American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A Minor Angevin

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For my own amusement, I keep track of Longfellow sightings, especially those from modern authors; and I keep track of Sicily references too, having family there. I note, then, the following from Mary McCarthy, her late memoir How I Grew (1987):

I am not sure where I found Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn, containing as one chapter “The Saga of King Olaf”; I had hated “Hiawatha,” all too reminiscent of the civics of Minnehaha Park and Minnehaha Falls, but I loved those tales, and they are the main reason I know something of European history Normans, popes, and German emperors. It was a shock, then, to discover rather recently that “Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane and Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,” who learned the lesson of humility one Easter Sunday in Palermo, who was not an historical figure; all my life, from the age of twelve on, I had been taking him for a minor Angevin.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 27, 2016 at 2:04 pm

Poems of Places 14

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From Poems of Places, vol. 21, Asia: Syria (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Palmyra (Tadmor)]

img_palmyra_syria_001

“© UNESCO, Syria: Destruction of Palmyra’s historical monuments (March 2014)” (link)

 

A chain of associations led me from Longfellow to Longinus, by way of Nicholas Michell and Charles Morris. It began with the news from Syria. Or rather, it began with a drive past Palmyra, Maine, which brought the news from Syria back into mind. Getting home, I turned to Longfellow’s anthology, wondering if there were any poems for the fallen city. In fact, there were three: a prize-winning undergraduate poem from the 1820s by John Henry Bright; “Tadmor of the Wilderness” by Connecticut poet Jesse Erskine Dow; and a section from Ruins of Many Lands by Nicholas Michell. All three were written in Longfellow’s own lifetime, two by Brits, one by an American, and all are forgotten today. I dare say they were already forgotten in Longfellow’s day. Finding poems for all the cities of Syria was no easy task— and Arabic poems are notably absent. Obscurities were necessary to fill out the pages.

The extracts from Michell take more space than the other two choices combined, but they caught my eye for the phrase “Murdered Longinus,” which occurs in this passage:

The street of graves! where kings laid down their pride,
And many a restless phantom yet may glide:
Murdered Longinus here may wander still,
And she whose dust was laid by Tibur’s hill,
Far-famed Zenobia, for her kingdom wail,
Sweeping with viewless form the desert gale.

I’ll admit, I did not know the story of Longinus, but a little Googling brought me to Charles Morris’s telling of it in Historical Tales: The Romance of Reality (1896), a book that enjoyed wide circulation and so may have appeared in many a house alongside Longfellow’s anthology. The gist of the story is this: born, apparently, in Syria, Longinus was secretary and counselor to Queen Zenobia, whose realm, encompassing Egypt, “extended from the Euphrates over much of Asia Minor and to the borders of Arabia.” Her seat of power was Palmyra. A decisive victory over Rome maintained her independence, at least while Claudius was emperor. With Aurelian’s succession, hostilities were renewed. Rome advanced on Palmyra, subjugating the city after several hard-fought battles. Zenobia, for her part, misjudged the chances of victory, which led her to reject Rome’s first terms of surrender. This in turn unleashed Rome’s fury, and the city succumbed:

The soldiers, with angry clamor, demanded [Zenobia’s] immediate execution, and the unhappy queen, losing for the first time the courage which had so long sustained her, gave way to terror, and declared that her resistance was not due to herself, but had arisen from the counsels of Longinus and her other advisers. It was the one base act in the woman’s life. She had purchased a brief period of existence at the expense of honor and fame. Aurelian, a fierce soldier, to whom the learning of Longinus made no appeal, at once ordered his execution. The scholar died like a philosopher. He uttered no complaint. He pitied, but did not blame, his mistress. He comforted his afflicted friends. With the calm fortitude of Socrates he followed the executioner, and died like one for whom death had no terrors. The ignorant emperor, in seizing the treasures of Palmyra, did not know that he had lost its choicest treasure in setting free the soul of Longinus the scholar.

But this was not the end.

What followed may be more briefly told. Marching back with his spoils from Palmyra, Aurelian had already reached Europe when word came to him that the Palmyrians whom he had spared had risen in revolt and massacred his garrison. Instantly turning, he marched back, his soul filled with thirst for revenge. Reaching Palmyra with great celerity, his wrath fell with murderous fury on that devoted city. Not only armed rebels, but women and children, were massacred, and the city was almost levelled with the earth. The greatness of Palmyra was at an end. It never recovered from this dreadful blow.

I put the above together over a week ago and neglected to post it. In the meantime, the flow of news from Palmyra has slowed considerably. A few days ago the Independent (UK) published survivor stories. The occupation has been bloody but so far the city’s archeological remains are more or less intact.

