mr. Bakounin to dinner. Mr. B. is a Russian gentleman of education and ability … An interesting man." This was, of course, the great anarchist and revolutionary Michael Bakunin, the familiar of Marx, Proudhon and Alexander Herzen; but what Longfellow found interesting was Bakunin's narration of his adventures and escapades, not — or at any rate, not worth recording — anything he might have said about class struggle or the specter haunting Europe.
Though Longfellow was an extremely intelligent man — he was Bowdoin's Professor of Modern Languages at age 22 — as a creator of verse, he was an idiot savant. The stuff just bubbled up out of him unpredictably. He could not explain it and had no real theory of poetic composition. "The Arrow and the Song" was jotted down one Sunday morning before church; "The Wreck of the Hesperus" was written at one sitting. He could not write vers d'occasion and usually begged off requests to do so; the elegantly beautiful "Morituri Salutamus" is almost the lone exception. The history of his life as a poet contains strange pauses and spells of sterility; between the ages of 19 and 30, usually a poet's prime years, he seems to have produced no verse at all.
The even tenor of Longfellow's life was punctuated by two tragedies: the death of his first wife, and the death of his second. The first of these, awful as it must have seemed at the time (and cold-hearted as it seems to say so, for which I apologize) was the lesser of the two. It occurred in Rotterdam in 1835, while Longfellow was travelling in north Europe to improve his German, prior to taking up the Harvard post. Mary Longfellow suffered a miscarriage and died a few weeks later from a consequent infection. They had been married just over four years. Mary Longfellow was a great beauty; but whether she was the right wife for a man as intensely bookish as Longfellow has been doubted. We cannot know the inner truth of the matter because Longfellow burned her journals after her death, together with love letters the two of them had exchanged. It is possible that Longfellow had found, like Mr. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility, that "through some unaccountable bias in favor of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman."
Be that as it may, Longfellow's grief cannot be doubted. He was not incapacitated by it, though, and continued his travels in Germany and Switzerland. In that latter country, just eight months after Mary's death, he met and fell in love with Fanny Appleton, who would eventually, after a long and frustrating courtship, become his second wife. Longfellow was, in fact, capable of a certain detachment from his own emotions, like those of us who can remain perfectly clear-headed as to what is going on around us even when seriously drunk. Travelling through the Tyrol in the weeks following Mary's death, he was overwhelmed with sadness; but not so much so as to blame the mountains. Those gloomy impressions arose, he understood, from "my sick soul." Ever the humanist, Longfellow knew man to be the measure of all things. His firm, placid nature could take its own temperature to within a degree or two.
Mary Longfellow's death was within the scope of afflictions one might reasonably expect to suffer in the days before modern medicine. Grief was appropriate, and in this case sincere; but death was all around, and it was unusual in Longfellow's time for anyone to be long derailed by the death of a loved one. (By coincidence, Longfellow's brother-in-law died of typhus two weeks before Mary.) A few years ago I took an elderly female relative for a trip back to her home town in the west midlands of England. In her youth this lady had been in love with a boy who had died suddenly from rheumatic fever. As we drove past a small street of old houses, she sat up against the window and said: "Oh! That's where we went to buy black for Jack Morgan." In England in the 1920s, apparently, every small town had a store where you went to "buy black" — that is, funeral clothes and veils. These were specialty stores, selling nothing else; demand was steady.
The death of Longfellow's second wife was an event of a different order. It might fairly, though again somewhat cruelly, be said that all the misfortune of a normal life was packed into a few moments of July the ninth, 1861. On that day Fanny Longfellow was sitting in the library with her two youngest daughters, ages 5 and 7, sealing up small envelopes of their curls, which she had just cut off. A match fell on Fanny's light summer dress, which burst into flames. Screaming, Fanny ran into the adjoining study, where her husband was taking a nap. He tried to stifle the flames, using a rug and his own body, but succeeded only after burning himself badly. Fanny died after a night of agony. Longfellow, 54 years old, was plunged into an intense grief from which he never truly recovered. It was months before he could even speak of the event, and then he could speak only obliquely. At length he took refuge in work, taking up his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy; a task he had begun some years before but laid aside.
