‘The Poet and His Songs’ serves as the l’envoi, or conclusion, of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1880 collection, Ultima Thule. As a concluding piece, the work was an important one, as the l’envoi is typically used to convey a moral or final thought for the volume as a whole. Longfellow uses ‘The Poet and His Songs’ seemingly as a way to discuss his own relationship to his work, and his profession as a writer, which, in 1880, was very well-established. Longfellow’s introspective pieces are not among his most common works, but they showcase his literary talents very well.
‘The Poet and His Songs’ also works well alongside the concept of the volume it appears in as a whole: “Ultima Thule” is a Latin term that was typically used in medieval European literature to describe either Greenland (in its literal interpretation) or any place that was beyond the borders of the known world. This grand, almost mystical idea, serves as the basis for Longfellow’s 1880 work, and is a concept that is worth keeping in mind while reading through this poem as well.
The Poet and His Songs Analysis
First and Second Stanza
As the birds come in the Spring,
We know not from where;
As the stars come at evening
From depths of the air;
As the rain comes from the cloud,
And the brook from the ground;
As suddenly, low or loud,
Out of silence a sound;
‘The Poet and His Songs’ is a story told in basic-structure rhyming quatrains, in an ABAB pattern. The simplistic nature of the poem’s structure, coupled with the easy rhyme from line to line, gives the poem a lyrical quality, and it is structured somewhat like a song. This is rather fitting, considering the initially abstract theme of the words themselves. In the first two stanzas, it is easy to see the repetition of a singular theme, namely that certain aspects of the natural world are inexplicable. Longfellow’s use of natural imagery as a metaphor is hardly a unique idea, but he makes an interesting choice in not informing the reader what the images are a metaphor for. By starting every other line with the word “as,” Longfellow makes it clear that he is drawing a parallel using the images described, but since this pattern begins in the first word of the work, the actual meaning is left unexplored.
What this means is that the initial focus of ‘The Poet and His Songs’ should be on the inexplicable ways in which the world works. The images invoked here are aviary migration, the source of the stars, the creation of rain, and the formation of sound. Keeping in mind that this poem was written in the late nineteenth century, each of these images represents an element of the world that is unknown and unknowable. If, in 1880, a person asked how sound is formed, the answer would be vague and speculative at best — topics such as sound and water cycle were in their relative infancy in the nineteenth century, and this seems to be the driving force behind these verses.
Third and Fourth Stanza
As the grape comes to the vine,
The fruit to the tree;
As the wind comes to the pine,
And the tide to the sea;
As come the white sails of ships
O’er the ocean’s verge;
As comes the smile to the lips,
The foam to the surge;
The repetitive nature of ‘The Poet and His Songs’ continues to manifest in the third and fourth verses, with a notable shift in tone arriving in the fourth verse. The third verse invokes images and ideas very similar to the first two — the growth of fruit from seed and the birth of winds and tides are processes that are, for the majority of people, inexplicable. Even today, asking how fruit grows on trees will, in most cases, yield the asker an answer that is something like “I don’t know; it just does.”
For the fourth verse, however, the approach is slightly different; the parallels are drawn beside the sight of ships appearing in the horizon, and the way a smile creeps onto the face of someone when they’re happy. While these events aren’t at all inexplicable — there is a limit to eyesight and muscles in the body — they are still hopeful images, and are associated with comfort and safety. These ideas are inexplicable on a different level, such as in wondering why smiling is our instinctive response to happiness, or how it can be that in one moment those sails are invisible, and in the next they can appear.
Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Stanza
So come to the Poet his songs,
All hitherward blown
From the misty realm, that belongs
To the vast Unknown.
His, and not his, are the lays
He sings; and their fame
Is his, and not his; and the praise
And the pride of a name.
For voices pursue him by day,
And haunt him by night,
And he listens, and needs must obey,
When the Angel says: ‘Write!’
The final three verses are linked thematically, because they create the second half of Longfellow’s parallel. As the title implied, the driving idea behind ‘The Poet and His Songs’ is to describe the motivation a writer has for their craft, and the reason that Longfellow writes as he does. The fifth verse describes the formation of ideas, as they travel from a “vast unknown” into the writer’s mind, while the sixth verse describes the paradoxical nature of the end result of those ideas. The stories the poet tells are both his and not his, because he cannot explain where they came from or how. In the same way the natural world works, so too does his drive to write. The final verse likens that motivation to an Angel commanding the poet to write out the words spoken by voices in his head. To say that “the Angel told me to write” is like saying that there is no explanation for where the writing comes from because Longfellow is likening the process to something transcendent of human understanding. He doesn’t understand where the sound comes from; he doesn’t know how a seed transforms into fruit, and he doesn’t know why he is a writer. But he does know, without a shadow of doubt, that all three things are true.
‘The Poet and His Songs’ is a very personal poem, and the parallel between discovering oneself and the natural world suggests that being who you are is the most important thing a person can do. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s vast catalog of literary works suggests that he took this very seriously himself. In this way, ‘The Poet and His Songs’ is the ideal choice for a conclusion to the volume Ultima Thule, because that “vast unknown” where Longfellow found his ideas were both unknowable and unreachable but was always worth exploring. The idea of human potential being like an Ultima Thule that needs exploring is a strong one, an idea both lovely and empowering to finish one of his strong collections of poetry.