January 18, 2010

One may sing for the delight of singing

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote to Annie Adams Fields, wife of his publisher James T. Fields, on January 18, 1864. Mrs. Fields had written a "charming note" praising Longfellow's poetry. By then a major poet and the first American earning a living solely through poetry, Longfellow held on to a humility that only grew in his later years. Here is his modest thank-you to Mrs. Fields:

It certainly is a great pleasure to give pleasure to others, and particularly to those whom we wish to please. Though one may sing for the delight of singing, I think it increases the delight to know that the song has been heard and liked.

Longfellow often referred to his poems as "songs" — a fairly appropriate term because of his many ballads and lyric poems. In this letter, Longfellow says that he likes writing poetry for the sake of writing it, but he feels much better knowing that a friend has read it too. It reminds me of one of his earlier poems, one which includes one of his most famous lines (one which few realize is Longfellow's). It is called "The Arrow and the Song."

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

 *The portrait above is by Longfellow's close friend George P. A. Healey.

1 comment:

  1. Over breakfast today I was discussing how living in the city (and without the private salon of a car) inhibits my ability to sing out loud without social repercussion. With this post, I resolve to sing throughout the day-- if only over the internet.