These two life events, when they had been completely absorbed, produced two of Longfellow's finest poems. Taking the "water cure" at the German spa of Marienberg in August of 1842, his thoughts turned to the fact of his being half-way through the allotted seventy years of life. These meditations brought forth a wonderful sonnet, "Mezzo Cammin", in which is imbedded a single, brief but unmistakeable reference to Mary, dead nearly seven years at this point:
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet.
The grief that followed Fanny's death was much more massive, and took correspondingly longer to work itself through into art. On the eighteenth anniversary of that death in 1879, Longfellow, alone in his chamber, happened to be looking over an illustrated book of western scenery. The book included a picture of a mountain on whose side the snow lies in two long furrows to make the image of a vast cross. The image stayed with him, and when, that night, sleepless, he gazed at Fanny's portrait on the wall, the two things came together in his last, most heartbreaking sonnet, "The Cross of Snow":
… and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose …
(There is a sad little anthology to be made of poems written by men in memory of a dearly-loved wife, though perhaps nobody could bear to read it all through. Milton's "Methought I saw my late espoused Saint" leads the field, of course; but Dante Gabriel Rossetti's memorials to Lizzie Siddal are also very fine; as too, from a very different time and place, is Yuan Zhen's "Elegy", of which there is a moving translation in Witter Bynner's The Jade Mountain. No doubt there are many others I have forgotten or am ignorant of.)
"Mezzo Cammin" and "The Cross of Snow" illustrate the fact that Longfellow, whom we associate mainly with the ballad and narrative epic, was also a sonneteer of genius. This is not much appreciated. Robert Nye, for example, in his anthology The Faber Book of Sonnets includes only four by Longfellow: "Chaucer," "The Cross of Snow," "Autumn," and "Divina Commedia." This is a disgraceful under-representation — Ezra Pound has six poems in the book! The inclusion of the over-wrought "Autumn" and the omission of "Mezzo Cammin" are both equally inexplicable.
This new Library of America edition includes 52 sonnets, if I have not miscounted, and no more than a dozen are duds. All, by the way, are in the Petrarchan form; Longfellow seems not to have attempted the "English" sonnet. The literary ones are quite well known, I think, at least the ones on Dante and The Divine Comedy, and the flawless one on Chaucer: "An old man in a lodge within a park …" The one on Shakespeare would be first-rate if Longfellow had not put the word "Musagetes" into the last line, driving everyone except Hellenists and balletomanes to their reference books.
Here are some lines of Longfellow's that you have probably never read. They are not especially distinguished lines, and I choose them for just that reason. They close the finale of "Tales of a Wayside Inn" (which, by the way, is very rewarding to read in its entirety).
Perchance the living still may look
Into the pages of this book,
And see the days of long ago
Floating and fleeting to and fro,
As in the well-remembered brook
They saw the inverted landscape gleam,
And their own faces like a dream
Look up upon them from below.
What can we say about these lines, 137 years later? Well, two interesting things: one, that they would still give pleasure to a lot of people, and two, that no poet would think of publishing such lines nowadays.
Here we have bumped up against one of the great conundrums of our time: Whatever happened to popular poetry? Longfellow was one of the so-called "fireside poets" of the nineteenth century. Huge numbers of ordinary people all over the English-speaking world read him with great enjoyment. His brother relates the following story from the poet's last visit to England in 1868:
Upon his arrival the Queen sent a graceful message and invited him to Windsor Castle; but he told me no foreign tribute touched him deeper than the words of an English hod-carrier, who came up to the carriage-door at Harrow and asked permission to take the hand of the man who had written The Voices of the Night.
My own mother, the daughter of an English coal-miner, left school at age 14 to go into domestic service. Yet she could recite "Excelsior" all the way through; and if she came to my room and found it a mess she would say: "It looks like the wreck of the Hesperus in here!"
Why does no American poet later than Frost give such widespread pleasure, or inspire such allegiance from nonliterary people? We are not unwilling to write poetry. Any magazine editor will tell you that the the nation teems with poets. Nor are we unwilling to read it. There is a good market for books of poetry. Seamus Heaney's translation of "Beowulf" is a best-seller, Amazon sales rank 433. Even current poetry sells well: The Best American Poetry 2000 has Amazon rank 4,555, a very respectable showing. (Though this needs some discounting, as a book of this sort will be bought up in bulk by schools and colleges.)
