Hail Longfellow, well met!

The British journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin magnificently showed how Shakespeare changed everyday English speech. A staunch anglophile, Levin might not have admitted the smaller but still notable influence an American writer could have on the language.

In his book Enthusiasms (1983), Levin wrote:

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! But me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.”

When Levin died in 2004, Sir David Frost delivered the eulogy at a memorial service held in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. He described Levin as “a faithful crusader for tolerance and against injustice who had declared, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword – and much easier to write with.’”

NPG x20096; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, after  Unknown photographerHenry Wadsworth Longfellow (photo) was the first American poet to be honoured with a bust in Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey just two years after his death. Most people know him for the epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855) – damned by literary critics but extremely popular among Victorian readers. Many musicians and artists found inspiration in his depictions of Native American life.

The composer Antonín Dvořák was familiar with the work in Czech translation. In an article published in the New York Herald (15 December 1893), he said that the second movement of his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, was a “sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera … which will be based upon Longfellow’s Hiawatha” and that the third movement scherzo was “suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance.”

Longfellow’s literary reputation has seen its ups and downs and, as Charles C. Calhoun notes in his excellent biography Longfellow (2004): “The last generation of wretched school children to have been required to memorize ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ or ‘The Village Blacksmith’ has now reached retirement age.” Still, several memorable phrases have entered the English language:

“I shot an arrow into the air / It fell to earth, I knew not where” (The Arrow and the Song).
“Ships that pass in the night” (Tales of a Wayside Inn: The Theologian’s Tale)
“Footprints on the sands of time” (A Psalm of Life).
“Into each life some rain must fall” (The Rainy Day).
“A torn jacket is soon mended; but hard words bruise the heart of a child” (“Table-talk in Driftwood).
“There is a Reaper, whose name is Death” (The Reaper and the Flowers).
“Every heart has its secret sorrows” (Hyperion).
“A Lady with a Lamp shall stand” (Santa Filomena).
“The patter of little feet” (The Children’s Hour).
“This is the forest primeval” (Evangeline).
“All things come round to him who will but wait” (Tales of a Wayside Inn: The Student’s Tale).
“Lo! In the painted oriel of the West” (The Evening Star).

Longfellow was in every sense a Romantic poet. In 1861 he published a collection called The Seaside and the Fireside and in its Dedication he described hearing the voices of past authors whose words and books had been to him as friends. One line describes the legacy he may well have hoped for his own writings: “Never grow old, nor change, nor pass away!”


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