Nox Oculis

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Poète américain, auteur d'une œuvre sentimentale, didactique et parfois moralisante, qui reste néanmoins considéré comme un classique en son pays.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow naquit le 27 février 1807 à Portland, dans le Maine, au sein d'une famille ancienne et respectée. Pour se préparer à son métier d'enseignant, il effectua un long voyage en Europe, puis, à partir de 1825, enseigna les langues modernes, notamment à Harvard. Il cessa cette activité en 1854, quand son succès fut tel qu'il put se consacrer entièrement à la littérature. Devenu de son vivant le poète-lauréat de son pays, il incarnait les idées conservatrices de l'élite bourgeoise. Il mourut le 24 mars 1882 à Cambridge, dans le Massachusetts.

L'oeuvre poétique de Longfellow est caractérisée par des thèmes familiers, des idées simples et une langue mélodieuse. Dès son premier florilège, Voix de la nuit (1839), Longfellow fut reconnu par le public comme un auteur important. C'est pourtant Ballades et autres poèmes (1841), recueil de ses poèmes les plus connus, parmi lesquels « le Squelette en armure », qui le rendit véritablement célèbre. Il écrivit par la suite un recueil assez peu audacieux intitulé Poèmes sur l'esclavage (1842) et trois longs poèmes narratifs sur des thèmes américains, Évangéline (1847), le Chant de Hiawatha (1855) et Miles Standish (1858). Parmi ses autres recueils, citons Ultima Thule (1880). Toujours en vers, il rédigea des Contes d'une auberge au bord du chemin (1863), recueil de brefs récits inspirés des Contes de Canterbury de Chaucer. Il écrivit aussi des romans, comme Hypérion (1839), une traduction en vers de la Divine Comédie de Dante (3 volumes, 1865-1867) et fut lui-même l'auteur d'une Divine Tragédie (1871).

Même si Longfellow reste l'un des poètes américains les plus populaires, on lui reproche souvent aujourd'hui sa superficialité, les lieux communs sur lesquels reposent ses écrits, mais aussi son style, jugé didactique et dépourvu d'une authentique puissance lyrique.

The Galaxy

    Torrent of light and river of the air,
    Along whose bed the glimmering stars are seen
    Like gold and silver sands in some ravine
    Where mountain streams have left their channels bare !
    The Spaniard sees in thee the pathway, where
    His patron saint descended in the sheen
    Of his celestial armor on serene
    And quiet nights, when all the heavens were fair.
    Not this I see, nor yet the ancient fable
    Of Phaeton's wild course, that scorched the skies
    Where'er the hoofs of his hot coursers trod ;
    But the white drift of worlds o'er chasms of sable,
    The star dust, that is whirled aloft and flies
    From the invisible chariot-wheels of God.

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hymn to the Night

    I heard the trailing garments of the Night
    Sweep through her marble halls !
    I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light
    From the celestial walls !

    I felt her presence, by its spell of might,
    Stoop o'er me from above ;
    The calm, majestic presence of the Night,
    As of the one I love.

    I heard the sounds of sorrow and delight,
    The manifold, soft chimes,
    That fill the haunted chambers of the Night
    Like some old poet's rhymes.

    From the cool cisterns of the midnight air
    My spirit drank repose ;
    The fountain of perpetual peace flows there, --
    From those deep cisterns flows.

    O holy Night ! from thee I learn to bear
    What man has borne before !
    Thou layest thy finger on the lips of Care,
    And they complain no more.

    Peace ! Peace ! Orestes-like I breathe this prayer !
    Descend with broad-winged flight,
    The welcome, the thrice-prayed for, the most fair,
    The best-beloved Night !

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Light of Stars

    The night is come, but not too soon ;
    And sinking silently,
    All silently, the little moon
    Drops down behind the sky.

    There is no light in earth or heaven
    But the cold light of stars ;
    And the first watch of night is given
    To the red planet Mars.

    Is it the tender star of love ?
    The star of love and dreams ?
    O no! from that blue tent above,
    A hero's armor gleams.

    And earnest thoughts within me rise,
    When I behold afar,
    Suspended in the evening skies,
    The shield of that red star.

    O star of strength! I see thee stand
    And smile upon my pain ;
    Thou beckonest with thy mailed hand,
    And I am strong again.

