Prosody and its Relationship to the Divine in Longfellow’s “The Day is Done”

January 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

In his famous essay “The Poet,” Emerson claims that men who are skilled in the use of words are not true poets, saying, “…we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet” (qtd. in Richards, 103). And slightly later, he adds, “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem” (104). According to Emerson, a poet who values form over thought is not a poet at all, but rather merely a skilled manipulator of words. For him, a poet must be the articulator of some genuine thought or argument; it does not suffice to merely create a poem solely on the sound and effect of words.In 1844, the same year that Emerson published his essay, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “The Day is Done,” a poem that argues directly against the point made in “The Poet.” Longfellow is hyperaware of the meter, rhyme, word choice, and overall sound of his poem; in fact, those elements are what make the poem a cohesive and successful piece of work. As a result of Longfellow’s attention to the effect of the words and seeming disregard for what Emerson would call a “metre-making argument,” “The Day is Done” serves as a counter-argument to Emerson’s initial claim.Emerson seems to suggest that the true poet is he who can articulate the divine. In other words, he embraces a Romantic view of nature and language, claiming that the true poet can “report the conversation” he has with nature, a physical manifestation of the divine. The true poet will “penetrate into that region where the air is music… hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down” (103). Longfellow attacks this claim in “The Day is Done” with his own treatment of the divine. In Longfellow’s poem, the speaker calls for a poem to be read that will bring about a divine sensibility. However, the poem that is asked for is self-referential; Longfellow’s poem has all of the qualities of the requested poem. If the requested poem has the “power to quiet / The restless pulse of care / And come like the benediction / That follows after prayer” (lines 33-36), and Longfellow’s poem has all the qualities of the requested poem, then by syllogism, Longfellow’s poem has the ability to evoke the divine. Most importantly, however, the divine is not evoked through thought or argument. Rather, the divine is evoked precisely through the effect created by word choice, rhyme, meter, and overall effect.One of the ways in which Longfellow evokes the divine through prosody is his use of the number three. The most prominent occurrence of the number three is in the stress pattern; the poem is written in trimeter, with three stresses per line. To emphasize the importance of threes, the first line of the poem has three words beginning with the letter ‘d’: “day,” “done,” and “darkness.” The triple alliteration in the first line, coupled with the triple stresses throughout the entire poem, draws attention to the number three – a symbol of the Trinity.The only time that Longfellow interrupts the trimeter is in the first line of the sixth stanza: “For, like strains of martial music” (line 21). However, this interruption does not jeopardize the relationship of the poem to the Trinity – in fact, it reinforces it. For the context of the line is a description of the poetry of “the grand old masters” (line 17) and “the bards sublime” (line 18). The speaker asks that the addressee of the poem read a poem that is “simple” and “heartfelt” (line 14), not like the poems of the grand old masters. Of those poems, he writes, “For, like strains of martial music / Their mighty thoughts suggest / Life’s endless toil and endeavor / And to-night I long for rest” (lines 21-24). Interestingly, he calls attention to the interruption in the meter through the first word, “for.” Playing on the similarity between “for” and “four,” Longfellow invites the reader to notice that the line about the grand old masters has four stresses, not three. The implication is that there is something unholy about that line, and more importantly about the “strains of martial music.” While paying homage to old poets with words like “grand…masters” and “bards sublime,” Longfellow asserts the divine quality of his own, simpler and more heartfelt poetry.Equally worthy of notice is the fact that Longfellow discredits those poets for “their mighty thoughts” (line 22). This line seems particularly aimed at Emerson, who writes, “The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form” (103). While Emerson praises thought as the primary agent of a poem, Longfellow dismisses the grand old masters for their “mighty thoughts,” instead arguing for the importance of form, and more specifically the sound of language. Finally, Longfellow underscores his criticism of the grand old masters and their mighty thoughts in the phrase “strains of martial music” (line 21). On one hand, the alliterative ‘m’ sound adds to the musical nature of the line. On the other hand, the trochaic phrase “martial music” is harsh, and evokes images of war, armies, and marching. Longfellow distinguishes the trochaic poetry of the masters from his own, more soothing poetry by frequently using iambs, as in the line, “The restless pulse of care” (34). The speaker suggests that the poems of the grand old masters do not possess the soothing, soporific quality he seeks; the break in trimeter and use of trochee dissociates them – poetically and metaphorically – from the divine.In the seventh and eighth stanzas, Longfellow presents his own representation of the poet. Whereas Emerson’s poet is merely a recorder of the divine, the experience of Longfellow’s poet is more along the lines of Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” discussed in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Longfellow writes: “Read from some humbler poet / Whose songs gushed from his heart / As showers from the clouds of summer / Or tears from the eyelids start; / Who, through long days of labor / And nights devoid of ease / Still heard in his soul the music / Of wonderful melodies” (25-32). Longfellow’s mentioning of music echoes with Emerson’s idea of penetrating the region “where the air is music” (103). However, in Longfellow’s poem, the “wonderful melodies” come from the humble poet, not from some transcendent, ethereal world. Finally, Longfellow’s choice of the word “humbler” to describe the poet evokes notions of humility and Christ, as does the line “Or tears from the eyelids start” (28). In contrast to Emerson’s poet, who merely records the divine, Longfellow’s poet brings about the divine through the sound of his own poetry. This point exactly is emphasized in the stanza that follows: “Such songs have the power to quiet / The restless pulse of care / And come like the benediction / That follows after prayer” (33-36).In following with the association of Longfellow’s poem with the divine, the speaker continues, “Then read from the treasured volume / The poem of thy choice / And lend to the rhyme of the poet / The beauty of thy voice” (37-40). First, the “treasured volume” of line 37 evokes the idea of the Bible. However, the speaker does not ask for a poem to be read from the Bible, since the Bible is the word of God. Rather than asking to hear a Biblical story that is a story some great poet has transcribed from the words of God, the speaker asks to hear a poem from a “humbler poet” (line 25), one that can evoke divinity using only the “rhyme of the poet” and the “beauty of [the reader’s] voice.”Through his painstaking attention to prosaic elements such as meter, rhyme, and the overall sound of his words, Longfellow successfully refutes Emerson’s claim that a true poem must have a “metre-making argument.” Rather than evoking the divine by recording a conversation with God, Longfellow achieves an effect that is “like the benediction / That follows a prayer” (35-36) by using simple, soothing, and musical sounds.

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