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In A Brown Study, 19 A

October 22, 2016

Our lives are rivers, gliding free, to that unfathomed boundless sea,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a translation of a Spanish poem, “Coplas de Manrique,” reminding us what we know about rivers is true about life. The poet swims in life’s currents and feels the poignancy of the swim.

Longfellow was the poet of his time who has drifted into ours. Americans are not poetry readers, but many know “The Village Blacksmith,”or “Hiawatha,” or  “The Midnight  Ride of Paul Revere, or “The Children’s Hour.” They are story poems that transcend time.

The state of “the murmuring pines and the hemlock,” Maine, was whittled from Massachusetts by the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to become the 23rd state, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) was born in Portland, the second of eight children of Stephen and Zilpah Longfellow. “Stephen and Henry, Elizabeth and Anne, Alex and Mary, and Sam” were brothers and sisters in a well-off, cultured, loving, and caring family. Their father was a prominent lawyer, and the history of both families went back beyond the American Revolution, before the British burned Falmouth, a settlement of 400 homes, now called Portland.

With an older brother, Stephen, to emulate, Henry easily mastered reading at the age of 3, and at the age of 5 was enrolled in a public school. Much younger than the others, he was soon transferred to a private school, and later to Portland Academy. At age 13 he published a poem in a local paper and at 14 he had mastered the requirements for entrance to Bowdoin College. in Brunswick, Maine. He entered as a sophomore in fall 1822.

Henry desired to be “eminent in something” – but not the pulpit, the law, or medicine, he wrote to his father who was paying the bills, adding a little joke about becoming a farmer. “The fact is,” he reported, ” I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centers on it.” He then submitted 3 poems to a magazine which paid him $17.00 for the three, minus $3.00 for a subscription.

He asked for his father’s support for a year at Harvard to prepare for the literary world. His father responded, “A literary life, to one who has the means of support must be very pleasant, and as you have not had the fortune to be born rich, you must adopt a profession which will afford you subsistence.” Then he added, “But you can go to Harvard if my finances will allow it.”

“Then our little Hiawatha / Learned of every bird its language, / learned their names and their secrets.” But, did he go? – the river flows—-             (to be contd.)

 

 

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