By Carter Davis Johnson

In a period where American literature was considered peripheral and amateur, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) helped create a national literature to challenge European authors. His poetry heralded the unique mythology, history, and nature of America. With lucid imagery and accessible meter, Longfellow became a leading poet and popular figure in Nineteenth Century America. His works were easily memorized and saturated numerous forums of American culture. From schoolchildren to businessmen, Longfellow’s poems were cherished pieces of national literature. His most famous works are “The Song of Hiawatha”, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, and “The Courtship of Miles Standish”. These pieces became staples of primary studies in American Poetry; however, with the rise of literary modernism in the early Twentieth Century, Longfellow fell out of favor with scholars. His work was discarded as simple and overly sentimental in the wake of physiological and political works from poets like T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, and E.E. Cummings. Nonetheless, this neglect of Longfellow is unmerited. His works display a true mastery of meter and thematic prowess. “A Psalm of Life”, “The Wreck of the Hesperus”, and “The Village Blacksmith” all display Longfellow’s brilliance and warrant a serious study of this Fireside Poet.

 

A Psalm of Life

This poem embodies Longfellow’s deep concern for morality. As the first line implicitly states, “A Psalm of Life” is an internal dialogue between the heart and the pen. The young man’s heart overflows with grand ambition, not for riches or worldly pleasures, but for something far deeper and higher. His heart longs for a meaningful life, a life saturated with action, furthering humanity in deed and example. Using a constant meter and rhyme, Longfellow addresses questions of time, emotion, turmoil, joy and mortality. These questions are within the core struggle of every life. Longfellow speaks into humanity’s search for meaning and provides an exhortation to moral living. Additionally, his use of collective pronouns draws the reader into the fight. Together, the narrator and the reader cast “footprints on the sands of time.”

 

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
__Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
__And things are not what they seem.

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.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
__Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
__Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
__And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
__Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
__In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
__Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
__Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
__Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
__We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
__Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
__Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
__Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
__With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
__Learn to labor and to wait.

 

The Wreck of the Hesperus

This poem exhibits Longfellow’s mastery of the narrative poem. With wonderful descriptive meter, he recounts the tragic tale of the Hesperus. Once again, we see Longfellow’s interest in morality. The skipper of the Hesperus, who laughs at the seasoned sailor, is ruined by his pride. Not only does it cost him his own life, but also that of his little daughter and crew. Longfellow’s heartbreaking and eerie description of the frozen daughter in stanzas 20-21 (“At daybreak … fall and rise.”) emphasizes the sad consequences of pride. Another remarkable portion of this poem is the description of the storm in stanzas 16-19 (“And ever fitful … breakers roared!”). This passage demonstrates Longfellow’s remarkable ability to create vivid scenes with an economy of words. When these lucid descriptions are combined with a clear moral, the poem becomes remarkably memorable. Not only does it touch the reader’s emotion, but it also provokes internal moral thought.

 

It was the schooner Hesperus,
__That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter
__To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
__Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
__That ope in the month of May.

The skipper he stood beside the helm,
__His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
__The smoke now West, now South.

Then up and spake an old Sailor,
__Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
“I pray thee, put into yonder port,
__For I fear a hurricane.

“Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
__And to-night no moon we see!”
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
__And a scornful laugh laughed he.

Colder and louder blew the wind,
__A gale from the Northeast,
The snow fell hissing in the brine,
__And the billows frothed like yeast.

Down came the storm, and smote amain
__The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
__Then leaped her cable’s length.

“Come hither! come hither! my little daughter,
__And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
__That ever wind did blow.”

He wrapped her warm in his seaman’s coat
__Against the stinging blast;
He cut a rope from a broken spar,
__And bound her to the mast.

“O father! I hear the church-bells ring,
__Oh say, what may it be?”
“‘Tis a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!” —
__And he steered for the open sea.

“O father! I hear the sound of guns,
__Oh say, what may it be?”
“Some ship in distress, that cannot live
__In such an angry sea!”

“O father! I see a gleaming light,
__Oh say, what may it be?”
But the father answered never a word,
__A frozen corpse was he.

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,
__With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
__On his fixed and glassy eyes.

Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed
__That saved she might be;
And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave
__On the Lake of Galilee.

And fast through the midnight dark and drear,
__Through the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
__Tow’rds the reef of Norman’s Woe.

And ever the fitful gusts between
__A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf
__On the rocks and the hard sea-sand.

The breakers were right beneath her bows,
__She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
__Like icicles from her deck.

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
__Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
__Like the horns of an angry bull.

Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
__With the masts went by the board;
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank,
__Ho! ho! the breakers roared!

