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HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW: His Last Poem

This is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's last published poem. According to Bartleby it is: "The last poem written by Mr. Longfellow. The last verse but one is dated March 12, 1882. The final verse was added March 15. Mr. Longfellow died March 24. The poem was suggested by an article in Harper's Magazine, which the poet had just read." (We have provided an excerpt from the article, after the poem.) The Poetry Foundation describes Longfellow as "The most widely known and best-loved American poet of his lifetime" who "achieved a level of national and international prominence previously unequaled in the literary history of the United States." When he died, Longfellow rivaled the popularity and fame of his English counterpart, Lord Alfred Tennyson.

From  In the Harbor, Ultima Thule, Part II
The Bells of San Blas


What say the Bells of San Blas 
To the ships that southward pass 
       From the harbor of Mazatlan? 
To them it is nothing more 
Than the sound of surf on the shore,— 
       Nothing more to master or man. 

But to me, a dreamer of dreams, 
To whom what is and what seems 
       Are often one and the same,— 
The Bells of San Blas to me 
Have a strange, wild melody, 
       And are something more than a name. 

For bells are the voice of the church; 
They have tones that touch and search 
       The hearts of young and old; 
One sound to all, yet each 
Lends a meaning to their speech, 
       And the meaning is manifold. 

They are a voice of the Past, 
Of an age that is fading fast, 
       Of a power austere and grand; 
When the flag of Spain unfurled 
Its folds o'er this western world, 
       And the Priest was lord of the land. 

The chapel that once looked down 
On the little seaport town 
       Has crumbled into the dust; 
And on oaken beams below 
The bells swing to and fro, 
       And are green with mould and rust. 

"Is, then, the old faith dead," 
They say, "and in its stead 
       Is some new faith proclaimed, 
That we are forced to remain 
Naked to sun and rain, 
       Unsheltered and ashamed? 

"Once in our tower aloof 
We rang over wall and roof 
       Our warnings and our complaints; 
And round about us there 
The white doves filled the air, 
       Like the white souls of the saints. 

"The saints! Ah, have they grown 
Forgetful of their own? 
       Are they asleep, or dead, 
That open to the sky 
Their ruined Missions lie, 
       No longer tenanted? 

"Oh, bring us back once more 
The vanished days of yore, 
       When the world with faith was filled; 
Bring back the fervid zeal, 
The hearts of fire and steel, 
       The hands that believe and build. 

"Then from our tower again 
We will send over land and main 
       Our voices of command, 
Like exiled kings who return 
To their thrones, and the people learn 
       That the Priest is lord of the land!" 

O Bells of San Blas, in vain 
Ye call back the Past again! 
       The Past is deaf to your prayer; 
Out of the shadows of night 
The world rolls into light; 
       It is daybreak everywhere.

The March 1882 issue of Harper's Magazine (volume 64, issue 382) contained an article by William Henry Bishop entitled "Typical Journeys and Country Life in Mexico." Bishop's article included brief descriptions of several Pacific coast ports, including San Blas: "Acapulco has the most complete and charming harbor, and an old fort dismantled by the French, of the order of Morro Castle. Manzanillo is a small strip of a place on the beach, built of wood, with quite an American look. The volcano of Colima appears inland, with a light cloud of smoke above it. San Blas, larger, but still hardly more than an extensive thatched village, has, on a bluff beside it, the ruins of a once more substantial San Blas. Old bronze bells brought down from it have been mounted in rude frames a few feet high to serve the purpose of the present poor church, which is without a belfry, and this is called in irony 'the Tower of San Blas.'" The article was accompanied by an illustration showing four bells swinging from a rickety wooden frame.

In his biography of Longfellow (Longfellow: His Life and Work, Little, Brown & Co., 1962), Newton Arvin writes that the sketch of the bells "was enough for Longfellow's purpose. Bells had always spoken to his imagination with a special force, and these rather pitiful church bells, once so grandly housed and now so meanly exposed, without even a belfry around them, spelled for him the whole grandeur of a proud and powerful past, both in the state and in the realm of faith—a past that one can only look back upon with reverence but that it is folly to attempt to revive. Longfellow represents the bells themselves, in a few of the stanzas, lamenting their fallen condition and praying that they may some day be restored to their old pre-eminence."

The poem originally ended with the stanza:

Then from our tower again 
We will send over land and main 
Our voices of command, 
Like exiled kings who return 
To their thrones, and the people learn 
That the Priest is lord of the land!

However, three days later, on March 15, Longfellow changed the ending by adding another stanza:

O Bells of San Blas, in vain 
Ye call back the Past again! 
The Past is deaf to your prayer; 
Out of the shadows of night 
The world rolls into light; 
It is daybreak everywhere.

According to Arvin, Longfellow "had had, no doubt, a premonition that his death was very near at hand, and he did not wish to leave as his last word an expression of backward-turning regret for the past, however noble and however devout. The day of pristine hopefulness, in the country he belonged to, had, it is true, gone by irrevocably; it was no longer the age of Emerson and Whitman; it was the age of Mark Twain and Henry Adams. But a despairing last utterance would have been wholly out of keeping for Longfellow, and there was nothing fortuitous in his ending in so sanguine a strain."

On March 24, Longfellow passed away. Such was his fame that he became the first American poet with a permanent memorial at Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.

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