The Importance of Being Earnest.

By

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings edited by J.D. McClatchy (The Library of America, 854 pp., $35)

 

With the publication of F.O. Matthiessen's hugely influential American Renaissance in 1941, the modern-day pantheon of nineteenth-century American writers was established: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman. The only other writer to be admitted into this select company has been Emily Dickinson, a recluse who published only seven poems in her own time and was virtually unknown. For critics, scholars, and ordinary readers of the nineteenth century, however, this grouping would have seemed eccentric at best. They would have agreed with their famed man of letters William Dean Howells, who in 1907 tenderly evoked the names of "Emerson and Hawthorne, Longfellow and Lowell, Whittier and Holmes" as belonging to "that golden prime which we Americans shall not see renewed in the course of many centuries."

The entry on "American Literature" by George E. Woodberry in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910 is also representative of nineteenth-century opinion. Even though we have long grown accustomed to the myth of the great artist who went unappreciated in his own day only to be deified by the next generation, it is still something of a shock to discover the low valuation of three of Matthiessen's heroes. Melville is mentioned only in passing, and Moby-Dick is not mentioned at all. "The sea-novel was developed by Herman Melville and his successors," Woodberry instructs, "but these tales, in spite of being highly commended by lovers of adventure, have taken no more hold than the work of [William Gilmore] Simms."

Thoreau is identified by the encyclopedist as a member of the transcendentalist group, as Emerson's "young friend," and as "the author of Walden (1854) and father of the nature-writers, who as a hermit-type has had some European vogue and shows an increasing hold as an exception among men, but whose work has little literary distinction." Whitman merits an entire paragraph, though Woodberry made clear that his reputation was by no means settled. In England his poetry was received as an expression of "the new and original America, the unknown democracy," and in Germany he had "some vogue" owing to his "naturalism." As for his own countrymen, they "steadily refuse to accept him as representative of themselves, and his naturalism is uninteresting to them." But Woodberry also noted that "a group apparently increasing in critical authority treat his work as significant."

As for Emerson and Hawthorne, nineteenth-century literary judgment was in accord with Matthiessen's. Woodberry placed them in the first rank of New England writers. But in their esteemed company he included Longfellow. Indeed, he gave him pride of place: "Of this group of men, Longfellow is the most national figure, and from the point of view of literary history the most significant by virtue of what he contributed to American romanticism in the large." And this judgment, too, is a shock to modern sensibilities. Longfellow makes no appearance in Matthiessen's great book. For a long time now, he has been relegated to the category of "schoolroom poet," with Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, and Lowell, who, with the exception of Bryant, were the leading lights of Howells's "golden prime."

Longfellow lived from 1807 to 1882. During his active years, he published twelve volumes of poetry and five book-length poems, as well as translations (the most famous being of The Divine Comedy), anthologies, verse plays, a novel, and a travel sketch. His reputation as America's greatest poet was assured with his first book, Voices of the Night, which appeared in 1839. "I read your poems over and over, and over again…," his friend Hawthorne wrote to him. "Nothing equal to some of them was ever written in this world, this Western world, I mean; and it would not hurt my conscience much to include the other hemisphere."

The public agreed with Hawthorne, and the book immediately went through three editions. Longfellow's poetry was so well-loved that he was able to quit his job as professor of modern languages at Harvard, and he came to occupy a position never before attained in American literary life: the self-sustaining poet. It is no exaggeration to say that Longfellow, retiring and modest in the extreme, became a literary sensation. He was besieged by unannounced visits from European dignitaries and ordinary tourists, whom he patiently received, and he was daily burdened by an ever-growing "mountain" of letters from "total strangers" who questioned him about his poems, sent him their own poems for commentary, asked for advice about their personal lives, and badgered him for his autograph. Longfellow's sweet nature was legendary, and almost no request went unanswered. During the last fifteen years of his life, he wrote close to 9,500 known letters, not including surviving replies to 920 autograph-seekers. His fame was such that he could not appear in public without being accosted. Once he attended a rehearsal of a play, and, as Howells tells the story, "he was intercepted at every step in going out, and made to put his name to the photographs of himself which his worshippers produced from their persons."

