Flashbacks October 2000

Recollecting Longfellow

In The Atlantic's early years, he was the poet of the age
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No American poet ever filled out the part quite like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. One glance at the Moses-like profile on the jacket of the new Library of America edition of his selected poems and prose confirms as much, a silver-hued photograph taken late in his life that makes it appear as if the domed brow and furling beard were already sculpted in marble. The stately cadence of his name alone reverberates with gravitas: trochee, trochee, dactyl, a name that all but demands to be chiseled on the base of a bust or high on the portico of a classical-revival library. And so it has been, time and again, even as his once-monumental repute has gradually eroded since his death in 1882.

Was he a great poet? He was certainly a grand poet, and in the public mind the grandest of his day and age. No American poet of any era, it's safe to say, has been both as awesomely prolific and prodigiously popular. If Walt Whitman, his younger contemporary by a dozen years, is enshrined as the founding father of modern American poetry, Longfellow deserves no less than to be remembered as the native bard who gave mythic dimension to the country's historical imagination, a national poet of epic sweep and solemn feeling who came along right at the moment when the emerging nation had the most need for one. The forest primeval, the village smithy under the spreading chestnut tree, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, the Indian princeling Hiawatha in his birch canoe -- such were the iconic images Longfellow forged out of the American collective consciousness in volume after lionized volume. The enduring artistry of his ceremonious and at times overly starchy verse can be debated, but not the potency of its ennobling sentiments or the resounding strains it struck from what Lincoln famously invoked as "the mystic chords of memory."

Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807, and educated at Bowdoin College, where one of his classmates was Nathaniel Hawthorne. A gifted linguist, he was appointed to a chair at Harvard as a professor of modern languages before he was thirty. By 1857, when The Atlantic Monthly was founded under the editorship of James Russell Lowell, Longfellow was in the prime of his writing life and incontestably the most celebrated poet in the land. His verse narrative The Song of Hiawatha (1855) had sold 50,000 copies; its successor, The Courtship of Miles Standish, racked up 10,000 purchases on its first day in London when it appeared in 1858. This popular success, combined with a nearly unstinting critical acclaim (one notable dissenting voice belonged to Edgar Allan Poe, who years earlier had savaged Longfellow's Ballads and Other Poems in a review, fuming that its author's "conception of the aim of poetry is all wrong") won for Longfellow an audience and eminence in the nineteenth century that even such beloved American poets as Frost and Sandburg were not to rival in later generations.

Beginning with "Santa Filomena," which ran in the first number of The Atlantic in November, 1857, Longfellow published more than fifty poems in the magazine over the last twenty-five years of his life, including the well-known anthology pieces "Paul Revere's Ride" (which is actually a section of the long poem Tales of a Wayside Inn) and "The Children's Hour." With the publication last month of the Library of America edition, ably edited by the poet and critic J. D. McClatchy, it seems fitting to offer a selection of Longfellow's verse culled from The Atlantic Monthly's archives. We've also posted two appreciations of Longfellow's work that originally appeared in our pages: "Aftermath," by William Dean Howells (November 1873) and "The Centenary of Longfellow," by Bliss Perry (March 1907).

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David Barber is The Atlantic's poetry editor.

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