A few more lines of Longfellow’s excerpt from Ruins of Many Lands:

 Deserted Tadmor! queen of Syria’s wild!
Well may’st thou fill with rapture Fancy’s child;
Yet not by day  too garish, harsh, and rude
The eye should scan thy fairy solitude;
But when the still moon pours her hallowing beam,
And crumbling shrine and palace whitely gleam,
Then pause beneath the lofty arch, and there
Survey the mouldings rich and sculptures fair;
See how like spectral giants columns stand,
And cast long shadows o’er the yellow sand;
How the soft light on marble tracery plays,
And busts look life-like through that silvery haze!

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 7, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Pinky Ring

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HWL-GrahamsFound this steel engraving of Longfellow today in Graham’s Magazine (vol. 22, no. 5 [May 1843]); it accompanied an unsigned essay on the poet. Longfellow didn’t think much of it  to say the least. In a letter to Samuel Ward, he complained:

Why did you let Griswold have that head of me by Franquinet, to engrave for Graham’s Magazine? Do you know what the engraver has made of it? Why, the most atrocious libel imaginable; a very vulgar individual, looking very drunk and very cunning! An unredeemed blackguard air hovers over the whole. Now, when I think that forty thousand copies of this thing this tasteless caricature are to be printed and distributed through the country as my “counterfeit (very counterfeit) presentment,” I am in an indescribable agony. I solemnly protest against this whole proceeding, and shall write Graham this very day to prevent the publication.”

Obviously, his protest didn’t go very far, though it may explain the note of apology with which the essay ended:

The likeness which accompanies this, we are sorry to say, is not a very good one. Though correct, perhaps, in the general outline, Mr. Franquinet has failed to give that refined and poetical expression of his original which attracts the regard of every one who sees him in person.

HWL-Grahams2Be all that as it may, there is one delightful aspect to the image: the realization it brings that Longfellow wore a pinky ring! Who knew? I’m not sure why, but it delights me.

These lines from “Morituri Salutamus” (1875) seem appropriate:

In mediaeval Rome, I know not where,
There stood an image with its arm in air,
And on its lifted finger, shining clear,
A golden ring with the device, “Strike here!”
Greatly the people wondered, though none guessed
The meaning that these words but half expressed,
Until a learned clerk, who at noonday
With downcast eyes was passing on his way,
Paused, and observed the spot, and marked it well,
Whereon the shadow of the finger fell;
And, coming back at midnight, delved, and found
A secret stairway leading underground.

The pinky ring intrigues me, but I won’t delve any further. In Longfellow’s poem, the curious clerk is soon struck dead!

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 21, 2014 at 7:33 pm

Poems of Places 12

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From Poems of Places, vol. 27, America: Middle States (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Fire Island, N.Y.]

Alfred Leslie, The Telephone Call, 1970-71,
part of a cycle originally called The Killing
of Frank O’Hara
(image via Isola di Rifiuti;
see also Leslie’s website)

I am tempted to call Fire Island the most haunted spot in American literature: two notable writers met their end there, one at sea, the other on land — and these were gruesome deaths as well. In 1850, Margaret Fuller drowned just offshore. Her body was never recovered, but others from the same ship — including that of her son, Nino — washed onto the beach where Frank O’Hara would be struck by a jeep in 1966.

O’Hara died young — he was 40 years old — and before the great majority of his writing had seen print. This surely added to the sense of emergency that attended his loss. According to O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, three of the poet’s friends — Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Larry Rivers — took possession of the manuscripts in fear that they would be destroyed or disappear.

Fuller, also 40, had published more extensively than O’Hara (three books and a great many uncollected essays), but in her case an important manuscript did disappear: her history of the Italian revolution, in which she participated as a director of one of Rome’s hospitals during the street fighting. The copy of her book that Fuller carried across the ocean sank, and no other copy ever came to light, despite the assiduous searching of her friends. From letters, and from Fuller’s dispatches for the New-York Tribune (the same newspaper for which Marx would later write), we have a good sense of what she witnessed. But what she learned after, and what she withheld, and what she made of it all in hindsight, these are gone for good.

The gruesome facts of O’Hara’s death were not set aside or forgotten in the grief over his loss. His death came in a hospital after 40 hours of intense pain, and O’Hara’s friends were witness to that suffering. Larry Rivers was especially graphic in his eulogy, evoking O’Hara’s mangled body for the assembled mourners: Read the rest of this entry »

R.I.P. Frank Frazetta

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Click for a readable image

I’ve been meaning to write about this surprising new edition of Longfellow’s Dante, brought out by Del Rey Books, the science fiction imprint of Random House. And yes, it’s a video game tie-in.

