The Supreme Court upheld the Individual Mandate. But I see today's decision as a bigger win for principle, and thus a more crucial success for constitutionally limited government. I explain why at PLF Liberty Blog.
Not long ago, I read an essay by Dana Gioia about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great nineteenth century “fireside poet” best known for Song of Hiawatha and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and it occurred to me that I knew too little about a poet whose works have had an incalculable impact on the American idiom and culture—and who is today almost rendered an obscure footnote, thanks to the prevailing tastes of the cultural elite. Longfellow strove for universality, precision, rhyme, meter, and story-telling—all ideals that are now treated with derision, if they are treated at all, by America’s literary culture. Perhaps that’s putting things a bit strongly, but confessionalism and free verse and poetry-as-therapy are still the dominant modes of poetry in America, which is probably why nobody reads poetry anymore. Or, rather, why people choose to consume their poetry in musical form, nowadays.
Interested in learning more about Longfellow, I got a copy of Christoph Irmscher’s book, Longfellow Redux—and found it a compulsively readable, charming, insightful, and clever book full of insights about a truly great poet. Longfellow was more than a composer of carefully balanced verse; he was a brilliant translator, with a cosmopolitan attitude toward poetry that, as Irmscher shows, poses a fascinating contrast with Walt Whitman’s poetic attitude. Whitman’s great, but the immensity of the individualism that boils forth out of Leaves of Grass is overwhelming and, in some senses, terrifying. Whitman’s narrator is so enthusiastic that he seems to disregard the reader’s privacy—he wants to consume and subsume you; he wants a union with you that threatens to assimilate your personality with his. It’s clear from the context that Whitman means no offense—but he is so powerful that, like Shakespeare’s Caesar or John Knowles’ Phinny, he is insensate to the gravitational pull of his poetic persona, and the fact that it can wreck the smaller selves to read his work. Longfellow is far gentler. He is content to listen to you. He does not dictate what you shall assume—he brings forth his treasures and invites you to show him your own. He assembles the poetry of different cultures and places, translates them for you, and although not uncritical, does not condemn honest and plebian effort. In that sense, Irmscher strongly suggests that Longfellow is the more democratic of the two poets.
All throughout the book, Irmscher gives us fascinating biographical details and examines Longfellow’s poetic works as well as the works of those who translated him into other languages—assembling a wealth of scholarship in an interesting, accessible way that a layman like myself can understand and appreciate. If you’re interested in American literature, don’t overlook this excellent book.