Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807—1882)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807—1882)

Longfellow was a great teacher in two senses: he was an innovator in the teaching of modern languages at Harvard and elsewhere, and he graciously subjected his art to what he perceived to be the duty of poetry: to deliver academic and moral lessons. He was probably the most distinguished and most effective didactic poet ever to write in the United States; people who know almost no other poems will know “Listen, my children, and you shall hear… .” Longfellow is also notable as an innovator in developing a long unrhymed measure that was not blank verse; he wrote two fine long poems in unrhymed dactylic hexameter (Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish) and an unforgettable epic is unrhymed trochaic tetrameter (The Song of Hiawatha). Some of his sonnets capture the spirit of his most notable precursors among the English poets.



An old man in a lodge within a park;

The chamber walls depicted all around

With portraitures of huntsman, hawk, and hound,

And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark,

Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark

Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;

He listeneth and he laugheth at the sound,

Then writeth in a book like any clerk.

He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote

The Canterbury Tales, and his old age

Made beautiful with song; and as I read

I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note

Of lark and linnet, and from every page

Rise odors of ploughed field or flowery mead.


A vision as of crowded city streets,

With human life in endless overflow;

Thunder of thoroughfares; trumpets that blow

To battle; clamor, in obscure retreats,

Of sailors landed from their anchored fleets;

Tolling of bells in turrets, and below

Voices of children, and bright flowers that throw

O’er garden-walls their intermingled sweets!

This vision comes to me when I unfold

The volume of the Poet paramount,

Whom all the Muses loved, not one alone;—

Into his hands they put the lyre of gold,

And, crowned with sacred laurel at their fount,

Placed him as Musagetes on their throne.


I pace the sounding sea-beach and behold

How the voluminous billows roll and run,

Upheaving and subsiding, while the sun

Shines through their sheeted emerald far unrolled,

And the ninth wave, slow gathering fold by fold

All its loose-flowing garments into one,

Plunges upon the shore, and floods the dun

Pale reach of sands, and changes them to gold.

So in majestic cadence rise and fall

The mighty undulations of thy song,

O sightless bard, England’s Maænides!

And ever and anon, high over all

Uplifted, a ninth wave superb and strong,

Floods all the soul with its melodious seas.


The young Endymion sleeps Endymion’s sleep;

The shepherd-boy whose tale was left half told!

The solemn grove uplifts its shield of gold

To the red rising moon, and loud and deep

The nightingale is singing from the steep;

It is midsummer, but the air is cold;

Can it be death? Alas, beside the fold

A shepherd’s pipe lies shattered near his sheep.

Lo! in the moonlight gleams a marble white,

On which I read: “Here lieth one whose name

Was writ in water.” And was this the meed

Of his sweet singing? Rather let me write:

“The smoking flax before it burst to flame

Was quenched by death, and broken the bruised reed.”


O ye dead Poets, who are living still

Immortal in your verse, though life be fled,

And ye, O living Poets, who are dead

Though ye are living, if neglect can kill,

Tell me if in the darkest hours of ill,

With drops of anguish falling fast and red

From the sharp crown of thorns upon your head,

Ye were not glad your errand to fulfil?

Yes; for the gift and ministry of Song

Have something in them so divinely sweet,

It can assuage the bitterness of wrong;

Not in the clamor of the crowded street,

Not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng,

But in ourselves, are triumph and defeat.


Once upon Iceland’s solitary strand

A poet wandered with his book and pen,

Seeking some final word, some sweet Amen,

Wherewith to close the volume in his hand.

The billows rolled and plunged upon the sand,

The circling sea-gulls swept beyond his ken,

And from the parting cloud-rack now and then

Flashed the red sunset over sea and land.

Then by the billows at his feet was tossed

A broken oar; and carved thereon he read,

“Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee;”

And like a man, who findeth what was lost,

He wrote the words, then lifted up his head,

And flung his useless pen into the sea.