But literary reputation is a fragile thing, and by the early 1930s Longfellow's reputation was so shattered that the critic Ludwig Lewisohn could dispense with him out of hand: "Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow?" Once Longfellow's fortunes had fallen, accounts of his life and work no longer took for granted that people still knew of his earlier fame. In 1933, the Dictionary of American Biography felt compelled to point out that Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie went through six printings in three months; and that The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems sold 10,000 copies in London the first day it was offered for sale and 25,000 copies over the next two months; and that "The Village Blacksmith," which became one of his most popular poems, sold for $15 in 1840, and "The Hanging of the Crane" for $3,000 in 1874. Apparently nothing less than empirical proof could now impress readers incredulous of Longfellow's former repute.

It also became the habit to establish that it was not only common readers who adored Longfellow. The most eminent American writers (with the exception of Poe) celebrated Longfellow as America's most distinguished poet, and abroad Dickens, Ruskin, Tennyson, and Trollope hailed him as such. During his last visit to England, Cambridge and Oxford awarded him honorary degrees, lavish dinners were given in his honor, and Queen Victoria held a private audience with him. The Dictionary of American Biography noted that before 1900, Longfellow had been translated into German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Bohemian, Hungarian, and Russian. In his own time, it was said again and again, Longfellow was more popular than Tennyson and Browning. In 1889, his bust was placed in the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, the first and only time an American poet achieved this distinction.

By the 1930s, however, Longfellow's popularity could be used against him. With the chasm between high culture and mass culture ever widening, popularity was recast as a sign of pandering to conventional bourgeois taste, which was shorthand for artistic failure. So it also became common practice to adduce admirers of Longfellow who could not be guiltily associated with musty Victorians, such as Liszt, who set the introduction of The Golden Legend to music, or Baudelaire, who adapted the "Peace-Pipe" section of The Song of Hiawatha into French.

Perhaps the most poignant testimony to the bard's fall from favor is that the few who write appreciatively of him today--such as J.D. McClatchy, the editor of the Library of America edition, and the poet Dana Gioia--feel obliged to remind readers that they know several lines of Longfellow's poems by heart, even if they do not know who penned them: "Under a spreading chestnut-tree/The village smithy stands" ("The Village Blacksmith"); "Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere" ("Paul Revere's Ride"); "By the shore of Gitche Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water" ("The Song of Hiawatha"); "This is the forest primeval" ("Evangeline"); "I shot an arrow into the air,/ It fell to earth, I knew not where" ("The Arrow and the Song"). McClatchy and Gioia have also felt compelled to note that many of Longfellow's lines have entered the common currency of the English language: "Ships that pass in the night," "The patter of little feet," "Into each life some rain must fall," "Footprints on the sands of time," "When she was good, she was very, very good." If Gioia is right that "language remembers the poems its speakers love best, even if only as cliches," then we can only wonder at the pathos of Longfellow's fallen state. What did his contemporaries see that we no longer see?

The best place to begin is with one of Longfellow's earliest and most beloved poems, "A Psalm of Life," which appeared in Voices of the Night:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!--

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout

and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,--act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o'er life's solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

 

The tenor of this poem--hopeful, sincere, earnest, simple--could not be further removed from the cynicism and the detachment of our own time, so it is no wonder that hostile critics have long used it to indict Longfellow and his age for its alleged shallowness, conventionality, sentimentality, moralism, and willingness to sacrifice art to didactic purposes. Yet this predictable response only makes sense as a consequence of the modern revolt against the Victorians, the victory of which has made their ideals and their values unintelligible as anything but benighted habits of mind to be cast off in the name of personal freedom.

Given that so few remnants of Victorianism have survived past the 1950s, it is worthwhile to try to approach the nineteenth century with the kind of open-mindedness reserved for eras more remote from the present day. Then we might think without prejudice about what Longfellow meant by the phrase "life is earnest," and why it resonated with his contemporaries--so much so that "A Psalm of Life" was recited on a battlefield by a dying soldier. And it is no coincidence that Thomas Carlyle, the most influential thinker of his day, affixed this same phrase in German to the title page of Past and Present (1843), and that he had proudly borrowed it from Schiller.