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
__A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
__Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
__The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
__On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
__In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
__On the reef of Norman’s Woe!

 

The Village Blacksmith

Typical of Longfellow’s work, this poem intertwines personal character and physical description. Using anaphora and steady meter throughout the poem, Longfellow describes the blacksmith with a constant and faithful rhythm, mirroring the character of the brawny man. In addition, the poem’s muse is a religious, blue-collar worker. This protagonist was highly relatable for Longfellow’s American audience, and reaffirmed the value of honest labor. The indomitable and persistent spirit of the American working class is embodied in the blacksmith. Longfellow presents a paradigm which views life as a beautiful struggle marked with great joy and exertion. He heralds the faithful servant, who, while in the refining fire, presses on towards future reward. His masculinity is not sullied by compassion, and his circumstances do not define him. Rather, Longfellow’s “worthy friend” forges an exemplary life with calloused hands and a soft heart.

 

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Toiling,–rejoicing,–sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

 

With personal thanks to Dr. Steven E. Knepper

Carter Davis Johnson is an English major and cadet at the Virginia Military Institute. He grew up in Roanoke, Virginia.

 

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5 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Thank you, Carter, for your thoughtful exposition of these poems. These are the three Longfellow poems I most vividly recall from my youth. My parents and grandparents occasionally quoted parts of them by memory. Death was a common theme in Longfellow’s day and the fragility of life and the specter of Death were self-evident in such all-too-common events as rampant infant/child mortality, epidemics, sepsis and war. What meaning or purpose is there in life when death could strike at any moment? Longfellow, Tennyson (i.e. “Crossing of the Bar”), Sullivan (“The Lost Chord”) and others of the post-Romantic Victorian era tackled this question with a sentimentality that strikes many of us today as as both overly-optimistic, simplistic and naive. In their day, however, the sentiments expressed in poems such as these ennobled and encouraged their contemporaries to face life with courage, determination and good character. They also, however, drew from and reinforced the cultural mythologies of manifest destiny, nationalism, and imperialism–world views that opened the way for the Boer War, bloody slaughters in India, American expansionism and the completely unnecessary conflagration of the First World War. Longfellow and Tennyson were both dead and gone by then and their collective spirit of optimism (at least within the world of art and literature) had already begun to crumble during a transition which saw such poetry as Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” (1888) replaced by McCrae’s “In Flander’s Fields.” Longfellow continues to encourage us to to be touched by the “better angels of our nature.” Yet the way we experience the world today is so different from the way Longfellow experienced his that–strangely enough–his poetry seems more alien to us than that of Shakespeare, Milton or Donne. Some stars, it seems, fade more quickly than others.

    Once again, thank you for your excellent essay on Longfellow.

    Reply
    • Carter Davis Johnson

      Mr. Tweedie, thank you for a gracious and thoughtful comment. I agree that poets like Longfellow and Tennyson championed the life not wasted. There is a sanctity, glory and heroic aura that these poets ascribe to life, as well as the “collective spirit of optimism” that you mention. Also, I think your comment about the cultural reception of these ideas and the changing paradigms is very astute. Especially with the value of surface level complexity rising in academia during the Twentieth Century. And although we certainly experience the world differently, I think many of ideas from Longfellow are still remarkably relevant. Somewhere behind a curtain labeled “prosaic naivety”, these ideas await a renewed realization.

      Reply
  2. Fr. Richard Libby

    Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for this essay. Longfellow deserves to be read and studied. His style has inspired me more than that of any other poet, and you have done a good job of highlighting his poetic virtues.

    Reply
  3. Wilbur Dee Case

    Mr. Johnson does SCP a service to remind us of the importance of Longfellow’s verse to American literature. These three poems remind us of Longfellow’s easy access to the ballad form. Mr. Mantyk placed “A Psalm of Life” at his number 4 position of poems written in English of fifty lines or less, his highest ranking for an American poem. A longer poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” shows Longfellow’s narrative bent. The last poem, “The Village Smith” also show Longfellow’s experimentation with balladic triplets.

    One of the strangest of linkages of the last poem (at least in my mind) is how its opening line happened to end up in a Glen Miller hit of the mid-20th century, which George Orwell (Eric Blair) utilized in his remarkable novel “1984.”

    Reply
  4. Evan

    Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for your succinct compilation. Longfellow will forever be the English poet I am most indebted to for interesting me in poetry in the first place. An earlier version of the Society’s website contained this quote in the upper right corner:

    Let us, then, be up and doing,
    With a heart for any fate;
    Still achieving, still pursuing,
    Learn to labor and to wait.

    Reply

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