Kavanagh A Tale: A Review

Let’s take a journey back in time.

Place: Fairmeadow, Massachusetts along the New England Coast

Time: the late 1830s -40s.

From the pen of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow we will explore his story—Kavanagh: A Tale published in May 1849 by Ticknor, Reed, and Fields of Boston. It is a story of life on this planet traversing the cosmos.

The focus is on certain townspeople: the schoolmaster Mr. Churchill, the new pastor young Mr. Kavanagh and two young ladies who are childhood friends—Alice and Cecilia. There are other characters popping up to add to this rich tale bathed in references to the Bible, classic literature and history.

Longfellow wrote a beautiful story with all the artistic touches of the human condition.  For in these characters we get a glimpse of ourselves with all of our foibles as well as our dreams and strengths.

Mr. Churchill had not intended to be a schoolmaster.  He wanted to be a poet and tell the tales which coursed through his mind like the blood in his arteries, but as Longfellow eloquently stated, “Nature had made Mr. Churchill a poet, but destiny made him a school-master.”

He could not escape from his predestined role in Fairmeadow.  Perhaps he lacked the ambition to break out of his cycle of daily drudgery.

His wife was certainly an encourager of his dreams.  However, her words fell like chaff on the threshing floor scooped up by the winds of daily routines and socialization.

For the young and single Arthur Kavanagh, being asked to be the pastor of Fairmeadow was a chance to prove himself to people who knew not his history nor his struggles in the journey of life. His first sermon during the interview process had impressed many, especially Miss Sally Manchester who uttered the famous admiration—“he is not a man; he is a Thaddeus of Warsaw!”

Thaddeus of Warsaw was the hero of Jane Porter’s 1803 novel.  For Porter, Thaddeus represented the noblest traits of a Christian man.

Alice Archer and Cecilia Vaughn, two childhood friends, were as different as night and day. Alice was a delicate flower surrounded by barren loneliness living in a house which resembled a sepulture long forgotten by anyone who cared.

Like her mother, who was difficult to live with, she was going blind.  The tomorrows of her life would be as dreary and lonely as sable midnight.

Cecilia Vaughn was the direct opposite.  No gloomy ambience surrounded her.

To many today the friendship of Alice and Cecilia would seem to be a strange combination.  However, Longfellow dispelled that notion:

They were nearly of the same age, and had been drawn together by that mysterious power which discovers and selects friends for us in our childhood. They sat together in school; they walked together after school; they told each other their manifold secrets; they wrote long and impassioned letters to each other in the evening; in a word, they were in love with each other. It was, so to speak, a rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of woman’s life.”

The love between Alice and Cecilia was what Aristotle would coin philia (φιλία philia)—a deep affection and care for friends.  There was no other meaning intended by Longfellow.

Like any great friendship of history Alice and Cecilia shared a growing love for Arthur Kavanagh.  Alice’s love for the pastor was secret while the pastor’s love for Cecilia bloomed like the azaleas in Spring.

Alice kept her love hidden in her heart like a sealed tomb locked from view.  She was happy for Cecilia, but Alice’s fate was to be a cruel one for one so young and unloved.

Perhaps, when a soul is loveless, life escapes its confines in the physical frame.  So it was for Alice, before Cecilia’s wedding her desolate state of existence ended as she said her final good-byes to this world which held no happiness for her.

How true this is for all of those Alice Archers who struggle to exist in their environs where the prospect of love is only a passing specter who does not linger at the heart’s door.  The door is never opened to experience the joys of love freely given.

There is another tragic character in this tale.  Her name is Lucy.

Lucy is given little space in this tale.  Her story resembles many wanderers on this world who are taken advantage of and eventually abandoned to the vicissitudes of cruel fate.

Lucy dealt with her abuse like so many have down through the ages. She reached a point where life was unbearable and a permanent solution to her anguish had to be found.

Longfellow described her last act in the following words as Churchill and Kavanagh were walking down to Fairmeadow:

They reached the wooden bridge over the river, which the moonlight converted into a river of light. Their footsteps sounded on the planks; they passed without perceiving a female figure that stood in the shadow below on the brink of the stream, watching wistfully the steady flow of the current. It was Lucy! Her bonnet and shawl were lying at her feet; and when they had passed, she waded far out into the shallow stream, laid herself gently down in its deeper waves, and floated slowly away into the moon-light, among the golden leaves that were faded and fallen like herself, among the water-lilies, whose fragrant white blossoms had been broken off and polluted long ago. Without a struggle, without a sigh, without a sound, she floated downward, downward, and silently sank into the silent river. Far off, faint, and indistinct, was heard the startling hymn, with its wild and peculiar melody,

“O, there will be mourning, mourning, mourning, mourning,

0, there will be mourning, at the judgment-seat of Christ!” 

One has to wonder when people sing such a song what judgment may mean to Lucy and many like her lost in the streams of life?  Surely, this world with its many abuses and sorrows suffered by the Lucies—has not their punishment been enough?  Must they suffer in eternity for the bad decisions they made or that others made for them?

In many ways people will walk by without notice of a fellow human being at the end of their rope.  Religion will ignore them as well as its adherents who place their ascension robes on their own imperfections believing they are the chosen few for translation or the rapture while the rest of the human race perish.

Unknown to them their hymns and self-ascribed piety does not leave their sanctuaries, while the cries of hurting souls outside the walls pierce the heavens above with their desperate tones.

Longfellow ended his tale as Kavanagh hurried home from the Churchill’s to his beloved Cecilia:

And the words of the poet came into his mind, and he thought them worthy to be written in letters of gold, and placed above every door in every house, as a warning, a suggestion, an incitement:

“Stay, stay the present instant!

Imprint the marks of wisdom on its wings!

0, let it not elude thy grasp, but like

The good old patriarch upon record,

Hold the fleet angel fast until he bless thee! “


G. D. Williams       © 2019

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