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So. For National Poetry Month, I'm doing daily posts, each with poems in the public domain. Each poem is related somehow to the one that comes before it, by words, image, theme, form or poet. (Thus far, it's all been words, image and theme, but I reserve the right to move in mysterious ways.)

Coming on the heels of Emily Dickinson's somewhat sexy poem about being in the water, I got to thinking about the tide. I promise I'll move back onto dry land tomorrow, but for today, one of my favorite poems to read aloud (Okay - in my case, that's a long list, but still):

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler* calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

*hostler: A person responsible for the care and keeping of horses.

About the poem:

First, a word about form and composition.

This is an example of a rondeau, with a minor variation. A rondeau is a form taken from the French (hence the French name), and is a poem with 15 lines broken into 3 5-line stanzas. So far, so good. It takes the opening phrase of the poem, and uses it as a chorus of sorts, which appears as the final line of each stanza. Again, so far, so good (although many poets use only a portion of the first line, such as "The tide rises"). And usually, it only has two end rhymes. We’ll call the "chorus" line C, so a general rondeau has this format: aabbc aabbc aabbc (one of the best-known English poems using rondeau form is "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian war poet, John McCrae, which I posted during National Poetry Month in 2007. Here, Longfellow’s use of the complete first line makes the first stanza read aabba. But instead of adhering to the standard form, Longfellow uses different "B" couplets in the next two stanzas, so that the poem reads as aabba aacca aadda. Savvy?

Now, if you’re still with me, and you have a moment (and you’re someplace where you can do this without embarrassment), please humor me by reading at least one stanza out loud. The whole poem, if possible, but hey, I’ll take what you’re willing to give me.

While the poem is still in your mental ear, I want to talk once more about assonance and it’s friend, alliteration. Assonance is when neighboring words have the same (or similar) vowel sound, whereas alliteration involves repetition of consonants. Like Tennyson, whose "Crossing the Bar" I featured the other day, Longfellow was a complete master of assonance and alliteration, and all those "round tones"* and repeated consonants evoke a particular mood (long vowels take longer to say than short ones, and so compel a slower reading pace), make memorization and recitation possible, and propel the poem along, song-like.

A final note about form: In each stanza, the second line ends in the word "calls." First, a curlew, which is type of wading bird; then the sea; and finally, the hostler (sometimes spelled "ostler", since the "h" is silent), which is the name of person responsible for the care of horses.

Now, a word about meaning.

The poem sets out a fairly simple story: In the first stanza, a traveller hastens along the shore toward the town. In the second, night falls and, with the tide, the traveller’s footprints are wiped away. And in the third stanza, dawn comes. Life continues (in the form of the horses and hostler), but the traveller never returns.

Symbolically, this poem is usually seen as talking about death, as represented by the darkness, the effacement of the traveller’s footsteps, and the traveller’s non-return. And yet, in the end, life goes on, as I’ve already noted. The tide continues as before. The hostler continues about his job. And the horses are ready to charge forward, in part indicated by Longfellow’s decision to use the word "steed" instead of "horse". A horse is a horse (of course, of course), but a steed is a horse that is ready for some serious action, a horse with spirit (hence all the stamping and neighing). (Also, steed, stamp and stall brings out that alliteration we were talking about earlier in a way that horse, paw, and stall would not have.) And the tide rises, the tide falls.

About the poet: Longfellow was one of the five Fireside Poets, so-called because they were extremely popular, and many of their poems were written for the purpose of recitation (by fireside or elsewhere). He was so popular that popular 20th-century wisdom held that he must not have been particularly gifted. On the one hand, looking at his poems and his use of conventional forms, with little in the way of daring and experimentation to move the forms forward or break new ground, one can see why his skill was considered less than some others of his era who broke new poetic ground.

Longfellow wrote quite a bit about America, and is one of the quintessential "American" authors. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow wrote about American themes and stories, including Native Americans ("The Song of Hiawatha"), American history and tradition, and in some cases, as in "The Landlord’s Tale: Paul Revere’s Ride", the creation and/or perpetuation of American myth.

On the other hand, looking at some of his poems, such as "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" and "The Cross of Snow", I say "balderdash" to the notion that Longfellow wasn't particularly gifted. The man had a true gift for the type of poetry he wrote. And many of his poems stand the test of time, such as the one I’ve featured here today.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
Then I'd say he did his job well, yes?
Apr. 10th, 2009 11:45 am (UTC)
My favorite Longfellow is Evangeline. It is one of the few things I remember reading in school. Lovely epic poem.

