I think it was the first poem I can remember loving. It was in an anthology called “Best Loved Poems of the American People,” which is, somewhat surprisingly, still in print after more than seventy years. It was one of the books I had to buy for myself once I had children.
Some clever people have been keen to call attention to historical inaccuracies in Longfellow’s version. I can’t be too hard on them for insisting on accuracy, though I do find it hilarious that the one I’ve linked to here seems to have added a new first word to Longfellow’s poem. (Is that the historian’s revenge or the pedant’s myopia?) Garrison Keillor gives the divergence between history and poetry fairly sympathetic treatment in today’s Writer’s Almanac, noting merely that “Longfellow fictionalized some aspects of the story to make it more dramatic.” I think that’s about all the attention the historical inaccuracies warrant. Even if we are permitted to blame Longfellow for teaching a somewhat inaccurate story, we are surely obliged to thank him for teaching the story at all. In addition, as my own childhood introduction to the poem suggests, poems like this take on an importance that is independent of the historical events they narrate. And, as with the story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree and being unable to lie about it, some stories are true whether they happened or not.
I wish you could hear my mother read it, but reading it here is better than nothing: Read the rest of this entry »