Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Happy Birthday, HWL! (Part 1)

Longfellow School,
Enid, Okla.
Writer's Almanac reminded me this morning that it's the birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), once America's most popular poet. I think if you had approached a stranger in the street at any time up into the 1950s and said, "Quick. Name an American poet," Longfellow's name would have been the usual reply. (I'm guessing "Frost" would win now?) Well into my lifetime, communities were still naming schools for him. In Enid, Okla., where I grew up (as I've noted here before), the two junior high schools in town were named for Emerson and Longfellow. We left Enid just before I reached the junior high, but my older brother, Richard, attended Longfellow--and he can still reel off the opening lines from Longfellow's Evangeline that his English teacher made him memorize:

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean        5
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

(Just checked the Enid Schools site: It's now Longfellow Middle School. Is nothing sacred?)

At Enid's Adams Elementary School we read Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" and memorized its opening lines:

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.        5
He said to his friend, ‘If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;        10
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.’
Both my mother and father could still say the opening lines from his "The Village Blacksmith," a poem they'd had to learn in school.

UNDER a spreading chestnut tree
  The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
  With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms         5
  Are strong as iron bands.

By the time I was in college, though (1962-1966), Longfellow was "out." His sing-songy lines, his often un-PC poems (The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish), the perception of him as a "lightweight"--all contributed to his disappearance from the canon. Yes, his name still came up; he was still an important figure in the literary history of the mid- to late 19th century. (He was friends with the Greats--e.g., Emerson, Holmes, Hawthorne, etc.) But he was no longer a great poet. Or even a good one. He was, well, a hack. A doggerelist, even.

As a consequence, I didn't use much/any Longfellow early in my teaching career--didn't teach him. I think my students still read "Paul Revere's Ride," though, in elementary school. For sometimes those famous lines would come up. But I had standards! So ... no Longfellow.

(I just checked the three of the "readers" and anthologies I used in my middle school career--1966-1997--and found: (1) no Longfellow in Doorways to Discovery (1960); (2) in Exploring Literature (which I used from 1983-1991 or so) I found "Paul Revere's Ride" and "A Psalm of Life" (didn't teach either one); (3) in Explorations in Literature (1991-97) is "The Wreck of the Hesperus" (didn't teach it).)

Decades passed. And Longfellow began inching his way back into my syllabus--and into the university curriculum. Mind you, I don't think he will ever return to the lofty status he once had (nor does his work merit such a place), but when I began reading about him--and reading his work--I found there is much more to the man (and to the writer) than I'd ever thought.

In ensuing posts I'm going to tell you some stories about Longfellow--some things that really surprised me when I learned them. So maybe they'll surprise you as well. And maybe, in some cases, you'll find yourselves doing what I did at the time: weeping.


Note: I know that I now have several posts that have ended with To be continued--one about my boyhood dog, Sooner; another about my adolescent crush on actress Valerie French; and now ... Longfellow. Trust me: I'll get to all of them!

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