1] Longfellow began the poem "June 18, 1849. Work upon it, however, was interrupted by the illness and death of his father, which took him to Portland and detained him there, but not unlikely his stay in the city by the sea gave him opportunity for brooding over the poem. It may be added that besides his early association with the seaboard, his summers were now spent at Nahant. `I prefer the sea-side to the country,' he once said; 'the idea of liberty is stronger there.' At any rate, in September he was again engaged upon the poem, and on the 20th notes: 'The Building of the Ship goes on. It will be rather long. Will it be good?' On the 22d he finished the poem, and in the latter part of November The Seaside and the Fireside was published, with The Building of the Ship as the leading piece.
The form of the poem was clearly suggested by Schiller's Song of the Bell, which has more than once served as a model to poets. Schiller may be said to have introduced a new artistic form, and Mr. Longfellow, in adopting the general scheme, showed his apprehension of its capacity by the skill with which he moved from one passage to another, using the short lines to express the quicker, more sudden, or hurried action, the longer to indicate lingering, moderate action or reflection. The oratorial character of the poem, so to speak, has always caught the ear, and it is interesting to read in the poet's diary shortly after the publication of the book, this entry:--
February 12, 1850. In the evening Mrs. [Fanny] Kemble read before the Mercantile Library Association, to an audience of more than three thousand, portions of As You Like It; then The Building of the Ship, standing out upon the platform, book in hand, trembling, palpitating and weeping, and giving every word its true weight and emphasis. She prefaced the recital by a few words, to this effect; that when she first saw the poem, she desired to read it before a Boston audience; and she hoped she would be able to make every word audible to that great multitude.
By this graceful action Mrs. Kemble may well have thrown into concrete form the lines with which Mr. Longfellow closed the sonnet commemorating her readings,
O happy Poet! ... How must thy listening spirit now rejoice To be interpreted by such a voice.
But it is to be suspected that the vast multitude was stirred to its depths not so much by the artistic completeness of the rendition, as by the impassioned burst with which the poem closes, and which fell upon no listless ears in the deep agitation of the eventful year 1850. Mr. Noah Brooks in his paper on Lincoln's Imagination (Scribner's Monthly, August, 1879) mentions that he found the President one day attracted by these stanzas, quoted in a political speech. `Knowing the whole poem,' he adds, `as one of my early exercises in recitation, I began, at his request, with the description of the launch of the ship, and repeated it to the end. As he listened to the last lines, his eyes filled with tears, and his cheeks were wet. He did not speak for some minutes, but finally said, with simplicity: "It is a wonderful gift to be able to stir men like that."'" (Editor,pp. 240-42.) Back to Line
29] Great Harry: a ship in 1488 named after Henry VII, who reunited the English nobility after the disastrous wars of the roses. Back to Line
61] Pascagoula's sunny bay: mouth of the Pascagoula river on the Mississippi gulf coast. Roanoke: river flowing from south Virginia and North Carolina into Albemarle Sound. Back to Line
137] Scarfed: a carpentry joint made by notching or chamfering two pieces so that they fit together and can be bolted. Back to Line
160] Madagascar: island in the Indian ocean off southeast Africa. Lascar: East Indian sailor. Back to Line
178] Stemson and keelson and sternson-knee: the stemson is a curved timber-piece near a ship's bow, attached to the keelson, a lengthy piece strengthening and running above and along the keel to the stern, where it (the keelson) ends in the sternson-knee, which attaches to the sternpost. Back to Line
252] "I wish to anticipate a criticism on this passage, by stating that sometimes, though not usually, vessels are launched fully sparred and rigged. I have availed myself of the exception as better suited to my purposes than the general rule; but the reader will see that it is neither a blunder nor a poetic license. On this subject a friend in Portland, Maine, writes me thus:--
In this State, and also, I am told, in New York, ships are sometimes rigged upon the stocks, in order to save time, or to make a show. There was a fine, large ship launched last summer at Ellsworth, fully sparred and rigged. Some years ago a ship was launched here, with her rigging, spars, sails, and carg aboard. She sailed the next day and--was never heard of again! I hope this will not be the fate of your poem!"
(Longfellow, p. 329, from the first edition notes; p. 329 here.) Back to Line
337] The Fortunate Isles: mythical islands, supposed to be west sometimes of the pillars of Hercules in the Atlantic and sometimes identified as the Canary Islands, where the Greeks and Romans thought the blessed went to dwell after death. See Virgil's Aeneid. VI, 639. Back to Line
347] shores and spurs: props keeping the ship upright on the harbour ground. Back to Line