Some Penguin Classics, as we mentioned last time, are lost causes right out of the starting gate, and if such a thing applies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, how much more does it apply to this wonderful 1988 Penguin volume edited by Lawrence Buell, who wrote last 2014’s fantastic book The Dream of the Great American Novel and who, in his nice meaty Introduction to this Penguin Classics Selected Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writes much the same kind of thing that we read in the Introduction that lovely new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Robert Frost: that there were in effect two Longfellows, one serene and kindly, the other delving into deeper emotions, which ripple under the surface of many of his most anodyne-seeming poems.
“At the surface level,” Buell writes, “the modulated blandness of Longfellow’s verse easily anesthetizes us against looking for deeper effects. The sonorous meter, the proliferation of descriptive imagery, the gently didactic tone seemingly bespeak an uncomplicated muse.” But there are forces at work even in an “old chestnut” like “The Day is Done,” Buell points out, setting up more complicated dynamics between poet and reader than the sing-song exterior leads a casual reader to suspect. And in this volume, after reading such a sentiment, I naturally turned to the “old chestnut” in question:
The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strands of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose song gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
This Selected Poems volume is full of expertly-chosen gems like this one, as well as the whole of Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish and selections from Tales of a Wayside Inn and The Song of Hiawatha – it’s the perfect introductory volume to the breadth of the work of this poet who, as Buell writes, “dared to aspire to become a writer by vocation as opposed to hobby at a time when no one in America had ever made a living by poetry before.”
He certainly couldn’t make a living at it here in the 21st century, which is a melancholy thing to realize, but there’s this volume and a handful of others floating around, to snare the unwary.
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