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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Literary Significance of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The mission of The Library of America is to rescue out-of-print American literature from oblivion. The rescue missions began in 1979 when some scholars and critics observed that many fine literary works were out of print, and few copies could be found. Concerned that the loss of important literary texts would deprive Americans of a vital part of their heritage, the founders of The Library determined to rectify the situation. With seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, The Library was formed, and the first volumes appeared in 1982.

The Library publishes volumes twice each year, and for the year 2000, one of their publications was Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings, edited by poet J. D. McClatchy. The black dust-cover volume is a handsome book with a ribbon bookmark and a whopping 854 pages, including a chronology of the poet's life, notes on the texts, notes, and an index of titles and first lines. McClatchy has selected a wide variety of the poet's works, such as poems from The Voices of the Night, Ballads and Other Poems, and Poems on Slavery. The long poems, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, are offered in their entirety. According to editor J. D. McClatchy,

Here are the poems that created an American mythology: Evangeline in the forest primeval, Hiawatha by the shores of Gitche Gumee, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, the wreck of the Hesperus, the village blacksmith under the spreading chestnut tree, the strange courtship of Miles Standish, the maiden Priscilla and the hesitant John Alden; verses like "A Psalm of Life" and "The Children’s Hour," whose phrases and characters have become part of the culture. Here as well, along with the public antislavery poems, are the sparer, darker lyrics—"The Fire of Drift-Wood," "Mezzo Cammin," "Snow-Flakes," and many others—that show a more austere aspect of Longfellow’s poetic gift.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry earned him a wide readership in the USA and abroad. His works were 19th century bestsellers. No other American writer of that time period garnered more admiration than Longfellow. McClatchy and The Library of America in this volume are publishing a comprehensive, literary collection of this poet’s magnificent works.

Interpretive Reading of "A Psalm of Life"

As the dust cover description informs readers, Longfellow's poetry was enormously popular and influential in his own lifetime. Today, most readers have heard his quotations so often that they have become "part of the culture." A favorite Longfellow poems is "A Psalm of Life," which contains the following stanza:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal:
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Readers, of course, recognize the line, "Into each life some rain must fall." They will find that line in his poem called "The Rainy Day." No doubt it is this Longfellow poem that helped spread the use of "rain" as a metaphor for the melancholy times in our lives.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem, "If those I loved were lost," she alludes to the Longfellow lines—"Till the bell of Ghent responded o'er lagoon and dike of sand, I am Roland! I am Roland! there is victory in the land!"—with the lines, "If those I loved were found / The bells of Ghent would ring." Dickinson’s speaker is alluding to the widely-known "Ghent Belfry," constructed in 1313 and featuring the ringing of bells, which announced religious events. The bells were later rung to declaim other significant events. An inscription on the bell tower reveals the historic importance of it construction: "My name is Roland. When I toll there is fire. / When I ring there is victory in the land."

Reading of "The Slave's Dream"

The Scholar

Longfellow was a careful scholar, and his poems reflect an intuition that allowed him to see into the heart and soul of his subject. His "The Slave's Dream" reveals his knowledge of Africa, as well as the aspirations of a dying slave. After illuminating the slave's dream of being king in his Native Land, the speaker of the poem reveals the slave's soul has departed its body:

He did not feel the driver's whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;
For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,
And his lifeless body lay
A worn-out fetter, that the soul
Had broken and thrown away!

The Translator

This volume includes some samples of Longfellow's translations. He translated Dante's The Divine Comedy, and this volume offers "The Celestial Pilot," "Terrestrial Paradise," and "Beatrice" from the Purgatorio.

Other translations include "The Good Shepherd" by Lope de Vega, "Santa Teresa's Book-Mark" by Saint Teresa of Ávila, "The Sea Hath Its Pearls" by Heinrich Heine, and several selections by Michelangelo. McClatchy says that Longfellow was "fluent in many languages," and these selections attest to that fact.

The Novelist

Not only poems and other verse forms are selected, but also the novel, Kavanaugh: A Tale, has been rescued for future generations.

This novel was recommended by Ralph Waldo Emerson for its contribution to the development of the American novel. The opening paragraph of this important novel is worth quotation in its entirety:

Great men stand like solitary towers in the city of God, and secret passages running deep beneath external nature give their thoughts intercourse with higher intelligences, which strengthens and consoles them and of which the laborers on the surface do not even dream!

The Essayist

Longfellow, like Emerson, was concerned with the creation of a distinctly American literary tradition, and McClatchy has included three essays that reflect that concern: "The Literary Spirit of Our Country," "Table Talk," and "Address on the Death of Washington Irving."

Continuing the Rescue Effort

The Library of America continues to rescue great literary works, preserving them in handsome volumes that are just the right size for easy reading. Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings is a useful and welcome addition to literature lovers' bookshelves.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the Library of America?

Answer: The mission of The Library of America is to rescue out-of-print American literature from oblivion. The rescue missions began in 1979 when some scholars and critics observed that many fine literary works were out of print, and few copies could be found. Concerned that the loss of important literary texts would deprive Americans of a vital part of their heritage, the founders of The Library determined to rectify the situation. With seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, The Library was formed, and the first volumes appeared in 1982.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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