Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
famous American poet

1807 - 1882

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most widely published and most famous American poet of the 1800's. His reputation among critics declined sharply after his death, and he had much less influence on modern poetry than such other poets of his day as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. However, many of his poems remain among the most familiar in American literature.

Longfellow's best-known longer works include Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and The Courtship of Miles Standish. Among his popular shorter poems are The Village Blacksmith, The Children's Hour, Paul Revere's Ride, The Wreck of the Hesperus, and Excelsior. Longfellow's works achieved great popularity in Europe as well as in the United States. He was the first American writer to be honored in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.

Longfellow's life

Longfellow was born on Feb. 27, 1807, in Portland, in what is now Maine. The area was then part of Massachusetts. His mother, Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow, was the daughter of Peleg Wadsworth, a Revolutionary War general. Henry's father, Stephen Longfellow, was a lawyer.

Growing up in Portland, a seaport, gave Longfellow a love of the ocean that would influence his writing throughout his life. A Portland newspaper published Longfellow's first poem when he was 13.

Longfellow was admitted to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., at age 15. One of his classmates was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became a famous writer. While attending Bowdoin, both men decided to pursue careers as writers. In a letter to his father, Longfellow wrote, "I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature."

In college, Longfellow showed his skill at learning other languages. After Longfellow graduated at the age of 18, he accepted a position as the college's first professor of modern languages. First, however, he agreed to study in Europe, where he mastered French, Spanish, and Italian, and began to learn German.

In the fall of 1829, after more than three years of study, Longfellow returned to Bowdoin to take up his new position. He had to create his own textbooks because the study of modern languages was a new field. Longfellow composed almost no poetry for the next 10 years. Instead, he concentrated on scholarly writing, teaching, translating, and prose writing.

In 1831, Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter. In 1834, he was offered a new position as Smith professor of modern languages at Harvard College. To prepare himself, Longfellow had to study German literature and language in Europe. In 1835, the couple traveled to England, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, his wife suffered a miscarriage and died shortly afterward in Rotterdam on Nov. 29, 1835.

Longfellow began teaching at Harvard in 1837. Two years earlier, his first book, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, had been published. It was a collection of European travel sketches modeled on the Sketch Book (1819-1820), by the American author Washington Irving. A second prose work, the partly autobiographical novel Hyperion (1839), also drew on Longfellow's travels in Europe.

Longfellow's first volume of poems, Voices of the Night, also appeared in 1839. A second collection of poetry, Ballads and Other Poems (1841), contained several works that helped make Longfellow well known. These included The Wreck of the Hesperus, The Village Blacksmith, and Excelsior.

In 1842, Longfellow traveled in Europe for six months. After his return, he published Poems on Slavery (1842), which described his opposition to slavery. In 1842, Frances (Fanny) Appleton accepted Longfellow's marriage proposal, following a seven-year courtship. The couple were married in July 1843. They had six children and enjoyed 18 years of great happiness.

Longfellow had been a boarder at Craigie House in Cambridge, Mass., since 1837. After his marriage to Frances, her wealthy father bought the house as a wedding gift for the couple. Throughout their marriage, Longfellow and Frances lived in the historic house (now called Longfellow House). As Longfellow's reputation grew over the years, hundreds of visitors, both famous and unknown, called on the famous poet. The house and grounds now make up the Longfellow National Historic Site.

Author and world celebrity. Longfellow published his next book of poems, The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems, in 1845. The book included two antiwar poems, The Arsenal at Springfield and The Occultation of Orion. Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) established Longfellow as the most popular writer of narrative poetry of his time. He then published his final work of prose fiction, Kavanagh: A Tale (1849), about life in a small New England town.

In 1850, Longfellow published another collection of poems, The Seaside and the Fireside. The title indicates two of the settings that conveyed some of the author's most characteristic themes, the sea and the family circle. This volume contains The Building of the Ship, which draws on Longfellow's familiarity with shipbuilding in Maine for its primary subject matter. The newly built ship symbolizes the nation, especially in the final stanza, which begins with the lines "Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union, strong and great!" A decade later, President Abraham Lincoln was deeply moved by these lines.

In 1854, Longfellow left Harvard to devote full time to writing poetry. The next seven years were the most productive of his career. Evangeline had revealed Longfellow's special ability in writing long narrative poems. He returned to this type of work successfully three more times--in The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863, 1872, 1873). Longfellow's verse was translated into many languages, and he became known throughout the Western world.

Tragedy struck Longfellow again on July 9, 1861. His wife, Frances, accidentally set her dress afire. Frances was fatally burned despite Longfellow's efforts to smother the fire with his hands and a rug. Frances was buried on the 18th anniversary of her marriage to Longfellow. However, Longfellow was too badly burned and grief-stricken to attend his wife's funeral.

It was 18 years later and just three years before his own death that Longfellow wrote The Cross of Snow. The Cross of Snow was a sonnet (14-line poem) about Frances that some critics consider Longfellow's best work.

By 1868, when he took another trip abroad, Longfellow was known as "the grand old man of American letters." While in England, he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge universities, and was granted private meetings with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Longfellow died in Craigie House on March 24, 1882.

Contributor: Sargent Bush, Jr., Ph.D., Prof. of English, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.

Additional resources

Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. 1963. Reprint. Greenwood, 1977.

Wagenknecht, Edward C. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Poetry and Prose. Ungar, 1986. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist. Abridged ed. of Longfellow: A Full-Length Portrait. 1966. Reprint. 1985.

Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Twayne, 1964.


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