Longfellow’s tomb

Life (and death) brought me back to Mount Auburn Cemetery the other day, so I can now include a personal photo of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tomb, in place of the one I included in this post:

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(A sprinkler is at work in front of the tomb.)

As a special bonus, here is the more modest gravestone of the nineteenth-century American historian Francis Parkman, buried right down the street from Longfellow:

parkman

Parkman’s uncle George was the victim in a celebrated murder case chronicled in the documentary Murder at Harvard.

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In which I attempt to make amends to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I wasn’t complimentary to Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in this post.  Well, opinions differ.

The other day I was driving through Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery at twilight, looking for a chapel where a friend of mine was giving a talk.  I didn’t have time to look for graves of famous people (Bernard Malamud and John Rawls, among many others), but I realized afterwards that I must have passed close to Longfellow’s tomb, which looks like this:

And it occurred to me that Longfellow couldn’t have been that bad.  (The Wikipedia article on Longfellow quotes one 20th-century poet as saying: “Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career… nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”  Well, yeah, I guess so.  But still.)

So I looked up the Longfellow verse that I remember the best from way back in middle school: the opening to his long narrative poem Evangeline.  It’s written in the epic meter dactylic hexameter, a rhythm that doesn’t fit easily to English.  But I think it works well here.  This isn’t immortal poetry–it doesn’t have anything interesting to say–but as poetry it’s pretty good.  What do you think?

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 is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers,–
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed!
Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October
Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o’er the ocean
Naught but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand-Pre.

Ye who believe in affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient,
Ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman’s devotion,
List to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest;
List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.

Hardly a man is now alive…

This is the 240th anniversary of Paul Revere’s Ride.  Longfellow’s poem starts like this:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

It was written in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, so personal memory of the Revolution had just about died out.  The poem itself is pretty bad, but Longfellow did succeed in his aim of creating a national myth.  No one was building statues of Revere before Longfellow’s poem.

(“2010 NorthEnd Boston 4621037522” by Richard Wood from Tacoma, Washington, USA – Boston 2010-05-02-15. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

While I have your attention, let me recommend David Hackett Fisher’s book Paul Revere’s Ridewhich is just fabulous.