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.
Maybe the strangest thing about this ship and it’s sailing on, even as the maker of the poem has slipped away from public consciousness, was “Sail on, O Ship of State” being quoted in Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy,” his excellent ode to the need to continue the American experiment, however flawed, because it’s flawed.
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.