POETS Day! Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Nobody expects POETS Day! Our chief weapon is obfuscation… obfuscation and a willingness to gleefully trespass norms…  a willingness to gleefully trespass norms and obfuscation… Our two weapons are a willingness to gleefully trespass norms and obfuscation… and irresponsibility… Our three weapons are a willingness to gleefully trespass norms, obfuscation, and irresponsibility… and an almost fanatical devotion to our own needs… Our four… no… Amongst our weapons… Amongst our weaponry… are such elements as a willingness to gleefully trespass norms, obfuscation… I’ll come in again.

It’s the fifth of May, and that can only mean one thing: It’s Sir Michael Palin’s, KCMG CBE FRGS FRGSG, birthday – he’s turning 80, if you can believe it – so be sure and Piss Off Early. Tomorrow’s Saturday and you have all manner of Palinesque activities to get up to. Cut out of work and say “Ni” at people, decry the violence inherent in the system, pine for the fjords, face some peril, or go to the lavatory. It’s your weekend and if you say it starts a few hours before quitting time, it does. Just set aside time for a little verse. You’ll be glad you did and, if you aren’t careful, you might just learn something.


I worked for a guy who got calls from national publications hoping to get a quote from him about this or that wine release. His restaurant had all the expected awards and an enviable reputation so invitations to industry events were regular in coming. He told me about a wine tasting he attended at the James Beard House in New York – he was from upstate New York, and I can’t help but hear his clipped hyper-regional accent as I remember this story – attended by an assortment of restaurateurs, critics, and the like.

The event was hosted by a wine maker from California; I recall being told that the maker was from Berringer, but I just checked their web site and the guy they had at the time has a distinctive name I don’t recognize, so who knows. Whoever the guy was started out by signaling an army of waiters who put a glass of white zinfandel in front of the invitees. There were snickers, raised eyebrows, bemused glances, all the things you’d expect.

“What do you smell?” he asked. I’m paraphrasing.

“I’ll tell you what I smell,” he told the crowd. “I smell new French oak for my reserve cabernets. I smell new stainless steel fermentation vats for my sauvignon blanc. This stuff sells. We need to stop being snobs and get used to the idea that people like what they like and there are more of them than us. We’re the minority and should be thankful that they’re still letting us drive. Stop making fun.”

I think about that story every so often. I guarantee there is a sausage connoisseur out there somewhere with a hair trigger nose upturn reflex ready and waiting to tell me how Philistine (Akshully!) my beloved hotdogs are. That’s okay. When you like something, you sift through aspects discarding and enshrining, refining your tastes as you go. A lot of what drew you to the object gets banished to your “Boorish” mental file as you delve. It’s stupid, but there it is.

I’m no connoisseur, but I read a lot of poetry. I know what I like, and it isn’t Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s work. I’d like to think that I’m above the modern malady that makes people shrink from wholesomeness, but that’s me holding myself as outside the masses and I’m not so sure the malady is modern anyway. Wikipedia quotes an unnamed 1848 reviewer writing about Longfellow’s as “goody two-shoes kind of literature … slipshod, sentimental stories told in the style of the nursery, beginning in nothing and ending in nothing.” Now he’s held up as iconicly American. During his lifetime, the dig against him was that he was too European according to critics who “mattered.” The critics who really mattered ate his stuff up. He was the most widely-read living poet of his time and publishers knew it. In 1874, the New York Ledger paid $3,000 for “The Hanging of the Crane.” According to officialdata.org’s inflation calculator, that would be $79, 430.53 in 2023 dollars, and that was for a single poem of just under two-hundred lines. He earned $48,000 in 1868. Again, per officialdata.org, that’s the equivalent of $1,020,290.70 today.

The man was brilliant. Longfellow taught modern languages at Bowdoin and later Harvard. He was likely fluent, but at the very least conversational, in Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German, and studied to varying degrees Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Icelandic. I saw no mention of Ancient Greek, but given his professions I’m assuming that was omitted from his CV in error. He was the first American to translate the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy into English.

I have so much trouble with him because by all metrics he is more qualified than I am to judge poetry. He’s more accomplished, more educated, and more worldly. I should tuck my tale between my legs and bow out of the conversation, but I know he read Keats. He had to have.

Haroun Al Raschid

One Day, Haroun Al Raschid read
A book wherein the poet said: –

“Where are the kings, and where the rest
Of those who once the world possessed?

“They’re gone with all their pomp and show,
They’re gone the way that thou shalt go.

“O thou who choosest for thy share
The world, and what the world calls fair,

“Take all that it can give or lend,
But know that death is at the end!”

Haroun Al Raschid bowed his head:
Tears fell upon the page he read.

Keats published “Ozymandias” in 1818 when Longfellow was eleven years old. He knew his poem would be compared disparagingly (sorry). Didn’t he see that?

Below is his poem “The Cross of Snow.” He wrote it in 1879, eighteen years after his second wife, Frances, died from burns suffered in a small fire. Her loss devastated him. There’s no doubting the depth of his emotion on the matter, but still, the poem feels assembled. He brings together all the proper elements but there’s no catalyst. The catharsis is a reenactment and one seemingly circumscribed by decorum at that.

It’s weird to say about the most compensated poet I know of, but he can be very amateurish. The fifth and six lines, “Here in this room” and “martyrdom of fire” in particular, give me the kind of cringe that usually follows twenty to thirty seconds after a groomsman announces that he’s written a poem for the bride and groom.

The Cross of Snow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

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.

A quick aside about his beard: Longfellow burned his face trying to smother his wife’s burning dress with a throw rug. Shaving was painful and the growth covered the scars. It would become his trademark.

He declared at a young age that he wanted a literary life, but I suspect that comparisons to others who lived by their writing didn’t matter to him. He wrote what he wanted and people liked it. I further suspect that if they didn’t, he would have written anyway. I hope I’m right, because I admire that. I wrote above that I don’t like his work. There is some that I do, but on the whole it’s not for me. I think I’d like Longfellow, though. Not that he should give a flying fig what I think.

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