    Within my breast there is no light
    But the cold light of stars ;
    I give the first watch of the night
    To the red planet Mars.

    The star of the unconquered will,
    He rises in my breast,
    Serene, and resolute, and still,
    And calm, and self-possessed.

    And thou, too, whosoe'er thou art,
    That readest this brief psalm,
    As one by one thy hopes depart,
    Be resolute and calm.

    O fear not in a world like this,
    And thou shalt know erelong,
    Know how sublime a thing it is
    To suffer and be strong.

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


    As a pale phantom with a lamp
    Ascends some ruin's haunted stair,
    So glides the moon along the damp
    Mysterious chambers of the air.

    Now hidden in cloud, and now revealed,
    As if this phantom, full of pain,
    Were by the crumbling walls concealed,
    And at the windows seen again.

    Until at last, serene and proud
    In all the splendor of her light
    She walks the terraces of cloud,
    Supreme as Empress of the Night.

    I look, but recognize no more
    Objects familiar to my view ;
    The very pathway to my door
    Is an enchanted avenue.

    All things are changed. One mass of shade,
    The elm-trees drop their curtains down ;
    By palace, park, and colonnade
    I walk as in a foreign town.

    The very ground beneath my feet
    Is clothed with a diviner air;
    White marble paves the silent street
    And glimmers in the empty square.

    Illusion ! Underneath there lies
    The common life of every day;
    Only the spirit glorifies
    With its own tints the sober gray.

    In vain we look, in vain uplift
    Our eyes to heaven, if we are blind ;
    We see but what we have the gift
    Of seeing; what we bring we find.

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1878

The Occultation of Orion

    I saw, as in a dream sublime,
    The balance in the hand of Time.
    O'er East and West its beam impended ;
    And day, with all its hours of light,
    Was slowly sinking out of sight,
    While opposite, the scale of night
    Silently with the stars ascended.

    Like the astrologers of eld
    In that bright vision I beheld
    Greater and deeper mysteries.
    I saw, with its celestial keys,
    Its chords of air, its frets of fire
    The Samian's great Aeolian lyre
    Rising through all its sevenfold bars
    From earth unto the fixed stars.
    And through the dewy atmosphere,
    Not only could I see, but hear,
    Its wondrous and harmonious strings,
    In sweet vibration, sphere by sphere
    From Dian's circle light and near,
    Onward to vaster and wider rings,
    Where, chanting through his beard of snows,
    Majestic, mournful, Saturn goes,
    And down the sunless realms of space
    Reverberates the thunder of his bass.

    Beneath the sky's triumphal arch
    This music sounded like a march,
    And with its chorus seemed to be
    Preluding some great tragedy.
    Sirius was rising in the east ;
    And, slow ascending one by one,
    The kindling constellations shone.
    Begirt with many a blazing star,
    Stood the great giant Algebar,
    Orion, hunter of the beast !
    His sword hung gleaming by his side,
    And, on his arm, the lion's hide
    Scattered across the midnight air
    The golden radiance of its hair.

    The moon was pallid, but not faint ;
    And beautiful as some fair saint,
    Serenely moving on her way
    In hours of trial and dismay.
    As if she heard the voice of God,
    Unharmed with naked feet she trod
    Upon the hot and burning stars,
    As on the glowing coals and bars,
    That were to prove her strength, and try
    Her holiness and her purity.

    Thus moving on, with silent pace,
    And triumph in her sweet, pale face,
    She reached the station of Orion.
    Aghast he stood in strange alarm !
    And suddenly from his outstretched arm
    Down fell the red skin of the lion
    Into the river at his feet.
    His mighty club no longer beat
    The forehead of the bull; but he
    Reeled as of yore beside the sea,
    When, blinded by Oenopion,
    He sought the blacksmith at his forge
    And, climbing up the mountain gorge,
    Fixed his blank eyes upon the sun.

    Then, through the silence overhead,
    An angel with a trumpet said,
    "Forevermore, forevermore,
    The reign of violence is o'er !"
    And, like an instrument that flings
    Its music on another's strings,
    The trumpet of the angel cast
    Upon the heavenly lyre its blast,
    And on from sphere to sphere the words
    Re-echoed down the burning chords, --
    "Forevermore, forevermore
    The reign of violence is o'er !"

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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