Sentimental is a strange word, today it principally has negative connotations, if we call someone sentimental, we think that they are too emotional, to, perhaps, a slightly ridiculous extent. Anything labelled with the genre title tends to remain unwatched, unread or un-listened to, thought to be out of date, and out of tune with modern sensibilities - from the ‘Sentimental’ films of early Hollywood, to the Sentimental poetry of the Victorians. However, at their times of creation both these poems and these films were unbelievably popular, outselling the films and poems from their time periods that have become better known today.
Longfellow’s ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ outsold Walt Whitman’s self-published ‘Leaves of Grass’ by an almost incredible amount, similarly the sentimental ‘Now, Voyager’, starring Bette Davis, grossed $2,130,000 at the box office domestically during its release, compared to the $7,279 of Orson Welles’s ‘Citizen Kane’. Longfellow and Tennyson are therefore related not only by their genre choice, but also by their changing reception over time, and the decline in fashion to study their poetry, disregarding it as ‘fossilised’ rather than being forward looking to the future, like the more modernist poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
A Key Genre
However, sentimentality was a key genre for establishing much of what we take for granted in poetry and literature today. Sentimentality as an idea took as its model characters with extreme amounts of feeling or with increasingly traumatic stories because they wanted the readers to feel in response to their poetry and have sympathy for their characters. This accounts for the much parodied endings of both Tennyson’s ‘Enoch Arden’ and Longfellow’s ‘Evangeline’, poems frequently compared to each other for their similarities of style:
‘Then the third night after this,
While Enoch slumber'd motionless and pale,
And Miriam watch'd and dozed at intervals,
There came so loud a calling of the sea,
That all the houses in the haven rang.
He woke, he rose, he spread his arms abroad
Crying with a loud voice `a sail! a sail!
I am saved'; and so fell back and spoke no more.
So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.’ – Enoch Arden
‘All was ended now, the hope, and the fear, and the sorrow,
All the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing.
All the dull, deep pain, and constant anguish of patience!
And, as she pressed once more the lifeless head to her bosom,
Meekly she bowed her own, and murmured, “Father, I thank thee!”’ – Evangeline
Fiction and Poetry
The use of fiction and poetry as a way of drawing out the empathy of the reader was a trend that grew out from the emergence of the novel and had its heyday in Victorian poetry and prose. The expectation that we have sympathy for those we view on screen or in the pages of our novels now, emerges from this tradition. Hollywood and modern film was as influenced by these poets as by the modernists, despite being more strongly associated with them as both a technique and a genre.
Longfellow's Visit to Farringford
Unsurprisingly, Longfellow and Tennyson had a brief acquaintance and a mutual admiration across the Atlantic, culminating when Longfellow visited Farringford with a party of nine for tea on 16th July 1868 and was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron whilst on this visit. He also wrote a poem for Tennyson called ‘Wapentake’, calling Tennyson a ‘historian of the heart’, a phrase which perhaps aptly translates to ‘King of Sentimentality!’
‘Poet! I come to touch thy lance with mine;
Not as a knight, who on the listed field
Of tourney touched his adversary’s shield
In token of defiance, but in sign
Of homage to the mastery, which is thine
In English song; nor will I keep concealed,
And voiceless as a rivulet frost-congealed,
My admiration for thy verse divine.
Not of the howling dervishes of song,
Who craze the brain with their delirious dance,
Art thou, O sweet historian of the heart!
Therefore to thee the laurel-leaves belong,
To thee our love and our allegiance,
For thy allegiance to the poet’s art.’
Longfellow image - Julia Margaret Cameron / Public domain