Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Poetry
Dreams that Cannot Die
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About Longfellow Reads Longfellow
An Interview With Layne Longfellow

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History and Coincidence
Music and Poetry
About the Recordings
Adaptation and Reaction
Longfellow and the Listener
A Dream That Would Not Die

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Q: If you like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poems so much, why didn't you read them as they were written?

A: Well, that's your big question, isn't it? And the answer is a paradox: I adapted the poems because I want them to be heard the way the poet intended them. What reads well on the page is not necessarily what reads well to the ear, and increasingly we listen instead of read. I did not alter the written texts; I reprint those exactly as they appear in Longfellow's 1885 Poetical Works. I have no intention of improving the poems, I've simply adapted the written texts for reading aloud, for listening. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow raised significant questions for us to consider; my role is to phrase them so that they can be heard today. The themes of these poems are universal and immortal; only the rhythm and the rhyme are nineteenth-century American. But I chose not to modernize the poems, or to minimize the intellectual demands they make, or to soften their emotional impact.

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Q: What's been the reaction to the adaptations?

A: Most listeners are delighted, as you can see in Reactions, but some are horrified by the liberties I took. I may be guilty of outrageous hubris, but I think that first group understands poetry to be living communication, while the second group sees poetry as artifact, to be preserved, like antique china that's too precious to use. To those few who still know and love these poems in the original, my changes may be jarring, and I understand that, but my adaptations are done with deep respect for the poet and for the poems.

There was a time when nearly everyone could quote Longfellow. Why is that no longer true? In "The Slave's Dream" he wrote: "...his lifeless body lay, a worn-out fetter that the soul had broken and thrown away." I want Longfellow's soul to be unfettered from the lifeless body of nineteenth-century versification. I want contemporary readers to experience the soul of these poems—the soul with which this man imbued them 150 years ago.

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Q: Given the controversy, would you still adapt the poems?

A: Yes, absolutely. My expertise lies not in literature but in oral presentation, and I believe this is how best to convey Longfellow today. To serve the poet, to encourage reading him again, to bring his ideas and humanity to a new audience—that's the purpose of the adaptations. That's why I'm so committed to them—they're my contribution. They're what brought me back into the world.

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