We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
—from Snow-Bound, John Greenleaf Whittier
Strong and content I travel the open road.
––from Song of the Open Road, Walt Whitman
Our story of nineteenth-century American poetry and poetics is one among many—starting somewhere, in our case with Longfellow; touching on a few selected poems to provide useful coordinates for further study; and building a literary and historical context for the rise of modern poetry in the twentieth century.
Your choices of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are one of many beginnings. Together these poems suggest a poet adept at versification and storytelling. But if you are enchanted by Longfellow, there are places to go and poems to read. Take in the elegiac Mezzo Camin, the ballad The Village Blacksmith, or the nine-part poem The Courtship of Miles Standish. You would also want to continue your reading in the long narrative poems, including the wildly popular narrative poem (written in unrhymed dactylic hexameters) Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, a story based on the three thousand French settlers who were expelled from Acadie, near present day Nova Scotia. (This poem has appeared in over 270 editions and over 130 translations in ten different languages.) You will want to find your way into the twenty-two cantos of The Song of Hiawatha (written in trochaic tetrameter, after the Finnish epic poem Kalevala), a passionate and sentimentalized white man’s account of native American culture and tradition based on the author’s reading in George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841), the ethnographical studies of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and the literary writings of the Ojibwe Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, whose poems and stories were sources for Longfellow’s North American epic.
The Fireside Poets
Longfellow, along with John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant—each of these “fireside or “schoolroom” poets were enormously popular. These artists and intellectuals who wrote not only poetry but sermons, lectures, essays, and journalism. They were among the first groups to imagine a distinctly American literary culture. And they were socially engaged and activist by temperament––though their sensibilities and poetics are perhaps described as more Victorian than democratic, and many readers have charged them with an overly sentimental or moralizing tone.
The poetic conventions and affirmative themes of these poets are evident in their works. Consider, for example, this sampling of poems: James Russell Lowell, The Present Crisis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Hymn and Each and All, William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis, John Greenleaf Whittier, Burning Drift-Wood or Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll, and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Old Ironsides. The use of conventional poetic forms, metrical cadences ideal for the use of poetry by many readers in nineteenth century America—for enjoyment, memorization, and recitation, whether at school or at home. While one can point to the abolitionist writings of Whittier, Lowell and Emerson, many of the poems taken as representative of the Fireside poets affirm the dominant culture and promote social conformity.
Longfellow was the most popular and revered American poet of the century: a singular teacher of modern languages at Bowdoin and Harvard, an accomplished scholar, and a promiscuous world traveler. Longfellow
- mirrored and helped to shape a distinctive American literary culture that reflected ideological investments in definitions of domesticity, community and national identity
- reflects and shapes in his poems mainstream public opinion and national mythologies, hence embody the internal contradiction of nineteenth-century ideology as well as shared in the most enlightened viewpoints of his era
- embodied a public vision of poetry as forum for not personal confession or private feeling but for identification (and definition) of self with the public
- cultivated a distinctive transatlantic and cosmopolitan vision for American literature (that differed from the nationalism of his contemporary Walt Whitman, who very few people read)
- wrote in an extraordinary range of forms: narrative and lyric, popular ballads and classical lines (Evangeline is written in unrhymed dactylic hexameters, for example)
- translated major works and adapted poetic forms; he produced a well-received English edition of Dante and his literary adaptations, of the epic Finnish poem the Kalavela, to take a notable example, offered Longfellow the measure for his long poem Hiawatha
- collaborated as an anthologist, producing the anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe as well as the massive multivolume collection Poems of Places.
Still, Longfellow’s legacy has been mixed. A young poet named Edgar Allen Poe wrote in admiration of Longfellow but as Poe developed as a poet he opined that Longfellow was “a determined imitator and a dextrous adapter of the ideas of other people.” Similarly, others charged Longfellow with merely imitating European literature and affirming cultural commonplaces. And as American literature took shape in the United States in the twentieth century, critics such as F.O. Mathiessen effectively ignored Longfellow in the literary renaissance that produced the first installment in American literary history.
As Dana Gioia writes, “If Whitman and Dickinson stand at the beginning of modern American literary consciousness, Longfellow represents a culmination” (67). Consider the editorial decisions of successive editors of the Oxford Book of American Verse:
- Bliss Carmen, in 1927: more Longfellow than any other poet, 17 poems and 35 pages
- F. O.Matthiessen (American Renaissance), in 1950, doubled page count from 680 to 1132, prints 14 Longfellow poems, 39 pages
- Richard Ellman, New Oxford Book of American Verse, 1976, 11 poems, 12 pages
- David Lehman, Oxford Book of American Poetry, 2006, 6 poems, 9 pages (all short lyrics)
In Lehman’s 2006 edition, by comparison, Whitman has 12 poems and 71 pages, Dickinson has 44 poems and 23 pages. Interested in learning more? The most engaging account of Longfellow’s fate and a critique of the biases of modernist poetics is by Dana Gioia, “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism,” in The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier. I also recommend Christoph Irmscher’s book-length study Longfellow Redux (University of Illinois Press, 2006). Here is Gioia elaborating on the process that effaced Longfellow’s presence in American literary history:
Modernism declared narrative poetry at best obsolete and at worst a contradiction in terms. By prizing compression, intensity, complexity, and elipsis, it cultivated an often hermetic aesthetic inimical to narrative poetry. Perfecting poetry’s private voice, Modernism––at least American Modernism––lost the art’s public voice (79)