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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on birds, poetry, and immigration

On 26 February this year, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most popular poet America has ever had, turned 210. The lines from Longfellow everyone remembers, often without knowing who actually wrote them (“into each life a little rain must fall”; “Let us, then, be up and doing”; “Each thing in its place is best”), point to an author who wanted to help us live our lives, not exactly change them. Longfellow was, by critical consensus, not a political poet. A famous double portrait shows Longfellow seated next to his friend, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, exemplifying, as the caption stated, two separate realms, the “Poetry and Politics of New England.”

And yet, that’s precisely the point: Longfellow was friends with Sumner, one of the most outspoken politicians of this time, a fierce opponent of slavery and advocate for civil rights. Some of Longfellow’s most touching poems are tributes to Sumner, a man he admired and loved and, occasion, teased. In a hilarious episode recounted in one of Longfellow’s journals, Sumner had come for a visit at Craigie House, Longfellow’s residence in Cambridge. After dinner, they went for a walk in the garden, where the enthusiastic Sumner, more at home in the chambers of the Senate than the fields of Cambridge, spied a tethered calf. He enthusiastically approached the animal and grabbed the rope around its neck: “Come here! Come here!” Things happened very fast then: the calf jumped, the rope swept through the grass, and Longfellow saw a “brief glimmer of gray gaiters high in air, and prone lies the philanthropist in the sod.” The Longfellows laughed, but Sumner, rising bedraggled from the dirt, was not amused: “When a friend meets with an accident you ought not to laugh at him; you ought to pity and sympathize with him!”

Portrait of Senator Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Alexander Gardner (1821–1882), Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Longfellow’s Cambridge was still stubbornly rural. Gazing out his study window, past old trees, Longfellow would see the boats pass by on the Charles River, a shimmering band of water wending its silvery way through the lush meadows. In 1868, when a group of butchers from Brighton got together to plan the construction of a large slaughterhouse on the other bank of the Charles, Longfellow sprang into action and collected enough money from friends, relatives, and neighbors to buy the land. He gave it to Harvard University, asking that it be kept open for the free enjoyment of the public. By 1898, the Brighton Meadows had become the Charles River Speedway, used for horse and bicycle races.

Longfellow kept careful track of the changes in his environment. In one of his most prescient and, yes, political poems, “The Birds of Killingworth” (1863), a poem so outspoken that it would have made Sumner proud, he imagined what nature would be like if all the birds were gone. In Longfellow’s clever fable, the citizens of the fictitious New England town of Killingworth decide to rid their fields of all marauding birds. Profit is not the only motive at play. The Parson, for example, simply loves to kill: “His favorite pastime was to slay the deer / In summer on some Adirondack hill.” The pompous Squire is too full of himself to think about the consequences of his actions, while the ponderous Deacon is so proud of his ability to forecast the future that he’s not worried about inaction in the present. At a quickly convened town hall meeting, the only one willing to defend the birds is the local schoolteacher. “You slay them all! And wherefore?” The dismal vision that he paints for his listeners anticipates the dystopian story that opens Rachel Carson’s famous bestseller Silent Spring (1962): “Think of your woods and orchards without birds! / Of empty nests that cling to boughs and beams.” But he doesn’t convince anyone, and the “ceaseless fusillade of terror” commences, “a slaughter to be told in groans, not words.”

What is left is an ecological disaster site. The grounds have turned ashen, caterpillars rule the garden beds, and the beetles, with no one to keep them in check, have seized the farmers’ fields. Come spring, the anxious citizens of Killingworth have begun re-importing birds from elsewhere. At the end of the poem, the birds sing again, but to the experienced ear it seems as if they were mocking the people.

Longfellow’s poem tells a familiar story—unfettered greed taking precedence over ecological wisdom, with funds then lavished sheepishly on schemes that are intended to undo, however imperfectly, what should never have happened in the first place. The residents of Killingworth can still fix, sort of, what they foolishly destroyed. Today our chances to do the same diminish with each passing year. But Longfellow’s poem is more than a cautionary tale about environmental destruction. He was a poet, and it is no coincidence that he describes the assault on the birds of Killingworth, those troubadours of the treetops chanting their “madrigals of love,” as an attempt to do away with literature or, more generally, with everything that makes our lives beautiful and livable.

But there’s yet another level to Longfellow’s critique, which makes this old poem so chillingly modern. For so many of the birds that come to Killingworth each spring are visitors from far away, birds of passage, “speaking some unknown language strange and sweet.” They are foreigners, greeting us with welcome news from abroad. They are, Longfellow tells us, essential to our spiritual as well as material survival. Longfellow, who spoke ten languages fluently and read at least a dozen more, was famously hospitable to every foreigner who showed up at his house, from German revolutionaries and Italian nationalists to Cuban poets. He once joked that he was everyone’s “oncle d’Amérique.” But he in fact relished that role, and his quip masked a serious concern: that any limits imposed on immigration would limit and, indeed, kill the exciting linguistic and cultural variety that had made his native country so wonderfully exciting and, yes, worth living in.

Featured image credit: Drawing of Longfellow by William Edgar Marshall, c. 1881. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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