Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – National Park Service

Poet longfellow

henry wadsworth longfellow, c. 1855.


The nature of Longfellow’s poetic genius is elusive, hard to pin down, though it may help to remember that he was a public poet first and foremost. that is, he always wrote with his audience in mind, paternally comforting and encouraging them in lyrics, ballads, odes, sonnets, verse dramas, and the long narrative poems whose characters became hallmarks of American culture: Evangeline, Hiawatha, The Puritan Maiden. priscilla, the revere paul riding at midnight. the essential note of his poetry, its sweet, reassuring softness, his serene tranquility, was perfectly modulated to appeal to the reading public. it was socially responsible poetry, poetry with purpose, whose often explicit message called for virtues such as patience, resignation, and hard work.

Given these themes, it seems appropriate that, as a poetic artisan, he was not boldly original or radically experimental, as were his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Rather, Longfellow created his poems from tried-and-true materials: accessible ideas and language, pleasing stories and rhymes, familiar sentiments and forms.

In a well-known lyric from 1844, “the day is done,” Longfellow expressed what may be considered his poetic intentions; in this poem about poetry – a favorite subject of his – he celebrates the poems that “have the power to still / the restless pulse of care, / and come as the blessing / that follows prayer “. mellifluous lines, one can see how longfellow is content to speak simply and softly. in fact, he adopted as his personal motto a phrase in Latin, non clamor sed amor, taken from an anonymous poem that he himself translated: “not loudness but love “. The great American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow’s friend and fellow student, praised this understated quality: “No one but you would have dared to write so quiet a book,” he wrote in an 1850 letter to Longfellow. The comment highlights the way that Longfellow’s literary strength lies not in breaking the rules, but in following them, not in transgressing, but in staying within the limits. Longfellow always felt duly responsible to his readers (he was a poet, literally, with a known address) and this sense of public obligation shaped his poetry and his life in fundamental ways.

Although Longfellow was not a poet of the startlingly new, he undeniably broke new ground in American poetry, and this was largely due to the way in which, in him, expressive poetic genius met and wrestled with the forces unmoved by the repression of new england. The result was a strange kind of poetry, going back and forth between America and Europe, between puritanical reticence and romantic sentiment, between pious instruction and aesthetic pleasure, between aristocratic ideals and the egalitarian principle. Longfellow held these oppositions together by keeping the energies of his poetry directed toward his readers. In other words, the popular success of this often contradictory poet may have been possible only because the United States in the mid-to-late 19th century was such a troubled place. longfellow managed to talk about the conflicts and at the same time seem like a safe haven, an anchor in the storm.

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