A Face On A Stamp
by Hunter B. Whitesell II
By the shores of
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
the shining Big-Sea-Water.
In March, the U.S. Postal Service issued a beautifully-designed stamp in honor
of William Wadsworth Longfellow, the twenty-third such release in its long-running Literary Arts series. Longfellow died 125
years ago. For most of us, his name is synonymous with "poet", and a kindly old man with a flowing white beard.
A few might remember his epic poem, Hiawatha, and then be hard pressed to recount a line of it on ‘Jeopardy'.
Such as it is in this post-modern world where tidbits of information pass torrent-like into our heads and whirl in a maelstrom
back into the ether.
Longfellow is a stellar American icon. His popularity as a great poet is unexceeded. A Victorian
man of fame and of letters, he was a celebrity. To be sure, he is unusual by today's standards: A Harvard professor, he
enjoyed a long marriage, and was a devoted, loving father to six children.
‘Harry' wrote powerfully
poetic lines that any reader can comprehend and strongly identify with. Though he was the complete academic of his day, he
had that rare ability to appeal to folk of all ages, stripes and station in life. In this day of Madonna and 50-Cent, we might
tend to say his verse is over-steeped in dripping sentiment but, characterize his work as you will - it endures! For my part,
I wish it would last forever. Our national psyche is in dire need of imposing figures like him. How many people under 35 recognize
Listen, my children, and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous
day and year.
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm.
Those opening lines jump out like a cannon burst. We all know the significance of July 4, 1776, but April 18, 1775?
Longfellow's poetry is more than mere evocative verse; it is history (of the kind generations took home from the schoolhouse
and mulled for a lifetime). Longfellow, you see, was instrumental in forging the mythic American mystique which propelled
our nation to the forefront of events in the 20th Century and beyond. He belongs with Irving, Hawthorne, Emerson,
Thoreau, and Twain in that regard.
Longfellow would not have been so luminescent a figure had his mind's eye
not been wide-ranging and penetratingly perceptive. His influence saturated the culture of his time. It persists to this day.
"They were like two ships that pass in the night." If you have ever said or thought this, you have leaned
upon Longfellow's metaphor.
Perhaps you heard your grandmother or someone say "A torn jacket is soon
mended; but hard words bruise the heart of a child." That bit of cliched, tender wisdom comes from Longfellow. It
wasn't just poetry that earned him a place on a First Class stamp. He was a wise man. "Believe me,"
he once said, "every man has his secret sorrows, which the world knows not; and oft-times we call a man cold, when
he is only sad." I can't count the times I have been less than cordial with seemingly difficult individuals,
only later to learn one can't always judge a book by its cover... Longfellow was long on human nature.
next time you visit the post office, purchase a few Longfellow stamps. Take a moment - reflect upon that staid, bearded image.
Don't let its period-nature fool you. Here is an exceptional human being, an American citizen, who gave us countless little
pieces of our life. Though we might not realize it, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is part and parcel of who we are.
the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water . . .
Listen, my children, and
you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere . . .
We live in an information world.
What fortuitous fate! Look up old Longfellow. Find a poem (there are many - he loved to write the language), and savor it.
He speaks to eternity. When you affix that stamp, grin and thank the Lord for Longfellow!
Hunter B. Whitesell
II is Fulton/Hickman District Judge, and a member of the Hickman County Arts Council
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