By the time Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, earnestness had become a term of mockery and derision, a fate from which it is unlikely to recover anytime soon. But for Victorians such as Carlyle and Longfellow, to be in earnest meant recognizing that life was more elevated and more serious than money-making and sensual gratification. And this recognition entailed the assertion of a transcendent moral and spiritual order, and a vow to struggle against the forces of evil in one's soul and in one's society. To be in earnest was not to be priggish or dour, as critics charged; it was a refusal to treat the fundamental questions of life lightly, as if they were merely an intellectual game.

This helps to explain how a thinker of John Ruskin's stature could speak of "A Psalm of Life" in terms that seem so preposterous today. In a letter to his father in 1851, he recorded that the poem "is now known by heart by nearly all the modern reformers and agitators, good and bad, but does good to all of them." What Ruskin particularly admired was the "character" of Longfellow's poems: "Other poetry soothes and comforts--Longfellow's strengthens, knits up, and makes resolute." Ruskin thought so highly of this poem that he questioned "whether all Byron's works put together have had so much real influence, with all their popularity, as this single poem, because Byron's influence is for the most part on young and comparatively unformed minds--Longfellow's of a reversed kind and on the strongest minds of the day." It is precisely such a judgment that modern critics have rejected by labeling Longfellow a "schoolroom poet." His fine sentiments now feel so naive as to be suitable only for children.

But it is not only earnestness that has become an attitude alien to modern sensibility. The poetic genres in which Longfellow excelled--pastoral romance, folk epic, framed tales--drew on European traditions that modernists renounced in favor of free-verse lyric. What could be more hopelessly outdated than long, rhyming, storybook poems such as Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, "The Courtship of Miles Standish," and Tales of a Wayside Inn, the very poems that earned Longfellow his eminence?

Still, even hostile critics grant that those poems satisfied a fledgling nation's yearning for a mythic past of evocative landscapes inhabited by gentle Indian warriors, good-hearted Plymouth colonists, Revolutionary War heroes, innocent star-crossed lovers--in short, a picture of the new world, pastoral and beckoning. Longfellow's audience relished his lively storytelling, but they also appreciated his versatility in genre and form. And sympathetic critics have always remarked on his extraordinary prosodic virtuosity. Gioia recently argued that Longfellow's "range and originality in metrics remains unprecedented," but noted ruefully that "in the aftermath of the free-verse revolution" few poets and critics care enough about prosody to appreciate Longfellow's achievement.

What is at stake here is a conflict between two opposing views of poetry, the outcome of which has consigned Longfellow to the mediocre realm of the "schoolroom poet" and has elevated Whitman to the pinnacle of the American Renaissance. It is to see the world a little more starkly and a little more freshly if we return to the year 1855, in which both The Song of Hiawatha and Leaves of Grass were published. On September 23, 1855, Charles Eliot Norton, an intimate of Longfellow and an exceedingly cultivated and cosmopolitan man of letters, wrote to his close friend James Russell Lowell about both new books. Longfellow, said Norton, had attempted something truly different. Having read the works of the early ethnologists Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and J.G.E. Heckewelder, the poet wove together an epic folk tale from the Indians' own legends. Norton noted somewhat reluctantly that "it has a little the air of having been crammed for, and written not from the fulness of the heart but the fulness of the head." Yet it was saved by its style, which Norton described as "very charming, … fresh, free from conceits and prettinesses." Longfellow's model was the trochaic verse of the Finnish epic the Kalevala, and Norton found it "exquisitely modulated, and managed with all the melodious skill with which Longfellow always controls the metres that he uses."

This judgment flies in the face not only of later critics but also of many of Longfellow's contemporaries, for his unusual, singsong meter was parodied from the moment the poem appeared. It is not difficult to see why:

 

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,

By the shining Big-Sea-Water,

At the doorway of his wigwam,

In the pleasant Summer morning,

Hiawatha stood and waited.

