Wednesday, September 12, 2012

There is a dark shape whispering in her ear - Henry Longfellow's fine Salem witch trial verse play

In 1868 Henry Longfellow published a pair of blank verse plays on Puritan subjects, “John Endicott” and “Giles Corey of the Salem Farms,” together The New England Tragedies, that may not be the best works of Longfellow I have encountered but come close.  Scholar Lawrence Buell has championed the plays, presenting them intact in the Penguin Classics Selected Poems, where they take up 40 percent of the pages.  Buell had to sacrifice a lot of other poems to keep them, but they are worth it.

“John Endicott” is about Puritan persecution of Quakers, while “Giles Corey” is of course about the Salem witch trials.  I think I will just write about the latter, since the story is more familiar and more shocking.  For example (Martha Corey is on trial for witchcraft, Hathorne is the prosecutor, Mary the crazed accuser):

Mary:  There is a dark shape whispering in her ear.
Hathorne:  What does it say to you?
Martha:                                                      I see no shape.
Hathorne:  Did you not hear it whisper?
Martha:                                                        I heard nothing.
Mary:  What torture!  Ah, what agony I suffer.  (Falls into swoon)  (IV.1)

The blanks are there to help see the blank verse lines.  You can see that this is not exactly Shakespeare, but the monosyllables and broken lines are certainly tense and dramatic enough.  “Giles Corey” is easily the most exciting Longfellow I have read, although the witch trial material is so sure-fire that it may be cheating.

Maybe I should mention that I have not read Arthur Miller’s Crucible, although I have seen the 1996 film adaptation which I assume was quite different.  Many of the elements of the film could have been lifted directly from Longfellow, although I doubt they were.  As drama, Longfellow’s conflicts were similarly interesting to those in the film; as language Longfellow takes the prize.

Because, after all, sometimes he does sidle up to Shakespeare:

Tituba:  Here's monk's-hood, that breeds fever in the blood;
And deadly nightshade, that makes men see ghosts;
And henbane, that will shake them with convulsions;
And meadow-saffron and black hellebore,
That rack the nerves, and puff the skin with dropsy;
And bitter-sweet, and briony, and eye-bright,
That cause eruptions, nosebleed, rheumatisms;
I know them, and the places where they hide
In field and meadow; and I know their secrets,
And gather them because they give me power
Over all men and women.  (I.1)

As much as I like this, though, re-reading it I can see the limits.  The rhythm is deft, the syllables juicy and fun to read aloud, but where is the surprise – where is the word that is out of place yet exactly right?  Something like “Witch's mummy, maw and gulf / Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark.”  Now I am whining that this expertly assembled and surprisingly entertaining Longfellow play is not Macbeth.  No, it is altogether plainer and saner, in both language and conception, and is merely Longfellow at his best, or close to it.

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