Augustine’s Ladder, Longfellow’s Reach & The Cloudy Summits Of Our Time

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s reach for Augustinian theology is interesting. It is not quite a theological treatise encased in a poem but it does present itself as more than just a rhyme.

A lot of this is figurative language and given more time for research I could/would like to unpack it further. There is a sense of tension. As if Longfellow is stretching to bring Augustine into mid 1800’s America. Longfellow either likes or dislikes Him. Sometimes appearing to be caught between both awe at Augustine’s insights on grace, and distaste for Augustine’s ‘bleak anthropology’ {B.J Gundlach, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.123}.

Longfellow’s popularity as a poet waned after the turn of the century in the late 1800’s. By all accounts he was more than just a man who inherited his faith from a stagnating Christian culture. This is evidenced by his interest in Unitarianism, a post-enlightenment theory which rested on empiricism and held that because the Trinity is not directly mentioned in the Bible, Father, Son and Spirit is not Triune.

As an accompaniment, not many songs could beat ‘Devonshire Carol’ from War Horse, by John Tams and Barry Coope .

The Ladder of St. Augustine.

‘Saint Augustine!

Well have you said, that of our vices we can frame a ladder, if we will but tread

Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day’s events, that with the hour begin and end.
Our pleasures and our discontents, are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design that makes another’s virtues less.
The revel of the treacherous wine, and all occasions of excess.

The longing for ignoble things; the strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill, all evil deeds, that have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes. The action of the nobler will.

All these must first be trampled down, beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown the right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar; but we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more, the cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone that wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear, their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear, as we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept, were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept, toiled upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore, with shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern – unseen before- a path to higher destinies.

Nor deem the irrevocable past, as wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last, to something nobler we attain.’

‘The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’, 1868, p.185


Related posts: Longfellow’s Christmas

4 thoughts on “Augustine’s Ladder, Longfellow’s Reach & The Cloudy Summits Of Our Time

  1. Traci Matt says:

    Hi Rod! I’m teaching this at my homeschool co-op next week, Googled it, and you came up! Do you know where St. Augustine wrote about that ladder? Just trying to get as far back with original source documents as I can.

    Liked by 1 person


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.