“And now I long to try a loftier strain, the sublimer Song whose broken melodies have for so many years breathed through my soul…” — poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“He suffered excessive popularity; he has now suffered three quarters of a century of critical neglect.” – Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on this day in 1807, in Portland, Maine.

He was the first poet to dig into American themes and dialects, making them the focal point of his work. He is our first “local” poet. He was the first American poet to have a bust on display in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey alongside chaps like, you know, Chaucer (an idol of Longfellow’s). Longfellow’s poems still carry a lot of sentimental feeling for Americans – he is still read, although he has suffered a critical decline. God forbid one is popular DURING one’s lifetime. That’s just TRASHY. His reputation during his life, however, cannot be overstated. He was a celebrity. His poems were EVENTS.

More after the jump.


His first major work was “Evangeline”, published in 1847, a long epic poem about the deportation of the French-speaking inhabitants (the Acadians) of Nova Scotia. It was a smash hit, and, for some time, created its own tourist trade.

“Evangeline” came about because of a small dinner party held in Longfellow’s rented rooms in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Friend Nathaniel Hawthorne was there. A minister told a story of a young couple separated on their wedding day by the deportation of the people from Nova Scotia, and how the bride spent the rest of her life, wandering, looking for her lost husband. The minister thought that Hawthorne might be interested in turning it into a story. He wasn’t. But Longfellow was. With a sense of propriety (after all, Hawthorne was asked first), he asked for Hawthorne’s blessing to turn it into a poem. It took him years to complete it. He researched exhaustively what had happened to the Acadians. Most of them ended up in New Orleans, and they are a huge part of the particular richness of culture still found there today. There was much that had already been forgotten about the Acadians, and Longfellow was immersed in the subject. “Evangeline” is not a history lesson, however. It is a story, a fictionalized version of events, which struck a huge chord in the populace. There is still a Memorial Site in New Orleans today (the Longfellow-Evangeline Historic Site), but after the publication of the poem, all kinds of sites sprung up – trails, trees, anything at all that was mentioned in the poem … Readers were captivated by this mournful tale of wandering and exile, and went on pilgrimages to the places mentioned.

So came the autumn, and passed, and the winter, — yet Gabriel came not;
Blossomed the opening spring and the notes of the robin and bluebird
Sounded sweet upon the wold and in wood, yet Gabriel came not.

I personally find Evangeline to be a drip. She is the cliched stereotype of a long-suffering patient goodly woman – but worse than that, the stereotype is not inherently dramatic. It’s a sentimentalized version of womanhood I cannot get behind, since its purpose is expressly to limit. Longfellow was not aware of this, of course, he was putting into words the ideal of Womanhood at the time, and it was a slamdunk among readers, male and female. Side note: “Evangeline” was a smash hit, with a popular and acceptable version of Female Heroine at its center, but when you remember that just down the coastline from Longfellow, Emily Dickinson was dashing off her frightening sharp poems – a woman dressed in all the colors of humanity possible – you can see how much literary men were missing the boat. It was a failure of imagination. Women were “other.” It’s not their fault, necessarily, just the way of the world, unfortunately – but it’s good to have reminders of what we lose when women’s voices are silenced or ignored.

Longfellow wrote a whole book of anti-slavery poems, published in 1842.

The Witnesses
In Ocean’s wide domains,
Half buried in the sands,
Lie skeletons in chains,
With shackled feet and hands.
Beyond the fall of dews,
Deeper than plummet lies,
Float ships, with all their crews,
No more to sink nor rise.
There the black Slave-ship swims,
Freighted with human forms,
Whose fettered, fleshless limbs
Are not the sport of storms.
These are the bones of Slaves;
They gleam from the abyss;
They cry, from yawning waves,
“We are the Witnesses!”
Within Earth’s wide domains
Are markets for men’s lives;
Their necks are galled with chains,
Their wrists are cramped with gyves.
Dead bodies, that the kite
In deserts makes its prey;
Murders, that with affright
Scare school-boys from their play!
All evil thoughts and deeds;
Anger, and lust, and pride;
The foulest, rankest weeds,
That choke Life’s groaning tide!
These are the woes of Slaves;
They glare from the abyss;
They cry, from unknown graves,
“We are the Witnesses!”

Longfellow’s poems are still well-known: Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, Paul Revere’s Ride. He was a myth-maker. He created a community through his work. Memory is very important. Memory is key to a nation’s survival. A nation living in forgetfulness (thank you, Milan Kundera), either willfully or carelessly, treads in dangerous waters. A nation refusing to remember itself and its collected narratives is in treacherous ground: a void is created, to be filled with “new” narratives, and more often than not, the new narratives are dangerous, hateful, lies. German poet Heinrich Heine, famously, wrote: “Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn people.”. He wrote those words in 1823, over a hundred years before the Nazis came to power in his homeland, announcing their intentions by huge book-biurning bonfires, and of course burning people “in the end.” America was such a new nation when Longfellow was writing, it didn’t have a rich cultural tradition, and the Puritan background of the first settlers was still strong (it’s still with us. Some of the commentary on art today is so moralistic – and this from progressives! – that all I can see is Pilgrims stalking through a snowy village, joylessly on their way to church. IT LIVES.) We – as in a nation – value work ethic and practicality, and we don’t value writers in the same way that, say, the Persians valued their poems and poets, or the status of art and artists in France, Spain, etc. Longfellow (and then Whitman and Hawthorne and Melville) were very important; they told the story of America to itself.

