Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Longfellow’s Optimism

I’ve been reading about mindfulness recently, and the discipline of observing the present moment without distractions from past or future has been helpful in some recent, trying circumstances. But as a way of life, I can’t accept it completely. The past and future possess more than just distractions and anxieties: they offer lessons and hopes, as well. A healthy soul plans – to a healthy degree – for the future and learns from the past – learns how to do things better, learns what not to worry about since one has survived it before, learns how to forgive in other what one has struggled with. As the healthy, reformed Scrooge says, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Longfellow embodies Scrooge’s vow admirably, if he indeed lived the inner life that his poetry represents. He regularly exhibits tremendous optimism based on his belief in God’s righteous justice and a coming kingdom of eternal joy in the Divine Presence. Yet his is no blindered smile-and-ignore-the-truth enthusiasm. Longfellow is no perky ostrich, looking through rose-colored glasses at every grain of sand surrounding his obliviously buried head. He knows the darkness in his heart, in his past, and in his world. “And in despair I bowed my head; // ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”

Of all the beautiful poems I read in the last few days, none struck me quite like “The Bridge of Cloud,” originally published in the Atlantic in 1864 and still on that magazine’s website.

Burn, O evening hearth, and waken
Pleasant visions, as of old!
Though the house by winds be shaken,
Safe I keep this room of gold!

Right out of the gate, Longfellow joins present and past: the hearth has awakened pleasant visions before and is about to do so again. But the visions that Longfellow-of-the-present sees are different from what they were in the unspecified past:

Ah, no longer wizard Fancy
Builds its castles in the air,
Luring me by necromancy
Up the never-ending stair!

But, instead, it builds me bridges
Over many a dark ravine,
Where beneath the gusty ridges
Cataracts dash and roar unseen.

In the olden days, the comforting visions seen in the fire all portended lovely futures of success, happiness, and ease. But his architect was necromancy. What an image! The typical necromancer of tales makes the appearance of life out of what was once living, but Longfellow’s makes the appearance of life out of what is not yet alive.

Unlike those fanciful castles, in the present the unfolding scene is one of a bridge of cloud, bright and soft and fresh in itself, but hovering over a dark past, where, in contrast to the floating hazy water droplets of the cloud, “cataracts dash.” What a perfect phrase! Confusion and chaos abound in those sounds with their four closely packed consonants near the end. Think how much weaker the image would be if instead Longfellow had said, “waterfalls dash.”

And I cross them, little heeding
Blast of wind or torrent’s roar,
As I follow the receding
Footsteps that have gone before.

Nought avails the imploring gesture,
Nought avails the cry of pain!
When I touch the flying vesture,
‘T is the gray robe of the rain.

These last two stanzas are the most cryptic for me. I think that the present Longfellow tends to think of the past as better than it was, gliding over the dark ravines on a bright highway in the sky, but, inspired by the fire that burns to do his soul good, here learns to take an honest look at the trouble the misty clouds tend to obscure. Whose is the imploring gesture? A younger Longfellow, I suppose. But even present Longfellow isn’t sure, I guess, because as he reaches to touch the beckoning hand, the figure proves to be only a gray patch of rain in the clouds. Clouds look so different from different angles. (Yes, I find it very hard to think about this poem for very long without hearing Joni Mitchell. She had the advantage of seeing the tops of the clouds from an airplane, but the earlier poet flew with the airship of his mind.)

Baffled I return, and, leaning
O’er the parapets of cloud,
Watch the mist that intervening
Wraps the valley in its shroud.

And the sounds of life ascending
Faintly, vaguely, meet the ear,
Murmur of bells and voices blending
With the rush of waters near.

Well I know what there lies hidden,
Every tower and town and farm,
And again the land forbidden
Reassumes its vanished charm.

Well I know the secret places,
And the nests in hedge and tree;
At what doors are friendly faces,
In what hearts a thought of me.

OK, here comes the truth. Longfellow leans over the parapets of his nimbus bridge and takes a cold, honest look at his past. What he does with the towns, farms, and people he recognizes is as surprising – to me in any case – as it is exactly right:

Through the mist and darkness sinking,
Blown by wind and beaten by shower,
Down I fling the thought I’m thinking,
Down I toss this Alpine flower.

Oh! If only a younger me could have received an Alpine flower dropped through the heavens from present me! That very wish should lead present me to look up at the clouds and imagine the perspective that future me will have of this troubling time, a vantage point surrounded by asters and edelweiss. 

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