I will be honest. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is not a favourite poet of mine. Though extremely learned (he was fluent in over a dozen languages) and very skilled in rhyming scheme and meter, his metaphors seem a bit hackneyed and his subject matter (like Tennyson* in this regard) tending to the
portentously Victorian. Some of Longfellow’s poems strike me as the sort of thing that William Topaz McGonagall would have written if he had possessed any poetic skill.
So why highlight him for this week’s theme? Well, several reasons. Our theme is “Lighthouse” and we looked at, Flannan Isle last year. It is a popular theme but less so with celebrated poets. We could have looked at Virginia Woolf, of course, and we should do sometime but her, To the Lighthouse isn’t really
about lighthouses at all, and I probably had better finish it (a project that has taken nearly fifty years to date) before pontificating about it.
But a more important reason is that Longfellow was massively popular in his time and if he is no longer as revered as contemporaries like Emily Dickenson, I think this tells us something about poetry and its place in our society. Longfellow and Tennyson were writing in an era without film or television to a mass popular audience, and to judge them against modernist and post modernist literary standards is probably to miss the point. Longfellow and Tennyson belong to a time when there was a huge popular appetite for accessible poetry that told stirring stories and, beyond that era, generations of children learned these epics by rote, and often enjoyed them.
But most of all, this is my opinion. You might love Hiawatha and revere Longfellow, so by all means feel free to disagree. And anyway, there are no Minihahas in this poem about a lighthouse!
If you would like to know more about Longfellow, his work and life there is an excellent and well balanced New Yorker article by James Marcus here:
*Longfellow was accused of plagiarising Tennyson by Edgar Allan Poe
The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.
And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!
Not one alone; from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.
Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night-o’ertaken mariner to save.
And the great ships sail outward and return,
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn,
They wave their silent welcomes and farewells.
They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils,
Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.
The mariner remembers when a child,
On his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink;
And when, returning from adventures wild,
He saw it rise again o’er ocean’s brink.
Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!
It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace;
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece.
The startled waves leap over it; the storm
Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
Press the great shoulders of the hurricane.
The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
Of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.
A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of Jove,
It does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
But hails the mariner with words of love.
“Sail on!” it says, “sail on, ye stately ships!
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man!”
Prompt: Of course a lighthouse does not have to be literal. A guiding light might be a person, or a book.
And even literal lights convey multiple meanings. For example, for many islanders returning at night on the ferry, this one signifies home.