Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poetry as Empathy

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was the most beloved American poet of his time.  He was a professor of literature at Harvard and a tireless advocate and popularizer of poetry in America.  His epic poems The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline were widely read, and established him as one of the pre-eminent American poets.

One unifying theme in Longfellow's poetry is empathy.  He often wrote from the perspective of people who experienced oppression and discrimination in 19th century America--giving voice to the dreams, stories, and struggles of slaves, Native Americans, women, Catholics, and Jews--basically, all the groups of people whom white Protestant Americans tended to view as "other."  Through his empathic poetry, Longfellow appears to be striving for a more empathic American conscience.

In "The Slave's Dream" (1842), Longfellow writes from the perspective of an African-American slave.  The slave dreams of riding a horse in his native Africa, where he is a king over an abundant landscape:

"The forests, with the myriad tongues,
Shouted of liberty…
He did not feel the driver's whip,
Nor the burning heat of day."

Through the poem, we (the readers) feel the oppression of the slave, and his dreams of freedom.  This poem is all the more radical, because it was written at a time when human slavery was in full swing in America.

In "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" (1854), Longfellow describes his visit to a Jewish Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island, and imagines what the lives of the people buried there were like--their struggles and dreams.  He wonders:

"How came they here?  What burst of Christian hate;
What persecution, merciless, and blind,
Drove o'er the sea,--that desert, desolate--
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?"

For centuries, Jews were a persecuted people, even in America.  Often, facing brutal persecution (usually at the hands of Christians), they had to flee to new places.  In this poem, Longfellow, empathizes with their plight (and hopefully his readers will too).  When you empathize with someone, it becomes more difficult to discriminate against them.

Longfellow's epic poem Evangeline tells the tale of a French Canadian woman named Evangeline in the 1700s, whose people are driven from their homes in the brutal Expulsion of the Acadians, when the British (and American colonists) forced these people from their lands, burned their villages, and sent them into exile.  

"Scattered were they, like flakes of snow,
when the wind from the northeast
Strikes aslant through the fogs that darken
the Banks of Newfoundland.
Friendless, homeless, hopeless,
they wandered from city to city,
From the cold lakes of the North 
to sultry Southern savannas."

This is a based on a  real historical event.  Evangeline wanders throughout America, looking for a home, and for her long-lost lover, Gabriel.  Her story is one of sadness and suffering.  The people of Acadie were catholics, and were seen as "other" by the majority of Protestant Americans in the 19th century.  Reading "Evangeline," we feel empathy.  We feel her pain and suffering, and the injustice her people have faced.  

In "The Song of Hiawatha," another epic poem based on a Native American legend, Longfellow writes:

“I am weary of your quarrels,
Weary of your wars and bloodshed,
Weary of your prayers for vengeance,
Of your wranglings and dissensions”

Writing at a time of persecution for certain groups in America, Longfellow sought to use his literary art to evoke empathy and compassion in the minds and hearts of his readers.  This, I think, is a noble goal for a writer, in any time or place.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


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