My discussions in Social Science about the Great Society led me to Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are Not Children Here.” Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” and the fourth stanza of this poem by Longfellow serve as epitaphs.
What I appreciate about the poem is that I sense an underlying…. sadness? cynicism? It’s like an old man watching children play, who thinks, “Live it up; you’ll soon be old like me.” I imagine Longfellow writing it and then letting out a long, quiet sigh.
I, too, find myself with a clawing sense of regret, but when I break it down I realize that there is no reason I can’t do that thing I want to do still. Often, the reason comes down to the reason I haven’t done it in the first place–paying the bills, or some other excuse. And, as I tell my students, excuse is the word.
It is an old saw, but I like this poem because it makes me wonder which way Longfellow went; live in regret, or embrace the energy of those children he wrote about?
As you students if, they had to sing it, would they do so chipper or as a kind-of dirge. Try it both ways! Then, talk about the mood music creates.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
COME to me, O ye children!
For I hear you at your play,
And the questions that perplexed me
Have vanished quite away.
Ye open the eastern windows,
That look towards the sun,
Where thoughts are singing swallows
And the brooks of morning run.
In your hearts are the birds and the sunshine,
In your thoughts the brooklet’s flow,
But in mine is the wind of Autumn
And the first fall of the snow.
Ah! what would the world be to us
If the children were no more?
We should dread the desert behind us
Worse than the dark before.
What the leaves are to the forest,
With light and air for food,
Ere their sweet and tender juices
Have been hardened into wood,—
That to the world are children;
Through them it feels the glow
Of a brighter and sunnier climate
Than reaches the trunks below.
Come to me, O ye children!
And whisper in my ear
What the birds and the winds are singing
In your sunny atmosphere.
For what are all our contrivings,
And the wisdom of our books,
When compared with your caresses,
And the gladness of your looks?
Ye are better than all the ballads
That ever were sung or said;
For ye are living poems,
And all the rest are dead.