The female name Allegra is uncommon, but it appeared in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was once the most widely read poet in the United States but whose name has become as unfamiliar as Allegra. Longfellow called his 1860 poem “The Children’s Hour,” and it goes like this:
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, o blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!
* * *
The children named in the poem were the three youngest of Longfellow’s six. Allegra was the youngest of all, and her name is the feminine of Italian allegro, which has the same senses of ‘merry, cheerful’ as its Spanish cognate alegre. The Italian and Spanish words go back to Latin alacer, whose meanings included ‘lively, brisk, quick, eager, excited, glad, happy.‘ Corresponding to the Latin adjective was the noun alacritas, which could mean ‘liveliness, ardor, eagerness, alacrity, cheerfulness, encouragement.’ Spanish hasn’t borrowed that, preferring to create its own alegría, but English has; the noun alacrity means, in the definition of the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, ‘a cheerful readiness, willingness, or promptitude; joyous activity; briskness; sprightliness; as, the soldiers advanced with alacrity to meet the enemy.’
Perhaps today’s posting will prompt you to advance with alacrity to read other works by Longfellow, who, in addition to being the most popular American poet of his day, was a professor of modern languages.
© 2014 Steven Schwartzman