LONGFELLOW - - A FOUNDER


by: Gorge F. Will


O NE HUNDRED YEARS A GO, FEB. 27, 1907, WAS ENLIVENED BY EVENTS AROUND THE NATION COMMEMORATING WHAT HAD HAPPENED 100 YEARS BEFORE THAT IN 1807 BUT LAST WEEK’S BICENTENNIAL OF THE BIRTH OF HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW PASSED LARGELY UNNOTED, WHICH IS VERY NOTEWORTHY.


It was, naturally, a poet (Shelly)who declared that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Wishful thinking, that, but Plato took poets so seriously as disturbers of the peace that he wanted them expelled from his republic. And, face the fact, Longfellow was, in a sense, an American Founder, a maker of  this Republic’s consciousness.


Time was, children learned—in schools; imagine that—the origins of what still are familiar phrases: “Ships that pass in the night,” “Life is real! Life is earnest!” “foot-prints on the sands of time,” “the patter of little feet,” “the forest primeval,” “Let the dead Past bury its dead!” “ In this world a man must either be anvil or hammer,” “Into each life some rain must fall.”


Even the first stanza of Longfellow’s serene “The Village Blacksmith”                                    Under the spreading chestnut-tree

                              The village smithy stands.

—has a haunting, sinister echo in George Orwell’s “1984.” Winston Smith, distraught, thinks he hears a voice singing

                              Under the spreading chest-nut tree

I sold you and you sold me.


Henry Wadsworth LongfellowLongfellow was a gifted versifier, and today is dismissed as only a versifier. Well, as Cezanne supposedly said of Monet, “He is only an eye—but what an eye!”


Longfellow was very Victorian— sentimental and moralistic. He in no way fore-shadowed 20th-century poetry’s themes of meaninglessness (“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”—T. S. Eliot, 1917) and social disintegration (“the blood-dimmed tide is loosed”—William Butler Yeats, 1921). Longfellow wrote for a young nation that was thinking “Let us then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate,” before he wrote that exhortation.


He aimed to shape the nation’s identity by making Americans aware of the first European settlers (“Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”—”The Courtship of Miles Standish”), the Native Americans they displaced (“By the shore of Gitche Gumee”—“The Song of Hiawatha”) and the nation’s birth (“Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”). “Paul Revere’s Ride” was written in 1860, as events were mocking Longfellow’s great national poem (“The Building of the Ship,” 1849):

                              Cedar of Maine and Georgia pine

                              Here together shall combine.

A goodly frame, and a goodly fame,

                              And the UNION be her name!


                              Sail on, 0 UNION, strong and great!

                              Humanity with all its fears,

                              With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!


Longfellow’s civic purposes made him a public figure, the nation’s first literary

celebrity. His image decorated cigar boxes and beer-bottle labels. He kept a supply of autographed cards for the many strangers who made pilgrimages to his Cambridge house, where George Washington had lived during the siege of Boston.


Not long ago there still were celebrity poets. Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth, in his “When the Going Was Good: American Life in the Fifties” remembers Robert Frost’s receiving a standing ovation from an overflow house at Carnegie Hall, and Eliot’s reading his poems to an overflow audience at Columbia University, with people outside listening to him over loudspeakers.


The audiences were very intense because the issues were large, if abstruse. Frost and Eliot represented dueling sensibilities, the empirical and the transcendental. In contrast, Longfellow intended his narrative and lyric poems—genres disdained by modernists—as inspiriting guides to the nation’s honorable past and challenging future . Yeats ascribed Longfellow’s popularity to his accessibility—“he tells his story or idea so that one needs nothing but his verses to understand it.” This angers today’s academic clerisy. What use is it to readers who need no intermediary between them and the author? And what use is Longfellow to academics who “interrogate” authors’ “texts” to illuminate the authors psyches, ideologies and social situations - the “power relations” of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, etc.? This reduction of the study of literature to sociology, and of sociology to ideological assertion, demotes literature to mere raw material for literary theory, making today’s professoriate, rather than yesterday’s writers, the center of attention.


Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, has written that “Longfellow’s vast influence on American culture paradoxically makes him both central and invisible.” The melancholy fact that the 200th birthday of the poet who toiled to create the nation’s memory passed largely unremarked is redundant evidence of how susceptible this forward-leaning democracy is to historical amnesia.


SOURCE:

NEWSWEEK Magazine

March 12, 2007 (Pg. 68)



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