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The Tide Turns For Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By Bonnie Mason

If Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most popular poet of the 19th century, were alive today, two-hundred years after his birth in Portland, Maine--would he get published?

Yes, says poet Annie Finch, director, Stonecoast Brief-Residency MFA in Creative Writing and professor of English at the University of Southern Maine.

"Longfellow would have an easier time getting published now than at any time in the last half-century. The reason is that there is more of an audience for musical, crafted and accessible poetry than at any time since the height of Modernism."

Christoph Irmscher, professor of English at Indiana University, agrees. "Prominent poets, including Pinsky, McClatchy, Richard Wilbur, and more recently Mark Jarman, have voiced their interest and support for Longfellow and implicitly, the type of poetry he represents."

Longfellow wrote with an ear on the music of the universe--and crafted and marketed his work so that it was understandable, accessible and affordable for his readers. This, of course, made him successful.

Like his poem, "The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls," Longfellow's fame rose to high tide in his thirties and forties and remained there for most of his life, but several years before his death, the tide began to recede.

Today, two highly respected scholars have helped turn the tide again: Charles C. Calhoun, with the first biography of Longfellow in 40 years, Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (Beacon Press, 2004) and Christoph Irmscher, with Longfellow Redux (University of Illinois Press, 2006), a study of Longfellow's work that provides new insights into its transnational, multi-cultural value.

"For Longfellow," says Richard D'Abate, Executive Director of Maine Historical Society, "there was never a contradiction between being an American and being a citizen of the world."

"There are many mansions in the house of poetry," Dr. Irmscher says and some of them, after having fallen into disrepair have recently beome habitable again now that the modernist grip on literary history has been loosened, and obscurity is no longer criterion an acceptable poem needs to fulfill."

Two-hundred years after his birth on February 27, 1807, the Maine Historical Society in Portland and Longfellow Days in Brunswick celebrated his birth with musical, theatrical, and literary events.

The guiding light behind Brunswick's Longfellow Days was Maryli Tiemann, a former English teacher, drama teacher, and adjunct instructor at Bowdoin College who now is program director at Maine Campus Compact in Lewiston.

"I felt inspired to gather folks together to honor this man who spent such formative years in Maine and in Brunswick. He's frequently pictured as an old gray beard, but we had the spirited 15 year old, who skipped chapel or ran to class-both those classes he took-and those he taught. Brunswick was also the home of his first romance, as a newlywed-those moments that shape who one becomes."

Claudia Knox, who retired to Brunswick from the Washington DC area, joined Tiemann as co-chair of Longfellow Days. She is also a former English teacher, one whose career led ultimately via Jordan and the Ivory Coast to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Her interest in Brunswick's downtown and her background with community arts organizations led her to unite with representatives from Bowdoin College, Pjepscot Historical Society, and many area businesses, churches, andschools to help create the community-building event that Longfellow Days has become.

Perhaps Longfellow's gift to us as writers, says Christoph Irmscher, is that he "dared to think of literature as a civic obligation, as something to be consumed and enjoyed by readers from all walks of life. At the same time he was fluent in multiple languages and intimately familiar with the works of writers from all over the world. He gave, through his poems as well as his translations, an international dimension to American literature which it has never quite regained since."

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