Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chaucer - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

An old man in a lodge within a park;
The chamber walls depicted all around
With portraitures of huntsman, hawk, and hound,
And the hurt deer.  He listeneth to the lark,
Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
He listeneth and he laugheth at the sound,
Then writeth in a book like any clerk.
He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote
The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
Made beautiful with song; and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odors of ploughed field or flowery mead.

I wanted to dislike this poem for its silly affectations of faux-Middle English, with its "laugheth" and "writeth" but I can't bring myself to do it.  Longfellow is so earnest in his affection for Chaucer that his imagined scene of a man in his chamber, gaily decorated with hunting scenes, that I cannot help but be somewhat charmed myself.  This is in no doubt partly because of my shared affection for Chaucer, though I think even without that personal connection, the picture Longfellow paints is enticing, like the scent of a wildflower.

What I really like most about this poem is the way Longfellow captures the effect that great poetry can have on the reader.  Longfellow does not just imagine the sounds of the lark and linnet, or the smell of flowery mead, he hears it, he smells it.  That's what great poetry does for us, it transports us to places in our minds so real and relevant to our daily lives that we become fully enraptured.

Somewhat strangely, this poem does somewhat transport me to that place, but not by its own power.  It's through Chaucer that it does so.  I'm reminded of the delightful atmosphere of The Canterbury Tales reading this poem, and my imagination begins to run away from me.  Longfellow's poem itself is largely unremarkable, and like I said earlier, I really wanted to give it a bit of a spitroast for its painful posturing.  Still, I can't help but smile at the thoughts and images it brings to mind.  Besides, the rhymes are pleasing to the tongue and ear, and lines glisten with well worked words, nice assonance and alliteration abounding (see what I did there?).  It's hard to dislike a poem so earnest in its admiration of a great poet and the magical effect that good poetry can have.

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