Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

The Seaside and the Fireside

Introductory Note

AFTER the publication of Evangeline, there was a period when Mr. Longfellow’s mood was not a poetic one. He pleased himself with writing the tale of Kavanagh, out there are frequent laments in his diary at his unproductiveness; that the golden days of October, usually so fruitful in verse, faded away and left no lines written; that his growing fame brought him numberless interruptions, and that the routine of his college work was becoming intolerable. Now and then a poem came to him, and he even made headway with a dramatic romance of the age of Louis XIV., but abandoned the work finally. It was two years after finishing Evangeline before he had accumulated sufficient material to warrant him in planning a new volume of poems. The Seaside and the Fireside was published in November, 1849, with The Building of the Ship as the leading piece.

The form of the poem was clearly suggested by Schiller’s Song of the Bell, which has more than once served poets as a model. Schiller may be said to have introduced a new artistic form, and Mr. Longfellow, in adopting the general scheme, showed his apprehension of its capacity by the skill with which he moved from one passage to another, using the short lines to express the quicker, more sudden, or hurried action, the longer to indicate lingering, moderate action or reflection. The oratorical character of the poem, so to speak, has always caught the ear, and it is interesting to read in the poet’s diary shortly after the publication of the book, this entry:—

“February 12, 1850. In the evening Mrs. Kemble read before the Mercantile Library Association, to an audience of more than three thousand, portions of As You Like It; then The Building of the Ship, standing out upon the platform, book in hand, trembling, palpitating, and weeping, and giving every word its true weight and emphasis. She prefaced the recital by a few words, to this effect; that when she first saw the poem, she desired to read it before a Boston audience; and she hoped she would be able to make every word audible to that great multitude.”

By this graceful action Mrs. Kemble may well have thrown into concrete form the lines with which Mr. Longfellow closed the sonnet commemorating her readings,—

  • O happy Poet!…
  • How must thy listening spirit now rejoice
  • To be interpreted by such a voice!
  • But it is to be suspected that the vast multitude was stirred to its depths not so much by the artistic completeness of the rendition, as by the impassioned burst with which the poem closes, and which fell upon no listless ears in the deep agitation of the eventful year 1850. Mr. Noah Brooks in his paper on Lincoln’s Imagination (Scribner’s Monthly, August, 1879) mentions that he found the President one day attracted by these stanzas, quoted in a political speech. “Knowing the whole poem,” he adds, “as one of my early exercises in recitation, I began, at his request, with the description of the launch of the ship, and repeated it to the end. As he listened to the last lines, his eyes filled with tears, and his cheeks were wet. He did not speak for some minutes, but finally said, with simplicity: ‘It is a wonderful gift to be able to stir men like that.’” Dr. William Everett, in his remarks before the Massachusetts Historical Society, after the death of Mr. Longfellow, called attention to the striking contrast in these spirited, hopeful lines to Horace’s timid, tremulous O navis.

    In his diary, under date of March 23, 1850, Mr. Longfellow writes: “Cast lead flat-irons for the children, to their great delight. C. in great and joyous excitement, which he showed by the most voluble speech. E. showed his only in his eyes, and looked on in silence. The casting was to them as grand as the casting of a bell to grown-up children. Why not write for them a Song of the Lead Flat-Iron?”