Wednesday 7 March 2018

Longfellow - a pure poet

A Psalm of Life 

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

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!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

 Footprints, that perhaps another,
 Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Longfellow might well have been the first poet to touch my heart - since I was mysteriously affected by Hiawatha aged only about nine, and actually read the whole thing (as far as I remember); which left me a permanent romantic daydream for the northern Indians of the forests and lakes. Hiawatha is, indeed, an aspect of my personal 'golden thread' - which I have mentioned before.


As a fond mother, when the day is o'er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.

Longfellow is one of the most prolific of those 'pure' poets, whose fluid lyricism and magical-easy turn-of-phrase puts the efforts of so many more-complex verse writers to shame.

When that purity, that essence of poetry, is present - I ask for nothing more, but am content.

It is the rarest, and most precious of gifts a writer can offer.

The day is done

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist:

A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
 Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
 And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
 Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
 The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
 The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Years ago I was hired by a Taiwanese mother to help her son improve his pronunciation so that he could win an English speaking competition at his school. One of the texts he had to recite was "Psalm of Life," and he always made the same mistake: "Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives slime." True, too, in its way!

Another time, he inadvertently skipped from one memorized text to another and came out with this gem: "Out, out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound financial structure, whether in government, business, or personal affairs."

Bruce Charlton said...


a_probst said...

It stuck in my craw a bit back in the '80s when the sixth Doctor, speaking to his female sidekick, referred to Longfellow as "one of your primitive American versifiers"!

Bruce Charlton said...

@a probst - Longfellow was the first American poet generally appreciated in England - the trail was blazed by Washington Irving's stories - and it was Longfellow's contemporary Emerson who was the first serious prose writer appreciated in England. For reasons nobody seems to understand, Longfellow and Emerson apparently had very little personal or friendly contact - although living only a few miles apart and both men of sweet natures.

Longfellow is very easy to parody, and some of the parodies are very amusing - and like many of the best lyric poets (eg William Blake, or in modern times Stevie Smith) he works very near to the line of bathos and banality, and sometimes crosses. But that is one type of greatness.