Remembering Longfellow

Last week I recalled my mother reading me Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when I was very young. I was driving home, thinking back to how long I’d been interested in poetry, wondering where my roots in it originated, why I became drawn to it in the first place, as it’s something of an old-fashioned art form. Almost from nowhere a title came to mind, ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’, along with the memory of it’s lines and the sound of hearing them read aloud.

I knew it had been my mom who read them to me. And I knew at last (or again) where my introduction came from.

Fortunately I also remembered I still had her old volume, patiently waiting on the top shelf of a bookcase. The book, Longfellow’s Poems, Household Edition of the Poets, is time-worn, to say the least. Many of the pages are loose, sprung free of their binding. Corners are torn from being dog-eared over 30 years ago, and the paper is yellow and frail now. Age-related damage is to be expected, I suppose, after so long.

What surprised me was how sharp the print still appeared. Even the pen marks I made, circling favorite titles and marking passages, seemed fresh, like I’d only written it a year ago. Penciled notes my mom must have made in the margins were less clear, but still legible and present after all this time.

I recognized my childish scrawl. The sight of my writing alongside hers brought memories to heart and tears to my eyes. Right away I was transported back to our old house, her bedroom, and the bookshelf where she kept the volume. I was still small enough to sleep in her bed sometimes then, and I felt again the sense of falling asleep to the sound of her reading to me.

Although if you read ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ it’s not exactly a happy poem to lull a child to sleep: A maiden is lashed to the mast of her father’s ship while he tries to captain it through a terrible storm. You can probably guess how that goes. I can still hear the sounds of the lines though, and being mesmerized at the worlds both strange and sad – and so different from my own– they drew me into.

Not many of the poems are happy, however. I read through many of them again, and in most of Longfellow’s work, tragedy seems almost universally woven into the stanzas alongside any notions of joy.

Another poem I loved and marked was ‘Pegasus in Pound.’ This one is a bit happier. It’s about the mythological horse landing in the forest near a small village and being captured by the villagers. He is devastated by his containment, confused at the villagers’ desire to imprison him. Fortunately he makes his way free and escapes into the heavens again.

The language and imagery is beautiful (most of Longfellow’s poems rhyme), and I remembered why I must have loved this poem so much as a child. Horses, unicorns, pegasuses– anything to do with them was magical to me then. But I also loved the sound of his voice. Longfellow is known for his consideration of how a poem sounds to a reader, not just how it is constructed. From Wikipedia: “Much of his work is recognized for its melody-like musicality. As he says, “what a writer asks of his reader is not so much to like as to listen”.”

There’s a sense of movement and sound I like to have in my own writing and my poetry. Almost as if the two can be inseparable sometimes. I must have learned an appreciation for that, as well, from the beginning.

Some kids got bedtime stories (and I do recall a few of those), but I guess I got poetry, too. I loved uncovering that memory, and finding I still have the old volume of Longfellow’s poetry to revisit now and then. I also found it comforting to touch something I shared from childhood with my mother, something so close back then that still exists for me today. And soon I’ll be reading my own words out loud for others to hear and maybe start a journey of their own.

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