Tuesday, March 25, 2008

a sky full of stars

Ralph Waldo Emerson complained that America -- the generation of Americans born after Independence -- needed to find its own voice, needed to stop parroting English masters. And many came who did just that, men such as Walt Whitman and Emerson himself. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was of this generation, but his originality quotient was low. His epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, ought to be a soaring, mythic tribute to native Americans, but is instead an embarrassment of sentimentality written in an attempt at native American dance meter which comes off as military-march time. (By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, / Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.)

So it surprises me to find that I can not only read but actually like one of his poems. Maybe that's because it speaks to me in my present situation. Not great, but quite good. He wrote:
What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

This comes from Morituri Salutamus.

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