Two Poems by Longfellow: “The Fire of Drift-Wood” and “The Cross of Snow”

UnknownHenry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow’s “The Fire of Drift-Wood” and Kasischke’s “Things That Have Changed Since You Died”

By Zara Raab

We want to read and write poems that speak to us in this time and place. That’s how they come alive. But there may be value in the very strangeness, the otherness of poems from other times and places. I recently began rereading poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when I came across a reference to the poem, “The Fire of Drift-Wood,” in a footnote by the excellent poet and translator David Ferry. Ferry called the poem “great.” Written at Devereau Farm, near Marblehead in Maine, Longfellow reminisces with old friends; a kind of reunion around a bonfire seems to be taking place on the beach. The poet recalls the friends who spoke there of “all that fills the hearts of friends,”

When first they feel, with secret pain,

Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,


What person alive does not remember the first grown-up moment she knew she was a separate person, knew that each person is separate and fully capable of being lost? Who does not remember the pain or the joy of that moment? And yet, I for one, cannot think of another poet who has put it so well.


When first they feel, with secret pain,

Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,

And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,

That words are powerless to express,


Longfellow’s poem (see below for the full text) goes on to describe the fire around which friends have gathered, a fire “built of the wreck of stranded ships,” and thinks back on wrecks and “ships dismasted, that were hailed/ And sent no answer back again,” just as a lost friendship, a “long-lost venture of the heart,” sends no answer back. 

At his death in 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular poet in America, yet 20th century poet Lewis Putnam Turco in his book Visions and Revisions of American Poetry (Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 1986), quoted in Wikipedia, dismissed Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way throughout his career… nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.” Which assessment is correct? What makes “The Fire of Drift-Wood” so powerful is the very modern sentiment it expresses, the very fact of our mortality, a fact sentimental Victorians would sweeten with talk of heavenly reunions. Is it relevant that Turco’s judgment was made 25 years ago, and Ferry’s only recently? Is it relevant that David Ferry is the winner of a recent National Book Award and an excellent practicing poet himself, as well as (in this instance) critic?

This poem and Ferry’s direction lead to further reading, and I discovered Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Cross of Snow,” written in memory of his beloved wife. It may be instructive to look at this poem alongside one by the contemporary American poet, Laura Kasischke. Both poems regard an aspect of mourning and grief. Let’s switch to our own 21st Century before returning to the 19th C for comparison. Here is Kasischke’s poem (which I found quite by chance, in the American Poetry Review [this poem also appeared on Poetry Daily]):


Things That Have Changed Since You Died


We can talk to one another on telephones 

in banks, in cars, in line. No more 

sitting on the floor 
attached to a cord 

while everybody listens. 

No more 

standing outside the booth 

in the cold, fingering 

an adulterous dime. We


send each other mail without stamps. 

Watch television without antennas. 

Wear seatbelts, smoke less, and never 
on a bus, never 

in the lobby while we’re waiting 

for the lawyer to call on us.

Nowhere now, a typewriter ribbon. 

Quaintly the record album’s scratch and spin. 

Our groceries, scanned. 

Pump our own gas. 

Take off our shoes 

before boarding our plane. 

Those towers: Gone. And Pluto’s 

no longer a planet: 

Forget it. 

I could go on


and on, but you’re still dead 

and nothing’s any different.




American Poetry Review 
March / April 2013


Now before commenting on this poem, let’s read Longfellow’s “The Cross of Snow”:


In the long, sleepless watches of the night,

A gentle face — the face of one long dead —

Looks at me from the wall, where round its head

The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.

Here in this room she died; and soul more white

Never through martyrdom of fire was led

To its repose; nor can in books be read

The legend of a life more benedight.

There is a mountain in the distant West

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines

Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.


“through all the changing scenes /And seasons, changeless since the day she died,” Longfellow writes. And Kasischke: ”Our groceries, scanned./ Pump our own gas. / Take off our shoes / before boarding our plane. / Those towers: gone. And Pluto’s / no longer a planet: Forget it. / I could go on // and on, but you’re still dead/ and nothing’s any different.” The themes in the two poems are the same, but no two poem could be more different.

 “The Cross of Snow” seems ponderous in comparison to Kasischke’s light, delft lines moving quickly down the page. Longfellow’s poem uses what to our ears is antiquated language: “Benedight” evidently means “blessed,” but sounds like benighted. The reference to a martyrdom of fire is genuine, however, as Longfellow’s wife died a horrible, slow death after her dress caught fire. It is a slow-moving poem, certainly, the only action being the gaze of the portrait on the poet, and the strange invocation of “a mountain in the distant West/ That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines / Display a cross of snow upon its side.”  To my own mind Longfellow’s lines reverberated oddly with those of  Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” which comments on the mutability of all things. For Longfellow, his grief for his wife is immutable and cold as snow that deep in the mountain shadows does not melt. The emotion of the poet is clear.

            Ask which poem speaks to you and you’ll say the Kasischke’s, because we know and recognize its referents: they are events and changes of our—or our parents’–– lives. In fact, Kasischke is jaunty in enumerating the changes, a jauntiness that gives added power and pathos to her ending. Kasischke’s poem is emblematic of a bustling, post-modern world of rapid technological change. But how will Kasischke’s poem be read in 100 years by people who may not recognize all the changes, or if they do will not respond to them as we do? The scholarly annotator of Kasischke’s work will have to explain telephone cords, perhaps, and long-playing records. The single most stirring reference in Kasischke’s poem is to “Those towers,” just as in Longfellow’s poem, the most stirring external reference is to “a mountain in the distant West,” in a time—the 19th Century—when Manifest Destiny and the westward migration of families was changing America as radically as the fall of the Twin Towers.

 Longfellow’s poem is much more introspective, more interior than Kasischke’s. This quality in itself dates the poem and may render it old-fashioned. But the central image of a grief frozen and unchanging amidst all the change of seasons and scenes around him, is powerful—perhaps as powerful as Kasischke’s. And who knows? Perhaps there is a place for a more introspective approach in our own work. The work of poets like David Ferry—who first pointed me in Longfellow’s direction—is introspective and measured.


The Fire of Drift-Wood

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We spake of many a vanished scene,

Of what we once had thought and said,

Of what had been, and might have been,

And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,

When first they feel, with secret pain,

Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,

And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,

That words are powerless to express,

And leave it still unsaid in part,

Or say it in too great excess.

The very tones in which we spake

Had something strange, I could but mark;

The leaves of memory seemed to make

A mournful rustling in the dark.

Oft died the words upon our lips,

As suddenly, from out the fire

Built of the wreck of stranded ships,

The flames would leap and then expire.

And, as their splendor flashed and failed,

We thought of wrecks upon the main,

Of ships dismasted, that were hailed

And sent no answer back again.

The windows, rattling in their frames,

The ocean, roaring up the beach,

The gusty blast, the bickering flames,

All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part

Of fancies floating through the brain,

The long-lost ventures of the heart,

That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!

They were indeed too much akin,

The drift-wood fire without that burned,

The thoughts that burned and glowed within.


Provided by the Maine Historical Society
(207) 774-1822 • | 489 Congress Street • Portland, ME 04101





  1. says

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