341. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

The Fire of Drift-wood


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.

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.

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.

    In this poem by Longfellow, we find what we find apprehended in all good literature: the possibility of a virtuous life, and the impossibility of a complete realization of such a life. Virtue ethics is a contemporary field of philosophy; but the language of virtue is a language, across cultures, capable of rendering and debating good action and the good life; rather than a theory, it is a lexicon that permits competing claims, elaborations, and arguments. There is no accounting for what is distinctly good in Longfellow’s poem without it, and so when I put the poem before students and gave them the cue of thinking of what virtues might be relevant to thinking through it, their immediately seizing on patience and loyalty, and their further suggesting that the poem fends off a sentimental clinging to a significance no longer alive in and to the present, felt exactly right. The poem’s structure, drawing a perfect parallel between the drift-wood of a lost ship and the remnants of a faded friendship, embodies the equanimity that accepts loss, and that finds in loss the possibility of  a redeeming nostalgia—not to be confused with the sentimentality that insists on a presence that no longer inheres—but that celebrates the warmth of remembering itself; the patience of the poem is the patience of letting the fire of friendship die, declining the frenzied pretense of reliving the past, and accepting the silence of the heart. Longfellow is loyal to the friendship that no longer exists by honoring it for what it was, and no longer can be; he is loyal to his friend from the past by respecting the change they both have undergone, and he is loyal as a consequence to his past self as well. He is flush with the warmed glow of happiness, but not satisfied; it is about happiness in and despite sadness, at peace without complacency or denial, avoiding that “too great excess” but accommodating nonetheless the excess that is the waste of flame, with its “splendor” that “flashed and failed”—not so stringent as to do deny indulgence, and not so indulgent as to let the figure go too far: “they were indeed too much akin.” Too much for what? For whom? Too much for him to tolerate; too much for the poem to persevere in describing without talking a step too far? “Indeed” doubles back, an acknowledgement of how just the poem has been in the comparison it has drawn; but also quenching the comparison, the word “indeed” implying “enough,” affirming to move on.


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