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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Number 71: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Emperor's Bird's Nest"

The Emperor's Bird's-Nest

Once the Emperor Charles of Spain,
With his swarthy, grave commanders,
I forget in what campaign,
Long besieged, in mud and rain,
Some old frontier town of Flanders.

Up and down the dreary camp,
In great boots of Spanish leather,
Striding with a measured tramp,
These Hidalgos, dull and damp,
Cursed the Frenchmen, cursed the weather.

Thus as to and fro they went,
Over upland and through hollow,
Giving their impatience vent,
Perched upon the Emperor's tent,
In her nest, they spied a swallow.

Yes, it was a swallow's nest,
Built of clay and hair of horses,
Mane, or tail, or dragoon's crest,
Found on hedge-rows east and west,
After skirmish of the forces.

Then an old Hidalgo said,
As he twirled his gray mustachio,
"Sure this swallow overhead
Thinks the Emperor's tent a shed,
And the Emperor but a Macho!"

Hearing his imperial name
Coupled with those words of malice,
Half in anger, half in shame,
Forth the great campaigner came
Slowly from his canvas palace.

"Let no hand the bird molest,"
Said he solemnly, "nor hurt her!"
Adding then, by way of jest,
"Golondrina is my guest,
'Tis the wife of some deserter!"

Swift as bowstring speeds a shaft,
Through the camp was spread the rumor,
And the soldiers, as they quaffed
Flemish beer at dinner, laughed
At the Emperor's pleasant humor.

So unharmed and unafraid
Sat the swallow still and brooded,
Till the constant cannonade
Through the walls a breach had made,
And the siege was thus concluded.

Then the army, elsewhere bent,
Struck its tents as if disbanding,
Only not the Emperor's tent,
For he ordered, ere he went,
Very curtly, "Leave it standing!"

So it stood there all alone,
Loosely flapping, torn and tattered,
Till the brood was fledged and flown,
Singing o'er those walls of stone
Which the cannon-shot had shattered.

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hap Notes: Popular poets take note: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was, at one time, the most popular poet in the country. There are few people born before 1940, who were not required as student to memorize one of Longfellow's works including "Paul Revere's Ride" (O Listen my children and you will hear...), Song of Hiawatha (Should you ask me, whence these stories? Whence these legends and traditions...) , or "Evangeline" (This is the forest primeval...).

Once my nephew was complaining about memorizing something for school. My mother and her friends were sitting in the kitchen chatting (they are all over 70.) I smiled and said to him, "Listen to this...." I called out to the group in the kitchen, "Under the spreading chestnut tree..."

And my mom and her friends paused in conversation and called back, "The village smithy stands/The smith, a mighty man is he/ With large and sinewy hands/ And the muscles of his brawny arms/ Are strong as iron bands." They'd have done the whole poem if I'd let them- they'd all had to memorize Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" when they were in GRADE SCHOOL and it had still stuck with them.

First of all in the poem, Longfellow means fighting men when he says "Hidalgos." He's not saying the Emperor is 'macho' like Chuck Norris, he means the word "mule." Golondrina is a Spanish word for female swallow (male: Golondrino) and it was camp slang for a deserter. The bird lasts out through a good deal of noise, eh?

Longfellow is famous (or was famous) for his lyric story poems and while he is often looked at now as a usurper of many poet's styles (most notably Tennyson) he ignited the common reader with a love of heroic stories and poetry. It might be a tad sappy to our cynical ears but the stories are always good and the descriptions and insights he creates are often quite moving.

Longfellow, by the way, was friends with everyone from Emerson to Hawthorne to Charles Sumner and Washington Irving. He taught at Harvard and knew French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German. He was the first American to translate Dante's "Divine Comedy."

He was reportedly a gentle man who suffered some tragedies. His first wife died of a miscarriage. His second wife was using sealing wax or something and her dress caught fire. She called out in panic and Longfellow ran in and tried to smother the flames with a rug and his own body. She died the next morning from her burns and Longfellow was so burned he could not attend the funeral. His facial injuries were such that he stopped shaving and thus we always think of Longfellow with a beard.

My mother used to say, when she accidentally rhymed something while speaking, "I'm a poet and don't know it. But my feet show it- they're Longfellows." Get it? This is what passed for humor in her grade school. I always thought it was funny when I was a kid.

You may think Longfellow is a tad outdated and so he is, really. In his prime he commanded $3,000 per poem. Not too shabby. Poe originally admired him, grew to see him as a bit of a copier and wrote nasty things about the poet later. Here's what Longfellow was like: when Poe died he later wrote, "The harshness of his criticisms I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong." He was a very nice man.

Longfellow is another one of those cup-of-cocoa-on-a long-winter-night poets. He's a very charming, stirring and enjoyable read. I've always loved reading his poems aloud.

Here's a good Longfellow quote:"Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad. "

And anther: "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. "

One more: "However things may seem, no evil thing is success and no good thing is failure."

You can find more Longfellow here:

Don't forget the "Great Backyard Birdcount Week" ( ). We'll have bird poems until it's over- there's so many of them I could have done a year of just birds!

1 comment:

  1. Longfellow MUST be read aloud. Even if one is alone! (It's probably best that way, don't you think?)