LONGFELLOW, HENRY WADSWORTH - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

LONGFELLOW, HENRY WADSWORTH (1807-1882). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, at a time when that seaport was second in New England only to Boston in total tonnage engaged in maritime trade. Close to half a century later, in the poem “My Lost Youth” (1855)—his reminiscences of those early days—Longfellow’s most vividly rendered memories center on the sparkling waters of Casco Bay: the magical aura of its distant islands and horizons and the exotic mystery of the ships and seamen from faraway places. Despite the focus of Portland’s trade on the prosaic commodities of lumber and molasses, these boyhood impressions of the sea as a place of mystery and enchantment find their way into most of the fifty or so poems he wrote in which the sea is a prominent element.

Two of his earliest poems using the sea as setting are also among the best known of his shorter narrative poems. Both use ballad traditions to elevate American subjects to legendary status. Inspired by a then-recent discovery in Massachusetts, “The Skeleton in Armor” (1841) is a lively rendering of a presumed Viking warrior’s sea voyage to America. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” (1841) interprets the historical sinking of a schooner off Gloucester* as the result of the captain’s arrogant disregard of storm warnings.

Longfellow’s rendering of the historical deportation of the Acadians in Evangeline (1847) situates their village near the sea, which is also the route of their exile. Narrative poems of the sea in The Seaside and the Fireside (1850) include “Twilight,” on the terror experienced by a fisherman’s wife and child during a storm as they await his return from the sea, and “Sir Humphrey Gilbert,” which fancies the colonizer’s death at sea as the result of collision of his vessel with an iceberg. The longest poem in the “By the Seaside” section of the volume, “The Building of the Ship,” while its ship- of-state metaphor has become hackneyed, is a striking portrait a decade before the Civil War of the country’s hope that the timbers of Maine and Georgia will remain permanently united in a seaworthy vessel named the Union.

Among the miscellaneous poems to appear in The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems (1858), “The Phantom Ship” versifies the seventeenth-century legend popularized by Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) of the specter of a New Haven, Connecticut, ship sent by God to the port to relieve the inhabitants’ distress at its sinking. “The Discoverer of the Lost Cape” returns to Norse legend, this time focusing on Arctic* exploration. Longfellow’s only poem on the Civil War, “The Cumberland” (1863), commemorates the defeat of that sloop of war by the Confederate* ironclad, Merrimack. Later narrative sea poems include “The Musician’s Tale: The Ballad of Carmilhan” in Part Second of Tales of a Wayside Inn (1872), in which a defiant captain meets his fate in an encounter with a ghost* ship, and “A Ballad of the French Fleet” (1878), which depicts the providential deliverance of Boston from a French attack in 1746. Longfellow used dialogue as a narrative device in sea poems of his final years, “Maiden and Weathercock” (1880) and “The City and the Sea” (1882).

Longfellow’s most sustained use of the sea in narrative poetry appears in “The Musician’s Tale: The Saga of King Olaf” in the first volume of Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863). Olaf returns to Norway from exile to avenge his father’s death and to Christianize the country, in response to a challenge from the pagan god Thor. The poem includes descriptions of the construction of Olaf’s great battleship, the Long Serpent, and the epic sea battle with his enemies, who eventually defeat him. Unwilling to surrender, Olaf the sea warrior leaps with his shield from his ship into the sea and is never seen again.

Longfellow also invoked the sea in many of his lyrical poems, often exploring the metaphorical implications of tides and waves. In both “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls” (1880) and “August 4, 1856” (1882), the motion of the tides is reminiscent of the cycle of life and death. The rhythmical motion and sound of sea waves suggests the mournful tone of elegy in “Elegiac Verse” (1882) and the transcendent majesty of John Milton’s poetry in “Milton” (1875). The motions of water are associated with inward renewal in “Brook and Wave” (1873) and “The Tides” (1875).

The most sustained images of the sea in his lyrical poetry reflect upon human creativity. “Seaweed” (1850) tracks the stages of the creative process—from the excitement of the initial impulse, through the stress of giving it form, to the peace of mind that comes at the end of the struggle to create. Many of these lyrics explore the nature of inspiration. The brilliant reflections of a celestial body on ocean swells represent the poet’s flashes of intuition in “The Evening Star” (1850, titled “Chrysaor” in later editions). The crackle of a driftwood fire and the roar of the sea mingle with, and animate, the conversation of old-timers reminiscing on the past in “The Fire of Driftwood” (1850). The glimmer of a ship’s lamp and the hushed breath of the sea anticipate the regenerative influence of dawn in “Four by the Clock” (1882). “The Sound of the Sea” (1875) explores the sudden and mysterious origins of inspiration. “Becalmed” (1882) compares a period without inspiration to an ocean calm. The speaker of “The Broken Oar” (1878) sees an analogy between the labor of the rower and the efforts of the poet. The vision of the poet is portrayed as a sea journey to the ends of the earth in “Dedication” (1880). The great poet of the future is depicted in “Possibilities” (1882) as a fearless mariner sailing through uncharted seas.

Longfellow’s fascination with the sea, to the end of his life, seems in many respects to refect the attitudes of the landsman gazing wistfully at the sea in “The Secret of the Sea” (1850), haunted by a ballad with mystical implications. In the ballad, another landsman asks an aged helmsman the secret of the beauty of his song. The helmsman replies, “Only those who brave its dangers/ Comprehend its mysteries.” [See also MONITOR AND MERRIMACK; “PIETAS IN PATRIAM”; SEA IMAGERY IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY]

FURTHER READING: Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963; Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Complete Poetical Works of Longfellow. Ed. Horace E. Scudder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1893; Longfellow, Samuel, ed. Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 3 vols. New York: Greenwood, 1969; Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Twayne-G. K. Hall, 1964.

Joseph Flibbert