On the centennial of Longfellow’s birth, William Dean Howells wrote an appreciation of the poet’s work in The North American Review in which he praised the work but pointed out what he perceived as ad defect.
[I]t is interesting to note how, in certain of his most popular poems, which are often his best, the ethical strain seems an afterthought, and the moral is as plainly a tag as any text coming out of the mouth of a saint in an archaic picture. “The Village Blacksmith” is entirely a poem, if you leave off the needless last two stanzas in which it becomes a homily.
Struck by this claim, I went back to read that poem and to pay special heed to what Howells declared to be the useless final stanzas. Indeed, the first thirty-six lines concisely present images of sight and sound that clearly describe this man and place him within his community. Given the brevity of the portrayal, the reader feels that they know a great deal about the blacksmith from those lines. Then we come to the last twelve lines. Since you may not have that entire poem committed to memory, I’ll repeat those offending stanzas here.
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!
In retrospect, Howells has a great point. Do we really need to have a neon sign illuminated with an arrow saying, “Here’s the Point”? Consider a poem by a much less gifted artist, Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue,” which my father, late in his life, could not recite without tearing up. In that work, Field exhibits the confidence to simply paint the picture and trust in his own abilities and the cleverness of his reader to understand the message.
Longfellow, at least in this example, lacks the confidence that animated the best narrative writers of the Bible. In the spare stories of Genesis or Mark, we have sufficient details to understand. Rarely do the Biblical writers find themselves explaining the “moral of the story.” As I recall, in only one case, the Parable of the Sower, does Jesus explain the meaning behind his allegory.
Howell’s appreciation of Longfellow is intriguing for its contrast with his reputation in literary circles today. While my undergraduate American Literature survey completely ignored this writer, Howells held him up as comparing favorably with Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. What accounts for the drop in Longfellow’s stock? Or was Howells the one misjudging the poet’s merits? These are good questions that probably resist simple answers.
One thing that comes to mind is that Longfellow’s strengths lie in his form. Perhaps no American poet has ever shown such a facility for making complex verse forms sing. At his best, Frost does this, but Longfellow rarely fails to sound as if he as absolute control, working in a variety of forms. Form, it seems, warrants little respect today, perhaps because the poem has shifted its venue from the family sitting room to the college classroom.