Monday, August 17, 2015

August 17, 2105--Longfellow

"Forty thousand books. Can you believe it."

I knew John has a lot of books, but 40,000? "Not mine," he said, knowing what I was thinking. "I've got a barn full of 'em but . . ."

"So whose are you talking about?" Rona asked.

"Longfellow's, in his house in Cambridge. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poet."

"I know who he is," I said.

Ignoring me, John said, "He spoke six languages and had thousands of books in those languages as well as in English."

"Wasn't he also a professor?" I asked, seeming to remember he taught at Bowdoin, in his native Maine, and then later at Harvard, in Cambridge.

"That's the house we visited," John said, "The one in Massachusetts. It was Washington's headquarters at the start of the Revolutionary War. There's also in Portland the house where Longfellow was born. We've been there too. Not as interesting. Not that many books." He winked, knowing I too am into books--buying them, reading them, just having them. "Among other things," John added, "he translated Dante's Divine Comedy. Amazing. Really."

"'Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands,'" Dave laughed as he pounded out the rhythmics.

"That's where the tree is. In Cambridge. Right in the middle in the village. Just as the poem says."

"The tree's still there?" Rona asked, "Almost 200 years later?"

"I mean it would be there if it was still there."

"You're losing me," I said.

"Why don't you take a drive and visit it. See for yourself," John suggested, beginning to sound exasperated, "While you're there you can count the books."  And with that turned his attention back to the paper.

Dave resumed--
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
"Pretty bad, no?" Dave said, "Writing stuff like this it's amazing he was so popular."

"Maybe that's why he was so popular," cynically, I said.

"Popular doesn't even begin to describe it," John said, rejoining the conversation, "I mean at the height of his fame he got $3,000 a poem and of course royalties from his books of poems. The docent in Cambridge told us when we visited that on the first day The Courtship of Miles Standish went on sale in London, 10,000 copies were sold."

Dave again picked up on that--
Just in the gray of the dawn, as the mists uprose from the
There was a stir and a sound in the slumbering village of
"Uprose, slumbering village," Dave quoted again, "This sounds so high-schooly."

"Give the guy a break, will you Dave. He wrote this in the middle of the 19th century when 'uprose' and 'slumbering villages' were good poetic form."

"Speaking of high school," Rona said, "Is that where you memorized your Longfellow?"

"He's not my Longfellow," Dave said, "But, yes, we were forced to learn shit like that. The Gettysburg Address too. You know, he said, showing off, 'Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth--'"

"You can spare us," I said, cutting him off, "Though I am impressed that you still remember so much. Though I assume you hate the 'four-score' business. Too archaic for your taste."

"I can handle it," Dave said. "The speech is a work of genius. The Longfellow poems are garbage by comparison."

"I wonder if school kids are asked to memorize anything these days," Rona said.

"Probably a bunch of politically correct stuff," John said, "But don't ask me to suggest what that might be. I don't want to get myself in trouble."

Later, back at home, still thinking about Longfellow and all the stuff of his still in my head from my elementary school years--from Hiawatha to Evangeline to The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, how could I forget that one--
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere . . .
Borderline doggerel but still, there's something stirring about it and the others. Perhaps because the poems resonate about sweeter, more innocent times and childhood memories with their ring of patriotism and American exceptionalism. Or maybe, the poetry on its merits isn't as bad as literary snobs, me very much included, sneer.

How does this sound to the modern ear--from Hiawatha:
By the shores of Gitchie Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest, rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them; bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water, beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
Not half bad. "Black and gloomy pine trees," the sunlight "bright before it beat the water." Sounds like primeval forest to me. And the "Big-Sea-Water," modern day's Lake Superior, which the Ojibwe named Gichi-Gami, "Great Sea," which Longfellow then transliterated into the more melliferous Gitchie Gumee.

Speaking of the primeval forest, how about this from Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie--

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
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

This I actually like. And I don't think it's just because Mrs. Borrel in 6th grade forced us to memorize it.

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