American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Poems of Places

Poems of Places 10

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From Poems of Places, vol. 14, Spain 1 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


italicaFabius, if tears prevent thee not, survey
The long dismantled streets, so thronged of old,
The broken marbles, arches in decay,
Proud statues, toppled from their place and rolled
In dust, when Nemesis, the avenger, came,
And buried, in forgetfulness profound,
The owners and their fame.
Thus Troy, I deem, must be,
With many a mouldering mound;
And thou, whose name alone remains to thee,
Rome, of old gods and kings the native ground;
And thou, sage Athens, built by Pallas, whom
Just laws redeemed not from the appointed doom.
The envy of earth’s cities once wert thou, —
A weary solitude and ashes now.
For fate and death respect ye not: they strike
The mighty city and the wise alike. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Ben Friedlander

November 18, 2009 at 8:58 am

Poems of Places 9

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From Poems of Places, vol. 22, Asia 2 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Afghanistan: Cabul (Cabool)]

Excerpted from Ruins of Many Lands: A Descriptive Poem (1850), by the Cornish poet Nicholas Michell. Longfellow cuts the awkward opening of the Cabul section, which reads like this:

A moment yet we linger ’mid the bowers
Of Northern Ind — a land of fruits and flowers,
Where the proud Affghan treads a blessed soil,
That yields all Nature asks with little toil,
A land where God his heavenliest smile hath thrown
On all beneath — man, man the blot alone.

That last line casts an ominous shadow on the poem — a shadow of original sin, I thought, reading the description of earthly paradise that followed. Alas, no; it’s a thicker, uglier shadow. But here’s the Longfellow excerpt: Read the rest of this entry »

Poems of Places 8

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From Poems of Places, vol. 9, France 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


In honor of the new school year, “The School-Boy King” by Walter Thornbury, a poem that also appears in A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by William J. Hillis (1896). There the poem is given the following introduction:

Of Napoleon’s early childhood little is positively known. Accepting the corroborated record, as it stands, it would appear that he was a child with a disposition and a manner peculiarly his own. Not a loving or a companionable boy, but rather of a sullen, retiring nature; melancholy and irritable in his temperament and impatient of restraint. While his companions were enjoying themselves at play, natural to their age, he would wander off by himself and spend hours, with no other company than his own thoughts. There is still to be seen in Corsica the isolated rock, known as “Napoleon’s Grotto.” Tradition tells us that this was the favourite resort of the child, destined to become the conqueror of the world. He, himself, has said: “In my infancy I was extremely headstrong; nothing ever awed me; nothing disconcerted me. I was quarrelsome, mischievous; I was afraid of nobody; I beat one; I scratched another; I made myself formidable to the whole family.”

At the age of ten Napoleon entered the Military School at Brienne, near Paris, where he remained upwards of five years. His career while at that school is very aptly and concisely told in the following verses.

Thornbury’s poem is written from the teacher’s point of view, which folds in a very stupid prejudice against Corsica. A more hagiographic assessment of the brilliant, raging boy opens Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), viewable at Dailymotion (here). A beautiful stretch of film, with music by Arthur Honegger. In the film, the teacher’s anti-Corsican prejudice makes us sympathize with Napoleon. Here are some screen captures of the classroom sequence: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 2, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Poems of Places 7

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From Poems of Places, vol. 17, Germany 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


I’ve spent the past month packing up my father’s library, in preparation for his move to Maine. He and his late wife were historians, both doing their principal work on the holocaust, and the vast majority of the books are on that and related topics. Going through them, I’ve paid particular attention to items that touch on family history: my father is a survivor, born in Berlin, then deported to Łódź with his family, and after that to Auschwitz and other camps. There are a great many books that touch on those places, and I find them evocative even when they don’t pertain precisely to my father’s experience — as in the book shown below, which does not appear to include the Jewish school my father attended in the 1930s.

berlinIn the midst of all this packing and browsing, it occurred to me to look up the family sites in Poems of Places, just to see if anything interesting was there. I’m a big believer in the value of bibliomancy: ever since learning about the medieval practice of using Virgil’s Aeneid as an oracle, I’ve paid attention to randomly chosen text; fortuitous juxtapositions are even better. It’s not that I believe in such oracles, only in the value of exploring their hermeneutic possibilities. I have greater respect for chance than divination; I trust in fortune, not fortunetelling.

juvens1All that said, very few of the places I looked up were represented. There are some evocative poems about Poland in the Russia volume, but none about Łódź or Oświęcim. Nor are there poems in the Germany volumes about the cities of Braunschweig, where my father was briefly a prisoner near the end of the war, or Brandenburg, where the family went to stay in the days after Kristallnacht. I did find a few interesting resonances with other cities, most notably the text below, Longfellow’s sole entry for Berlin.

I have to wonder what other choices Longfellow had, since the poem has almost nothing to do with Berlin, or even with Germany. It concerns a Greek statue from 300 BC commonly known as “The Praying Boy.” Of course, since the Nazis considered Jews a foreign element, I find it fitting that Longfellow’s choice for Berlin should concern an outsider, indeed a refugee, if only a refugee from antiquity. And if this interpretation seems forced, note that the poem itself presents the boy in just this way: as a survivor miraculously pulled from the mass grave of history.

