Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Slam-Dunk Superstar of 1800s

Would Longfellow in 1996 be a "slam" poet or a guest on Larry King Live? I could imagine seeing the young Longfellow, with his shock of dark hair, when I visited the Nuyorican Cafe in New York. That's where many slams take place, where poets compete for audience favor and poetry shrieks, sighs, laughs, hollers, and often berate oppressors and defend minorities.

While still a college student, Longfellow defended the rights of American Indians ("they have been most barbarously maltreated"). And each spring he returns as the poet of American heroism against colonial oppression. (Though historians tell us he took some factual liberties with his poem on American Liberty.)

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five ...

I'm recalling what every schoolchild used to know, because this year the anniversary of Revere's ride comes during America's first National Poetry Month. With Larry King's penchant for the celebrity of the hour, he'd be on the phone to Longfellow's agent. For Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a superstar. His picture appeared on a "Longfellow Jug." It was painted on inkwells. Families and schools bought small statues of him.

He said to his friend, "If the British march

By land or sea from the town tonight,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light,-

One, if by land, and two, if by sea..."

Longfellow loved to tell about the English traveler who said: "In other countries, you know, we go to see ruins and the like; but you have no ruins in your country, and I thought - I thought I would call and see you." No wonder the Park Service maintains his big old house in Cambridge, Mass.

A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!

He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,

But lingers and gazes, till full in his sight

A second lamp in the belfry burns! ...

Traveling in Britain, Longfellow breakfasted with the prime minister. Queen Victoria asked him to visit. Oxford and Cambridge gave him honorary degrees. The Illustrated London News said that no living English poet had as many readers in England as the American Longfellow.

It was one by the village clock,

When he galloped into Lexington.

He saw the gilded weathercock ...

Longfellow was made a member of the Russian Academy. He was honored by a university in Spain. In Rome the composer Liszt played the piano for him.

It was two by the village clock,

When he came to the bridge in Concord town.

He heard the bleating of the flock ...

Back in Cambridge, the poet was visited by the famous. Henry James had lunch with him. Don Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil, asked if he could come to dinner.

You know the rest. In the books you have read,

How the British Regulars fired and fled ...

Longfellow became the first American to have a marble image in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;

And so through the night went his cry of alarm

To every Middlesex village and farm,

A cry of defiance, and not of fear ...

Longfellow's last letter was to a young girl in Pennsylvania, thanking her for a poem: "It was very sweet and simple and does you great credit."

Through all our history, to the last,

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

The people will waken and listen to hear

The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,

And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

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