“Increasingly rare is the scholar who braves ridicule to justify the art of Longfellow’s popular rhymings,” the critic Kermit Vanderbilt once wrote. One scholar of the human heart who’s never been accused of fearing ridicule is Neil Diamond. And, on his 1974 album, Serenade, he paid tribute to the Fireside Poet with his hit song “Longfellow Serenade.”
In the liner notes to a later compilation, Diamond explains, “Occasionally I like using a particular lyrical style which, in this case, lent itself naturally to telling the story of a guy who woos his woman with poetry.”
I’ll weave his web of rhyme
Upon the summer night
We’ll leave this worldly time
On his winged flight
Then come, and as we lay
Beside this sleepy glade
There I will sing to you
My Longfellow serenade
Diamond doesn’t specify which of the poet’s verses the wooer employs. It’s tempting to imagine some medallioned dude quoting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” or “Hiawatha.”
Neil Diamond is good at laughing at himself and has gamely given himself over to life as a camp icon. But even he probably had something more serious in mind. Longfellow has long since been dismissed as a derivative Victorian hack, associated at most with rote learning and a few memorable rhyming quotes. But writers are popular for a reason, even if we scorn that reason. And the truth is, there are a few lines that would melt the heart of even the most sophisticated, grooviest “Charlie” girl.
There are moments in life, when the heart is so full of emotion
that if by chance it be shaken, or into its depths like a pebble
Drops some careless word, it overflows, and its secret,
Spilled on the ground like water, can never be gathered together.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.