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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Longfellow: Agassiz

Louis Agassiz giving a lecture, 1870
source: Schweizerischer Beobachter
no copyright infringement intended

Agassiz had been among the best friends of Longfellow, and his death was a hard blow for the poet.

I stand again on the familiar shore,
And hear the waves of the distracted sea
Piteously calling and lamenting thee,
And waiting restless at thy cottage door.
The rocks, the sea-weed on the ocean floor,
The willows in the meadow, and the free
Wild winds of the Atlantic welcome me;
Then why shouldst thou be dead, and come no more?
Ah, why shouldst thou be dead, when common men
Are busy with their trivial affairs,
Having and holding? Why, when thou hadst read
Nature's mysterious manuscript, and then
Wast ready to reveal the truth it bears,
Why art thou silent! Why shouldst thou be dead?

A poem artfully crafted: the name of Agassiz is not mentioned, while being suggested by the landscape invoked with such greatness -  the man who has devoted all his life to the Earth's natural history, a paleontologist, geologist, and glaciologist, a respected professor, and an indefatigable explorer.

The first element invoked in the poem is the sea (the familiar shore.. the waves of the distracted sea), and I would say Longfellow had the prescience of things to come: later the name of Agassiz would be given to an immense lake that had existed in the glacial period, covering the whole middle of the northern part of North America, larger than all today's Great Lakes combined, and holding more water than all today's lakes in the world. The prehistoric existence of the lake had been postulated in 1823, and it was in 1879 that it was baptized with the name of the great naturalist.

Well, we can criticize Agassiz today as much as it's in our like: more than a creationist, he was an adept of polygenism, considering human races as of different lineages, each race with an origin of its own. But he was a man of his epoch, active and passionate in the scientific disputes of those years, Cuvier versus Saint-Hilaire and all that followed - Darwinism didn't find an easy promenade. But all these adversaries were so to speak the same family: a band of brothers, fighting each other in the name of Mother Science. Always science is advancing through fierce struggle between opposite theories, thus merit should be recognized to all combatants.

As for Longfellow, he kept all his life the image of the first encounter with a pleasant, voluble man, with a bright, beaming face. It had been in 1847, and many other encounters followed.



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