This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms. Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest. (Excerpt from “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie”)
Born on February 27, 1807, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a poet, educator, translator, and environmentalist. Longfellow is probably best known for his epic poems that created mythical tales based on historical events. (See “Paul Revere’s Ride”)
However, not all of his poems were mythical tales. Many of his poems were grounded in awareness of the natural world and often demonstrated his ecological knowledge.
Longfellow’s Nature Poetry
In a three-part series by the United States National Park Service (NPS) titled “Of Poetry and Nature: Longfellow’s Green Rhyme and Verse”, the NPS explores Longfellow’s connection to the land and how it influenced his writing.
Citing Longfellow’s 1832 “The Defence of Poetry,” the NPS explains that Longfellow encouraged his contemporary writers and artists to ground their work in the local environment and not to be influenced by European traditions. Longfellow is quoted as saying “let us have no more sky-larks and nightingales. For us they only warble in books. A painter might as well introduce an elephant or a rhinoceros into a New England landscape.” He then instructed artists to let their work reflect what can be “seen and not imagined.”
Warm and still is the summer night, As here by the river's brink I wander; White overhead are the stars, and white The glimmering lamps on the hillside yonder. Silent are all the sounds of day; Nothing I hear but the chirp of crickets, And the cry of the herons winging their way O'er the poet's house in the Elmwood thickets. Call to him, herons, as slowly you pass To your roosts in the haunts of the exiled thrushes, Sing him the song of the green morass; And the tides that water the reeds and rushes. (Excerpt from Longfellow's “The Herons of Elmwood”)
Longfellow’s Nature Advocacy
Longfellow was much more than just an advocate for capturing the beauty of nature in the written word. He also used his words to protect the land.
Charles C. Calhoun, a biographer of Longfellow, described Longfellow as, “an environmentalist before his time.” NPS explains, “During the mid-1800s, there was a surging movement to protect birds, which were dwindling in numbers due to their popularity for hunting as game and sport, as well as for harvesting their plumes for hats.” Longfellow, recognizing the peril of the local bird populations wrote “A Poet’s Tale; or The Birds of Killingworth”. In this poem, Longfellow tells the story of a school teacher who is describing the ecological impact of killing off the birds.
"Think of your woods and orchards without birds! Of empty nests that cling to boughs and beams As in an idiot's brain remembered words Hang empty 'mid the cobwebs of his dreams! Will bleat of flocks or bellowing of herds Make up for the lost music, when your teams Drag home the stingy harvest, and no more The feathered gleaners follow to your door? "What! would you rather see the incessant stir Of insects in the windrows of the hay, And hear the locust and the grasshopper Their melancholy hurdy-gurdies play? Is this more pleasant to you than the whir Of meadow-lark, and her sweet roundelay, Or twitter of little field-fares, as you take Your nooning in the shade of bush and brake? "You call them thieves and pillagers; but know, They are the wingéd wardens of your farms, Who from the cornfields drive the insidious foe, And from your harvests keep a hundred harms; Even the blackest of them all, the crow, Renders good service as your man-at-arms, Crushing the beetle in his coat of mail, And crying havoc on the slug and snail. (Excerpt from Longfellow's “A Poet’s Tale; or The Birds of Killingworth”)
Longfellow Protects The Land
Longfellow, who spent the majority of his adult life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was an avid protector of his local green spaces. NPS quotes Longfellow’s daughter, Alice, as saying her father:
“[W]as much interested in planting new trees and shrubs and in laying out an old-fashioned garden. The plan of the somewhat elaborate flower beds was his own design, surrounded by low borders of box, and filled with a variety of flowers. He was not a botanist nor a student of flowers, but he found a little amateur landscape gardening a very agreeable pastime.”
NPS continues by stating that Longfellow even took on local developers to protect wetlands along the Charles River. He succeeded in blocking the development by rallying his friends and supporters to purchase the land, which he eventually donated to Harvard University.
Longfellow And The Charles River
Longfellow, who spent a lot of time taking inspiration from the Charles River, said that the river was a “generous” teacher and one who he could never fully repay. Subsequently, Longfellow wrote “To The River Charles” as a way to express his gratitude.
Thou hast taught me, Silent River! Many a lesson, deep and long; Thou hast been a generous giver; I can give thee but a song. Oft in sadness and in illness, I have watched thy current glide, Till the beauty of its stillness Overflowed me, like a tide. And in better hours and brighter, When I saw thy waters gleam, I have felt my heart beat lighter, And leap onward with thy stream. (Excerpt from “To The River Charles”)
Longfellow died on March 24, 1882, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His poetry, and other written works, had a significant impact on American literature.
To learn more about Longfellow’s life and work you can visit:
- United States National Park Service’s “Of Poetry and Nature: Longfellow’s Green Rhyme and Verse”
- Maine Historical Society’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow online resource
- Poetry Foundation: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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