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."