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From the NS archive: But for the Grace of God

20 May 1977: Almost anybody afloat in a poem from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s complete works has reason to regret the fact.

By Arthur Marshall

In this piece from 1977, the broadcaster Arthur Marshall reviews the complete works of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Marshall, some of whose language may seem offensive now, is not an enthusiastic reader of the 848-page anthology, noting that “Wadsworth’s clever pen tended to run on”. He finds that the titles of some of the poems “hardly raise our spirits” – such as “The Lunatic Girl”, “Dirge over a Nameless Grave” and “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” – and their contents are no more cheery. In Wadsworth’s best-known poem “Excelsior”, a young inexperienced hiker meets his fate in the French Alps, “getting frozen stiff as a poker and dead as a doornail”. In the poems about battle ships, the victims “all sink to the ocean floor and find themselves with countless others”.

I have written before in these pages of the relief of not owning smarty boots possessions such as yachts, barbecues, floodlit patios, vast cars, split-level dwellings, roomfuls of modern “gear”, penthouse suites and heated open-air pools (always full of leaves and other foreign matter, despite all that scoop, scoop) and I suppose it’s nothing but self-satisfaction and smugness that make one pleased with one’s lot and utterly content not to have been almost anybody else you may care to mention in history’s pages. How very agitating to have been, say, either Nelson or Wellington, with all eyes on you and the country’s fate in your tiny trembling hands. How very worrying too to have been anyone with a Call or Cause and in particular Joan of Arc, heroine of a prize-winning entry in the New Statesman’s black joke competition (“How do you like your steak, Joan?”). But, in a strong field, I think I would least of all have cared to be almost anybody featured in the flowing poetical works of the American versifier known to us as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Wadsworth, I’m sorry to say, was given to spreading himself. Wadsworth’s clever pen tended to run on. The complete works, given to us by the Oxford University Press (no strangers to pens that run on) in the 1917 edition, comprises 848 pages, and an average page, taken from a lowering and interminable piece called “The Courtship of Miles Standish” contains about 450 words. So, when all is said and done, Longfellow presented the world with a cool 380,000 words or so of relentless poetry, and that is really an awful lot of words. And apart from this depressing lavishness, the titles of some of the poems hardly raise our spirits – “The Lunatic Girl”, “Dirge over a Nameless Grave”, “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp”, “Seaweed”, “Resignation” (to the will of God, rather than from the golf club), “Weariness”, “Death of Archbishop Turpin”, and “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”. And the personages that infest these gems are little better.

Take, for example, the young man in the famous party piece, “Excelsior”, a word meaning “higher still” and one which has immortalised Longfellow in Chambers. Despite expert local advice and solemn warnings, the youth, who was evidently a foreigner, walked, as you’ll recall, straight up a mountain side by night in the Alps (one pictures the young hothead in flimsy apres-ski kit) and pays the extreme penalty exacted by Jack Frost, getting frozen stiff as a poker and dead as a doornail. His climb was hardly made easy by his insistence on bearing with him a banner with the strange device “Excelsior”. The banner would offer considerable wind resistance and make for heavy going, and all this with weather conditions pointing to about 8 on the Beaufort Scale (mild gale). In addition, the pious monks of St Bernard, startled by the to them meaningless cry of “Excelsior” as they trooped out, sleepy-eyed, to attend early service (“Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?”), were put to considerable trouble, having to load up a St Bernard dog with a mini cask of brandy, push its reluctant body out into the snow, and tell it to start smelling.

Well then, almost anybody afloat in a Longfellow poem has reason to regret the fact. The good ship Hesperus was only one of several vividly described wrecks, but of course this one is especially heart-rending because of the presence on board of the captain’s little daughter (no name is given. What can it have been? Dawn? Tracy? Cindy-Lou?), an enchanting and understandably timorous blue-eyed mite, rightly apt to clasp her hands in prayer when things are getting dicey. Of the captain’s selfishness in taking her with him on the schooner I can hardly bring myself to speak. What is more, it is night-time and snowing, clouds have obscured the moon, there’s been a warning of Hurricane Hannah and the child should long since have been home and in bed and getting itself outside a glass of Grade A milk and a liberal handful of cookies.

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However, down they all sink to the ocean floor and find themselves with countless others, notably the entire crew of the Cumberland, Sir Humphrey Gilbert (who discovered, I hardly need to remind you, Newfoundland), and almost the whole of the French fleet of 1746. And before we leave this painful subject, let me censure our poet for heartlessness in the relish with which he describes the violent seas that downed the Hesperus. “Ho! Ho! the breakers roared!”, he writes. Whatever interpretation you may put on “Ho! Ho!”, the words allied to the verb “roar” (“How we all roared!”) are most unfortunate and imply derisive laughter.

There is insufficient space here for me to dwell on the many disadvantages of being the devout and black-eyed Evangeline in a piece of 1395 lines, sensibly entitled “Evangeline”, for Hiawatha calls, though not very enticingly. I have never, thank God, been in a wigwam but the inconveniences are fully imaginable – smells, smoke, gloom and woefully inadequate “toilet” arrangements. There was the added difficulty for Hiawatha in his boyhood and at his prep school of having to answer the age-old question, “I say, what does your pater do?”, with the information that his pater was the West Wind, which just blew from time to time. Ya, boo!

Further facts invite further mockery – a mother, deserted and dead, and a ghastly old, wrinkled granny called Nokomis (a daughter of the moon, apparently), who lives by the sea amid talkative pine-trees which keep on saying “Minne-wawa!”. The best that Nokomis can scare up for the feast after Hiawatha’s marriage to Laughing Water is sturgeon (no sign of the roes), pike (caught, heaven knows how, and cooked by Nokomis herself), pemican, buffalo marrow, bison hump and, as the sole starchy item, a little wild rice.

This unbalanced and thoroughly over-proteined treat was followed by a cabaret performance given by the fully resistible Pau-Puk-Keewis, very overdressed for the occasion in a doeskin shirt trimmed with ermine and with inserted panels of wampum, deerskin leggings hemmed with hedgehog quills, beaded mules, and with the whole rig covered in swan’s down and fox furs, complete with a feathered fan which he vigorously flapped, and with his shoulder length hair “parted like a woman’s”. Oh dear! The sooner we can get that one out of the wigwam and onto the psychiatrist’s couch the better. And I’m not too sure that that doesn’t go for Wadsworth too.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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