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The Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better. All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855 (Photo courtesy the Longfellow National Historic Site)

Introduction to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular poet in American history. His work commanded a readership that is almost unimaginable today even for bestselling novels. In terms of their reach and influence, Longfellow's poems resembled studio-era Hollywood films: they were popular works of art enjoyed by huge, diverse audiences that crossed all social classes and age groups. Writing in a period before electronic media usurped the serious literary artist's role as society's storyteller, Longfellow did as much as any author or politician of his time to shape the way nineteenth-century Americans saw themselves, their nation, and their past. At a crucial time in American history—just as the Revolutionary War receded from living memory and the disastrous Civil War inexorably approached—Longfellow created the national myths for which his new and still unstoried country hungered. His poems gave his contemporaries the words, images, myths, and heroes by which they explained America to one another and themselves.

Longfellow was an immensely versatile poet who excelled at virtually every form and genre from the epic to the sonnet. He was an innovator in versification and a master of lyric poetry, translation, and adaptation. No form, however, better displayed his distinctive gifts than the short narrative poem. Nineteenth-century readers greatly esteemed the form, which combines the narrative pleasures of fiction with the verbal music of verse.

Longfellow’s status as a major poet rests especially on the critical assessment of his four book-length poems—Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863-1873). These were the poems that earned him a preeminent position among his contemporaries. The special qualities of these poems seem antithetical to the lyric traditions of modern poetry, which prize verbal compression, intellectual complexity, elliptical style, and self-referential movement. Longfellow’s greatest gifts were best suited to more public poetry—forceful clarity, evocative simplicity, emotional directness, and a genius for memorable (indeed often unforgettable) phrasing.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

On February 27, 1807, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in his aunt’s house on the waterfront of Portland, Maine (which remained part of Massachusetts until 1820). He was the second son of the Harvard-educated lawyer Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah Longfellow (née Wadsworth) whose father was Peleg Wadsworth, a distinguished Revolutionary War veteran and congressman.

At age six, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began school at the Portland Academy, and, at fourteen, he began college at Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating in 1825 with his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although his father wanted him to become a lawyer, Longfellow instead became a professor of modern languages. Extensive travel in Europe—living for long stretches in France, Spain, Germany, and Italy—prepared him for the six years he spent teaching at Bowdoin. He married Mary Potter of Portland in 1831, but he longed to escape a future in a small college town.

The gifted teacher gladly accepted the position of Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard College, which he held from 1834 to 1854. But his joy at this good fortune soon gave way to grief when, during a long trip in northern Europe, Mary suffered a miscarriage and died from a resulting infection in 1835.

In July of 1836, he met and fell in love with Fanny Appleton. The daughter of wealthy industrialist Nathan Appleton, she gave Longfellow the cold shoulder for many years. Meanwhile, his literary career took off. By the time his immediately successful first collection of poetry, Voices of the Night, appeared in December of 1839, the 32-year-old author had already written or edited nine volumes: six small textbooks in Spanish, Italian, and French; a book of verse translation; and two prose works, Outre-Mer (1835) and Hyperion (1839).

Fanny finally accepted his proposal in 1843. Their happy and fulfilling marriage revolved around their home—her father purchased Craigie House as their wedding present—and their six children. Believing that “women have so much to suffer,” Longfellow arranged for his wife to be the first woman in the U.S. to give birth under the influence of ether. The poet witnessed a daughter’s healthy birth on April 7, 1847, but her death 17 months later completely devastated him.

Professional success continued. Collections of poetry such as The Belfry of Bruges (1845) and his bestselling narrative poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) sold so well that in 1854 he retired from Harvard to devote himself to writing full-time, thus becoming America’s first self-supporting poet. The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems (1858) were published to great acclaim in both America and England.

Then tragedy struck again. On July 9, 1861, Fanny’s dress caught on fire at Craigie House while she was using hot wax to seal a package. She ran into Longfellow’s study, where he tried to extinguish the flames, but she died the next day. He was so badly burned that he could not attend her funeral.

Numb with shock and despair, Longfellow nevertheless devoted himself to his five remaining children—the eldest was seventeen and youngest was five when Fanny died—and to his poetry, most notably his Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863-1873) and his translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1865-1867). He lived to see the celebration of his birthday as a national holiday and the birth of two grandchildren. On March 24, 1882, he died at home from peritonitis and is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time ...”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from his poem, “A Psalm of Life”

Longfellow’s Homes

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived in one of two houses for most of his life: the Wadsworth-Longfellow House on Congress street in Portland, Maine, where he grew up; and Craigie House, a colonial mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived from 1837 until his death in 1882. Both are open to the public.

Portland, Maine

The house in Portland was built by the poet's maternal grandfather, General Peleg Wadsworth, in 1785-1786. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up in the house from 1807 to 1821. The last person to live there was Anne Longfellow Pierce, Henry's younger sister, who died in 1901. She bequeathed the house to the Maine Historical Society to be preserved as a memorial to her famous brother and their family. In June 2002, the Maine Historical Society celebrated the centennial of the Wadsworth–Longfellow House as Maine’s first house museum open to the public.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The handsome building on Brattle Street now known as the Vassall Craigie-Longfellow House was originally built in 1759 by John Vassall, a wealthy royalist. The house was later used by George Washington as his headquarters between July 1775 and April 1776 during the siege of Boston. In 1791 the house was purchased by Andrew Craigie, the Apothecary General (equivalent to today’s U.S. Surgeon General) during the Revolutionary War.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow occupied Craigie House from 1837 to 1882. Longfellow’s descendants preserved the house along with the poet's collections and furnishings until 1972. The National Park service now maintains Craigie House as the Longfellow National Historic site.

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