Back to Longfellow

For the past ten years or so, I've been trying to catch a glimpse of the world through the eyes of the poets, particularly American poets of the 19th century. I'm interested in what they make of their world. This month, I dug back into Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, picking up where I had left off, with Poems 1859-63. I'm struck again, as I was earlier when I reread poems like The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline, by the detail of description that he puts into the precision of meter and rhyme - and he doesn't skip a beat.

In Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow's bow to Chaucer, the several characters gathered around the fireside are each invited to tell a story - this is how The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere came to be. Here is the opening verse:

One Autumn night, in Sudbury town,
Across the meadows bare and brown,
The windows of the wayside inn
Gleamed red with fire-light through the leaves
Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves
Their crimson curtains rent and thin.

It is classic Longfellow, with meter and rhyme and details so sharp you can feel the chill of late autumn and smell woodsmoke from the chimney.

But then I read Snowflakes:

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

There is meter and rhyme here as well, but it is broken. Almost modern, in its stuttered rhythm. There's nothing cozy about it. These are the same bare, brown fields that lead to the Wayside Inn, but the cozy inn isn't there. Maybe the War has started, or perhaps his wife has just died, as she did in an accident with fire in 1861. Forsaken, troubled, despair. I suspect the second option.