Poetry is about expressing. It is about telling the world what you feel like but in a more subtle, poetic way. This ensures that the listeners not only listen to your words but feel your emotions. A group of poets decided to write poems traditionally, focusing more on content and keeping it simple, and they were called “Fireside” Poets.
Who were these poets and why were they called “fireside” poets? We’ll describe it all in this article, along with some of their best poems to elucidate their choice of poetry style, rhyming scheme, meter, and form.
Who were the Fireside poets?
The fireside poets were a group of four American poets in the 19th century. The number could be contended, as some say there were two more poets, making it a group of 6.
The four core members of this group were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russel Lowell. Some people suggest that William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson were also a part of this group.
It is worth noting that there was no official “group” where they made a club to hang out together and write poetry. Their approach to poetry, the subject matter they chose to write about, and the structure of the poems united these poets.
The Fireside poets were very popular both in the States and across the Atlantic, in England. H.W. Longfellow, in his hay day, rivaled the popularity of Alfred Tennyson in England! There was a reason why these fireside poets, also called “classroom” or “household” poets, were so popular.
Why Were They Called “Fireside” Poets?
Imagine in the 19th century, when people did not have iPhones and mumble rap was not invented (which was a good thing), people needed something to recite, to sing. Of course, that’s not the exact reason why these poets were called fireside poets.
The reason for them being called fireside poets was that their poems were simple, with a traditional meter and rhythm, and could be easily memorized, making them perfect for recitals during leisure activities, such as camping at the fireside.
By simple, we do not mean as simple as some of today’s free verse poems. The fireside poets wrote poems with clear themes and messages that did not require too much analysis to understand the meaning. But simple does not mean plain here.
Poems by fireside poets had profound meaning, and grand messages about life, virtues, politics, bravery, etc. The reason why they became so popular in America was that their poetry held themes of the grand American dream.
Their poems were often uplifting, motivating, and invigorating with tones of hope, and enthusiasm. Their poems were more similar to the Victorian style than Romanticism.
A dash of patriotism, a simple yet profound message, and conventional structure and meter that made their poems easy to memorize was the reason behind their popularity. This is also the reason why their poems were famous in schools, hence the “classroom poets” title.
While most people liked this style of poetry, some poets were not too enthusiastic in praising the fireside poets’ works. Poets like T.S Elliot and Walt Whitman were some of the most prominent poets who expressed their dislike.
Whitman thought that their poetry borrowed too much from the English style, with nothing in it that made them “American”. He famously, and with a hint of dislike, stated:
“Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only — which is a very great mistake”
But enough of history. Let’s take a look at the poems that made these Fireside poets so famous. Here are two/three poems from all the fireside poets to show their writing style, and the message their poems encapsulated.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Starting with the most famous of the bunch, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was arguably the face of American poetry during the 19th century. Here are two of his most famous poems.
Paul Revere’s Ride
Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five: Hardly a man is now alive Who remembers that famous day and year. He said to his friend, “If the British march By land or sea from the town to-night, Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,— One if by land, and two if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be, Ready to ride and spread the alarm Through every Middlesex village and farm, For the country-folk to be up and to arm.” Then he said “Good night!” and with muffled oar Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore, Just as the moon rose over the bay, Where swinging wide at her moorings lay The Somerset, British man-of-war: A phantom ship, with each mast and spar Across the moon, like a prison-bar, And a huge black hulk, that was magnified By its own reflection in the tide. Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street Wanders and watches with eager ears, Till in the silence around him he hears The muster of men at the barrack door, The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet, And the measured tread of the grenadiers Marching down to their boats on the shore. Then he climbed to the tower of the church, Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread, To the belfry-chamber overhead, And startled the pigeons from their perch On the sombre rafters, that round him made Masses and moving shapes of shade,— By the trembling ladder, steep and tall, To the highest window in the wall, Where he paused to listen and look down A moment on the roofs of the town, And the moonlight flowing over all. Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead, In their night-encampment on the hill, Wrapped in silence so deep and still That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread, The watchful night-wind, as it went Creeping along from tent to tent, And seeming to whisper, “All is well!” A moment only he feels the spell Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread Of the lonely belfry and the dead; For suddenly all his thoughts are bent On a shadowy something far away, Where the river widens to meet the bay,— A line of black, that bends and floats On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats. Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride, Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride, On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere. Now he patted his horse’s side, Now gazed on the landscape far and near, Then impetuous stamped the earth, And turned and tightened his saddle-girth; But mostly he watched with eager search The belfry-tower of the old North Church, As it rose above the graves on the hill, Lonely and spectral and sombre and still. And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height, A glimmer, and then a gleam of light! He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns, But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight A second lamp in the belfry burns! A hurry of hoofs in a village-street, A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark, And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet: That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light, The fate of a nation was riding that night; And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight, Kindled the land into flame with its heat. He has left the village and mounted the steep, And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep, Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides; And under the alders, that skirt its edge, Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge, Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides. It was twelve by the village clock When he crossed the bridge into Medford town. He heard the crowing of the cock, And the barking of the farmer’s dog, And felt the damp of the river-fog, That rises when the sun goes down. It was one by the village clock, When he galloped into Lexington. He saw the gilded weathercock Swim in the moonlight as he passed, And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare, Gaze at him with a spectral glare, As if they already stood aghast At the bloody work they would look upon. It was two by the village clock, When he came to the bridge in Concord town. He heard the bleating of the flock, And the twitter of birds among the trees, And felt the breath of the morning breeze Blowing over the meadows brown. And one was safe and asleep in his bed Who at the bridge would be first to fall, Who that day would be lying dead, Pierced by a British musket-ball. You know the rest. In the books you have read, How the British Regulars fired and fled,— How the farmers gave them ball for ball, From behind each fence and farmyard-wall, Chasing the red-coats down the lane, Then crossing the fields to emerge again Under the trees at the turn of the road, And only pausing to fire and load. So through the night rode Paul Revere; And so through the night went his cry of alarm To every Middlesex village and farm,— A cry of defiance, and not of fear, A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, And a word that shall echo forevermore! For, borne on the night-wind of the Past, Through all our history, to the last, In the hour of darkness and peril and need, The people will waken and listen to hear The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed, And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist. Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream! For the soul is dead that slumbers, And things are not what they seem. Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul. Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way; But to act, that each to-morrow Find us farther than to-day. Art is long, and Time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums, are beating Funeral marches to the grave. In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife! Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! Let the dead Past bury its dead! Act,— act in the living Present! Heart within, and God o’erhead! Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time; Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again. Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.
John Greenleaf Whittier
Another name that is synonymous with American poetry, John Greenleaf Whittier was an influential figure who did more with his pen than with his actions. Whittier was influenced a lot by the political scenario.
His works are inspired a lot by the Civil War. It was not that his works took a direct and big piece from the war or other political tensions. His poems encapsulated the emotions and effects of the war. A strong believer in equality, he founded the Anti-Slavery party.
Here are the two poems that would do a better job at describing the caliber of this poet than any description.
My heart was heavy, for its trust had been Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong; So, turning gloomily from my fellowmen, One summer Sabbath day I strolled among the green mounds of the village burial place; Where, pondering how all human love and hate Find one sad level; and how, soon or late, Wronged and wrong-doer, each with meekened face, And cold hands folded over a still heart, Pass the green threshold of our common grave, Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart, Awed for myself, and pitying my race, Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave, Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!
When things go wrong as they sometimes will, When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill, When the funds are low and the debts are high And you want to smile, but you have to sigh, When care is pressing you down a bit, Rest if you must, but don’t you quit . Life is strange with its twists and turns As every one of us sometimes learns And many a failure comes about When he might have won had he stuck it out; Don’t give up though the pace seems slow You may succeed with another blow. Success is failure turned inside out The silver tint of the clouds of doubt, And you never can tell just how close you are, It may be near when it seems so far; So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit. For all the sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Oliver Wendell Holmes, a core member of the Fireside poets (when we say “core members,” we do not imply there was some kind of band with members!). But he was not just a poet. An educator, a doctor, and a brilliant poet and writer, Holmes was a multi-talented fellow.
Known for his witty humor, friendly personality, and love of extracting beauty from seemingly unimportant things, Wendell has created some of the most refreshing pieces of poetry in his era. Here are two of his poems for you to enjoy.
Sun and Shadow
As I look from the isle, o'er its billows of green, To the billows of foam-crested blue, Yon bark, that afar in the distance is seen, Half dreaming, my eyes will pursue: Now dark in the shadow, she scatters the spray As the chaff in the stroke of the flail; Now white as the sea-gull, she flies on her way, The sun gleaming bright on her sail. Yet her pilot is thinking of dangers to shun,-- Of breakers that whiten and roar; How little he cares, if in shadow or sun They see him who gaze from the shore! He looks to the beacon that looms from the reef, To the rock that is under his lee, As he drifts on the blast, like a wind-wafted leaf, O'er the gulfs of the desolate sea. Thus drifting afar to the dim-vaulted caves Where life and its ventures are laid, The dreamers who gaze while we battle the waves May see us in sunshine or shade; Yet true to our course, though the shadows grow dark, We'll trim our broad sail as before, And stand by the rudder that governs the bark, Nor ask how we look from the shore!
The Two Streams
Behold the rocky wall That down its sloping sides Pours the swift rain-drops, blending, as they fall, In rushing river-tides! Yon stream, whose sources run Turned by a pebble’s edge, Is Athabasca, rolling toward the sun Through the cleft mountain-ledge. The slender rill had strayed, But for the slanting stone, To evening’s ocean, with the tangled braid Of foam-flecked Oregon. So from the heights of Will Life’s parting stream descends, And, as a moment turns its slender rill, Each widening torrent bends,— From the same cradle’s side, From the same mother’s knee,— One to long darkness and the frozen tide, One to the Peaceful Sea!
