"Listen my children..."

"Your wooden arm you hold outstretched to shake with passers-by."

And you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere….” Thanks to the legend-building of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, LL.D. 1859, we all remember Revere’s role as messenger. If we’ve forgotten the poetic details, we can refresh our memories in Sanders Theatre on March 25 at a celebration of Longfellow’s bicentennial. As part of the gala, Charles Ansbacher will conduct the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in composer Julian Wachner’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Perhaps the narrator will be Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54, who has recorded the work on CD with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

Courtesy of Harvard College Library
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow’s actual birthday is February 27, but the celebration of it got under way locally in September and will stretch nationwide throughout 2007. For details, see www.longfellow200.org. “It’s like a tsunami of events— and that’s good,” says James M. Shea, museum manager at the Longfellow National Historic Site on Brattle Street, Cambridge, former home of the poet, Harvard’s Smith professor of modern languages.

The Sanders bash will occur just where a standing-room-only crowd marked the poet’s centennial. In 1907 a chorus from the public schools sang the cantata The Village Blacksmith. Professor Charles Eliot Norton declared that in the almost exactly 25 years since the death in 1882 of the author of The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline, “there has been no change in the hold of Longfellow on the hearts of men, and today bears witness to the truth of [James Russell] Lowell’s prophecy that the next age should double the praise that his own had lavished on the poet.”

But when Longfellow turned 150 in 1957, there was only a muted celebration at Harvard, no gala. The Crimson canvassed professors and reported that Howard Mumford Jones ascribed “Longfellow’s present lack of popularity to his lack of intellectual depth.” Perry Miller “stated that Longfellow was immensely important in American literature but that he was a ‘simple-minded chap.’”

Another highlight of this year’s commemoration is a major exhibit through April 21 at Houghton Library, “Public Poet, Private Man.” From it emerges, as curator of modern books and manuscripts Leslie Morris observes, a portrait of both a devoted friend and family man and America’s first celebrity poet, who actually made a living from writing. In December, Morris led Primus into the Houghton stacks for a preview of objects. On the manuscript of Evangeline, an advance reader cautioned Longfellow not to use the pluperfect in a certain line (he did not take the advice). Two manuscripts he wrote for his children have charming drawings by him about Peter Quince, who took a balloon ride, and Peter Piper, who went whaling. Lent by the Longfellow House are five pencils, some very short, each with a label by the great man telling which poems he wrote with that pencil.

The exhibit’s guest curator, and author of its fat catalog, is Christoph Irmscher, professor of English at Indiana University. For the poet’s decline in popularity, he largely blames English departments. These, he says in an interview in a Longfellow House publication, “traditionally, have been more interested in poetry that requires you to do a lot of work to understand it fully. Longfellow speaks to us immediately.”

The man with a lion’s mane of hair and great white beard wrote poems that people of Morris’s generation, and certainly of Primus’s, were apt to memorize snatches of. Right there in the Houghton stacks, Morris demonstrated the persistence of memory. With feeling, she recited: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water,/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,/ Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis./Dark behind it rose the forest….”  

~Primus V

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