Friday, January 11, 2008

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls — a Poetry Friday post

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

About the poem:

First, a word about form and composition.

This is an example of a rondeau, with a minor variation. A rondeau is a form taken from the French (hence the French name), and is a poem with 15 lines broken into 3 5-line stanzas. So far, so good. It takes the opening phrase of the poem, and uses it as a chorus of sorts, which appears as the final line of each stanza. Again, so far, so good (although many poets use only a portion of the first line, such as "The tide rises"). And usually, it only has two end rhymes. We’ll call the "chorus" line C, so a general rondeau has this format: aabbc aabbc aabbc (one of the best-known English poems using rondeau form is "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian war poet, John McCrae, which I posted during National Poetry Month last year. Here, Longfellow’s use of the complete first line makes the first stanza read aabba. But instead of adhering to the standard form, Longfellow uses different "B" couplets in the next two stanzas, so that the poem reads as aabba aacca aadda. Savvy?

Now, if you’re still with me, and you have a moment (and you’re someplace where you can do this without embarrassment), please humor me by reading at least one stanza out loud. The whole poem, if possible, but hey, I’ll take what you’re willing to give me.

While the poem is still in your mental ear, I want to talk once more about assonance and it’s friend, alliteration. Assonance is when neighboring words have the same (or similar) vowel sound, whereas alliteration involves repetition of consonants. Like Tennyson, Longfellow was a complete master of assonance and alliteration, and all those "round tones"* and repeated consonants evoke a particular mood (long vowels take longer to say than short ones, and so compel a slower reading pace), make memorization and recitation possible, and propel the poem along, song-like.

A final note about form: In each stanza, the second line ends in the word "calls." First, a curlew, which is type of wading bird; then the sea; and finally, the hostler (sometimes spelled "ostler", since the "h" is silent), which is the name of person responsible for the care of horses.

Now, a word about meaning.

The poem sets out a fairly simple story: In the first stanza, a traveller hastens along the shore toward the town. In the second, night falls and, with the tide, the traveller’s footprints are wiped away. And in the third stanza, dawn comes. Life continues (in the form of the horses and hostler), but the traveller never returns.

Symbolically, this poem is usually seen as talking about death, as represented by the darkness, the effacement of the traveller’s footsteps, and the traveller’s non-return. And yet, in the end, life goes on, as I’ve already noted. The tide continues as before. The hostler continues about his job. And the horses are ready to charge forward, in part indicated by Longfellow’s decision to use the word "steed" instead of "horse". A horse is a horse (of course, of course), but a steed is a horse that is ready for some serious action, a horse with spirit (hence all the stamping and neighing). (Also, steed, stamp and stall brings out that alliteration we were talking about earlier in a way that horse, paw, and stall would not have.) And the tide rises, the tide falls.

About the poet: Longfellow was one of the five Fireside Poets, so-called because they were extremely popular, and many of their poems were written for the purpose of recitation (by fireside or elsewhere). He was so popular that popular 20th-century wisdom held that he must not have been particularly gifted. On the one hand, looking at his poems and his use of conventional forms, with little in the way of daring and experimentation to move the forms forward or break new ground, one can see why his skill was considered less than some others of his era who broke new poetic ground.

Longfellow wrote quite a bit about America, and is one of the quintessential "American" authors. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow wrote about American themes and stories, including Native Americans ("The Song of Hiawatha"), American history and tradition, and in some cases, as in "The Landlord’s Tale: Paul Revere’s Ride", the creation and/or perpetuation of American myth.

On the other hand, looking at some of his poems, such as "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" and "The Cross of Snow", I say "balderdash". The man had a real gift for the type of poetry he wrote. And many of his poems stand the test of time, such as the one I’ve featured here today.

In closing

I love this poem for its sound and imagery. And my guess is that’s why the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation included it as one of the poems which is eligible to be memorized and recited in competition by high school kids as part of the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation program.


Anonymous said...

thanks that was very helpful!

Anonymous said...

when was this poem published???

Kelly Fineman said...

I don't know the precise date. I'm certain you can look it up as easily as I can.

Anonymous said...

very helpful thank you very much :)

Anonymous said...

this was veryyy helpful! thankss soo much! for me, poetry is extrememly hard for me to understand.

Kelly Fineman said...

I'm very glad people are enjoying this post so much!

Anonymous said...

I appreciated your insight on the form of the poem.

Megan said...

thank you so much! this helped me on some extra credit i am doing :)

Alec said...

I can't for the life of me find when this was published.