Loving ode to bridge poets: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

red bridge
Red Bridge spanning the Des Moines River in Des Moines. Photo taken in August 2011

Before we move on to the next bridge poem, here is a question to ask you readers: Who was your favorite poet when you grew up and what poems was he/she famous for? I’m completely sure you grew up listening to favorite poems by the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Robert Frost and even Norman Brydon and having a few stuck in your heads thanks to your English teacher reciting them to you day in and day out.  Each country has it own set of favorite poets; German had Friedrich Schiller and Wolfgang Goethe, England had Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. In the United States, we have the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem will be read in a short bit. Longfellow (1807-1882) is one of the most popular American poets whose works we still read today. He was famous for writing Paul Revere’s Ride (and his famous war cry “The British are coming!- the drumming of the War for Independence in Colonial America), Evangeline and the Songs of Hiawatha. He was one of the five fireside poets, popular 19th century poets whose general adherence to poetic convention consisted of “….standard forms, regular meter, and rhymed stanzas and the poems were made suitable for memorization and recitation in school and also at home, where it was a source of entertainment for families gathered around the fire.”  This poem, entitled “The Bridge” was one of the poems that Longfellow wrote during his lifetime, even though it was one of the less popular ones. As you will read in this poem, it takes place at night, when all is quiet in the city except for the forces of nature that had been quelled by people and traffic during the day but now has a chance to show its true colors at night, making the bridge and the surroundings more appealing to people willing to risk darkness just for some air and some time to relax and reflect on what happened earlier in the day and what is yet to come.

If you have an opportunity to do so and if you find one that is lit at night, go to a bridge, walk toward the center and then stop. Listen to nature and its calling and think about it. Gather some impressions and write it down on paper. Who know? Perhaps you can turn your impressions into a work of art like you will see from Longfellow.  Enjoy the poem.

The Bridge

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I stood on the bridge at midnight,
   As the clocks were striking the hour,
And the moon rose o’er the city,
   Behind the dark church-tower.


I saw her bright reflection
   In the waters under me,
Like a golden goblet falling
   And sinking into the sea.


And far in the hazy distance
   Of that lovely night in June,
The blaze of the flaming furnace
   Gleamed redder than the moon.


Among the long, black rafters
   The wavering shadows lay,
And the current that came from the ocean
   Seemed to lift and bear them away;


As, sweeping and eddying through them,
   Rose the belated tide,
And, streaming into the moonlight,
   The seaweed floated wide.


And like those waters rushing
   Among the wooden piers,
A flood of thoughts came o’er me
   That filled my eyes with tears.


How often, O, how often,
   In the days that had gone by,
I had stood on that bridge at midnight
   And gazed on that wave and sky!


How often, O, how often,
   I had wished that the ebbing tide
Would bear me away on its bosom
   O’er the ocean wild and wide!


For my heart was hot and restless,
   And my life was full of care,
And the burden laid upon me
   Seemed greater than I could bear.


But now it has fallen from me,
   It is buried in the sea;
And only the sorrow of others
   Throws its shadow over me.


Yet whenever I cross the river
   On its bridge with wooden piers,
Like the odor of brine from the ocean
   Comes the thought of other years.


And I think how many thousands
   Of care-encumbered men,
Each bearing his burden of sorrow,
   Have crossed the bridge since then.


I see the long procession
   Still passing to and fro,
The young heart hot and restless,
   And the old subdued and slow!


And forever and forever,
   As long as the river flows,
As long as the heart has passions,
   As long as life has woes;


The moon and its broken reflection
   And its shadows shall appear,
As the symbol of love in heaven,
   And its wavering image here.