Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Poetry for Young People: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Poetry for Young People: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Edited by Frances Schoonmaker
Illustrator:  Chad Wallace 
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 9 and up
Sterling, 1998   ISBN: 978-0806994178

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up in Portland, Maine. Though his family was not wealthy, they were well off enough that Henry and his siblings got a good education and they always had access to books. Henry grew up to love the written word, and the things he saw around him inspired him to write poetry. Often his poems described people and everyday events. In one of his longer poems there is a scene where he describes a potter working at his wheel. To him, the potter’s ability is like magic as “That shapeless, lifeless mass of clay / Rise up to meet the master’s hand.” He also wrote about a village blacksmith who, with “brawny arms” that are as “strong as iron bands,” works all day long working the bellows and beating the metal with a “heavy sledge.”

   After going to college and travelling to Europe to learn foreign languages, Henry became a scholar and a teacher at Harvard. He also wrote poems when he could, including long story poems such as Evangeline, Paul Revere’s Ride, and The Song of Hiawatha.

   Then there were the poems that were more personal. Moved by the plight of slaves, he wrote eight poems that were combined in a little book called Poems on Slavery. Though his views made him unpopular with some people, Henry always felt that slavery was a terrible practice and he tried to show people what it would be like to be a slave. In The Slave’s Dream he tells the story of a slave who is thinking about his homeland in Africa, and in The Witness he gives a voice to all the slaves who drowned when the slave ship they were on sank. On the ocean bed they lie and “cry, from yawning waves / “We are the Witnesses.” They are the ones who know all about the cruelty of man against man.

   In this excellent Poetry for Young People title, the editor’s introduction sets the scene for the poetry selections that she chose to share with readers. Readers get a sense of what kind of man Longfellow was, and how his life experiences influenced his creative process. Knowing the poet’s story will help readers to better appreciate his splendid poems.