A Life for the Longfellow Renaissance

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow faded so far into American cultural memory that it is easy to forget he was the country’s preeminent poet of the nineteenth century, from whose pencil came these unforgettable lines:

  • “Ships that pass in the night”
  • “Footprints on the sands of time”
  • “When she was good, she was very, very good”
  • “The patter of little feet”
  • “One, if by land, and two, if by sea”
  • “I shot an arrow into the air, / It fell to earth, I know not where.”

Moreover, nearly every American grade schooler through the Summer of Love listened yearly to their classmate with the polished rhetorical style recite the most memorable poem in American literature, whose opening lines are ingrained onto the their minds: “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

What made Longfellow’s poetry perfect for reciting by the fireside or in the schoolroom—rhyme, meter, cadence, and memorability, for sure; plus a sensitive and cheerful expression of familiar themes (love for children, home life, patriotism, religion) told in a sentimental voice—also contributed to his being expunged from the literary canon when the paradigm for proper poetic expression was upended by Modernism. The Ivory-Tower movement of the 1900s heralded a “new” style of criticism based on the theory that poetry was the product of enlightened intellectuals whose reader was equally learned in the rarified ways of literary interpretation. Poetry was no longer something for the enjoyment of the “common” reader snuggled in the den wrapped in a wool blanket but was instead an esoteric code of syntactic complexity to be deciphered by literary cognoscenti ensconced in the cloak of perceived sophistication.

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