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“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.”

November 8, 2009

H. W. Longfellow

“The Fire of Drift-wood”
(H.W. Longfellow)

We sat within the farm-house old,
Whose windows, looking o’er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold,
An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
Our voices only broke the gloom.


Old Bowen House, Marblehead, MA

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.


Marblehead fishermen, ca. 1890

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.

A good deal of lore lies in (and out) of this lovely poem, and I’ll attend to that first before giving the poem a close reading. Curiously enough, some contemporary readers quibbled with Longfellow when this poem appeared in his 1850 volume The Seaside and the Fireside. The scenes described, they said, weren’t visible from the Devereux Farm, which was set back inland too far from the harbor (for a map of which, cf. below).


Historical Marker, Fort Sewall

The ruins of Fort Sewall (built in 1742), for example, lie off at the extreme northeastern tip of Marblehead, as does the lighthouse mentioned in the poem, whereas Devereux Beach lies due east of where the farm was apparently situated; the main harbor, with its lighthouse and dismantled fort, could hardly be seen from the site, not with mortal eyes anyway. For these reasons bad readers of poetry (and, I assume, local antiquarians) saw fit to set the record straight, insofar as “The Fire of Drift-Wood” may be said to constitute a” record.” Incidentally, the driftwood Longfellow has in mind may well have been that salvaged from the beaches after the hurricane of 19 September 1846 sank some eleven vessels off Marblehead Harbor, drowning at least 65 men. (Marblehead is so fabled for its driftwood that The Driftwood Restaurant is a sort of town institution, as the tourist guides tell you.) And, of course, it does well, in its way, to read this extract from Longfellow’s Country (1909), by Helen Archibald Clarke: “A few miles down the coast we come upon the scene of another of Longfellow’s seashore poems, ‘The Fire of Driftwood,’ which burned itself into the poet’s verse on the hearth of the old Devereux farm near Marblehead. The poem may be supplemented by the poet’s own description of the visit in his journal, September twenty-ninth, 1846: ‘A delicious drive with F. through Malden and Lynn to Marblehead, to visit E.W. at the Devereux farm by the seaside. Drove across the beautiful sand. What a delicious scene. The ocean in the sunshine changing from the silvery hue of the thin waves upon the beach, through the lighter and the deeper green, to a rich purple in the horizon. We recalled the times past and the days when we were at Nahant. The Devereux farm is by the sea, some miles from Lynn. An old-fashioned farmhouse, with low rooms and narrow windows rattling in the sea-breeze.’

devereaux beach

Devereux Beach, Google Satellite View

The description of the port and the town, the lighthouse and the fort, would suit a view from Magnolia or Gloucester, exactly as well as it does that of Marblehead, especially as Longfellow was obliged to admit, when questioned on the subject, that from the Devereux farm could not be seen the view he describes. There is, however, a sumptuous bay at Marblehead, and nothing could be more bewitching than to watch the starting of a yacht race from the dismantled fort. The ‘strange, old-fashioned town’ still answers to the description, but it is now enlivened by a trolley-
line. Hand in hand the trolley and the telephone are invading all the quiet corners of the earth, making one feel, in spite of their convenience, a Ruskin-like irritation at the cheapening of picturesque spots. Of course, to reach the Devereux farm one leaves the quaint, old-fashioned part of Marblehead with its up-to-date shows and dingy lunch rooms, where the summer ‘crowds’ amuse and feed themselves upon their outings, for the elegant summer residence portion of 
the town on Marblehead Neck.”

Lore of this sort has its interest, and suggests what a reader may, in some sense, be said to “learn” from reading in and around a poem. But my real interest has little to do with whether or not the dismantled fort could actually be seen from where Longfellow and his friends once sat round a fire.


Marblehead and environs. The blue pin marks the site of Devereux Beach; the farm presumably lay just inland. The towns of Peabody and Salem are nearby; we are just northeast of Boston, here. Clicking on the image will, again, take you to an article about Marblehead.

The poem is everywhere suffused with mortality: the dead of 1846, the dead recalled in the talk of this small company of friends around the hearth, the death that awaits them when they, too, shall be “dismasted” and, when hailed, “send back no answer,” and their bones shall be as driftwood for what Robert Frost once called, in “The Woodpile,” the “slow, smokeless burning of decay.”

The form of the poem is easy enough to describe: twelve stanzas in iambic tetrameter, each one rhyming ABAB: “old + cold,” and “bay + day” in the first stanza, where the rhymes are more structural (let’s say) than significant. But in stanza four the rhymes perfectly align themselves with the theme, and in fact signify much: “friends + ends,” “pain + again.” Such effects are subtle, but they show how artfully Longfellow assembled his better poems. Later, we find, in stanzas nine and eleven, a virtual repetend that precisely expresses the governing metaphor of the poem (the wreckage of ships=the wreckage of lives): ships hailed “that send no answer back again” are likened to “long-lost ventures of the heart” that “send no answers back again.” I should note here that “venture” carries about it, in addition to its primary meaning, a somewhat more precisely nautical one: Oxford English Dictionary: “venture, vb.: I. 1. trans. To risk the loss of (something); to expose to the chance of loss or injury, especially in the hope of obtaining some advantage or gain; to hazard, risk, or stake. 1748 Anson’s Voy. I. ii. 17 The Commodore did not care to venture the ships long boats to fetch the water off. 1735 JOHNSON Lobo’s Abyssinia, Descr. xi. 108 When I was to Cross this River at Boad, I durst not venture myself on the Flotes. 1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, I. ii. 192 Others like Merchants venter Trade abroad. 1780 COWPER Progr. Err. Like something precious ventur’d far from shore, ‘Tis valued for the danger’s sake the more.”