A few minutes with Google unearths the poem’s prior publication in The Monthly Religious Magazine (1862), as well as a later publication in Every Other Sunday (1900), the latter as part of an article on the statue that inspired the poem. Given these pious contexts, it is not surprising that the author, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, was a minister. A Unitarian minister, part of the broader circle of New England intellectuals that included the Transcendentalists, with whom Frothingham was on friendly terms.

According to Frothingham’s headnote, “The Praying Boy” was dredged from the Tiber at the end of the seventeenth century, an origin central to the poem’s story, though it doesn’t seem to agree with what the curators in Berlin currently say about the statue. Indeed, according to some commentators, the statue is not even a depiction of prayer. They say the boy’s arms are raised because he is carrying a lost object. But whatever the statue’s original meaning, its altered meaning — the very fact that its meaning has altered — only adds to the sense that the bronze is alive, that it’s subject like any actual person to the vicissitudes of time. For this reason, the story of the boy’s recovery from the Tiber is as meaningful as his pose, whether that story is true or merely a myth.

If you look closely at the cover of Jüdische Schulen in Berlin, you’ll see that there’s a tall boy in the center of the crowd with his arms raised in a manner that rhymes with that of the statue. The meaning of the poses is of course different, but the natural gesture of upraised arms makes an evocative parallel, suggesting welcome and fellowship in one case, solitary thanks in the other:
Read the rest of this entry »

Poems of Places 5

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From Poems of Places, vol. 31, Oceanica: Australasia, Polynesia, and Miscellaneous Seas and Islands (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


Under the heading “Sandwich Islands,” Longfellow includes two poems in translation. Googling the authors’ names for some biographical information, I jumped to the conclusion that Longfellow had made a simple error of transposition, giving the title “Hawaiian National Anthem” to a lyric by Lilia K. Dominis instead of the actual anthem, by King Kalakaua, which is also included in the volume, under the title “Kamehameha Hymn” (both are translated by H. L. Sheldon).

Wikipedia told me that King Kalakaua “wrote Hawaii Pono’i, which is the state song of Hawaii today,” and further Googling brought me to recordings of “Hawaii Pono’i” identified as Hawaii’s national anthem. A quick comparison of translations showed that “Hawaii Pono’i”  was indeed the same poem as “Kamehameha Hymn.”

Rereading the two poems with this information in mind, it seemed silly that I had not noticed earlier how martial Longfellow’s “Hymn” sounds (it begins, “Hawaii! sea-girt land! / Strong for thy monarch stand”), or the hymn-like quality of his “Anthem” (“Eternal Father! mighty God! / Behold us, from thy blest abode”). A howler, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Poems of Places 4

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From Poems of Places, vol. 8, Scotland 3: Scotland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


In this instance I am going to give the entire poem (anyway, the entire poem as presented by Longfellow), as the full text is not available online; also because the poem is pretty delightful. A trek through the southern provinces of Sweden, with special attention paid to the wildness of the people and their way of life.  Terrifyingly rich mutton-steaks, biscuits only a hammer could break; men with frost-bit faces, dressed in “beast-skins”; houses made from upright trees, with rooms where fifty people all sleep together on beds of straw. Who needs Winnetou when there are Gothlanders around? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 29, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Poems of Places 3

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Khosru Observes Shirin Bathing, 1431

"Khosru Observes Shirin Bathing," miniature from the manuscript "Khamsa" by Nisami, 1431

From Poems of Places, vol. 23, Asia: Persia, India, Chinese Empire, Japan (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


On lofty Beysitoun the lingering sun
Looks down on ceaseless labors, long begun;
The mountain trembles to the echoing sound
Of falling rocks that from her sides rebound.
Each day, all respite, all repose, denied,
Without a pause the thundering strokes are plied;
The mist of night around the summits coils,
But still Ferhâd, the lover-artist, toils.
And still, the flashes of his axe between,
He sighs to every wind, “Alas, Shireen!”…

— opening of “Mount Beysitoun” by Nisami (tr. William Rounseville Alger)

The poem is prefaced with the following summary:

Ferhâd was a sculptor of transcendent genius, who, from his passionate love for Shireen, was a troublesome rival to Khosru. The king, to get rid of his presence by engaging him in an impossible task, promised that if he would, unaided, cut through the impassable mountain of Beysitoun a channel for a river, and hew all the masses of rock into statues, the lovely maid he adored should be the reward of his labors. The slave of love accepted the condition. The enamored statuary commenced his work, crying, every time he struck the rock, “Alas, Shireen!”

Written by Ben Friedlander

February 3, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Poems of Places 1

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From Poems of Places, vol. 24, Africa (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Egypt, Nubia, and Abysinnia]

…But still its waves their annual tribute bring,
And bless the parchéd wold with vernal bloom.
And pay obeisance at stern Memnon’s feet, —
The monarch grim of Thebes’s solitude,
Who to Imagination’s ear yet sings
The dirge notes of the nations as they die.

— from Seymour Green Wheeler Benjamin, “Thebes”

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 20, 2009 at 6:07 am