America's favorite, forgotten poet
During his lifetime (1807-1882), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow became the most popular poet in America, indeed one of the most popular in the English-speaking world. His long narrative poems became literary accomplishments almost universally admired.
However, his poetic stock, once so high, plummeted during the 20th century, and his work is generally omitted from literature courses which cover 19th-century American poetry today.
Probably the reason for this, as much as anything, is a radical change in taste. Longfellow is discursive. He cannot resist adding description, lush and sometimes seemingly endless, to his narratives.
And he had a love of pathos. His very popular "Evangeline," included in its entirety in this new collection, is the account of a young Acadian couple who were separated on the day after their betrothal by the British deportation of the French Canadians from Acadie. Evangeline spends the rest of her long life searching most of the Eastern United States for her beloved Gabriel, finding him only as an old man dying of fever in Philadelphia.
Perhaps there is a point to the tale, but it seems lost to modern attitudes. A half century ago, "Evangeline" was commonly assigned in American public schools, but even then many students thought they were the victims of compulsory boredom.
"The Song of Hiawatha," however, retains much of its original vigor today and is a pleasure to reread. What older person can forget the shores of Gitche Gumee?
But perhaps it is in his sonnets that Longfellow truly shines. The form forced the poet to come to his point and then drop it without undue elaboration, and many of them are marvels of poetic composition and economy.
One finds in Longfellow much that is original, together with a genial and gentlemanly attitude toward life. Gloom and sadness are present in abundance, perhaps in part in reaction to the taste of the times, and probably also reflective of difficulties in the poet's own life. Generally, though, Longfellow abstracted his personal difficulties, and did not write directly about them. Probably, in the end, his ability to master his own problems has taken some of the sharpness from his perceptions and dulled the cutting edge of his work a bit for the 20th century. He knew well how to be genial, but we want more from our major authors than geniality.
This collection, the first selection of Longfellow's work in more than 25 years, is generous, including broad selections of Longfellow's best known poems, as well as his novel, "Kavanaugh," a remarkably polite and somewhat negligible account of small town life, and a few other prose pieces. A hefty selection from "Tales of the Wayside Inn" is included.
Two verse dramas, entitled together, "The New England Tragedies," explore Colonial misrule. The first play, "John Endicott," encapsulates and summarizes much Massachusetts religious intolerance, especially toward Quakers, and the second, "Giles Corey of the Salem Farms," anticipates Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," though it lacks much of the intensity of Miller's treatment.
An 11-page chronology of Longfellow's life supplies basic facts about the poet. Notes on the poems follow, though there is no reference to their presence in the text itself. One has to be curious to find them. One also would like dates of composition or publication to accompany the texts of the poems, but they are not present there.
Perhaps 800 pages of Longfellow is more than most readers will desire, but all in all this book is a pleasure. Many of the poems go down like cool, sweet milk. Some old favorite poems like "The Courtship of Miles Standish," "The Village Blacksmith," or "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" are a joy to reconsider. And other Longfellow work new to most readers is also often a delight. An example is the sonnet "The Galaxy," or another, a deeply felt poem, "The Nameless Grave."
One doubts that Longfellow's preeminence will be rekindled by this new collection, but he is certainly well worth pondering once again.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society