Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Poems and Other Writings
edited by J. D. McClatchy Library of America
854 pages, $35.00
In 1857 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and other three-handled New England sages, founded The Atlantic Monthly. Our original mission was to free the slaves and bridge the chasm between the old culture of Europe and the new culture of America: to import the old and export the new. Longfellow was one of the principal builders of that bridge. He read eleven languages, translated from most of them, and decked out American legends in the brocaded costumes of European verse, rendering The Courtship of Miles Standish and Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie in dactylic hexameter. He translated the entire Divina Commedia of Dante; took the rhythms of the Finnish epic Kalevela and retooled them for The Song of Hiawatha; converted the rhythms of Michael Drayton's "The Ballad of Agincourt" into an updated, blood-chilling narrative, "The Skeleton in Armor." He popularized an entire stable of international legends, and he shoehorned the American family into domesticated poetry in that pious precursor of Hallmark, "The Children's Hour." More than any other poet, Longfellow furnished Americans with a template for what poetry was supposed to be: uplifting, patriotic, exotic, dramatic.
He also made our literature known. Longfellow was acquainted with every great European of the nineteenth century, from the Marquis de Lafayette to Oscar Wilde. He is memorialized in Westminster Abbey, in the Poets' Corner. He brought us together with our European heritage and made the world respect our poetry.
A price, however, was paid. Longfellow may have been a citizen of the world, who took tea with Queen Victoria, but he was also plainly a citizen of Cambridge and of Harvard. In his poetry he seldom enlarged reality in order to explode it—not as Emily Dickinson deepened the interior world, or as Walt Whitman broadened the exterior. But (one should never omit the "but" with Longfellow) he produced a huge amount of memorable verse, which has crept under the skin of our language and is likely to remain there. If poetry's function is to make sayings memorable, Longfellow, with his younger admirer Robert Frost, surely possessed the unmistakable knack of permanence.
Chances are that more than a few bromides you utter originated with Longfellow. Indeed, they may have originated in one of the more than sixty poems he published in this magazine (several of which can be read on our Web site, at www.theatlantic.com/poetry). "The patter of little feet," "The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small," "One, if by land, and two, if by sea," "This is the forest primeval," "Ships that pass in the night," "Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs, / and as silently steal away," are famously his; but so are "Into each life some rain must fall," "footprints on the sands of time," and "a boy's will is the wind's will," famous thanks to Frost. Longfellow's secret lay in his understanding of language, his modulation of the musical sounds in such lines as "While underneath these leafy tents they keep / The long, mysterious Exodus of Death," from "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport." We cannot help hearing the long es in the first line broaden into the short es in "exodus" and "death," as though a sob lapsed into silence.
In Longfellow's poetry the scale is always human. That is what makes his best work so touching—and his worst so soppy. The universe was not built on a human scale, and the greatest poets know it; but to make the American continent fit for nineteenth-century human habitation some sort of taming was necessary. Longfellow kept the wildness at bay.