Deep South v.1 n.1 (February, 1995)
Odell Shepard, in the Literary History of the United States calls Longfellow's "Mezzo Cammin": "A really fine sonnet . . . in which [Longfellow] surveyed his past accomplishment with characteristic modesty and manly candor."
I want to take issue with Shepard's assessment on two fronts, for although his reaction is valid enough, it does no more than scratch the surface of the poem. For a start, I do not think that "Mezzo Cammin" is a "really fine sonnet". I find it effective in that it portrays deep emotion in a clear manner, but I also think there are contradictions within the poem, in terms of style and language, that prevent it from being a great poem.
The second part of Shepard's statement that I find problematic is that in which he states that "Longfellow surveyed his past accomplishment with modesty". I do not feel that modesty is the right term at all. To me, "Mezzo Cammin" is a poem written from a sense of despair, loneliness and self-doubt occasioned by the death of his first wife, and his difficulty successfully wooing his future second wife. A deeply personal poem, Longfellow never released "Mezzo Cammin" for publication; it was published posthumously by his brother, as was "The Cross of Snow", which was written long after his second wife's death.
"Mezzo Cammin" is written in the Petrarchan sonnet form. An octave, rhyming abbaabba, is followed by a sestet, which rhymes cdcdcd. The Petrarchan sonnet form traditionally lends itself well to a setting out of problem in the octave, with a resolution taken up in the sestet. Longfellow, however, does not find a solution in the course of the sonnet, and the sestet is thus part of a crescendoing movement of angst that moves through the whole poem.
The language of the poem is also problematic to me. Longfellow starts with a crystal clear statement of the problem he is facing:
Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me, and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth (ll. 1-3)
The mostly monosyllabic words of these lines have a simplicity that state the problem uncompromisingly--there are no flights of poetic fancy, and the emotion is laid bare. The quatrain could as easily be written as a prose sentence, with no loss of sense; the enjambement creates a pleasing tension between poem and prose.
The last line of the first quatrain does, however, cause me some difficulty: "to build/ Some tower of song with lofty parapet" (ll. 3-4). Longfellow mocks his youthful ambitions by using precisely the poetic language of youthful ambition, and calls up the trope of the poet as builder of a monument that will outlast the rest of human endeavour. This jars a little with the quiet language that initially drew me in and allowed me to sympathise strongly with the poet. However, Longfellow is positing a rejection of poetic language, by juxtaposing the self-consciously artificial language of the poet's youth, with the true language of introspection in the first lines of the poem.
At the same time, however, Longfellow is reminding himself that he has nothing so grandiose to reject. He has not built a "tower of song", and it is this that troubles him deeply. He uses the poetic language to indicate that the ambition still resides, and that he still considers himself a poet.
There follows a quatrain of self-justification, in which Longfellow outlines why he has not achieved what he thinks he is capable of accomplishing. He starts with a triplet of anti-reasons:
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled (ll. 5-6)
These anti-reasons increase in intensity, from the non-emotiveness of indolence, to the joys of pleasure, to the intensity of uncontrollable passion. Line 6 also has an onomatopoeic rustling quality that speeds up the line, with its repeated "st" and "ss" sounds. This leads to an effective contrast with the next line, whose pace is slower, and less self-consciously poetic, in that it comes after a group of polysyllabic latinate abstractions ("indolence", "pleasure", and "passions"), with the Anglo Saxon "sorrow", and the monosyllabic "care".
The last line of the quatrain indicates that Longfellow's hope of future accomplishment is not yet dead ("Kept me from what I may accomplish yet" (l. 8)), and the alliteration of hard "c" continuing from line seven to line eight has added effect, in that it underscores the poet's bitterness, a bitterness caused by conflicting reasons (his sorrow at his wife's death is valid, but so also is his bitterness at being prevented from writing adequate poetry):
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet (ll. 7-8)
The hope comes filtering back into the poem in the eighth line ("Kept me from what I may accomplish yet"), indicating a potential rise in the poet's state of mind. But the sestet immediately undercuts this hopefulness by returning us to the issue in hand, the fact that Longfellow is approaching middle age ("half of my life is gone"), and pushes the consequences of this further. For if one is at the middle stage of one's life, then one is also entering a time in which one is closer to death than to birth.
The sestet, then, jerks us back from the potential happiness of the future, in that Longfellow has something he "may accomplish yet", with its "Though". "Though" introduces the sestet and its insistence on the poet as being backward looking and being terrified by death which is further up the hill that he must climb.
In the sestet Longfellow denies himself and the reader the solace that the sonnet form sets us up to expect, by using the sestet's opening lines to turn us, not towards a comforting reflection and resolution of the problem of the octave, but further back into the despair that he feels. The imagery of the poet climbing up the hill of life, towards death at the top of that hill is reminiscent of the image of building in line four. However, it is not a modification of that image, nor is it intended to be; rather, the image of the poet climbing the hill of life is a step back into the realm of poetic language that line four inhabits.
The sestet jars somewhat because of its use of "poetic" language: we are moved abruptly from simple plain language of the emotions to an unconvincing extended image of the past:
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,-
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights (ll. 9-12)
The image seems strained to me; I think it works against the simplicity of the preceding octave, and it is as if Longfellow is uncomfortable revealing his emotions in plain language, so turns with relief to a metaphor.
The metaphor of the Past as a city is new to me: Longfellow works it quite skillfully--depicting it in muffled terms. It is seen at twilight (thus Longfellow picks up again the imagery of aging that appears elsewhere in the poem), and it is seen dimly. It is also heard dimly--the bells are "soft". However, Longfellow does not push the image far enough--he makes the reader work too hard. What is the significance of Longfellow looking down on the past? Is it because he cannot return? Does he want to return? Is the past starting to die for him, and is that what motivates the poem for him? Or is the problem that the past is calling him back and he cannot progress?
Progression does not seem to be an option for Longfellow, for, even if he does want to progress, the future is not known to him, and all that he is certain of is death. In the final lines of the poem the imagery suddenly becomes even harsher:
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights (ll. 13-14)
"Autumnal" picks up on the imagery of aging once more; Longfellow is entering his declining years. However, the word "blast" jars with the volume of the rest of the poem. Even at its loudest "tower of song with lofty parapet" (l. 4) the rest of the sonnet never really reaches higher than mezzoforte. The final two lines of the sonnet are fortissimo, and this, coupled with the final line, a crashingly iambic alexandrine (the only alexandrine in the sonnet) sealing off the poem in uncompromising terms, has a hysterical quality that sits oddly with the more contemplative opening lines.
Despite the problems I had with this sonnet, I chose to analyse it because it did speak to me. Although I share little of Longfellow's attributes (I am not male, middle-aged, or mourning the death of a truelove or lost ambition (yet)), I felt that he expressed his situation with pathos and poignancy in such a way as to draw me into the poem. The most powerful lines in the poem (the simplest lines) have a directness and frankness ("manly candor", if you will) that is appealing and very touching. Although Longfellow loses me in the lines of death imagery, by unexpectedly introducing them into the final lines, he has drawn me in enough in the first lines of the poem to keep me with him to the end.