But a style so easily parodied also created arresting, even beautiful, images that rival the finest American romantic landscape painting:

And the evening sun descending

Set the clouds on fire with redness,

Burned the broad sky, like a prairie,

Left upon the level water

One long track and trail of splendor,

Down whose stream, as down a river,

Westward, westward Hiawatha

Sailed into the fiery sunset,

Sailed into the purple vapors,

Sailed into the dusk of evening.

And the people from the margin

Watched him floating, rising, sinking,

Till the birch canoe seemed lifted

High into that sea of splendor,

Till it sank into the vapors

Like the new moon slowly, slowly

Sinking in the purple distance.

 

In his letter to Lowell, Norton spoke of Leaves of Grass as a book "worth knowing about" and mentioned Emerson's famous letter to Whitman, in which he expressed his "warmest admiration and encouragement." "It is no wonder that he likes it," Norton wryly observed, "for Walt Whitman has read the `Dial' and `Nature,' and combines the characteristics of a Concord philosopher with those of a New York fireman." It was this incongruence that Norton, schooled in the classical tradition of literary decorum, found so unsettling. "There are some passages of most vigorous and vivid writing, some superbly graphic description, great stretches of imagination,--and then passages of intolerable coarseness,--not gross and licentious, but simply disgustingly coarse." Today it is hard to discern what Norton found "disgustingly coarse" in Leaves of Grass, or why he "would be sorry to know that any woman had looked into it past the title-page." But this says as much about our own incapacity for shock as it does about Norton's oversensitivity, which, for Victorians, was the defining mark of cultivated sensibility.

Lowell, in his response to Norton, thought his friend had been too generous. For him, Whitman raised the question of creative genius and its limits, a question not yet settled in the middle of the nineteenth century: "When a man aims at originality he acknowledges himself consciously unoriginal, a want of self-respect which does not often go along with the capacity for great things." The cult of genius is so much with us that it is easy to forget its recent origin--and that it undermined the long-revered classical tradition, which had at its heart the universality of human nature and values. From that perspective, originality was regarded not as a sign of genius but as a failure of artistic imagination to free itself from personal idiosyncrasy.

Lowell, himself an accomplished poet, had succeeded Longfellow as professor of modern languages at Harvard. His taste was anything but provincial. Yet the classical inheritance left him with a disdain for excessive experimentation or theatricality:

It is not the volcanoes, after all, that give a lasting and serene delight, but those quiet old giants without a drop of fireblood in their veins that lie there basking their unwarmable old sides in the sun no more everlasting than they--patent unshiftable ballast that keep earth and human thought trimmed and true on an even keel. Ah, the cold-blooded old monsters, how little they care for you and me! Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe--are they not everlasting boundary-stones that mark the limits of a noble reserve and self-restraint, and seem to say, "Outside of us is Chaos--go there if you like--we knew better--it is a dreary realm where moan the ghosts of dead-born children, and where the ghost of mad old Lear is king?"

What was wanted in poetry was large, universal themes and general character types--the kind of poetry at which Longfellow excelled and Victorians cherished and read aloud. Indeed, verse such as Longfellow's, even though it is filled with romantic subjects, figures, and places, is best understood as a last remnant of the classical inheritance. On this view, the personal confessional was "morbid" or "egoistic," while poetry that most resembled public address was esteemed. In his tribute to Longfellow after his death, Norton spoke of the poet in these terms: "It was not by depth of thought or by original views of nature that he won his place in the world's regard; but it was by sympathy with the feelings common to good men and women everywhere, and by the simple, direct, sincere, and delicate expression of them, that he gained the affection of mankind."