I’m not a player, so I can’t say anything about the game (this is not snobbery on my part, I’m inept — I haven’t tried a game since pinball made me its Charlie Brown) … but the treatment of the text is loving. If that’s any indication, the game must be terrific.

The cover copy is priceless: The Literary Classic That Inspired the Epic Video Game from Electronic Arts.” And likewise the back: “The timeless classic of a journey through the horrors of hell … The action adventure blockbuster that’s rocking the video-game world.” Included: a 16-page full-color insert, with screen shots of the game and art by William Blake and Gustav Doré. The effect reminds me of Deadliest Warrior: there too a little research heightens the pleasure of make-believe — a geeky dress-up pleasure in that case, pop mythology in this one.

And there’s also an introduction, a good one, by Jonathan Knight, the game’s executive producer, and also — I love this — a note on the text. Unless I’m missing something, no individual is credited, but someone went to Harvard and looked at Longfellow’s papers: the annotations are as Longfellow wanted them, and for the first time. I’ve seen less credible texts on college syllabi. [1]

I wanted to spend some time with this edition and with the game’s website — and some of the online commentary — before writing this post, but I’ve been busy with end-of-semester stuff. Meanwhile, Frank Frazetta died today, at age 82. It seemed appropriate to mention the book in his memory. I’ve never played video games. But Conan? Bran Mak Morn? Yeah, I’ve spent some time in those worlds, which I associate as much with Frazetta as I do with their creator, Robert E. Howard. I wouldn’t have thought before now to link Howard with Dante, but Howard’s publisher, Del Rey, has done that for me, by way of Frazetta. Take a look at the image below, and then at the new Longfellow cover. Frazetta’s art is clearly an inspiration. If not directly, then through a chain of artists who influenced artists who influenced the artists at Electronic Arts.

Enjoy a long afterlife, Frazetta.

Note

1 [Back to text] Del Rey’s website lists Matthew Pearl and Lino Pertile as authors, and it would make sense if they had a role in the editing — Pearl wrote The Dante Club, a novel in which Longfellow is a character, and Pertile teaches Dante at Harvard — but I can’t confirm that.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 10, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Poems of Places 11

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From Poems of Places, vol. 1, England 1 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Laken]

To A Bird That Haunted the Waters of Laken in the Winter

O melancholy bird, a winter’s day,
Thou standest by the margin of the pool;
And, taught by God, dost thy whole being school
To patience, which all evil can allay:
God has appointed thee the fish thy prey;
And given thyself a lesson to the fool
Unthrifty, to submit to moral rule,
And his unthinking course by thee to weigh.
There need not schools nor the professor’s chair,
Though these be good, true wisdom to impart:
He who has not enough for these to spare
Of time or gold may yet amend his heart,
And teach his soul by brooks and rivers fair:
Nature is always wise in every part.

— Lord Thurlow

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 9, 2010 at 9:12 am

Between the Ghosts and the Guests

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Bob Arons in my father's room, trusty iPhone in hand.

For me this has been a more difficult year than most, beginning with my father’s stroke in February; then continuing through spring, when his survival was still uncertain; then through summer, when I was packing up his apartment; then through fall, as I waited for bed space to open up in a local nursing home. I’m still waiting.

Luckily for me, and thankfully for my father, numerous friends have helped in a substantive, ongoing way all through this travail, especially Bob. Bob’s loyalty to my father has been — there’s no other word for it — epic. “A poem including history,” if I can quote the old fascist in this context (Bob being a cousin of Joseph Rosen, and my father… well, I’ve written about that before).

Anyway, friendship aside, and perseverance aside, I’m glad that 2009 is done; pulverized into sand and trickled away. Now, instead of turning the glass over, let’s smash it, and learn to measure time in a new way.

Looking for an appropriate new year’s poem, I kept coming back to the one below. Not that my friends and loved ones are more dead than living — though I did lose my mother-in-law this year; I think of her often — only that “mist and shadow” block my sun. Temporarily, no doubt. 2010 is bound to bring more light. More clarity, if not more happiness, but more happiness surely. In the meantime, in loving memory of all those who did pass, here’s a poem written by Longfellow in 1870, when he was 63 years old, in the midst of a long twilight that began about nine years before, with the death of his beloved Fanny:

The Meeting

After so long an absence
At last we meet again:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain?

The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the Prophet’s two or three berries
In the top of the uppermost bough.

We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!

We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.

We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.

And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 31, 2009 at 12:17 pm