The opening line of Paul Revere’s Ride basically calls the people to come in close: “Listen my children and you will hear …” It’s going to be a game of telephone. Listen to my story. Pass it on. Tell them to pass it on. If you want to know why I was so enraged by Sarah Palin’s botching of the story of Paul Revere, and her complete disinterest that she had even gotten it wrong, and how her dumb-dumb fans didn’t care either, it’s because these myths – these tales – are important, they’re bedrock foundations. Longfellow treats the true story like a myth and a legend, pass it on, pass it on. Most of his stuff needs to be read out loud. The rhythm is not separate from the content.

He traveled far for a man of his time, and there’s a great story of him bunking with Charles Dickens on a visit to England in 1842.

A happy man, with many children, he suffered a horrible tragedy later in life: His second wife was sealing a letter with hot wax, and her dress caught fire from the candle. Longfellow tried to save her, throwing his body onto hers, receiving severe burns himself. She died. Longfellow never quite recovered. He never stopped writing, but he was forever changed.

I think of these lines from “Hyperion” so often.

Believe me, every man has his secret sorrows,
which the world knows not; and oftimes
we call a man cold, when he is only sad.

Words to live by.

Longfellow, in certain circles, is still loved. My family loved him.

Due to my family’s connection with the Boston area, and the fact that my father used to read “Paul Revere’s Ride” out loud to us as kids, it’s my favorite of his. If you read it to yourself, the hoof-beat rhythm of the verse will sweep you along with it. The verse literally gallops. I have a great memory of reading the poem with Cashel when he was very little. Cashel crowing, in an “Uh-oh” tone: “They’re comin’ by sea!!!”

I know long stretches of it by heart. These words: “borne on the night-winds of the Past” give me goosebumps. I wonder if F. Scott Fitzgerald was consciously referring back to it in his heartbreaker of a last line in The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald knew he was the voice of a certain time, the anointed “voice of his generation” – and it would not surprise me at all if he did consciously reference Longfellow there at the very end of that quintessentially American story. Of course, in Fitzgerald’s context, unlike Longfellow’s (another inversion which would have pleased Fitzgerald, I think) the past takes on very different connotations, even with the nostalgia inherent in Gatsby’s outlook. There’s an emptiness at the heart of nostalgia, an emptiness that did Gatsby in. Longfellow looked to the past for inspiration, for the wellspring of his storytelling magic. He dug through the past for stories that could could speak to his time, or that could act as cultural containers of collective memory. Paul Revere’s Ride, for example, was first published in 1860, a time of dread and fear of the oncoming storm. Longfellow saw the Civil War approaching, and wanted on some level to prepare the populace, call them to arms (even though he was a pacifist), and remind them where they all came from. The Paul Revere story belongs to all of us, North AND South. This is propaganda at a very high level.

The surrounding context of the political atmosphere is now forgotten, for the most part, at least in conjunction with “Paul Revere’s Ride”, which is now a history lesson of what happened on that 18th of April, ’75. More than a history lesson, though, it’s a story. A story that must be passed on in order to survive.

Longfellow knew that better than anyone.

If you’ve never done so, take a few minutes, and read it out loud. Trust me.

Paul Revere’s Ride

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
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;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

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,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
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.


Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Though so long in eclipse, Longfellow is a superb lyric poet, as the four poems included here testify. Once overpopular, Longfellow only now begins to be read again with accurate appreciation.

John Gardner:

A lot of people that we dismiss as terrible poets, like Longfellow, are changed entirely when you say their poems out loud – as they were intended to be. It’s like singing. A song can’t be very complex – the tune takes up part of the energy so that the words are kind of silly on the page – but when you sing it, it may be wonderful. The same thing happens with oral poetry – lots of stuff that’s thin, even goofy on the page can be recited beautifully.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Only [Wallace] Stevens in later American poetry is musical in the ways that Longfellow at his best can be.

Charles Calhoun, Longfellow: A Literary Life:

As was his poetic practice, once Longfellow had briefed himself on the factual background, he used his material with a very free hand. He was a bard, not a historian; what mattered was the basic human truth of his story, not its particulars.

L.M. Montgomery, journal entry:

His poems never lose their witchery for me. There are undoubtedly many greater poets than Longfellow — many stronger, grander, deeper; but he is full of sweetness and tenderness and grace.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, January 23, 1963:

I begin my Harvard teaching next week, and have been boning up on the standard old Americans, Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, etc. They are much farther away than they were when I was in school and college. Then they were almost something one shouldn’t read much of lest they lead astray. Now the times have brought them back maybe,–hardly imitated still, they are like our own kind of revolt and competence. The Beats have blown away, the professionals have returned. Sometimes they flash.

