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An Analysis Of The Indomitable Spirit Of Man In Henry Wadsworth Longfe

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Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, once stated that the "world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward" (Daily Quotations Network). Man has always struggled with uncontrollable aspects of his environment, but his ability to overcome these seemingly indomitable obstacles has earned recognition from numerous classical writers and poets, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. "One of the real American Poets of yesterday" (Montiero, Preface), Longfellow elaborates on man's perpetual struggle with life and nature in his poetry. In "A Psalm of Life," "The Village Blacksmith," and "The Rainy Day," Longfellow explores many facets of man's unyielding will.

Born into a prominent family on February 27, 1807, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up in the bustling town of Portland, Maine. His parents Stephen and Zilpah Longfellow provided a strong, but refined, Puritan background, while encouraging Henry to excel in academics (Wagenknecht 2). Longfellow's education began early, when he was enrolled in an "old-fashioned 'dame' school" (Wagenknecht 4) at the age of three. His schooling continued in 1815 with his entrance into the Portland Academy. At the age of fourteen, Longfellow entered Bowdoin College where his academic brilliance earned him a position of fourth in a graduating class of thirty-eight (Williams, Preface). Stephen Longfellow encouraged his son to pursue a stable career in law, but Longfellow's love of words led him to accept the "newly established professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin College" (Wagenknecht 3). He traveled extensively in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany to refine his language skills in preparation for his six-year long professorship.

Harvard University offered Longfellow the "Smith Professorship of French and Spanish" in 1834 and he, again, traveled to Europe (Wagenknecht 5). His wife of four years, Mary Storer Potter, accompanied him on the trip. While they were in the Netherlands, Mary "suffered a miscarriage" and died weeks later from the extreme trauma (Wagenknecht 5). Longfellow spent the winter grieving, but met his second wife, Fanny Appleton, in Switzerland the next spring. They were married in the summer of 1843, and Fanny bore nine children before her tragic death on July 9, 1861. He grieved tremendously for his wife of eighteen years, but took comfort in their children and his memories of their life together. Longfellow continued to write poetry and in 1868 he received honorary degrees at Oxford and Cambridge from Queen Victoria. His health began to fail in 1881, and he died of peritonitis on March 24, 1882. A bust of Longfellow was mounted in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in 1884 as a tribute to the outstanding writer. He is the only non-British author to be awarded this honor (Williams 21). Longfellow was "the first of the front-ranking American poets of his time to go, and his death was widely recognized as marking the beginning of the end of an era" (Wagenknecht 19).

A popular poet, Longfellow deals "with important subjects clearly and forthrightly while adopting a frankly didactic and inspirational tone" (Allabeck 118). He uses simple language; he once stated that if a poet "wishes the world to listen and be edified, he will do well to choose a language that is generally understood" (Allabeck 119). Although only a "second class poet," his ability to capture his readers' interest and appeal to their emotions has made Longfellow a staple figure in the hearts of his followers (Hearn 485). He writes to inspire and improve society using "metrical regularity" and "careful rhyme" to emphasize his idea that life is meaningful (Allabeck 118). The rhythmic cadence in "A Psalm of Life," "The Village Blacksmith," and "The Rainy Day" suggests that the lives of men are characterized by distinct cycles.

"The Village Blacksmith," written in 1839, is one of Longfellow's best-known ballads. The poem was described by Longfellow as " 'a new Psalm of Life,' " written only one year later (Montiero 14). Its six-line stanzas are a variation of the form, but it has the "swing and movement" characteristic of ballads (Williams 139). Edward Wagenknecht comments that there are "irregularities in the rhyme scheme and some imperfect rhymes, all of which is managed well, with a rather daring variation in the iambic meter and the beginning of the penultimate stanza" (Wagenknecht 68). Inspired by a blacksmith ancestor and the smithy Longfellow passed each day in Cambridge, the eight stanza poem is a "sympathetic portrait of the humble but virtuous . . . workman" and his daily struggles and triumphs in life (Williams 139).

The first and second stanzas describe the weathered appearance and interior compassion of the protagonist. He is a "mighty man" (Longfellow 3) with muscles "strong as iron bands" (6). His line of work demands the brawny exterior, but Longfellow reveals his sensitive side in stanzas five and six. He attends church every Sunday with his children and listens attentively to his daughter, who is in the choir. The voice of his daughter "sounds to him like her mother's voice" and "with his hard, rough hand he wipes / A tear out of his eyes" (35-6). Longfellow contrasts the burly exterior of the blacksmith with his soft, sentimental interior, creating an analogy to the Romantic view of the common man.

In stanzas two and three Longfellow praises the blacksmith's honesty and virtue while describing the rhythmical nature of his life. His life is a cycle; he toils "week in, week out, from morn till night" to satisfy his customers and support his family (13). The "heavy sledge"(15) swung with "measured beat and slow"(16) is a symbol of his infallibility and strength; no matter what is happening in the world around him, he is in his smithy working. His presence is a constant reminder to those around him that life is meaningful.

The final two stanzas bring closure to the poem and correlate the theme of the work. In the seventh stanza, the poet states:

Toiling, --rejoicing, --sorrowing,

Onward through life he goes;

Each morning sees some task begin,

Each evening sees it close;

Something attempted, something done,

Has earned a night's repose (37-42)

"Each morning" and "each

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