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Mezzo Cammin
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Half of my life is gone, and I have let
   The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
   The aspiration of my youth, to build
   Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
   Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
   But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
   Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
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,—
   And hear above me on the autumnal blast
   The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.
This week, we’re reading a sonnet by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve always found this sonnet by Longfellow to be haunting, both because of the story behind it and because of what it expresses. For me, it’s one of the poems that made me love poems!
To start with the title. “Mezzo Cammin” is Italian for “middle of the journey.” It comes from the first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy. “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (Longfellow’s translation). “Mezzo cammin” means “midway upon the journey,” “halfway there.” But “Mezzo cammin” is not a place. When the action of Divine Comedy takes place, Dante is 35 years old, halfway through his life, according to the Bible: as Psalm 90 says, “our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong.” Thus, “Mezzo cammin” refers to the midpoint of life. And the midpoint of life—halfway through—can be a difficult time: as Dante describes it, “I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway was lost.”
Longfellow wrote “Mezzo Cammin” in 1842, when he himself was 35 years old. For Longfellow, as for Dante, 35 was a time when “the straightforward pathway was lost.” His early years had been bright and promising. He was born to a distinguished family in Portland, Maine; he studied at Bowdoin College, where he showed great promise. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a poet. He wrote: “I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently after it.” Unlike many poets, he met with little resistance; his dreams and his gifts were encouraged. After graduation, he traveled through Europe, learning languages and absorbing cultures. He married a childhood friend, Mary Storer Potter. He was offered a professorship at Harvard. Everything was looking up for Longfellow. But then Mary suffered a miscarriage, and died at the age of 22. Longfellow was consumed with grief.
This is the context for this sonnet. Reflecting on his life to this point, and looking to the future, Longfellow has a strong sense of failure. “Half of my life is gone, and I have let / The years slip from me and have not fulfilled / The aspiration of my youth, to build / Some tower of song with lofty parapet.” He is getting older, and his dream of writing a great poem has not been achieved. Longfellow knows that this is not his fault. The things that prevent so many others from accomplishing the dreams of their youth—laziness, the pursuit of pleasure, “restless passions”—are not what have gotten in his way, but rather, “sorrow, and a care that almost killed.” The death of his young wife, and his grief, have stopped him in his tracks.
Longfellow knows his life not over, and that he may yet accomplish what he has dreamed of doing. But the poem ends with a memento mori, a reminder of death. “Halfway up the hill,” he looks back upon the past, which lies below him like “a city in the twilight dim and vast,” filled with wonderful “sounds and sights.” But even as he looks behind, he can hear above him “the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.” It’s such a vivid image, and it’s especially striking because of the way Longfellow adds extra syllables to that last line. The poem is in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line) but that last line has 13 syllables. The breakdown of the meter echoes and emphasizes the thunderous sound of that “cataract” which is Death. Here, at the midpoint of life, he can hear that sound more clearly than ever before.
This poem was not published until after Longfellow’s death in 1882—by which time he had, of course, built many “towers of song with lofty parapet”—and experienced yet more loss and sorrow. I think reading “Mezzo Cammin” is an invitation to take stock of our lives and how we are spending our time—and how we are doing on our vocation in life. It invites us to our own memento mori moment, to keep in mind that death waits at the end of the journey for every one of us. Thinking about death in this way should not make us gloomy or despairing, but rather spur us on to live the lives we are meant to live. As we read in the book of Sirach, “Remember your last days and set enmity aside; / remember death and decay, and cease from sin!” (Sirach 28:6).



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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