Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Contributing Editor: Allison Heisch
Classroom Issues and Strategies
If students have encountered Longfellow before taking a college course, the poems they know are not in this anthology: Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish. The Longfellow of this anthology is our late twentieth-century "revisionist" Longfellow, and except in poems such as "A Psalm of Life," he is almost unrecognizable as a writer who might have written those famous poems. If students have not actually read Longfellow, but merely heard of him (the typical case), they want to know why he's so famous.
Longfellow is accessible, and the fact is that in almost any class there will be students who adore "A Psalm of Life" and students who cannot stand it. Such a division, of course, presents the teacher with an ideal point of departure.
Although Longfellow is now very unfashionable, he is nevertheless an excellent vehicle for teaching about poetry either to the unlimited or the turned-off. Oddly enough, students in general respond to the story of his life almost more readily than to his poetry. That, therefore, is a good place to begin. They often ask about his fame. Some respond very positively to his sentimentalism, which can be tricky.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Longfellow's themes in the poems in this collection are nearly indistinguishable from those of his contemporaries in England. It's useful to show him, therefore, as an example of the branch of American literature that created itself in admiring imitation of English literature. He is also that rare thing, a genuine celebrity of a poet, whose fame has subsided and whose stature has shrunk accordingly. Many of the poems we now admire most are from his later years, and conform better to modern taste than the poems for which he was famous in his lifetime. Thus, he can be used as a good example of the ways in which changing literary tastes alter literary reputations.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Longfellow's poems are not only accessible in their meaning, but they are also highly regular in their form. It is very simple to teach metrics with Longfellow because he provides easy and memorable examples of so many metrical schemes. These can be presented in connection with Longfellow's personal history, for he is of course an academic poet, and as such a poet writing often self-consciously from a learned perspective. Thus, nothing with him seems wholly spontaneous or accidental.
Two points are easy and convenient where audience is concerned: First, the fact that Longfellow was in his time as popular as a rock singer might be in ours. Second, the fact that while he was writing for an audience descended from transplanted Englishmen, he was nevertheless trying to create for them an American poetry crafted from "native" materials, thereby making chauvinist myth. Admittedly, it's hard to get to that point from the selections in the present anthology, but since "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" was originally part of The Courtship of Miles Standish, a way can be found.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
There are many directions to travel here: First, locate Longfellow in New England with Emerson and the Transcendentalists; second, locate him as a (necessary?) predecessor to Whitman, and then compare their views of America; third, set his view of life and nature against that of native poets.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) To whom is he writing? What is his message?
(b) Translate "A Psalm of Life" literally and say whether you agree or disagree.
(c) What are Longfellow's favorite words?
2. How has Longfellow changed or maintained his essential view of life between "A Psalm of Life" and "Aftermath"?
Because his poetry is more impressive taken together than individually analyzed, Longfellow has commanded whole books more often than single articles.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Ungar, 1986.