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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

The Fire of Drift-wood

Updated: May 23, 2020

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow We sat within the farm-house old, Whose windows, looking o'er the bay, Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold, An easy entrance, night and day. Not far away we saw the port, The strange, old-fashioned, silent town, The lighthouse, the dismantled fort, The wooden houses, quaint and brown. We sat and talked until the night, Descending, filled the little room; Our faces faded from the sight, Our voices only broke the gloom. We spake of many a vanished scene, Of what we once had thought and said, Of what had been, and might have been, And who was changed, and who was dead; And all that fills the hearts of friends, When first they feel, with secret pain, Their lives thenceforth have separate ends, And never can be one again; The first slight swerving of the heart, That words are powerless to express, And leave it still unsaid in part, Or say it in too great excess. The very tones in which we spake Had something strange, I could but mark; The leaves of memory seemed to make A mournful rustling in the dark. Oft died the words upon our lips, As suddenly, from out the fire Built of the wreck of stranded ships, The flames would leap and then expire. And, as their splendor flashed and failed, We thought of wrecks upon the main, Of ships dismasted, that were hailed And sent no answer back again. The windows, rattling in their frames, The ocean, roaring up the beach, The gusty blast, the bickering flames, All mingled vaguely in our speech; Until they made themselves a part Of fancies floating through the brain, The long-lost ventures of the heart, That send no answers back again. O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned! They were indeed too much akin, The drift-wood fire without that burned, The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

Longfellow (RIP 1807-1882) wrote this poem: The Fire of Drift-wood in 1946 upon a visit to Devereux Farm by the sea on the coast of Maine. The poem tells of the reminiscing of old friends who talked "until the night descending filled the little room" and then the fire began to glow as they talked "of many a vanished scene, of what we once had thought or said, of what had been, or might have been, of who was changed , or who was dead." Its just such a crisp and universal portrait of the gatherings of old friends and the stories they tell. This poem was very helpful to me in giving words and comfort after we had moved from our family, friends and roots in Texas to Nebraska for my graduate school. I had already read Longfellow at least once from cover to cover from the 1893 version of Cambridge Classics - Longfellow's Complete Poetical Works that I received from the estate of Elaine's maternal grandfather. But reading these words on a cold winter night in late 1983 had a profound effect on me: "And all that fills the hearts of friends, when first they feel, with secret pain, their lives henceforth have separate ends, and never can be one again..." I had not only moved far away from all my known friends and family (except, thankfully with my dear wife), but I had also moved intellectually and spiritually in my views in different directions. I think it was the latter more than the former that left me the most lonely. But knowing Longfellow had known the same experiences and put words and feeling to it, helped me accept these changes as normal in the course of life. Yet, the pain is still sensitive for me sometimes and I still value the friends I have known through my life, changes and differences be damned.

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