Happy Birthday, Henry W. Longfellow

In his lifetime, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most beloved poet in America, internationally acclaimed for his poetry, his translations (he spoke or read at least 12 languages), and his open-minded gentlemanly regard for all the cultures and visitors that crossed his path. He lived most of his adult life in Cambridge, MA, in a gorgeous house that dated back to before the Revolutionary War, and had in fact been the headquarters for Gen. George Washington during the siege of Boston in 1775-76. His house is now a National Park, and is still entirely furnished with the belongings of himself and his family.

I worked there for 2 seasons and fell utterly in love with Henry and his family, not to mention the rangers who work in the house. It’s a crying shame that cryptic and difficult seems to be the preference for modern poetry, because the musicality, optimism, and love for language with which Longfellow’s poems overflow are sadly underappreciated today. And in that spirit, I give you one of my favorite Henry poems, which I used to open and close my tour on “Longfellow: Creator of Memory.”

The Builders

All are architects of Fate,
Working in these walls of Time;
Some with massive deeds and great,
Some with ornaments of rhyme.

Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.

For the structure that we raise,
Time is with materials filled;
Our to-days and yesterdays
Are the blocks with which we build.

Truly shape and fashion these;
Leave no yawning gaps between;
Think not, because no man sees,
Such things will remain unseen.

In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods see everywhere.

Let us do our work as well,
Both the unseen and the seen;
Make the house, where Gods may dwell,
Beautiful, entire, and clean.

Else our lives are incomplete,
Standing in these walls of Time,
Broken stairways, where the feet
Stumble as they seek to climb.

Build to-day, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall to-morrow find its place.

Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky.

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