This project has gone on so long and produced so many pieces, so before February ends I thought I’d highlight five of the most popular pieces we’ve presented in past years that deal with Afro-American experience or history. The bold-faced start of each listing is a link to take you to the original Parlando Project post that presented this poem if you want to read my first reactions to it back then.
Lines to a Nasturtium by Anne Spencer. Another Afro-American poet who published before 1925’s The New Negro anthology, but who was not published much during the later half of her life. This poem may be her extant masterpiece. It still defeats me from extracting a simple prose “meaning” from it, but it’s just breath-takingly gorgeous in sound and a diffuse emotional impact remains even in its mystery.
The Witnesses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. What, a poem by a white guy? Well, white supremacy is — what, how does that term start? — a white problem. Here’s a 1841 poem about the notorious Middle Passage of African captives taken across the Atlantic written within the lifetime of those that would have chartered, manned, and benefited from that trade.
The Banjo Player by Fenton Johnson. Like Anne Spencer, Johnson published before 1925 and sometimes gets linked with the Harlem Renaissance — which is spiritually correct, but geographically misleading. He’s from, and spent a good deal of his life, in Chicago. He predates Langston Hughes in wanting to present ordinary Afro-Americans in the whole of their expression and experience without so much emphasis on the Talented Tenth. He’s also sometimes presented as an Afro-American radical-poet predating McKay and Hughes, though I still don’t know much about his actual political beliefs. This poem brings some humor to Black History Month, while coincidentally linking us to an historical reminder: the banjo is an Afro-American instrument first constructed by people that remembered African home fires and instruments.
Zalka Peetruza by Roy G. Dandridge. Another Midwesterner, this time from Cleveland Ohio, but as far as I’ve seen he’s not linked often to the Harlem Renaissance. If fact this piece is one of the Parlando Project pieces that has garnered outsized listenership without being a well-known poem or being written by a well-known poet. Perhaps folks liked the music I wrote for it, or maybe they just recognized it as a fine short poem that implies some good questions within its short character study. In my original write-up I thought it might stand being as well-known and discussed as Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s“We Wear the Mask.”
Portrait of Jean Toomer included in the 1925 “The New Negro” anthology that launched the Harlem Renaissance.
Her Lips Are Copper Wire by Jean Toomer. I’ll maintain this is one of the best short poems of love and desire ever written in English, and it would stand well with anything written in any other language too. Yes, I love me some Paul Eluard. Folks have rushed to read my pair of translations and accompanying thoughts on the young Pablo Neruda’sTwenty Love Poems. Kenneth Patchen can paint love in an unseeing world and break my heart. Yet. Yet. Toomer’s poem is as effective a surrealist work as any of that. It’s beautiful, mysterious, and charged — everything poetry should be.
Here’s a piece that will seem appropriate for Christmas, but to be exact, it’s actually early and only due by January 6th. Yes, even though your standard-issue Christmas decoration depicts a stable with baby Jesus, his parents, livestock, shepherds, a hanging heavenly star, and that exotic trio: the Three Kings, the Three Wise men, the Magi, the reviewers who will give King Herod a scathing no-star* Yelp review—never mind that creche, the traditional story has it that the three kings arrive later.
In this painting by Rubens it looks like the Magi have roadies, a security detail, and an all-access pass
There’s even a church holiday associated with this January date: Epiphany. And that date, the visit of the Magi, was also the endpoint of the English 12 Days of Christmas, something best remembered here in the U. S. via that crowded, livestock enriched, counting song.
But never you mind. On Christmas, angels appear on high, animals can talk, and Christians celebrate the coming of the Godhead as a small human baby. Let’s not sweat the small stuff.
I found this late Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Three Kings,” this week, and set about quickly seeing if I could turn it into a Parlando Project piece in time for Christmas. Turns out I can. And as a result, you all get a new Christmas carol today.
You don’t need a word-a-day calendar when you have poetry. “Kine” is an archaic word for cattle. As to the breath of cattle, well, carbon-neutral poetic license there. “Paraclete” is the consoling aspect of the Holy Spirit.
