Historical Foundations in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poetry
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an iconic American poet who reached into the very nature of the American people. He brought to life a history that might have been forgotten if it was not for the literary adventurers of the early years of America. Longfellow did not write of things that were exotic or of ancient history. He pulled from the familiar for his readers. In fact, many of Longfellow’s poems were lessons in American history and American culture.
It does not take much to see the pictures painted by Longfellow’s poem. In “My Lost Youth”, he describes a familiar scene in New England of “the beautiful town / That is seated by the sea” and “the black wharves and the slips” with the “Spanish sailors”. He describes a culture that can only be found in the New England area of America as it is only there that “In their graves, o’erlooking the tranquil bay / Where they in battle died”. The beginnings of America can be found in the history and myth of New England. Why? Because the new country was widely “considered to possess no national literature of its own” per Matthew Pearl as most of the Western world saw the new country as without literary and cultural foundations. It would take many writers and poets, such as Longfellow, to show the world that America did have a culture that was unique and could produce literature that would live through the ages. Longfellow looked to the closest source: the land and the history. He turned to the legends that had already developed and made them even more legendary. Longfellow became widely known for how he “represented persons of all times, cultures, and states of life” (“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”). He painted a picture of the past, a complete past of American history.
One of his lesser known poems is that of “The Jewish Cemetery in Newport” where he explores the history of some of the first Jews that came to America. It has to have seemed odd to find such an old cemetery filled with David’s descendants. After the Revolutionary War, most successful people, including Jews, left Newport to greener pastures (“Longfellow and the Jewish Cemetery in Newport”). The fact that few Jewish families filled the New England cities and the age of the cemetery was a part of American history that was being forgotten: “these sepulchral stones, so old and brown”….where “the very names recorded here are strange, / Of foreign accent, and of different climes”. The cemetery was a reminder of the Old World where many of Americans had come from. The reader can see the history he brings in his verse.
One of the most well-known poems of Longfellow is “Paul Revere’s Ride”. Children throughout American history have learned this poem and used it to create a view of American history that is more artistic than historically accurate. This poem gives the historical foundation it rests on as it describes the event of “the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five” that would become the famous “midnight ride of Paul Revere.” The date was accurate and the overall events Longfellow described were accurate, but he was not the only messenger. He was one of three who were captured (“Midnight Ride of Paul Revere – Fact, Fiction, and Artistic License). Longfellow’s poem brought the event that was fading in memory back to the minds of the American people so they could celebrate the bravery of Paul Revere. At the very end of the poem, Longfellow pointed out how the poem would help keep the memory alive: “Through all our history, to the last,….The people will waken and listen to hear…the midnight message of Paul Revere.” He crafted picture-writing that immortalized his historical poems through the centuries.
Through the method of picture-writing, Longfellow was able to paint a verbal picture of historical events and give them new life. Virginia Jackson described this method as a way “to preserve the memorial trace, to create a history, to transmit a history, to claim an inheritance….” Longfellow took the roots that many Americans had and recreated their history through verse not as an attempt to rewrite history, but to take artistic license and breathe new life into it (Robert Stafford Ward). He helped establish sections of American history into the culture of the new country in a way he never dreamed of. Longfellow became a poetic American history/cultural teacher.
“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”. Poetry Foundation.org. Web. 26 January 2013.
Jackson, Virginia. “Longfellow’s tradition; or, Picture-Writing a Nation.” Modern Language Quarterly; Dec 1998; 59, 4; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 26 January 2013.
“Longfellow and the Jewish Cemetery at Newport”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: A Maine Historical Society Website. Web. 26 January 2013.
“Midnight Ride of Paul Revere – Fact, Fiction, and Artistic License”. National Endowment of the Humanities. Web. 26 January 2013.
“My Lost Youth”. Poets.org. Web. 26 January 2013.
“Paul Revere’s Ride”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: A Maine Historical Society Website. Web. 26 January 2013.
“Paul Revere’s Ride”. Poets.org. Web. 26 January 2013.
Pearl, Matthew. “Let Us Read Longfellow.” Wall Street Journal: 0. Mar 10 2003. ABI/INFORM Global. Web. 26 Jan. 2013 .
“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”. The Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry. Web. 26 January 2013.
Ward, Robert Stafford. “Longfellow’s Roots in Yankee Soil”. The New England Quarterly, Vol 41, No. 2 (Jun., 1968), Pp. 180-192, Web. 26 January 2013.
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