And yet, whenever you actually hear someone quote poetry, it is always something old. I feel sure that whole days go by when no mouth anywhere in the United States spontaneously, in a non-pedagogical context, quotes any line from any American poem later than Frost's "Stopping by Woods" (1923). Ask any well-educated, but not particularly literary, friend to quote four lines by a living poet. Now ask your dentist, your mechanic, your plumber. You will be lucky to get anything but blank looks and shrugs.
It is hard to blame the poets. I happen to believe that the Modern Movement was all a ghastly mistake, like communism; and that, as with communism, it will take a century or so to clean up the mess. Now, there can be no forgiving Lenin; but what were poets supposed to do — go on turning out copies of "Snow-Bound" or A Shropshire Lad? Lapse back into heroic couplets? In art and literature, new things must be tried, old habits challenged, eggs broken in the hope of making omelettes. It is just our bad luck that none of the things tried in the twentieth century worked very well, that the omelettes were all inedible.
In particular, of course, free verse did not work very well. Personally I am not a purist about this, as for example was G.K. Chesterton: "Free verse? You may as well call sleeping in a ditch 'free architecture'!" I think free verse can occasionally be very striking. Any comprehensive anthology of good poetry will include some free-verse pieces (my own CD has five per cent, which I think is about right). The trouble is that there is far too much of it about, and people have been led to believe that fundamental poetic skills are not very important, or even that they are altogether unnecessary.
In the early 1980s I taught a college course in poetry, using the second edition (1965) of C.F. Main and Peter Seng's Wadsworth Handbook and Anthology, an excellent text for that purpose. I lost the book somewhere on my subsequent travels, but three or four years later decided to buy another copy, and duly did so. By this time the book had advanced to a fourth edition (1978), and I was dismayed to see that the lessons on scansion, which in the second edition were part of the main text, in the fourth had been relegated to an appendix! Probably they have been dropped altogether by now.
Here are some lines from a collection titled The George Washington Poems, by Diane Wakoski, published 1967.
George Washington, your name is on my lips.
You had a lot of slaves.
I don't like the idea of slaves. I know I am
a slave to
too many masters, already
If this is poetry, what is not poetry? One thinks of Doctor Johnson's reply when asked if he thought any man could have written Macpherson's Ossian: "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children." When an impressionable young person is told that this is poetry, and that the kind of gassy drivel extruded by Maya Angelou at the first Clinton inauguration is also poetry; and when that young person furthermore learns that Ms. Wakoski is actually a full-time professional poet, who makes a decent middle-class living at it, and that Ms. Angelou has even got modestly rich from her vaporings, then that young person's attitude to poetry has been corrupted.
Free verse is not the whole of the problem, though. Even in the coldest depths of the free-verse nuclear winter, around 1970, plenty of dedicated poets were still writing formal, structured verse. Elizabeth Bishop's perfect little villanelle "One Art", for example — sufficiently well known, at any rate among literary types, to have generated at least one good parody — was written in 1975. Richard Wilbur, John Hollander and many others produced, and are still producing, verse in traditional forms. The late 1970s in fact saw the birth of the so-called "New Formalism," in which a whole tribe of younger poets committed themselves to working with rhyme, meter and traditional structures. By the late 1980s these traditionalists had made enough noise to provoke a counter- (perhaps I mean counter-counter-) revolution. The aforementioned Ms. Wakoski's famous broadside "The New Conservatism in American Poetry" (in American Book Review, May-June 1986) pretty much said that anyone who wrote formal poetry was a fascist. With Hollander she went further, calling him "Satan". Hollander's own views on the matter, which are irenic and accommodationist, can be inspected in his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1998.
Across the pond, formal verse has had more mainstream support. In London, Auberon Waugh's Literary Review has for 15 years been running a monthly poetry competition whose rules stipulate that entries must rhyme, scan and make sense. Regular compilations of the best entries appear in book form and can be got from Waterstone's (search on "Literary Review"). The London Spectator ceased accepting poetry submissions at all some years ago on the grounds that none of the work submitted was any good. The outcry was, they report, "less than deafening." They have recently reversed this policy. In a stirring editorial in the September 23rd 2000 issue they announced that they had hired a poetry editor. "He has a beard. … He knows the difference between a tribrach and a molossus …" Their requirements are less strict than Mr. Waugh's, insisting only that poems scan, have an argument, and show decorum.