Elsewhere norton elaborated on the nature of Longfellow's achievement: "In exquisitely modulated verse he … gave form to [people's] vague ideals, and utterance to their stammering aspirations. In revealing his own pure and sincere nature, he helped others to recognize their own better selves." But even as Norton wrote this appreciation for Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography in 1888, this view of poetry was already on the wane. And by the time of the centenary celebration of Longfellow's birth in 1907, the revolt against gentility and classicism was in full bloom. Howells was forced to defend the poet against charges of moralism, but the terms of his defense suggest he was waging a losing battle: "I will only say for myself that I find the pieces in which he charms and teaches far outnumbering those in which he teaches and charms; that first he is an artist and then a moralist." And to Paul Elmer More fell the task of saving Longfellow from those who thought him shallow, though More was on no firmer ground than Howells: "We are apt to take our poets rather solemnly, when we read them at all, to search for deep and complex meanings; and in the process we often lose the inward serenity and unvexed faith which it is the mission of the poet to bestow." (The admission that no deep and complex meanings are to be found in Longfellow is rather a damning one, but not altogether correct.)

George Woodberry, who had been a student of Norton's at Harvard and later became his friend, summed up a growing litany not only against Longfellow but against all the New England writers:

The only ardours displayed by its writers are moral, patriotic, or religious, and in none of them is there any sense of

conflict. The life which they knew was wholesome, regular, still free from urban corruption, the experience of a plain, prosperous, and law-abiding people…. No tragedy was written, no love poetry, no novel of passion. No literature is so maiden-pure. It is by refinement rather than power that it is most distinguished, by taste and cultivation, by conscientiousness in art, in poetic and stylistic craft…. If it is undistinguished by any work of supreme genius, it reflects broadly and happily and in enduring forms the national tradition of the land in its century.

Woodberry clearly saw the shortcomings of the New England writers, but still he found reasons to treat them with sympathy and respect. But a new generation, dedicated to living honestly and without subterfuge, could only sneer at the timidity and the complacency of their "maiden-pure" forebears. They had no use for their refinement, their loftiness, their conscientiousness. And they had nothing but contempt for their grand ideals and their personal discretion--all of which Van Wyck Brooks dismissed as "highbrow" in 1915, in his powerful diatribe America's Coming-of-Age.

Setting the terms for what would become a familiar and devastating attack on gentility, Brooks mocked "the fastidious refinement and aloofness of the chief American writers." They stood "too remote from life" and achieved their "own salvation (after the Puritan fashion) by avoiding contact with reality." Longfellow was repudiated, along with Irving, Bryant, Lowell, Whittier, and Holmes, on these grounds. Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Hawthorne also were guilty of evading reality, but they were redeemed for Brooks by their "personal approach" to literature, which he thought "the only fruitful approach." The single nineteenth-century writer "who comes home to modern America" was Whitman; and it is a sign of Brooks's modernity that he praised Whitman in terms starkly opposed to that of the poet's contemporaries. Where Lowell found Whitman's poetry marred by eccentricities of personality, Brooks celebrated it for embodying "that deep, shaking impact of personality for which one turns to the abiding poets and writers of the world."

With Lewis Mumford's The Golden Day, which appeared in 1926, the American Renaissance that Matthiessen codified fifteen years later was born, with Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman taking center stage. Mumford's paean to Whitman inverted all the values that Norton and Lowell held dear: "One could not become a sympathetic reader of Whitman without re-forming oneself into an approximation of this new shape. Only commonplace works of art reflect the everyday personality of the reader; the supreme works always show or hint of the new shape the reader may become: they are prophetic, formative." And Mumford made this point by disparaging Longfellow: "One might remove Longfellow without changing a single possibility of American life; had Whitman died in the cradle, however, the possibilities of American life would have been definitely impoverished. He created a new pattern of experience and character."

Whitman was so attractive to moderns such as Mumford because he represented the promise of a literature at once American, democratic, progressive, and vital. The irony, and it is not a small one, is that Whitman saw Longfellow not as contributing to the ills of his time, but as an antidote to those ills. Like everyone else, he loved Longfellow. Shortly after his death, Whitman proclaimed:

He is certainly the sort of bard and counteractant most needed for our materialistic, self-assertive, money-worshipping, Anglo-Saxon races, and especially for the present age in America,--an age tyrannically regulated with reference to the manufacturer, the merchant, the financier, the politician, and the day workman; for whom and among whom he comes as the poet of melody, courtesy, deference,--poet of the mellow twilight of the past in Italy, Germany, Spain, and in Northern Europe, poet of all sympathetic gentleness, and universal poet of women and young people. I should have to think long if I were asked to name the man who had done more, and in more valuable directions, for America.

