19 March 2017

First Poem

"Yankee Doodle," later renamed "Spirit of 1776"
by Archibald Willard,
Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Mass
I remember Dad's voice reading:

...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….”

Building to a crescendo:

“...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....”

“Paul Revere's Ride” appeared in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “Tales of a Wayside Inn,” Longfellow's nod to Chaucer, each story told by a different character.

My sister memorized the whole poem. We had a recording—a vinyl record with Longfellow contemporary Archibald Willard's “Yankee Doodle/Spirit of 1776” on the jacket.

Sometimes we'd recite it in the car, alternately surprised by lines Dad or my sister remembered and by those I didn't know I'd memorized.

Longfellow's subject matter and poetic form made him accessible to us. His was my first poetic language. So when I found Longfellow's “The Courtship of Miles Standish” on our bookshelf one Sunday afternoon, I pulled down, finishing it in the pew before the evening service.

“Tales of a Wayside Inn” also included “Torquemada,” the gothic tale of a father who turned his daughters over to the Spanish inquisition. These final lines demonstrate Longfellow's poetic range.

“The church-bells tolled, the chant of monks drew near,
Loud trumpets stammered forth their notes of fear,

A line of torches smoked along the street,

There was a stir, a rush, a tramp of feet,
And, with its banners floating in the air,
Slowly the long procession crossed the square,
And, to the statues of the Prophets bound,
The victims stood, with fagots piled around.
Then all the air a blast of trumpets shook,
And louder sang the monks with bell and book,
And the Hidalgo, lofty, stern, and proud,
Lifted his torch, and, bursting through the crowd,
Lighted in haste the fagots, and then fled,
Lest those imploring eyes should strike him dead! 


“O pitiless skies! why did your clouds retain
For peasants' fields their floods of hoarded rain?
O pitiless earth! why open no abyss
To bury in its chasm a crime like this?

“That night a mingled column of fire and smoke
From the dark thickets of the forest broke,
And, glaring o'er the landscape leagues away,
Made all the fields and hamlets bright as day.
Wrapped in a sheet of flame the castle blazed,
And as the villagers in terror gazed,
They saw the figure of that cruel knight
Lean from a window in the turret's height,
His ghastly face illumined with the glare,
His hands upraised above his head in prayer,
Till the floor sank beneath him, and he fell
Down the black hollow of that burning well.

“Three centuries and more above his bones
Have piled the oblivious years like funeral stones;
His name has perished with him, and no trace
Remains on earth of his afflicted race;
But Torquemada's name, with clouds o'ercast,
Looms in the distant landscape of the Past,
Like a burnt tower upon a blackened heath,
Lit by the fires of burning woods beneath!”

He became the most commercially successful poet of his generation but seems not to have measured up to his own expectations. At age thirty-five, Longfellow wrote “Mezzo Cammin,” which begins:

“Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet....”

The following year, he published "Evangeline," and three years after that he wrote what might be my favorite Longfellow poem, “The Fire of Drift-Wood”:

We sat within the farm-house old,
   Whose windows, looking o’er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold,
   An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
   The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
   The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
   Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
   Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
   Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
   And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,
   When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
   And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,
   That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
   Or say it in too great excess.

The very tones in which we spake
   Had something strange, I could but mark;
The leaves of memory seemed to make
   A mournful rustling in the dark.

Oft died the words upon our lips,
   As suddenly, from out the fire
Built of the wreck of stranded ships,
   The flames would leap and then expire.

And, as their splendor flashed and failed,
   We thought of wrecks upon the main,
Of ships dismasted, that were hailed
   And sent no answer back again.

The windows, rattling in their frames,
   The ocean, roaring up the beach,
The gusty blast, the bickering flames,
   All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part
   Of fancies floating through the brain,
The long-lost ventures of the heart,
   That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!
   They were indeed too much akin,
The drift-wood fire without that burned,
   The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

Twice a widower, Longfellow waited eighteen years to write about his second wife's death. Her gown caught fire in a freak accident. “The Cross of Snow” was published after his death.

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.

There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

In 1875, he delivered “Morituri Salutamus” at the Bowdoin College commencement, his fiftieth reunion, about which much could be written, exploring how Longfellow saw himself and the meaning he drew from his work.

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