The full original text is longer than what I’ll perform. Here’s a link to the full poem in case you want to see what I started with. Figuring that performing the whole thing would run long (I like to keep Parlando Project pieces under 5 minutes) I looked to see if I could excerpt a scene from it, and rather quickly I found what I think is the heart of the piece. Even though the Three Kings are the title characters, and lots of detail on their story is included in Longfellow’s original, the real central character is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
So, I open with the Kings arriving and finding the incongruous royal, holy, baby in the stable. I love the stanza where Longfellow so touchingly, and humanly, recounts something many first-time parents will relate to: Mary with joy and worry watching the fragile miracle of her newborn’s breathing.
And then he follows that with the exact details of the gifts that the Magi are offering, efficiently detailing what they symbolize, ending with the myrrh and the note that it is for burial of the body. Which, as one might expect, is not what worried Mary wants to hear.
I close on Longfellow’s next-to-last stanza, where Mary comforts herself with the annunciation message she had heard from an angel before Jesus’ birth, which didn’t include the fine print of her baby’s eventual suffering, torture and execution.
Longfellow may have a reduced reputation as an effective poet, but particularly when I zoom in on the heart of this piece, I don’t think he comes off badly. I believe also that the aged Longfellow has his own life to draw on here, not just as a parent, but as someone who lost his first beloved wife in childbirth and his second beloved wife to a fire that he himself tried to smother out on her body.
Longfellow himself says the moment of his poem mixes the joy of life with the terror of death—yet oh my, I’ve gone and mixed Christmas joy with sorrowful things, but I will not remove the above, nor decorate it with some statement that sorrow is what makes joy more intense, or that neither is everlasting, or some elaborate reminder that this happy holiday has been set so near our Northern hemisphere’s shortest day and longest night to set it off with hope. As I say from time to time here, it’s not what I believe that is important—it’s what you believe.
*Astrologers giving out a no-star review is the ultimate burn for those guys. See also haruspex dishing on bad chicken take-out, palm readers who really don’t want you to give them a hand, and numerologists who’ll correct your bad arithmetic.
What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.
American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.
An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems
But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be too willing to overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.
In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon” I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,* an instrument from another continent.
All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.
Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.
*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.
A momentous week in the United States as election results are counted, and I’m frankly distracted from my normal creative routine. But as we wait, I can offer this piece by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that I presented as part of a celebration of American Independence Day last July.
Mixed metaphors: ships and trains. Minneapolis has a replica of Longfellow’s famous house, if you look closely outside it, you can find remnants of trolley tracks that now start and finish under the earth.
As we noted back then, Longfellow’s 19th century American poem was sent by Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill during the darkened days of WWII in the middle of the 20th. Maybe it speaks to Longfellow’s country here in our 21st century. The player to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State” is below.
Claude McKay led an outsiders’ life, Allen Ginsberg became a near celebrity bohemian whose outsider status changed over his life. The author of today’s poem in our Independence Day series was more well-known than Ginsberg in his day, and he was as far from being an outsider as any American poet could be. At one time, as many knew and read his poems as Edgar Guest’s, and he was a much better versifier.
So, do you know today’s poem from the above title, or from the name of the longer work from which it’s excerpted, “The Building of the Ship?” It’s highly unlikely that you would. The American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went from being the stuffy square’s square, the kind of writer that Modernists didn’t want to be, to a forgotten man, the writer that no one remembers even to reject. He was a civic poet, a poet’s role that no longer exists in white America. Along with a handful of other men, most of whom he knew, he sought to create an American poetry in the first half of the 19th century when the American experiment was still new. After all, when he was born in 1817, many who celebrated July 4th were around for the July 4th! And for much of his life Longfellow lived in a house that George Washington had lived in while commanding the American Revolutionary War troops.
George Washington lived here, and later so did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And a child named Darby Vassall. Haven’t heard of that last one? Read on.
In 1855, an elderly man visited that house where he had been born in 1769, meeting with Longfellow there. The man’s name was Darby Vassall, and this was the nature of his birth: he was born to enslaved Afro-Americans owned by the owners of that big house, which made him a slave by law from birth. When the Revolution came, his masters sided with the British, and so after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the owners skedaddled off to safer British-controlled territory. This left the house available for the new Revolutionary Army’s commander, General Washington, as spoils of war. Washington left his short-term smaller quarters and went to the big house to move in.