Apr. 10th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
Do you have plans to go this summer?

I will go read "Evangeline".
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
no plans to go to Maine this year. *sigh*
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
I know, right?
Apr. 10th, 2009 01:21 pm (UTC)
You are so right about the music of this poem. I love reading it out loud! Even though it is a bit ominous it is so beautiful and someone soothing - like the power of the ocean. Relentless and terrifying but also strangely calming.
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:15 pm (UTC)
I usually don't find the ocean terrifying - ordinarily it's soothing, even though I'm conscious of its power. And I guess that's the exact effect this poem has on me - soothing, even though I'm conscious of its power.
Apr. 10th, 2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
I'm really not imagining a tattoo with a sailboat and the words "the tide rises, the tide falls" underneath it.
Not at all.
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
That would actually be pretty great, though. Not that you're imagining it.
Apr. 10th, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC)
A favorite
Good choice, Kelly. I think there is a lot more to Longfellow than many people think. Take my favorite couplet from this poem:

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;

Many people criticize Longfellow for his conventional thinking...and his perpetuation of traditional American and Christian myth. This poem can be read this way, too....the metaphor of the weary traveler proceeding toward his rest and reward in "Heaven-Town" or whatever. We can see the same kind of stuff in Pilgrim's Progress and other didactic allegorical works. However, in this wonderful second line of the couplet, Longfellow seems to recognize the attraction of the darkness, maybe even the pull of self-destruction, reflective of many of Poe's stories and poems--what he called "the imp of the perverse." Interestingly, we never see the traveler making it to the town. I like that about this poem.

Plus, that repetition of the word "sea" and those anapestic variations in the second line of that couplet...wow!

Plus....if we didn't have Henry Wadsworth we wouldn't have this poem:
I'm a poet,/ but I didn't know it./ My feet show it/ they're Longfellows!
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC)
Re: A favorite
You picked out my favorite lines. No surprise, just a nice thing to note. I also love the following line, with the "little waves with their soft white hands", but the two you picked (and especially the second, with "But the sea, the sea") are my very favorites.

I agree with you that the poem implies or at least allows for a inference of self-destruction, and I suppose it's one of the things that gives the poem additional resonance. Also, I do love watching the ocean, and I think the poem evokes that really well.
Apr. 10th, 2009 02:00 pm (UTC)
It's wonderful! I, too, love the "little waves with their soft white hands..." oh, my - beautiful!
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
Henry knew his way around a pretty phrase.
Apr. 10th, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)
I love, love, love that poem. Thanks for all these posts, Kelly. Even if I don't comment on each one (sorry!) I do read them and enjoy them! You rock!!
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Lisa! (Now to figure out where to go tomorrow . . . I really need to get back out of the water!)
Apr. 10th, 2009 02:20 pm (UTC)
I'm a poet and I know it, and my feet show it (they're Longfellows). They really are- size 10! :)
Seriously, this is a beautiful poem of his, and I love your thorough examination of it. I didn't realize it was a rondeau! I also agree that he was a very gifted poet!
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Kelly. You were the second person to quote the "Longfellows" poem in the comments, and I can't recall having heard it before. Too funny!

The rondeau analysis seemed clear to me when I really focused on the form of the poem, but I don't recall seeing it officially dubbed a rondeau by anyone else. Still, I don't think I'm incorrect.
Apr. 10th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
Experimental or not, what he did, he did well. Thanks for posting about him.

--John Mutford
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks John!
Jul. 10th, 2011 06:49 am (UTC)
long vowels take longer to say than short ones, and so compel a slower reading pace)

Historically, yes. A long vowel was a short vowel that you said for two beats instead of one (more or less). However, I would be surprised if you could find any backing for the statement that this holds true today.

Jul. 12th, 2011 01:52 pm (UTC)
I based my comment on personal observation, but am fascinated to learn that it was it actually backed by anything technical. I meant that saying the long letter A as in "ate" tends to take longer than the short letter A as in "at", since the long letter A is actually a diphthong. It tends to draw things out a bit longer and sound far less clipped - something that works in this Longfellow poem.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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