Michael Schmidt:

His instinct for appropriate rhythm is unmatched among the Victorians. And it is an instinct.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Longfellow is not, like Whitman and Dickinson, a great original, and he compares poorly with the rugged Emerson in what Emerson called “meter-making argument.” But he remains a permanent poet, replete with grace and his own chastened mode of cognitive music.

Henry Seidel Canby, from introduction to volume of Longfellow’s poems:

A gentle man, with sentiments stronger than his passions, and ambition continuing his genius, highly cultivated, not strongly intellectual but truly aesthetic, with a fondness for melancholy and a nostalgia for the past – that is one view of Longfellow. Yet – and this is what makes him interesting and made him successful – also a writer of incredible literary energy, pursuing the best in craftsmanship, a mind intensely sensitive, not so much to life as to the feelings about life which we call literature. Also, again, the best representative of young America seeking Old World culture, one of the most articulate romancers of our past and of all pasts which seemed to him romantic. No Shakespeare, no Dante, no Emerson in height, no Walt Whitman in prophetic intuition, nevertheless, he did enough in being Longfellow definitely to enrich his times and our literature.

Walt Whitman, letter to Longfellow:

431 Stevens Street
Camden New Jersey
Feb: 20 ’81

My dear Mr Longfellow
A friend in Canada—to whom I am indebted for great personal kindnesses & affections—particularly desires your autograph1—Could you furnish it to me, to send? & much oblige

Walt Whitman

Michael Schmidt:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on the other hand, could sing. He could tell stories about America. Maybe his forms were imported, but they were tempered and transformed by his fantastic world. He provides an alternative to the gothic even as he shares in some of its preposterous attitudes and posturings.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

In his own lifetime, Longfellow was best known for his narrative poems, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha. These remain readable, but are little read. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy seems to me undervalued, and compares favorably with the current versions.


And now I long to try a loftier strain, the sublimer Song whose broken melodies have for so many years breathed through my soul in the better hours of life, and which I trust and believe will ere long unite themselves into a symphony not all unworthy the sublime theme, but furnishing ‘some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery.’

Michael Schmidt:

He seems to combine the assured rhetoric of the Tennyson of the Idylls, with the exuberance of Browning on one hand and of the Borders balladeers on the other. It’s a heady mix: popular and folk poetry tailored for the wide-eyed bourgeoisie.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Longfellow is a very learned poet, but is subtle in subduing his erudition to his poetic purposes. “Seaweed” is a technical triumph in the transition from its initial four stanzas to its final four, while “My Lost Youth” is a triumph of refined nostalgia, universal in its application.

Michael Schmidt:

For Europeans, American poetry was Longfellow.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

As a lyrical poet, Longfellow frequently achieves the purity and only apparent simplicity that his enemy, Poe, scarcely could approach:

The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Michael Schmidt:

For him the language of verse was an aloud language, and sound counted as much as – or more than – sense… He privileges his ear over the form, and some of his finest prosodic effects are in the unexpected variations that possess an inexplicable rightness. It was Evangeline, the first substantial poem of real length from America, published in 1847, whose hexameters beguiled and irritated Arnold.

Michael Schmidt:

Few understood the magic of the meter. In the end that is what matters here, and a diction ushering into verse, as if for the first time, a whole new tribe of words. It is not epic, neither is it ethnography. It is a poem of origins and the discovery of new starting places: in Finland, in the wigwam, with the beaver and the bison.

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6 Responses to “And now I long to try a loftier strain, the sublimer Song whose broken melodies have for so many years breathed through my soul…” — poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  1. Dg says:

    If you read Paul Revere with some instrumental guitar music in the background it really sounds like it could have been a 1960’s folk song… Not sure if anyone ever attempted. Speaking of music, one of the better, less well known songs from The Band is Acadian Driftwood which must have been influenced by Evangeline. They also have a song titled Evangeline but the subject matter is different… A woman in New Orleans waiting for her gambling man to return. I’ve been a fan of The Band for a long time but it wasn’t until reading this post today that I put two and two together to realize that they were influenced by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. So thanks for that!

  2. Susan says:

    I’ve driven along the Evangeline Trail in Nova Scotia. It’s beautiful: tiny towns, each with its own tiny perfect beautiful white-painted church. I remember thinking the name was odd, but in those pre-Google days, never thought to look it up. Now I know the source of the name – thank you!

  3. Hi Sheila, Thank you for this appreciation of Longfellow. It was good to go back and reread it. I’ve been writing about Longfellow and Poe for years, and your comments are right on the mark.

  4. Biff Dorsey says:

    I attended Bowdoin College, Longfellow’s alma mater. A number of my friends worked in the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library Special Collections Department. One of them thought it might be fun to peruse the old reports cards of these two bards. Longfellow was the darling of the faculty. Straight A’s and an invitation to become an instructor before he had even graduated. Hawthorne did pretty well, too, but earned some demerits for his comportment. His offences included “picnicking on the Sabbath.”

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