And here’s the story Darby Vassall liked to tell about meeting The Father of Our Country. There he was, six years old, and the revolution had by accident empirically freed him. He was swinging on the gate of the very house Longfellow now lived in, a time-honored childhood pastime then and now (see also sutures and Colles’ fracture.) General Washington, impressively tall for his time, and like the house’s absent owners, a rich slaveholder who traveled with an enslaved manservant, asked the boy if he would like to work for the new occupant, this man who’d become so honored and famous that people even now buy his portrait for something between 25 cents and a dollar.
Darby kept swinging, sizing up the tall white man, and then asked “How much are you paying?” Darby says Washington kind of lost interest in the conversation at that point—because, you know, slavery. He looked like a gentleman Darby later recounted, but “He was no gentleman.” Now that’s an Independence Day story!
We don’t know all Vassall told Longfellow about the house Longfellow now lived in, but the stories must have been interesting. The best-selling author blew off a meeting with his publisher to hear them all.
Have I forgotten to talk about Longfellow’s poem? No, this is another poem for our July 4th series. It comes at the end of a much longer poem Longfellow published in 1850, one that less than nobody reads today. The entire “The Building of the Ship” is an allegorical story of a venerable ship builder* who with the help of a crew including a younger apprentice builds a ship for a merchant, more magnificent than any the builder has ever built. While building the ship, the apprentice and the master ship builder’s daughter fall in love, and the old master promises that on the day the ship launches his daughter and the apprentice will be wed. After many supple verse lines detailing the construction of this ship,** it’s complete and it launches with a epithalamium in which the new and lovely ship is embraced as a bride by the timeless, older, gray sea.
If the poem ended there it’d remain a curio of interest to scholars today, a romance in a European style adapted with distinctive American details and accomplished in English verse with a difficult rhyming scheme that never grates or seems fake, the sort of thing that is easier to do in French or Italian.*** But Longfellow had an envoi of sorts. The ship, as all man-made things do, would eventually wear out and come to a wrecked end. A downbeat, look-at-oneself-through-the-grave warning that would also not be out of place in romanticism.
This whole poem, along with that ending was sent to the publishers.
Then Longfellow called it back. He had a revision, with an entirely new ending. You can read the old ending and the story of the last-minute revision here. Not only is the new ending upbeat, it seemed to retroactively change the poem that proceeded it. That boat-like-a-bride thing was still there, but the ship was named “The Union,” and in those manifests of the things that made the ship, the entire young country seems to be the source. The Union becomes not just a marital union, it becomes the United States.
Here’s where that civic poet role comes into play. In the dozen years leading up to the Civil War, the delicate balance of slavery’s evil in a democratic country was becoming harder and harder to keep from spilling, the compromises seeking to keep the country in existence more and more difficult to negotiate. Longfellow’s new envoi, the one that I perform today, may seem anodyne if considered as an abstract statement of patriotism, but in 1850 it was a considered second-draft meant to say that ideals of the American experiment should continue, needed to continue, because those ideals, those plans, however imperfectly applied are contagious (in a good non-Covid-19 way). Enough for a small 6-year-old to stand up to Washington for example.
Now if we are to consider inspirational Afro-American patriotism, the best story that is likely not true is that Winston Churchill once quoted in a public speech Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,”a Black man’s valiant ode to self-defense written after the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, but then applied during the darkest days of Great Britain standing against Nazi-occupied Europe. No one has such a transcript or recording. But there is a recording of Churchill reading a section of the abolitionist**** Longfellow’s envoi during that time in a speech of endurance in 1940.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State” is below. I’ll note that my performance has some flaws that I’m accepting for now in order to get this out in a timely manner, but the spirit is there. Happy 4th of July though it be just one date. May freedom and independence come to all of us. The revolution is plural.
*Though Longfellow lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts, he was born and educated in Maine, and even at this late hour he probably vies with Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay for the title of most well-known writer from Maine. Maine was a shipbuilding center in the 19th century and so the poems extended allegory of shipmaking was local color to Longfellow.
**I’m no expert here, but those who know about early 19th century American shipbuilding seem to feel that Longfellow got the details of ship design choices and construction right.
