By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the most popular and influential American poets of the nineteenth century. Longfellow (1807-82) is best-known for The Song of Hiawatha, and for growing a beard to hide the marks of a family tragedy, but he also wrote many other celebrated poems.
But what are Longfellow’s very best poems? Some poems immediately spring to mind, such as The Song of Hiawatha, but Longfellow was a prolific poet who wrote a great deal of great poems, not all of which are as well-known. Below, we pick – and discuss – ten of Longfellow’s greatest poems.
There he sung of Hiawatha,
Sang the Song of Hiawatha,
Sang his wondrous birth and being,
How he prayed and how he fasted,
How he lived, and toiled, and suffered,
That the tribes of men might prosper,
That he might advance his people!
Europe has a rich tradition of epic poetry, stretching from Homer to Virgil to Spenser and Milton among others, but the relatively young country and culture of the United States has also risen to the challenge of producing its own native epic verse.
And ‘native’ is quite the word, as Longfellow, in this hugely popular 1855 poem, tells us of the (fictional) life and adventures of Hiawatha, a warrior, and his love for a Dakota woman named Minnehaha. Although he drew on longstanding oral traditions surrounding the figure of Manabozho, an Ojibwe man, Longfellow embellished the myths and history and produced one of the great epic poems for American literature.
Its distinctive metre has also become famous (it’s a notable example of trochaic tetrameter, an unusual metre for a long epic poem).
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…
One of the most famous poems about the American Revolution (or War of Independence), Longfellow’s narrative poem, published in 1860, details the journey made by the American patriot Paul Revere on 18 April 1775, with, once again, a good side-helping of poetic licence thrown in.
Revere awaits the signal telling him how and where the British will attack American troops, and when he hears they are attacking by sea, the devout patriot rides full pelt across Massachusetts to warn his fellow Americans. Longfellow’s poem did much to create the modern ‘myth’ of Paul Revere, whose celebrated night-time ride wasn’t mentioned in obituaries reporting his death in 1818.
‘Come hither! come hither! my little daughtèr,
And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever wind did blow.’
Another narrative poem, and another Longfellow poem in which he merged fact with fiction. Published in 1840 and earning Longfellow a payment of $25, ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ was loosely based on the great blizzard of 1839, but Longfellow’s poem is set aboard a ship during a violent storm.
During the storm, the skipper – who has ignored advice to the contrary and sailed his ship with his daughter on board – ties his daughter to the mast in the hopes of saving her from drowning in the storm. You can read the full poem by following the link above – we won’t tell you what happens at the end. ‘The wreck of the Hesperus’ has become a phrase used to describe people who look messy and dishevelled.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Bearing some formal and thematic similarities to William Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’, this short Longfellow poem – its three stanzas are reproduced above – has the force of a parable. The poet shoots an arrow into the air, but doesn’t know where it lands. The poet composing a ‘song’ or poem is much like the archer shooting his arrow: the poet doesn’t know where his words will take root.
River! that in silence windest
Through the meadows, bright and free,
Till at length thy rest thou findest
In the bosom of the sea!
In ‘To the River Charles’, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), who is best known as the author of Hiawatha, praises the Charles river in Massachusetts. The river carries important memories for Longfellow – memories of important friends he has known – and this is one reason why he eulogises it here in this less famous poem.
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
The phrase ‘into each life some rain must fall’ has become famous, and it originated in this poem, which beautifully captures the misery and dreariness of a day when the rain never lets up. Longfellow deftly conveys the cyclical nature of suffering – something it shares with the weather – through his rhyme scheme, which is aabba in the first two stanzas.
This brings the stanza back to where it started, but not simply by virtue of finding a rhyme for ‘dreary’: instead, ‘dreary’ is rhymed against itself, in a feature which I propose we call the ‘homorhyme’ (which is different from rime riche in that identical words, rather than mere homophones, are paired with each other). There is no escape from dreary thoughts or dreary weather, it would seem.
Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.
In this poem, Longfellow reflects nostalgically on his lost youth in America.
The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart,
When the full river of feeling overflows;—
The happy days unclouded to their close …
This sonnet by Longfellow reminds us of the etymology of the word ‘holiday’ as ‘holy day’. The ‘holiest’ of holidays are the ones we keep by ourselves, the ‘secret anniversaries of the heart’.
Holidays, then, are less about going away somewhere different and having fun, and more a state of mind, a feeling, an act of remembrance and self-discovery. This holiday poem, then, is a world away from the image of the family by the seaside with a bucket and spade – it’s about an inner peace that holiday time can bring.
All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors …
These ‘inoffensive ghosts’ surround us as we dine, and the hall is filled with them. Longfellow’s poem explores the links between the temporal and ethereal, the present and the past – arguing that a ‘bridge of light’ connects the seen and unseen worlds. See the link above to read the full, longer poem.
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead …
We’ll conclude this selection of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s greatest poems with one of his most famous, not least because of the memorable line about ‘footprints on the sands of time’. This poem has been popular at funerals in particular, suggesting as it does that we can make our mark on the world before we leave it. Longfellow certainly made his.