November 17, 2010

Longfellow: Very stiff, remarkably stiff

The issue of the Portland Gazette for November 17, 1820, included a short poem signed "HENRY." It carried the title "The Battle for Lovell's Pond," and today is considered the first published poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; he was 13 years old.

Cold, cold is the north wind and rude is the blast
That sweeps like a hurricane loudly and fast,
As it moans through the tall waving pines lone and drear,
Sighs a requiem sad o'er the warrior's bier.

The war-whoop is still, and the savage's yell
Has sunk into silence along the wild dell;
The din of the battle, the tumult, is o'er,
And the war-clarion's voice is now heard no more.

The warriors that fought for their country, and bled,
Have sunk to their rest; the damp earth is their bed;
No stone tells the place where their ashes repose,
Nor points out the spot from the graves of their foes.

They died in their glory, surrounded by fame,
And Victory's loud trump their death did proclaim;
They are dead; but they live in each Patriot's breast,
And their names are engraven on honor's bright crest.

The story goes that young Longfellow had dropped off the poem at the Gazette office without anyone knowing. The day it was published, he visited a friend whose father (a judge) was reading the newspaper, including the poem. "Very stiff, remarkably stiff," the judge concluded aloud. "Moreover, it is all borrowed, every word of it." The aspiring poet was mortified — but the criticism was not entirely unjust. Just a year earlier, a similar poem on the same topic (a 1725 battle) was published. Longfellow would face similar accusations of imitation later in his career as well.

* For more information, I recommend Charles Calhoun's very readable biography Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (2005). The image above is Longfellow, nearly unrecognizable in his youth. The artist, Thomas Badger, painted it circa 1829, when Longfellow was about 22. Courtesy of The Maine Memory Network, the Maine Historical Society (which oversees Longfellow's boyhood home in Portland, Maine).


  1. Hello Rob,

    Nice mix of two fledgling poets' outputs within a weeks' worth of postings: i.e., Pound (11/7) and Longfellow (today). It's interesting to read the youthful writings of two highly different poets who went on to greater things. Thanks for shaking-it-up and keeping us thinking.

    And once again--everybody borrows: it's what a writer does with that borrowing that matters.

  2. I'm glad someone noticed the close proximity of posts on Pound's and Longfellow's first published poems! November is shaping up to be a good month with "call backs" to other recent posts. More to come, too!


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