And of course, The New Criterion deserves an honorable mention in this context. Still I doubt any of it will make much difference. I have read the New Formalists with painstaking attention. (Rebel Angels, edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason, Story Line Press, 1996, is a representative collection.) I have been a Literary Review subscriber since their first issue. I applaud what these poets are doing and am very glad they are doing it; but I can't remember a line of their stuff, though I have sincerely tried.
Probably the dropping of dead languages from ordinary education is part of the problem. Translation into and out of Greek and Latin provided our forefathers with a gruelling but effective training in the mechanisms of poetry. Kingley Amis remarks in the introduction to his Popular Reciter that as a student in an ordinary English secondary school before World War Two he was often assigned such tasks:
… an exercise that gives you an insight hard to achieve by other means: the fact, noted by my fellows and me, that Mrs. Hemans's "Graves of a Household" went into Latin elegiacs with exceptional ease encourages a second look at that superficially superficial piece.
The 1930s seem like an awfully long time ago here. Fifty years earlier, Samuel Longfellow was boasting that the opening words of his brother's "Evangeline" were by then as familiar as "Mênin áeide, theá," or "Arma virumque cano". That assertion is, of course, just as true today, though in a depressingly different sense.
The more I think about this, the more I come to believe that there is some great mystery here. It's not anybody's fault; it's just something in the air. Something, undoubtedly, that, if we could understand it, would explain the related fact that when, at random, I switch on a serious-music radio station, nine times out of ten the music being played will have been composed before World War One; or that, when I buy an opera on CD, or steel myself to assault the logistical obstacles involved in going to see an opera at Lincoln Center (transport, baby-sitters, getting a ticket), it is never for any work later than Turandot (1926).
Whatever the explanation, it is a plain fact that poets like Longfellow attained a breadth and durability of appeal that modern poets, for all their writer-in-residence sinecures and Pulitzer Prizes, can only dream of. A common fixture in American homes of all classes during the middle of the twentieth century was Hazel Felleman's 1936 anthology The Best Loved Poems of the American People. Here are all the hoary verses and song lyrics our parents and grandparents knew, of quality high, low and desperate: "Casabianca," "The Sidewalks of New York," "Solitude," and so on. Doubleday have recently re-issued the book and it seems to be doing well; the Amazon sales rank is 46,771. This ranking — I believe I am on firm ground in saying this — owes nothing whatever to assistance from our educational institutions.
By way of comparison, here are some other Amazon rankings for poetry: Ezra Pound's Selected Poems 59,457, Rebel Angels 140,602, Diane Wakoski's Emerald Ice 247,201 and Rita Dove's Grace Notes 294,335. The Top 500 Poems, a popular recent anthology of what it claims to be "the most anthologized poems," ranks 84,437. Its poets are arranged in chronological order by birth date from John Skelton to Sylvia Plath; John Keats falls precisely in the middle of the book, and is therefore the median poet of popular enthusiasm, so far as birth order is concerned. Sylvia Plath was born in 1932.
This new Longfellow edition reminds us that there are smaller losses within the larger. Even more thoroughly than we have lost popular poetry, we have lost narrative poetry. I am sure there must be many people of the older generation who can still recite "The Wreck of the Hesperus" or "Paul Revere's Ride"; but who now reads the long ones: "Evangeline," "The Courtship of Miles Standish," and "Hiawatha"? If you raise the question, people laugh and say: "Nobody has time for that kind of thing nowadays."
This is just not true. I declaimed "Miles Standish" out loud at a leisurely pace, pausing now and then to look things up, in one hour and 29 minutes — much less time than it takes to watch the average movie. Silent reading would be faster. I am sure that anyone who cared to could get through "Evangeline" in an hour and a quarter. You could probably read both poems in the time it takes to watch The Patriot (165 minutes). Even "Hiawatha" could be traversed between dinner and bed-time by anyone who set himself to it.
So why are we all — I include myself here — willing to do the one thing but not the other — watch a 165-minute movie but not, unless paid to do so, read an 89-minute story in dactylic hexameters? Longfellow's epics are much more authentic than Mel Gibson's; though it is interesting that the portrait of American Indians as seen through white men's eyes in "Miles Standish" is so different from the one in the earlier Indian-viewpoint "Hiawatha." There the Indians are noble savages with a rich oral culture; in the later "Miles Standish" they are treacherous, boastful and cruel. This latter portrayal accords much better with the accounts we have from people who actually lived among New World aborigines: W.H. Hudson in Green Mansions, for example, or the memoirs of Kit Carson. The other is much closer to modern sensibilities. This, of course, will not help "Hiawatha" become known again.