James Russel Lowell
James Russel Lowell was a famous poet, but he was more famous for his literary works, his satirical pieces, and his fierce critiques. Lowell has been an influential dot if you look at the zigzag line of American literature.
His command over language and the power to communicate directly to the readers is evident in his poetry. Sharp lines that seem to have been cut with a razor-sharp cleaver, embellished with flowery and sweet words create a beautiful contrast.
Here are the two poems that we think describe his works the best. Take a look:
A Christmas Carol
"What means this glory round our feet," The Magi mused, "more bright than morn?" And voices chanted clear and sweet, "To-day the Prince of Peace is born!" "What means that star," the Shepherds said, "That brightens through the rocky glen?" And angels, answering overhead, Sang, "Peace on earth, good-will to men!" 'Tis eighteen hundred years and more Since those sweet oracles were dumb; We wait for Him, like them of yore; Alas, He seems so slow to come! But it was said, in words of gold, No time or sorrow e'er shall dim, That little children might be bold In perfect trust to come to Him. All round about our feet shall shine A light like that the wise men saw, If we our loving wills incline To that sweet Life which is the Law. So shall we learn to understand The simple faith of shepherds then, And, clasping kindly hand in hand, Sing, "Peace on earth, good-will to men!" But they who do their souls no wrong, But keep at eve the faith of morn, Shall daily hear the angel-song, "To-day the Prince of Peace is born!"
God! do not let my loved one die, But rather wait until the time That I am grown in purity Enough to enter thy pure clime, Then take me, I will gladly go, So that my love remain below! Oh, let her stay! She is by birth What I through death must learn to be; We need her more on our poor earth Than thou canst need in heaven with thee: She hath her wings already, I Must burst this earth-shell ere I fly. Then, God, take me! We shall be near, More near than ever, each to each: Her angel ears will find more clear My heavenly than my earthly speech; And still, as I draw nigh to thee, Her soul and mine shall closer be.
William Cullen Bryant
William Cullen Bryant is the name any person who reads poetry will always find along with the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson and Longfellow were giants in their field, and Bryant rose to the same height as them.
With a very characteristic style of writing and a beard that would rival Darwin’s, one look at the poems Bryant has written, and you’d have no doubt why he is considered one of the greatest American poets.
Here are the two poems that we think summarize his style and poetic prowess. Take a look:
To a Waterfawl
Whither, 'midst falling dew, While glow the heavens with the last steps of day, Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue Thy solitary way? Vainly the fowler’s eye Might mark thy distant flight, to do thee wrong, As, darkly seen against the crimson sky, Thy figure floats along. Seek’st thou the plashy brink Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide, Or where the rocking billows rise and sink On the chaféd ocean side? There is a Power, whose care Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,— The desert and illimitable air Lone wandering, but not lost. All day thy wings have fanned, At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere; Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land, Though the dark night is near. And soon that toil shall end, Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest, And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend, Soon, o’er thy sheltered nest. Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven Hath swallowed up thy form, yet, on my heart Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given, And shall not soon depart. He, who, from zone to zone, Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight, In the long way that I must trace alone, Will lead my steps aright.
“I Broke the Spell That Held Me Long”
I broke the spell that held me long, The dear, dear witchery of song. I said, the poet’s idle lore Shall waste my prime of years no more, For Poetry, though heavenly born, Consorts with poverty and scorn. I broke the spell–nor deemed its power Could fetter me another hour. Ah, thoughtless! how could I forget Its causes were around me yet? For wheresoe’er I looked, the while, Was Nature’s everlasting smile. Still came and lingered on my sight Of flowers and streams the bloom and light, And glory of the stars and sun; – And these and poetry are one. They, ere the world had held me long, Recalled me to the love of song.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson is a name that needs no introduction. Considered more an educator and a philosopher than a poet, Emerson’s poems have a very strong and distinct message in them.
Here are two of his poem that will help you understand why he was considering both a philosopher and a poet:
Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837 By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world. The foe long since in silence slept; Alike the conqueror silent sleeps; And Time the ruined bridge has swept Down the dark stream which seaward creeps. On this green bank, by this soft stream, We set today a votive stone; That memory may their deed redeem, When, like our sires, our sons are gone. Spirit, that made those heroes dare To die, and leave their children free, Bid Time and Nature gently spare The shaft we raise to them and thee.
If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. Far or forgot to me is near; Shadow and sunlight are the same; The vanished gods to me appear; And one to me are shame and fame. They reckon ill who leave me out; When me they fly, I am the wings; I am the doubter and the doubt, I am the hymn the Brahmin sings. The strong gods pine for my abode, And pine in vain the sacred Seven; But thou, meek lover of the good! Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
The Fireside poets created some of the most memorable poems that are still enjoyed, centuries later. While many of their contemporaries criticized them for their reluctance to bring something new, and hold on to the already established British style, the captivating nature of the poems these poets wrote connect so well.