I'm currently sunk deep into A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, a massive, fabulous collection of critical and historical essays keyed to important events in American culture. (I'll be reviewing it soon in Salon.) As is often the case with this sort of book (I edited one myself), sometimes the most rewarding entries are the ones that at first look unpromising. Who today cares about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poet who was hugely popular in the early 19th century but dismissed ever since for his creaky Victorian verse and monotonous pet meters?
Stephen Burt, who wrote the main Longfellow entry for NLHA, chose to liken him to William Carlos Williams, a titan of American modernism best known for his red wheelbarrow. In most obvious respects, the poets could not be more opposed, but Burt sees them as sharing a faith in syncretic eclecticism as the best method for forging a distinctive American literature. Both men were translators, and intent on weaving together the organic traditions of other lands in order to write for a new nation that had been literally invented by refugees and immigrants.
Although C.S. Lewis had no particular interest in American literature (he did sort of like James Fenimore Cooper), Longfellow was responsible for one of the transcendent turning points in his early life. This occurred when Lewis, at age 9, encountered some lines by Longfellow in poem called "Tegner's Drapa," about the death of the Norse god Balder:
"I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead --"
Although Lewis didn't know (then) who Balder was, he was immediately struck with an overwhelming, ravishing longing that he would later come to call Joy and would associate (in the years before his conversion) with "Northerness." (It was also this taste for things Norse that cemented his friendship with Tolkien.) Lewis' experience of Joy found perhaps its fullest literary expression in Narnia.
I've been unable to ascertain whether the lines quoted above are a translation or an original composition by Longfellow, which is in a strange way rather appropriate. If Narnia is, as I've come to believe, the result of Lewis' incorporating myriad literary sources into his imagination and then refiguring them into something both familiar and new, then so is Longfellow's "Tegner's Drapa."