26 January 2007

Poetry Friday: And You Don't Know It

The illustration to the left, titled "Mr. Peter Piper sees a shark," comes from a well-known American poet. Indeed, this artist was without doubt the most popular American poet of the late 1800s, when people quoted verse to express their emotions the way we now crank up popular songs.

This little drawing comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of "Paul Revere's Ride," "The Children's Hour," Hiawatha, Evangeline, and much more. He drew Mr. Piper and his fishy friend in a tale he wrote for his children (he had six, five of whom lived to adulthood). The Houghton Library at Harvard University, which owns former professor Longfellow's papers, opened a display on his life and work this month. Its online component consists of these drawings and similar ones about "Mr. Peter Quince," who has trouble with a balloon.

Longfellow was born on 27 Feb 1807, so this year is his bicentennial, with various events planned around the country. He wrote for a wide audience, but his work has come to be associated with children, for a number of reasons:

  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s thousands of American children were taught to memorize long stretches of Longfellow poetry. (Sens. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd can still recite all of "Paul Revere's Ride.")
  • Rhyming, metrical verse was deemed old-fashioned by modernist poets, but still dominates in children's literature, for good reasons.
  • Some of Longfellow's shorter poems have been illustrated and published for children in fine picture-book editions.
But in his lifetime, Longfellow was the poet for everyone.

Indeed, Longfellow was such a dominant literary voice that he coined several phrases that seem to have come down to us from the heavens: "Ships that pass in the night"; "Into each life some rain must fall"; "All things come round to him who will but wait"; "Peace on earth, good will to men." Yes, somebody actually wrote those.

Another little item Longfellow created for his children, specifically for daughter Edith after a bad hair day, was:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
Longfellow never meant this to leave the household, but after it got into print he admitted to writing it. Using a parental metaphor, he lamented how juvenile verses "cling to one's skirt with a terrible grasp."


Nancy said...

I love the "Jemima" poem. My mother or father used to recite it to me when I was little.

I also love reading many of Longfellow's poems out loud. His have the perfect cadence for recitation.

Becky said...

Just last week I bought a secondhand copy of "Hiawatha" illustrated by Susan Jeffers, which my kids are enjoying. And I'm planning to read the Ted Rand illustrated version of "Revere's Ride" with them next week, to compare with Gail Haley's "Jack Jouett's Ride" (prose, not poetry, but with nifty engravings); poor Jack would probably be better known with his own Longfellow to immortalize the ride.

Yes, they're going memorize selections of each (and Evangeline later on, since they're good Canadians too). But then we're kind of old-fashioned in our schooling.

They're going to like the addition of Longfellow's Peters Piper and Quince. Thanks.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the "Jemima" part of the poem about a little girl with a little curl was written later, by someone else. That might be another measure of Longfellow's popularity: that he even inspired "fanfiction"!

You're right that he's best read aloud. He wrote with that manner of sharing poems in mind, and it produces quite a different effect from the modernists who came after him and were writing to be read silently.

J. L. Bell said...

Boston 1775 has more about how Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" compares to the history of 18-19 April 1775, and about other Revolutionary riders William Dawes and Sybil Ludington.

J. L. Bell said...

The Harvard Gazette now offers an online article about the Houghton Library exhibit, with more pictures of the books, letters, and artifacts on display.

Anonymous said...

Longfellow was also quite versatile. He wrote two, full-length, love-stories in a Shakespearean-like style, Evangeline (1847),which was referenced above, and The Courtship of Miles Standish.(1858) They are similar to modern screen-plays, and are among the most poignant epic love-poems ever written. Archaic language obscured both romances for decades, but the latter, The Courtship has just been restored in modern English as The Romance of Pilgrims, with historic illustrations. (Search the blogs of Google for excerpts.)
Evangeline, considered the Romeo and Juliet of American literature, still awaits a restorer.

Regards, David B., editor of The Romance of Pilgrims