Will: Longfellow: A Founder

One hundred years ago, Feb. 27 was enlivened by events around the nation commemorating what had happened 100 years before that, in 1807. But last week's bicentennial of the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow passed largely unnoted, which is noteworthy.

It was, naturally, a poet (Shelley) who declared that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Wishful thinking, that, but Plato took poets so seriously as disturbers of the peace that he wanted them expelled from his republic. And Longfellow was, in a sense, an American Founder, a maker of this Republic's consciousness.

Time was, children learned—in schools; imagine that—the origins of what still are familiar phrases: "Ships that pass in the night," "Life is real! Life is earnest!" "footprints on the sands of time," "the patter of little feet," "the forest primeval," "Let the dead Past bury its dead!" "In this world a man must either be anvil or hammer," "Into each life some rain must fall."

Even the first stanza of Longfellow's serene "The Village Blacksmith"—

—has a haunting, sinister echo in George Orwell's "1984." Winston Smith, distraught, thinks he hears a voice singing

Longfellow was a gifted versifier, and today is dismissed as only a versifier. Well, as Cézanne supposedly said of Monet, "He is only an eye—but what an eye!"

Longfellow was very Victorian—sentimental and moralistic. He in no way foreshadowed 20th-century poetry's themes of meaninglessness ("I have measured out my life with coffee spoons"—T. S. Eliot, 1917) and social disintegration ("the blood-dimmed tide is loosed"—William Butler Yeats, 1921). Longfellow wrote for a young nation that was thinking "Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate," before he wrote that exhortation.

He aimed to shape the nation's identity by making Americans aware of the first European settlers ("Why don't you speak for yourself, John?"—"The Courtship of Miles Standish"), the Native Americans they displaced ("By the shore of Gitche Gumee"—"The Song of Hiawatha") and the nation's birth ("Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere").

"Paul Revere's Ride" was written in 1860, as events were mocking Longfellow's great national poem ("The Building of the Ship," 1849):

Longfellow's civic purposes made him a public figure, the nation's first literary celebrity. His image decorated cigar boxes and beer-bottle labels. He kept a supply of autographed cards for the many strangers who made pilgrimages to his Cambridge house, where George Washington had lived during the siege of Boston.

Not long ago there still were celebrity poets. Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth, in his "When the Going Was Good: American Life in the Fifties," remembers Robert Frost's receiving a standing ovation from an overflow house at Carnegie Hall, and Eliot's reading his poems to an overflow audience at Columbia University, with people outside listening to him over loudspeakers.

The audiences were intense because the issues were large, if abstruse. Frost and Eliot represented dueling sensibilities, the empirical and the transcendental. In contrast, Longfellow intended his narrative and lyric poems—genres disdained by modernists—as inspiriting guides to the nation's honorable past and challenging future. Yeats ascribed Longfellow's popularity to his accessibility—"he tells his story or idea so that one needs nothing but his verses to understand it." This angers today's academic clerisy. What use is it to readers who need no intermediary between them and the author? And what use is Longfellow to academics who "interrogate" authors' "texts" to illuminate the authors' psyches, ideologies and social situations— the "power relations" of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, etc.? This reduction of the study of literature to sociology, and of sociology to ideological assertion, demotes literature to mere raw material for literary theory, making today's professoriate, rather than yesterday's writers, the center of attention.

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, has written that "Longfellow's vast influence on American culture paradoxically makes him both central and invisible." The melancholy fact that the 200th birthday of the poet who toiled to create the nation's memory passed largely unremarked is redundant evidence of how susceptible this forward-leaning democracy is to historical amnesia.