This biography hints at some possible reasons for Longfellow’s fascination with the hidden and obscured, such as his commitment to translation, and it also reveals a number of other ways in which his printed poems worked like icebergs: small blocks of text that emerged from the blank space of the page while hinting at much larger concerns under the surface. These include Longfellow’s methods of composition, which created paper trails of notes and drafts, and also the role played by his second wife Frances in helping him assemble works like The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), the first anthology of its kind to be published in America and further evidence of Longfellow’s conviction that lines of poetry should be viewed as bridges rather than barriers, forever reaching out for new human connections.
But as the title of this biography suggests, not every poem could find what it was looking for. In 1861, Longfellow’s wife died shortly after a horrible household accident in which her dress caught fire, and he was unable to smother the flames in time to save her. His own hands and face were so badly burned he was unable to attend her funeral, and the trademark bushy beard he later grew was partly an attempt to hide his visible scars. Yet the memory of his wife remained an open wound, and in a sonnet entitled “The Cross of Snow”, found among his papers after his death, he tried to put it into words. The inspiration for this poem was probably a comment from a mourner who expressed the hope that after his bereavement Longfellow would be able to “bear his cross”. His brother Samuel reported Longfellow’s response: “Bear the cross, yes; but what if one is stretched upon it!” Written eighteen years later, “The Cross of Snow” gave this feeling a permanent literary shape:
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
In his Table-Talk (1857), Longfellow had pointed out that “Some sorrows are but footprints in the snow, which the genial sun effaces”, but in this unpublished poem he offered a chastening alternative. Some sorrows were as deep and lasting as permafrost.
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'Often his verse resembles a well-mannered imitation of something far more powerful, like karaoke Tennyson' https://t.co/oBgGGxKlnC
— The TLS (@TheTLS) March 5, 2021