Last reviewed: June 2018
February 27, 1807
Portland, Massachusetts (now in Maine)
March 24, 1882
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s father was an influential lawyer, and his mother’s family went back to Priscilla Mullins and John Alden, passengers on the Mayflower. A talented, bookish lad, Longfellow at the age of fifteen entered Bowdoin College, where one of his classmates was Nathaniel Hawthorne. After his graduation he was offered Bowdoin’s newly established professorship of modern languages. Because European study was a preliminary requirement, Longfellow in 1826 began that long and loving dalliance with the treasures of the Old World that was to profoundly influence his writing. In 1829 he returned from the first of his four excursions to Europe and began teaching at his alma mater. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In 1834 Harvard University appointed Longfellow to its Smith professorship of French and Spanish. Before beginning his new duties, Longfellow undertook another European tour, this time accompanied by his wife, the fragile Mary Potter of Portland, whom he had married in 1831. Her death in Rotterdam was Longfellow’s first great sorrow. Eight years later he married Frances Appleton, the model for the heroine of the semiautobiographical Hyperion; eighteen years of domestic happiness followed until Frances Longfellow’s death from burns resulting from an accident at home. Five children were born of this marriage, including the three daughters who are featured in “The Children’s Hour.”
Aside from his personal tragedies, Longfellow’s adult years constitute a remarkable story of uninterrupted success and growing prestige. In 1839 his first book of verse, Voices of the Night, gained wide and prompt recognition with such poems as “The Psalm of Life” and “Excelsior.” In 1854 he resigned the Harvard professorship to devote himself exclusively to writing. Such longer works as Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and the first part of Tales of a Wayside Inn, which includes “Paul Revere’s Ride,” brought the poet acclaim and affluence. At the age of sixty-one, during his last trip to Europe, he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and enjoyed a private audience with Queen Victoria. At seventy-five he published a volume of poems titled In the Harbor; a few weeks later, stricken by sudden illness, he died on March 24, 1882, in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Longfellow’s work, reminiscent of the German Romantic lyrists, belongs to the less dramatic aspects of the Romantic movement. He was deeply interested in the antislavery movement and also did much to popularize European culture in the United States. In 1884 he became the first American venerated with a bust in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. His frequent didacticism and occasional lack of profundity are balanced by a craftsmanship and versatility that give grace and fluency to all his work. Never a slavish imitator of his European literary models; he served, rather, as a link between the Old World and the New.
Even more important was his contribution of narrative poems based on American themes and historical incidents, most of them hitherto ignored as poetic material. Longfellow remains one of his country’s most representative poets, a writer who continues to be venerated because he understood the aspirations and sorrows of everyday life and was able to express them in tones of unmistakable simplicity and sincerity.