Longfellow Bridge

by Ken Bresler

Bridges named for poets are rare. The Walt Whitman Bridge does connect Philadelphia and Gloucester City, New Jersey, spanning the Delaware River. Boston and Cambridge have the Longfellow Bridge over the Charles River, named for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The Longfellow Bridge, which has been under repair since July 2013, reopened in May 2018. Sometime soon, you can expect a rededication ceremony. And when that happens, don’t you think that Longfellow’s poetry should be recited?

Longfellow’s famous poems include “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and “The Village Blacksmith.” However, the poems that should be recited at his bridge’s rededication are fairly obvious. One is “The Bridge.” Another is “To the River Charles.”

When the Longfellow Bridge opened in 1907,  it was called the Cambridge Bridge. It was renamed the Longfellow Bridge in 1927 to honor Longfellow, who had written this poem about the predecessor bridge:

"The Bridge"
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I stood on the bridge at midnight,
  As the clocks were striking the hour,
And the moon rose o'er the city,
  Behind the dark church-tower.

I saw her bright reflection
  In the waters under me,
Like a golden goblet falling
  And sinking into the sea.

And far in the hazy distance
  Of that lovely night in June,
The blaze of the flaming furnace
  Gleamed redder than the moon.

Among the long, black rafters
  The wavering shadows lay,
And the current that came from the ocean
  Seemed to lift and bear them away;

As, sweeping and eddying through them,
  Rose the belated tide,
And, streaming into the moonlight,
  The seaweed floated wide.

And like those waters rushing
  Among the wooden piers,
A flood of thoughts came o’er me
  That filled my eyes with tears.

How often, oh how often,
  In the days that had gone by,
I had stood on that bridge at midnight
  And gazed on that wave and sky!

How often, oh how often,
  I had wished that the ebbing tide
Would bear me away on its bosom
  O’er the ocean wild and wide!

For my heart was hot and restless,
  And my life was full of care,
And the burden laid upon me
  Seemed greater than I could bear.

But now it has fallen from me,
  It is buried in the sea;
And only the sorrow of others
  Throws its shadow over me.

Yet whenever I cross the river
  On its bridge with wooden piers,
Like the odor of brine from the ocean
  Comes the thought of other years.

And I think how many thousands
  Of care-encumbered men,
Each bearing his burden of sorrow,
  Have crossed the bridge since then.

I see the long procession
  Still passing to and fro,
The young heart hot and restless,
  And the old subdued and slow!

And forever and forever,
  As long as the river flows,
As long as the heart has passions,
  As long as life has woes;

The moon and its broken reflection
  And its shadows shall appear,
As the symbol of love in heaven,
  And its wavering image here.

Here’s Longfellow’s poem about the Charles River:

"To the River Charles"
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

River! that in silence windest
  Through the meadows, bright and free,
Till at length thy rest thou findest
  In the bosom of the sea! 

Four long years of mingled feeling,
  Half in rest, and half in strife,
I have seen thy waters stealing
  Onward, like the stream of life.

Thou hast taught me, Silent River!
  Many a lesson, deep and long;
Thou hast been a generous giver;
  I can give thee but a song.

Oft in sadness and in illness,
  I have watched thy current glide,
Till the beauty of its stillness
  Overflowed me, like a tide.

And in better hours and brighter,
  When I saw thy waters gleam,
I have felt my heart beat lighter,
  And leap onward with thy stream. 

Not for this alone I love thee,
  Nor because thy waves of blue
From celestial seas above thee
  Take their own celestial hue.

Where yon shadowy woodlands hide thee,
  And thy waters disappear,
Friends I love have dwelt beside thee,
  And have made thy margin dear.

More than this; -- thy name reminds me
  Of three friends, all true and tried;
And that name, like magic, binds me
  Closer, closer to thy side.

Friends my soul with joy remembers!
  How like quivering flames they start,
When I fan the living embers
  On the hearth-stone of my heart!

‘T is for this, thou Silent River!
  That my spirit leans to thee;
Thou hast been a generous giver,
  Take this idle song from me.

The eighth stanza alludes to three friends named “Charles.” They were Charles Sumner, Charles Folsom, and Charles Amory.

Imagine an actor dressing up as Longfellow and reciting those two poems at a rededication ceremony. Shoot, if no one else is available, I volunteer to read those poems (but not dress up) at any rededication ceremony that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation plans.

If anyone knows an actor who could portray Longfellow, please email me ken{at}bresler{dot}us.

Ken Bresler is a writer and occasional poet in the Boston area. He is the author of Poetry Made Visible: Boston Sites for Poetry Lovers, Art Lovers & Lovers.