And Longfellow on Whitman? One suspects that he would have shared Lowell's distaste for Whitman's poetry, but he was courteous to Whitman the man. In 1876, on a visit to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Longfellow permitted his host, George Childs, to arrange a visit to Camden, and four years later, during his last trip to Boston, Whitman called on Longfellow in Cambridge. Whitman later said he would not soon forget "his lit-up face and glowing warmth and courtesy, in the modes of what is called the old school."

Regardless of how Longfellow was seen by even an outsider such as Whitman, the bard's image was fatefully cast in the early twentieth century. V.L. Parrington put the case against him in Main Currents in American Thought in 1927: "One could scarcely have lived more detached from contemporary America, more effectively insulated against the electric currents of the time." Longfellow's quietism was hopelessly out of step with a new generation of readers who judged literature by how well it matched their own preoccupations, which were largely political. But that was not all. The stunning achievements of the modernists had also made Longfellow's aesthetic obsolete. Whitman and Dickinson could be seen as precursors to modernism, but not Longfellow. What could be said for a poet who was not exercised by irony, tension, and paradox, whose utterance was distinguished by unaffected simplicity and clarity?

And so no body of Longfellow criticism ever developed, and he lives a shadowy existence in anthologies, when he is included at all. As for anthologies of American verse, no one has yet left him out, but over the years his place has been diminished, as fewer and fewer of his poems are included. Only fragments of the long narrative poems appear, and most often he is represented by a few short lyrics and sonnets amenable to modern taste. This very partial selection has the effect of distorting the historical record: it presents a new, modern Longfellow, a writer who would be unrecognizable to his contemporaries.

Of course, if it is a matter of including only the greatest works of poetry in such books--if it is a matter of aesthetic judgment--then the anthologists are certainly doing the best they can. Longfellow's achievement is estimable, but it cannot be counted among the first rank. Perhaps a better home for his most popular poems would be in so-called "documents of American history" books, which would at least recognize his historical importance, even if it would nullify his artistic accomplishment. Still, anyone who takes the time to read McClatchy's generous new edition of Longfellow--anyone who experiences firsthand its marvelous versatility and its haunting melodies--will regret the prospect of Longfellow being treated merely as a historical figure, as a "schoolroom poet" or a dead white male.

Above all else, Longfellow was a cosmopolitan, and as a translator he absorbed the music and the spirit of other places and times. Perhaps his greatest achievement is his translation of The Divine Comedy. To each of the three books he affixed two of his own sonnets. In his first sonnet honoring the Inferno, we can still hear the "poet of the mellow twilight of the past in Italy" whom Whitman held so dear:

 

Oft have I seen at some cathedral door

A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat,

Lay down his burden, and with reverent

feet

Enter, and cross himself, and on the

floor

Kneel to repeat his paternoster o'er;

Far off the noises of the world retreat;

The loud vociferations of the street

Become an undistinguishable roar.

So, as I enter here from day to day,

And leave my burden at this

minster gate,

Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed

to pray,

The tumult of the time disconsolate

To inarticulate murmurs dies away,

While the eternal ages watch and

wait.

 

Longfellow translated Dante while grieving for his wife, who died when her dress accidentally caught on fire. Longfellow had tried to save her, and was utterly devastated, and in his darkest hours returned to life through Dante. With this beautiful sonnet, which is at once a tribute to Dante, to poetry, to prayer, and to his wife's memory, Longfellow reminds us that the great poetry of the past was great not least because it transcended the confines of subjectivity and turned personal, unbearable, and ineffable experiences into a public expression of humility. Given the boisterously confessional nature of much of contemporary poetry, we would be well challenged to try to recalibrate our sensibility by Longfellow's modest grandeur.

 

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill & Wang).

 

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