It’s always the same story when I return to boring, stuffy, old-fashioned, simple-minded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “This is a lot better than I expected.” You think I would learn sometime, although some of the fault might lie with Longfellow.
In the plus column, Longfellow is among the deftest versifiers to ever write in English; the biggest minus is that he had no ideas of any originality so expended much of his talent on well-made versions of banalities. But in the end it is the exceptions that survive. So I will celebrate Book Blogger Appreciation Week by writing about some of Longfellow’s exceptions. Since no one wants to read about Longfellow, the posts will be eminently skippable and skimmable, thus allowing my valued readers to get off the dang internet earlier than usual. No, no, thank you!
In “The Birds of Killingworth,” a New England town decides it has had enough with their thievery and racket and votes to kill all the birds in town. I see that two of the poems eight pages are devoted to a defense of the birds, not all that interesting. No, it is the massacre that is interesting:
And so the dreadful massacre began;
O’er fields and orchards, and o’er woodland crests,
The ceaseless fusillade of terror ran.
Dead fell the birds, with blood-stains on their breasts,
Or wounded crept away from sight of man,
While the young died of famine in their nests;
A slaughter to be told in groans, not words,
The very Saint Bartholomew of Birds!
As much as I enjoy singing along with Longfellow, he also spurs me to argue with him, and what is the point of that, so I will just say that the best lines are more in the middle of the stanza than at the beginning or end, the Fs and Ds and Ss (“ceaseless fusillade”), and the horrible image of the crawling wounded birds.
Anyway, the best part is what happens without the birds, a Dantean hell on earth, some of it ecologically plausible, some more fanciful:
The Summer came, and all the birds were dead;
The days were like hot coals; the very ground
Was burned to ashes; in the orchards fed
Myriads of caterpillars, and around
The cultivated fields and garden-beds
Hosts of devouring insects crawled, and found
No foe to check their march, till they had made
The land a desert without leaf or shade.
Actually, this is the best part of the best part:
From the trees spun down
The canker-worms upon the passers-by,
Upon each woman’s bonnet, shawl and gown,
Who shook them off with just a little cry;
Longfellow does not have a satisfactory ending to the tale, so I will just spend a minute enjoying the Song of the Canker-worms. As the narrator said in that Jacques Poulin novel, “we must embrace the author’s style.” I assume that the current cohort of eco-critics have made great use of this surprising environmental parable in verse.
Actually, I could look that up in the MLA International Bibliography. Hmm, one article, “The Poetics of Bird Defense in America, 1860-1918” (in Poetry After Cultural Studies, 2011), Angela Sorby. One article since 1947. Listen, eco-critics, you’re missing a sure thing here. Sheesh.