Of all of these senses, of all these instances of the word “venture,” Longfellow was well aware; and he awakens them in the poem. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” goes the old saw. But in this poem we read, as if in sad hieroglyph: Everything ventured is lost. And here I would point out the jarring harmony of “rattling windows,” “roaring ocean,” and “bickering flames,” all of which are said to be “mingled vaguely in the speech” of these old friends as they sit round a fire built from the wreckage of other men’s lives, of other men’s ventures: the fire of driftwood gathered from lost ships, washed up on Devereux Beach, at Marblehead. A network of expressions taking in the toll links phrase to phrase, stanza to stanza, until one is apt to say to Longfellow, “Old man, you’ve made your point!”: the farm-house is “old”; the town is not merely “old-fashioned,” as we like New England towns to be, but also “strangely” so; the old Revolutionary War-era fort is “dismantled,” broken down; these aging friends speak of “vanished” scenes, and of those that have “died”; the autumnal “leaves of memory” “rustle in the dark”; words “die” upon their lips, even as the fire “expires” and “bickers,” as is fitting for flames derived from the wood of sunken ships, and for words uttered by sinking and sunken souls. And then there is stanza three:

We sat and talked until the night,
Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
Our voices only broke the gloom.

The scene turns ghostly: night “descends” and “fills” the room, until “faces” “fade from the sight” and the voices are heard as if somehow disembodied, spiritualized—as if in anticipation of some oncoming death. Here again the rhymes signify, and are thematic: “night” overwhelms and controls “the sight,” as the “room” is overtaken by “gloom.” By there is at the heart of the poem something almost too painful to bear in its unanswerable truth:

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.

“Friends” have their “ends”; they never shall they be “one again.” This we all know, and this we all bear in “secret pain,” as much ashamed of the fact as we are “powerless to express it.” Among every flock of friends there occur these “slight swervings” of the heart that sunder them, but which they leave “unsaid” for fear of saying too little, or too much. Politics, vocations, religion, jealousy, envy, commitments to one thing or another, vagrant paths of desire and love—all these things bear us away even from what were once our most intimate friends. I cannot help but feel a certain guilt, a shame, underlying these two stanzas, as if Longfellow would implicate himself (and us) in the sunderings and wreckages of what once seemed unbreakable ties. Well, we are all implicated in them, are we not? Whom can we not, or whom do we not, speak to as once we did—and why? The  answer to the latter question, to the “why” of it, can only be this: for reasons and motives both good and bad, both dignified and petty. It is as if life were a matter of resentments, estrangements, “bickering.” And at last the poem ends with a stanza almost perfect in execution (especially in its closing two lines):

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.

The syntax of those last two lines is as graceful as it is, in the equations it draws, unbearable. These lines assimilate “scene” to “agents” (as Kenneth Burke might say): what burns without, and what burns within—fire built from ruined ships, ships ventured and lost; and “burning” thoughts that dwell, in the faceless dark, upon the “long-lost ventures of the heart,” ventures in love, in friendship, in vocation, in hope. All is wreckage.

And at last I would point out that, in The Seaside and the Fireside, Longfellow places “The Fire of Drift-Wood” between “The Lighthouse” and “Resignation.” The former poem ends as follows, with lines that mingle ideas of suffering—the blinded, maddened birds; Prometheus, chained to his rock; and so on—with the fond hope that our ventures at sea (and of the heart) shall bring men together, not sunder them:

The sea-bird wheeling round [the lighthouse], with the din
Of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of Jove,
It does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
But hails the mariner with words of love.

“Sail on!” it says, “sail on, ye stately ships!
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man!”

And the latter poem begins with this:

There is no flock, however watched and tended,
But one dead lamb is there!
There is no fireside, howsoe’er defended,
But has one vacant chair!

I should point out that this poem, “Resignation,” dates from the autumn of 1848, shortly after the death of Longfellow’s fifteen-month old daughter Fanny on September 11.

Finally, I am reminded, here, of two poems in Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, which takes its title from a refrain in Longfellow’s much anthologized poem “My Lost Youth” (“A boy’s will is the wind’s will / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts”). Frost admired Longfellow, and by many decades anticipated his (admittedly minor) renaissance in the canon (as in, for example, the Library of America’s edition Longfellow: Poems & Other Writings, edited by J.D. McClatchy in the year 2000). Here are the poems:

“Love and a Question”
A stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.


Title page, first American edition.

The bridegroom came forth into the porch
With, ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’

Within, the bride in the dusk alone
Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
And the thought of the heart’s desire.
The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
And pinned with a silver pin.

The bridegroom thought it little to give
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
The bridegroom wished he knew.


Frost, at about the time "A Boy's Will" first appeared. Click on the image for a link to a web-site devoted to Frost's farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where many of the poems in "A Boy's Will" were written.

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view

And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

N.B.: For a link to readings of a number of Longfellow’s poems (though not “The Fire of Drift-Wood”) at Librivox, click here. For a link to his collected works at the Internet Archive, click here. Finally, for a link to the site devoted to Longfellow by the Maine Historical Society, click here.


Longfellow's tomb, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Boston.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Garvey permalink
    November 9, 2009 1:24 PM

    Lovely, Mark…meticulous and heartfelt.

    • November 10, 2009 1:40 AM

      Thanks, Prof. Garvey–my co-conspirator in the history of the CSRA, and, of course, in The Greater English Department of America, so-called; amongst the professoriate of which I shall soon be mingling (belletristically) at this year’s MLA, not delivering papers, mind you, just meeting folk & digging the scene, the attire, the disposition, the politic badge-scanning, the chatting up of all the editors in the booths at the book exhibits–to wit, the whole fact of its being a “profession.”

      My warmest regards to Jamie, & my heartfelt thanks to the both of you–

      PS: Yank Larry’s chain for me somehow the next time you see him. I love the guy.

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