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A Childhood Idyll by William Adolphe Bouguereau
My youngest daughter, Dorea, is finishing out a run of The Fantasticks in Winston-Salem this weekend. On Tuesday (hence my blog silence), my oldest daughter Aletheia and I took a road trip south to see her perform. The show is beautifully imagined, the music and acting not only carefully crafted but effortless, and there was a tenderness that overflowed from the relationship between the cast into the audience that I found moving. 

Try to Remember, a song whose popularity goes beyond Broadway, opens the show. With a warm baritone the narrator, El Gallo, urges us to take a moment and reflect on our own youth, that time when we were innocent and open.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

If we are able to remember our own experiences, then this story of young love will resonate. If not, perhaps it can offer us a sympathetic vehicle with which to travel into our past and look upon ourselves with kindness and understanding.

Remembering our youth, the experiences, the relationships, the dreams, the disappointments is what this poem by Longfellow touches upon. In My Lost Youth Longfellow weaves his memories of childhood around a "Lapland song" whose lines create the refrain at the end of each stanza.
 
A boy's will is the wind's will
And the thoughts of a boy are long, long thoughts.
 

Slowing down on this couplet opens some questions. How should we interpret the "wind's will?" Although known to be fickle, wind can also be strong. And while thoughts can be fleeting, through the repetition of the word "long," Longfellow intimates something substantial. I'm reminded of a sailboat, driven by the wind and yet on an ocean with an endless horizon. There is play between the strength of the wind and the ability to hoist one's sail and take control. But most importantly, there is plenty of room to maneuver, even if one might get blown off course. 

The rhyme structure of the poem is neatly balanced until we reach the final 4 lines. Then our sense of order is jarred by the fact that the last line does not end with "long," which rhymes quite handily with "song." Despite the repetition of "long" which gives some amount of satisfaction, we are left hanging a bit on "thoughts." Perhaps this open-endedness allows a bridge from the past to the current act of reflection in which the poet is now engaged.

The Lapland song which plays in Longfellow's mind is not static, but fluid; at times it haunts or murmurs or whispers or sings. Sometimes a burden, it is also described as wayward, mournful, sweet, fitful, beautiful, and fatal. In this, it is not unlike the soundtracks of our own lives, which change and morph depending on which vignette of our past we choose to play. 

It takes time and some effort to review one's childood, and many of us tend to be fully engaged in the present or the future, not leaving much room for past reflections. But I wonder if another reason we don't access our childhood is because of a reticence to engage in the conflicting emotions of our past. Someone once told me that most people cannot remember middle school, as it is an extremely painful period of development. And yet, as El Gallo tells us, "without a hurt, the heart is hollow."

All of our experiences make us who we are. "Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost," opens Whitman's poem Continuities. And so Longfellow comes to realize as he finishes his reverie. He has not flinched from the retrospective, the pain of those "things of which [he] may not speak, and dreams that cannot die." He acknowledges that there is discomfort with the changes that come over the years. "Strange are the forms I meet" he says, upon visiting his childhood home. And yet for all this, his lost childhood comes back to him as a welcomed gift; in the dreams of the days that were, it ignites a joy so profound, it is almost painful.


 
My Lost Youth
 
by Henry  Wadsworth Longfellow
 
Often I think of the beautiful  town
       That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
       And my youth comes back to me.
             And a verse of a Lapland song
             Is haunting my memory still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I can see the shadowy lines of its trees,
       And catch, in sudden gleams,
The sheen of the far-surrounding seas,
And islands that were the Hesperides
       Of all my boyish dreams.
             And the burden of that old song,
             It murmurs and whispers still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the black wharves and the slips,
       And the sea-tides tossing free;
And Spanish sailors with bearded lips,
And the beauty and mystery of the ships,
       And the magic of the sea.
             And the voice of that wayward song
             Is singing and saying still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the bulwarks by the shore,
       And the fort upon the hill;
The sunrise gun, with its hollow roar,
The drum-beat repeated o'er and o'er,
       And the bugle wild and shrill.
             And the music of that old song
             Throbs in my memory still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the sea-fight far away,
       How it thundered o'er the tide!
And the dead captains, as they  lay
In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay,
       Where they in battle died.
             And the sound of that mournful song
             Goes through me with a thrill:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts." 

I can see the breezy dome of groves,
       The shadows of Deering's  Woods;
And the friendships old and the early loves
Come back with a Sabbath sound, as of doves
       In quiet neighborhoods. 
             And the verse of that sweet old song,
             It flutters and murmurs still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the gleams and glooms that dart
       Across the school-boy's brain;
The song and the silence in the heart,
That in part are prophecies, and in part
       Are longings wild and vain.
             And the voice of that fitful song
             Sings on, and is never still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

There are things of which I may not speak;
       There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
       And a mist before the eye.
             And the words of that fatal song
             Come over me like a chill:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

Strange to me now are the forms I meet
       When I visit the dear old town;
But the native air is pure and  sweet,
And the trees that o'ershadow each well-known street,
       As they balance up and down,
             Are singing the beautiful song,
             Are sighing and whispering still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

And Deering's Woods are fresh and fair,
       And with joy that is almost pain
My heart goes back to wander there,
And among the dreams of the days that were,
       I find my lost youth again.
             And the strange and beautiful song,
             The groves are repeating it still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."



Note
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There are several youtube offerings of Whitman's poem read aloud and put to music and/or photography the I found enjoyable.




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