I can testify that in England, at any rate, narrative verse was still popular as late as the mid-1960s, when Stanley Holloway's reading of Marriott Edgar's "The Lion and Albert" was a staple of radio request programs. In this little classic of narrative light verse, recited on English vaudeville stages as an unaccompanied poem, and immortalized thus on disc by Holloway (he was Audrey Hepburn's father in the movie of My Fair Lady), the Ramsbottom family — Ma, Pa and little Albert — take a trip to the zoo. While his parents' backs are turned, little Albert teases the lion by pushing a stick into its ear. The lion responds by swallowing Albert whole. The sorry tale proceeds:
Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence,
And didn't know what to do next,
Said "Mother! Yon lion's 'et Albert,"
And Mother said "Well, I am vexed!"
… a stirring example of British sang-froid. Well, it isn't Longfellow; but it is certainly narrative verse — it is in The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse!
Yet again, one knows without trying that any attempt to revive interest in narrative verse would be futile. We do not read as our grandfathers read; we do not hear as they heard.
Much less to be regretted is the change in taste that has made Longfellow's prose unreadable. Perhaps "unreadable" is over-stating things somewhat; as a conscientious reviewer, I actually did read Longfellow's short novel Kavanagh all the way through — it is included in its entirety in this Library of America edition. What stuff! I would have been better employed in back-washing my sump pump. Longfellow himself seems to have been aware of his failings as a prose writer, and after Kavanagh attempted no more.
I wonder why Mr. McClatchy included the whole of this sorry piece, when he might have given us more of Longfellow's translations. In addition to three page-length extracts from The Divine Comedy, he has chosen just twelve poems translated from other languages; twice that number would not have been too many. Longfellow was a gifted linguist. He learned French, Spanish, Italian and German to a good degree of reading competency — we have independent confirmations of this — in 9, 9, 12 and 6 months, respectively, between 1826 and 1829. Much of the rest of his life was devoted to enlarging his knowledge of the literature in these tongues, and in acquiring others. He was a busy and skillful translator of poetry from, by Arvin's count, eleven different languages altogether.
The translating of poetry is an oddly addictive business, as anyone that has tried it will confirm. Longfellow found it intensely stimulating — "Like running a ploughshare through the soil of one's mind," he told his friend Ferdinand Freiligrath — and gave himself over to it with a passion. The results on display in this edition range from a grave and fine-wrought, almost Shakespearean, rendering of one of Michelangelo's sonnets for Vittoria Colonna to the following irresistible little carved cherry-stone titled "A Neapolitan Canzonet."
One morning, on the sea-shore as I strayed,
My heart dropped in the sand beside the sea;
I asked of yonder mariners, who said
They saw it in thy bosom, — worn by thee.
And I am come to seek that heart of mine,
For I have none, and thou, alas! hast two;
If this be so, dost know what thou shalt do? —
Still keep my heart, and give me, give me thine.
Amongst other reasons for wishing there were more translations here, I note that four of the twelve are love poems, a genre the poet himself ventures into, unaccompanied, just once in the whole of the rest of the book. Longfellow could translate love poetry very effectively, but he could not write it, and seems to have known this. That single solo venture is "The Evening Star", addressed to Fanny shortly after their marriage. It strikes me — I think it must strike any modern reader — as decidedly peculiar.
Setting to one side the small differences of opinion registered above, I believe that Mr. McClatchy and the Library of America have done a fine job with this little volume. We cannot, indeed, buy with gold the old associations; but anyone that cares to do so can settle down with this Longfellow and find some familiar lines in their native habitat, or make the acquaintance of some beautiful sonnets, or perhaps even discover a taste for narrative verse. Longfellow will never again be as much loved, prized and memorized as he was in 1850, or even 1950; but when you read him at his best — the sonnets and short ballads, the translations, "The Building of the Ship," "A Psalm of Life" — you know that this is the real stuff — "the true, the blushful Hippocrene." The United States has not engendered so many first-rank poets that we can afford to neglect one.