Music, Poetry, Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day: Longfellow On Self-Conceit

To be infatuated with the power of one’s own intellect is an accident which seldom happens but to those who are remarkable for the want of intellectual power. Whenever Nature leaves a hole in a person’s mind, she generally plasters it over with a thick coat of self-conceit–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Outre-Mer, A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea

Boy howdy.

What’s remarkable about Longfellow’s words is that he wrote them when he was still quite young, shortly after taking a three-year trip to Europe while still a student at Bowdoin College and then returning to become a professor at that institution.  The short book (around a hundred pages) is framed as a travelogue recounting his journeys through France and Spain, and was first published in a series of pamphlets, before being collected into two volumes and published in 1835 without attribution at the time.  It’s episodic, rather than a continuous narrative, and recounts many delightful scenes and encounters.  And, as today’s quote shows, it’s peppered with acute observations of European life as Longfellow found it in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

My own introduction to Longfellow’s poetry (for which he is far better known than for his prose efforts) came through The Golden Treasury of Poetry, one of those magnificent compendia that were common in the days when children were believed to benefit from a smorgasbord of opinions, ideas, and literary styles, and in the days before offense-seeking “sensitivity readers” were granted the power to disembowel the works of long-dead writers whose output outraged them in some way (and since they undertake their work today with the understanding that there must be some offense to be taken, or some outrage to be found, they usually do find some).

Even as a Brit, I thrilled to Paul Revere’s Ride.  (Which, some to think of it, should have been a triggering event, in and of itself.  How dared they include the story of an American Revolutionary hero in the British edition, after all?  It’s a miracle I wasn’t scarred for life.)  But I loved it, and all the other selections too–poems of adventure, heroism, discovery, reflection, courage, success and failure.  I wonder how many of them would pass through the sensitivity sieve, and be allowed into the wild today  (lucky for me, I have a hardback edition from the late 1950s).

It took me several decades longer than it took Longfellow to really figure out and embrace the relationship between “want of intellectual power” and self-conceit, but I got there in the end, courtesy of friends, family, and a few negative examples in what the woke are pleased to call my “lived experience.” And I’m much the better for it.

Here’s to the man who–I think–did more than any other to shape my youthful imagination,  when it comes to the early days of my adopted land, (Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, Evangeline, Paul Revere’s Ride, The Village Blacksmith…)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Massachusetts, 216 years ago, on February 27, 1807.  Here’s hoping the “sensitivity readers” can’t count that far back.

And now, for something completely different:

The title of Longfellow’s youthful travelogue, Outre-Mer means “beyond the sea” or, “overseas.”

And so, without further ado, here is Charles Trenet singing “La Mer,” the song he wrote in the early 1940s, and which was release as a 78RPM single in 1946.  It’s been covered by dozens since, in both the original French, and in the English translation (most notably by Bobby Darin, as “Beyond the Sea”).  But I think it sound better in the original.


2 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: Longfellow On Self-Conceit”

  1. A bit of an interesting way to circle back to the theme of intellect and self conceit, by way of La Mer, is to revisit one of the most thoughtful video games to have yet been made: Bioshock. The game came out in the late 00s, and is set in an undersea city built by a conceited genius named Andrew Ryan (a play on Ayn Rand). The city was imagined a great libertarian paradise of freedom, but of course the action of the game starts with you (as the player) arriving over a year after the whole thing has collapsed in ruin and decay. The story as revealed through your exploration in this ruin of art-deco beauty, is one of both scientific and authoritarian hubris. 16 years after the game was released, it remains a story as vivid and compelling as only the better films and books can be. And of course, your introduction to the lost city is an opening submarine journey to the serenade of “Under the Sea.” Something of the flavor of that can be seen and heard here, from the post-credits scene at the end of the final game of the series:

    A more lighthearted use of the song, though, (yet one still mocking hubris in its own way) is the opening credits of the Steve Martin masterpiece LA Story.

  2. Ah, found the game’s opening. I misremembered the use of the song – it’s still there, but used somewhat differently.

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