Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Longfellow & The Day is Done

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a well known American poet.  He was born on February 27, 1807 in Portland, Maine.  He died at the age of 75 on March 24, 1882 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the town of my birth.

In his day, Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day.  He was something of a celebrity.  In that time before radio, movies, and television.   Aside from the live theater and concerts, reading was the central form of entertainment.  The lyric style of Longfellow’s poems written in his easy flowing rhythmic and rhyming style made for easy reading.  His long epic poems provided topics that engaged and attracted readers.  Longfellow is best known for Paul Revere’s Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, The Village Blacksmith and Evangeline.  

Calling him a celebrity was no understatement.  Longfellow was so popular, he was getting $3,000 per poem at his peak.   Getting $3,000 per poem today would make any poet happy.  To put into perspective just how popular Longfellow was, I found an on-line inflation calculator that converter $3,000 in 1874 dollars into $58,300 in 2009 dollars.  That is absolutely an impressive statistic.  

In his day, Longfellow’s works were translated into several languages and his popularity spread around the Atlantic to Europe.  He was a college professor at Harvard and the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English.

When I was a school boy back in the city, Longfellow was still featured in school books and anthologies.  I was as fond as any third, fourth, or fifth grader could be.  My Father’s side of the family were all in Boston,  we would go every summer and visit my Grandmother.   One year I encouraged bordering on the demanding to visit the historical sites of the city I already felt was magic.  We went to Fanuel Hall before it was a shopping mall, Bunker Hill, the Old North Church, and the USS Constitution better known as Old Ironsides.  At my insistence, we also visited the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge and visited his gravesite in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

I read some of his poetry.  I read my Father’s favorite, Paul Revere’s Ride, and most certainly The Village Blacksmith.  I read parts of The Song of Hiawatha.  The opening lines of these poems are classic.  The are memorable still a large number of people.
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,

Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
These lines are part of Americana.  Most everyone has heard them even if they do not know the poem they came from or unaware of who wrote them.  In fact, there is even an old school yard joke based on his last name:
He is a poet and doesn’t know it.
‘cause his feet are Longfellows.
I was impressed with his home  It was clear to me that he was a man of means.  His yellow clapboard mansion had served as one of George Washington’s many Headquarters in New England and the Mid-Atlantic Colonies during the Revolutionary War.  I remember reading, even before I visited, that the upstairs was not part of the tour and only descendants were allowed to visit the second story.  I recall wondering what kinds of mysteries and secrets must be up there.  I am not sure what made me think that.  I look back on it with a bit of amused nostalgia.

Why do I write about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tonight?  

I got home after a long day.  I was working at my primary client’s from 6:30 am until 5 pm.   Then I went to the College of Lake County and gave a final exam to my Statistics class.  I got home at 9:30 pm and still had to do my bit of daily writing.  I thought of my favorite Longfellow poem, The Day is Done.  This is not a classic that I had read or even knew about as a school boy.  I stumbled on this poem as an adult long after my interest in Longfellow had waned.  It is not a long poem by Longfellow’s standards but I liked the humble tone of it.  I liked that the famous author knew that not every poem needs to be an epic monument.  I like that he realized that even readers sometimes just want to read something lighter and more soothing after a long hard day.

As I grew older my interest in Longfellow had long waned.  I was not alone.  I would dare say that his reputation and fame began to erode from the moment of his passing.  Poetry was less and less widely read.  My guess is that, today, it is a field dominated by academics.  Walt Whitman was a contemporary of Longfellow.  We can consider Longfellow amongst the last and probably the most successful of the populist poets.  Walt Whitman changed the nature of American poetry.  He was the first darling poets of the academic world.  Academics adore the depth and symbolism of Whitman’s work and have neglected the more romantic rhyming narrative style of Longfellow.

When I studied poetry more seriously at the University of Michigan, I took the same view of Longfellow.  I was looking for layers of meaning and symbolism.  I was looking for a depth that was not in the musical narratives the Longfellow penned.  Yet, I harbored a certain nostalgia for him as he was a favorite of mine in childhood.

When I stumbled across The Day is Done in the late 1980s, I reversed course and began thinking more of the old master.  I do want to read the entire Song of Hiawatha someday.  It would be appropriate to do so while camping on the shores of the Great Lake perhaps.

I present The Day is Done for your enjoyment.

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The Day Is Done

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me,
That my soul cannot resist:

A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavour;
And to-night I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labour,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

1 comment:

  1. I had not thought of Longfellow since my days in elementary school, but reading your article, it brought back memories. Sister Amata used Longfellow's poems in speech class. She wanted us to use our full range of our voice and to project our voice for her to hear us as she sat in the last row of the auditorium. It was not an easy task.
    I liked Sister Amata alot because she introduced new things. Longfellow's poems was one of those many things she integrated so well into different lessons.
    Thanks for sharing The Day Is Done. And as my day ends and my night fills with music ... I am basking.