Authors: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet

February 27, 1807

Portland, Massachusetts (now in Maine)

March 24, 1882

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Poetry: Voices of the Night, 1839 Ballads, and Other Poems, 1841 Poems on Slavery, 1842 The Belfry of Bruges, and Other Poems, 1845 Evangeline, 1847 The Seaside and the Fireside, 1850 The Golden Legend, 1851 The Song of Hiawatha, 1855 The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems, 1858 Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863 Flower-de-Luce, 1867 The New England Tragedies, 1868 The Divine Tragedy, 1871 Three Books of Song, 1872 Christus: A Mystery, 1872 Aftermath, 1873 The Hanging of the Crane, 1874 The Masque of Pandora, and Other Poems, 1875 Kéramos, and Other Poems, 1878 Ultima Thule, 1880 In the Harbor, 1882 Michael Angelo, 1883 Longfellow's Boyhood Poems, 1925 Long Fiction: Kavanagh: A Tale, 1849 Drama: The Spanish Student, pb. 1843 Nonfiction: Elements of French Grammar, 1830 (translation) Manuel de Proverbes Dramatiques, 1830 Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, 1833-1834 Hyperion, 1839 Drift-Wood, 1857 The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1966-1974 (5 volumes; Andrew Hilen, editor) Edited Texts: The Poets and Poetry of Europe, 1845 The Waif: A Collection of Poems, 1845 The Estray: A Collection of Poems, 1847 Poems of Places, 1876-1879 Translation: The Divine Comedy of Dante Alghieri, 1867-1869 Bibliography Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Buell notes Longfellow’s strong interest in New England life. Longfellow’s interest in religious epics is also stressed. Gartner, Matthew. “Longfellow’s Place: The Poet and Poetry of Craigie House.” The New England Quarterly 73, no. 1 (March, 2000): 32-57. Discusses the symbolic status of the private home in Longfellow’s poetry and in the mid-nineteeth century United States. The private home was seen as a sacred space whose high priestess was the wife and mother, and Longfellow used his own home to advance his prestige and authority. Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. The earlier edition (1961) of this work is a standard critical survey of American poetry. Pearce adopts a dismissive tone toward Longfellow: that he lived in a closed world, constantly intent on proving that life is not an empty dream. Suchard, Allen. “The Nineteenth Century: Romanticism in American Poetry.” In American Poetry. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. In spite of Longfellow’s reputation as a celebrator of the American way of life, he was, in fact, possessed by a gloomy vision; argues that the brooding quality of his verse is its best feature. Claims that Longfellow’s sonnets have been unduly neglected. Tucker, Edward L. “The Meeting of Hawthorne and Longfellow in 1838.” ANQ 13, no. 4 (Fall, 2000): 18-21. Discusses a number of meetings between Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne and comments on the omissions regarding the meetings in Longfellow’s edited journals. Turco, Lewis P. Visions and Revisions of American Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Alabama Press, 1986. Turco views Longfellow as a derivative poet of minor importance, maintaining that he imitated the English Romantics, and, in spite of the bulk of his output, almost none has endured Waggoner, Hyatt H. “Five New England Poets.” In American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Claims that Longfellow was the saddest of all American poets and that his dominant theme is that time is humankind’s enemy. He was unwilling to face his own vision and made constant efforts to cheer himself up. Waggoner contends that Longfellow was unintelligent and that his poems are often incoherent.

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