Monday, August 31, 2009

Mezzo Cammin

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born February 27th 1807. In 1831, he married Mary Storer Potter. In 1835, Mary had a miscarriage and died a few weeks later. Several of Longfellow's later works were influenced by his grief over this loss. One such work was "Mezzo Cammin" (below).

Half my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,--
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,--
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Mezzo Cammin translates to middle journey. It comes from the opening line of The Divine Comedy. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" ("halfway along our life's path") (Longfellow was the first American to translate The Divine Comedy and you could make parallels between the two poems.)

While poetry is definitely open to interpretation, I think this poem has a sad but still hopeful message. Longfellow sees that he has not accomplished all that he aspired to do in his youth. He attributes this not to any flaw in his character, but to "sorrow, and a care that almost killed", likely the death of his wife. But there is still hope that he may yet accomplish his goals.

Now, half way through his journey, he looks back at the Past. Maybe it's not so bad? "A city in the twilight dim and vast, with smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights." He looks up to the future and sees Death but it is far away.

When I first read this poem, my immediate impression was that Longfellow saw himself at a turning point in his life. He had been living with his grief for some time and he felt he could not be productive. It feels like he is passively looking behind him at the past and ahead to the future and seeing that he can still go on and accomplish what he has set out to do. He is starting to find hope again after a great loss. He sees (actually he hears) his end but this is far into the future. Realistic but not pessimistic.

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