Longfellow: A Founder; That His 200th Birthday Passed Unremarked Is Redundant Evidence of This Forward-Leaning Democracy's Historical Amnesia

Newsweek, March 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

Longfellow: A Founder; That His 200th Birthday Passed Unremarked Is Redundant Evidence of This Forward-Leaning Democracy's Historical Amnesia


Byline: George F. Will

One hundred years ago, Feb. 27 was enlivened by events around the nation commemorating what had happened 100 years before that, in 1807. But last week's bicentennial of the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow passed largely unnoted, which is noteworthy.

It was, naturally, a poet (Shelley) who declared that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Wishful thinking, that, but Plato took poets so seriously as disturbers of the peace that he wanted them expelled from his republic. And Longfellow was, in a sense, an American Founder, a maker of this Republic's consciousness.

Time was, children learned--in schools; imagine that--the origins of what still are familiar phrases: "Ships that pass in the night," "Life is real! Life is earnest!" "footprints on the sands of time," "the patter of little feet," "the forest primeval," "Let the dead Past bury its dead!" "In this world a man must either be anvil or hammer," "Into each life some rain must fall."

Even the first stanza of Longfellow's serene "The Village Blacksmith"--

Under the spreading chestnut tree, The village smithy stands

--has a haunting, sinister echo in George Orwell's "1984." Winston Smith, distraught, thinks he hears a voice singing

Under the spreading chestnut-tree I sold you and you sold me.

Longfellow was a gifted versifier, and today is dismissed as only a versifier. Well, as Cezanne supposedly said of Monet, "He is only an eye--but what an eye!"

Longfellow was very Victorian--sentimental and moralistic. He in no way foreshadowed 20th-century poetry's themes of meaninglessness ("I have measured out my life with coffee spoons"--T. S. Eliot, 1917) and social disintegration ("the blood-dimmed tide is loosed"--William Butler Yeats, 1921). Longfellow wrote for a young nation that was thinking "Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate," before he wrote that exhortation.

He aimed to shape the nation's identity by making Americans aware of the first European settlers ("Why don't you speak for yourself, John?"--"The Courtship of Miles Standish"), the Native Americans they displaced ("By the shore of Gitche Gumee"--"The Song of Hiawatha") and the nation's birth ("Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere").

"Paul Revere's Ride" was written in 1860, as events were mocking Longfellow's great national poem ("The Building of the Ship," 1849):

Cedar of Maine and Georgia pine Here together shall combine. …

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