***Many prosody theorists think that rhyming English poetry is a mistake, as we have many fewer rhyming word-endings than other European languages. Longfellow’s poetry may not be to modern tastes, but one thing he did have was a non-forced and impressive “flow” in the hip-hop/rap sense.
****Among the favorable reviews from abolitionists: Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of “The Building of the Ship” “The most complete and artistic which he ever wrote.” Lincoln was said to have quoted the envoi lines in private to his secretary as the Civil War broke out—and broke down in tears before he could finish them.
I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?
Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?
If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?
So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May” today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.
The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.
Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.
And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.
Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).
So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May” sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.
I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.
When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”
Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.
So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?
Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**
The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.
“Snow-Flakes***” he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”
The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****” he says.
This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?
He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.
My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes” and part of “A Psalm of Life,” is available with the gadget below. Of if you are using a reader that doesn’t show the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s “America” over the band riffing.
**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel this month with my wife—or from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.
***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!
****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.
Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.
By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.
So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.
Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”* if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.
I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is a gift.
The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)” as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.
*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,” but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.
Here’s a piece to celebrate the announced discovery of the oldest intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea with its mast, rudder, and even a rower’s bench still in place. This can’t be fully romanced into being Ulysses’ ship—it’s centuries newer—but it does give us an object, beyond the stories, to remind us of ancient sea voyages.
“Tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” This vase depicts a ship like the one in the shipwreck.
Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of his best-known shorter works, and one I was a bit surprised to find still survives on the seabed of modern teaching syllabuses. I expect that many will read “Ulysses” as a complement to Tennyson’s American contemporary Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus”which we’ve featured here, as a pledge from one who is old and past their expected prime to continue to strive. After all, the most quoted section, the one I used, starts right off declaring “You and I are old.”
Well for someone my age or Dave’s—that is to say, old—this understanding might seem natural.* Indeed, as we recorded this last week, we too were not “that strength which in the old days.” But if one looks at Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” both biographically and mythologically, there are some surprises to be found.
Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that this was not some later work by a long-lived poet (as Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus” was), but instead the work of a 25-year-old? Odd that in our modern times, where we often expect authenticity in our poets, were the poem is expected to be biographically true to the author’s own experience. But of course, it isn’t rare for younger people to feel old and to feel an age is past. Tennyson chose to make his poem’s speaker aged because it did represent something he felt after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam (the same friend that his book-length epic elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.” was dedicated to).
If one looks at the poem and sets aside preconceptions, you may find, even in its oft-quoted concluding exhortations I used, an undercurrent from this inspiration. Not only is this Ulysses a hero well-past the age of his greatest physical vigor, he’s demonstrating in his concluding speech two other characteristics. He’s looking backward to look forward. He recalls his Homeric feats, acts that in that story literally had heroes that “Strove with Gods.” He reminds his crew, in effect, “Look, we are the generation that knew Achilles personally, not the modern folk who only read about him.” Which brings us to the subject of his crew, the men he’s addressing in this exhortation. Homer’s Odyssey is clear on what happens to them, after deadly battle followed by deadly mistakes: they were all killed, long before this poem begins. Like Tennyson after the death of his friend, those who know, those who shared and could testify to Ulysses soul, are gone. So, when he asks to set sail in that boat, there will be no rowing soldiers on those benches sitting well in order, except in his soul.
So, he’s crazy? Deluded? After all, he’s plainly talking to those that aren’t there. Well this is a poem, a work of art. Ulysses might never have existed, or might not have existed in the way we know him if not for Homer, who also might not have existed. And Tennyson and his friend Hallam? We can pretty well know they existed, even if anyone who could say of the eventually long-lived Tennyson “who we knew” is now dead, and so closely equal to the imagined. This is a poem about the hereness of the not-here.
I was telling my son the other day, “Death is the leading cure for immortality,” but sometimes the cure doesn’t take. I can’t say that the LYL Band’s performance of this part of “Ulysses” is immortal, but we do strive to seek to find and not to yield. Hear it here:
Remember back a few posts ago when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.
Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.
Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.
Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.
This eroded statue of Longfellow stands, missing its hands, in a little visited corner of an otherwise busy Minneapolis park, somehow saying something about how Longfellow is viewed today.
I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.” I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl” instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.
I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl” here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again. The player is below.