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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, when it was still part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was educated at Portland Academy and along with his older brother Stephen entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1822, at the age of fifteen. He graduated in 1825, in the same class as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and resisting his father’s wishes that he follow in his footsteps and take up the law, Longfellow persuaded his father to underwrite informal postgraduate study in Europe. He had been offered a newly created professorship in modern languages at Bowdoin, but the position was contingent upon his undertaking further study of French and Spanish. For the next three years, Longfellow lived and studied in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, returning to take up his post as professor (and part-time college librarian) in September 1829. During his six years at Bowdoin, Longfellow turned out French, Italian, and Spanish textbooks, published translations and a travel book, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, written in the fashion of Washington Irving’s popular Sketch Book.

In 1834, when Harvard College offered him the Smith Professorship of French and Spanish, it was once more conditional upon further study, this time of German. So in April 1835, with his wife, Mary Storer Potter, he sailed once more to Europe. But Mary, after suffering a miscarriage, died in Rotterdam, and Longfellow took himself off to Heidelberg, trying to immerse himself in books to overcome his grief.

The following spring, when Longfellow’s passport difficulties forced him to go to the Tyrol, in Switzerland, rather than to Italy, he chanced to meet Fanny Appleton, the daughter of a prominent Beacon Hill family. Seven years later Fanny, who was initially reluctant and ten years younger than he, finally agreed to marry him, and her family made them a present of Craigie House, a few blocks down Brattle Street from Harvard Yard. Now called the Longfellow Historic Site, the house still stands. Longfellow remained at Harvard until 1854, when he resigned in order to devote himself completely to poetry. He was succeeded in his post by James Russell Lowell.

By all accounts his marriage was a happy one; yet Longfellow’s domestic life was to be the source of profound sorrow. They had six children, but two of them did not live much more than a year, and their son Charles was persistently troubled. But most tragically, in July 1861, in the eighteenth year of their marriage, Fanny’s dress caught fire in a freak accident and she died of her injuries, Longfellow having been unable to quench the flames in time to save her life. Left to raise the children himself, Longfellow now grew the full beard with which he is always pictured, quite possibly to cover the scars from his badly burned face, and for the next twenty-one years he lived as a widower in Craigie House, becoming increasingly famous with the passing years.

During his first years at Harvard, Longfellow was able to publish several volumes of poetry, including Voices of the Night (1839), Ballads and Other Poems (1841), and a collection of abolitionist ballads called Poems on Slavery (1842), but it was not until 1845 that he began to publish the dramatic compositions for which he earned a great part of his popular reputation. The idyllic Evangeline, published in 1847, tells the tragic story of the heroine’s search for her lover. Longfellow set his story in America. Indeed, Evangeline wanders through a great deal of America before finding her lover in a Philadelphia almshouse just before his death. The poem is written in unrhymed hexameter lines modelled on the Greek and Latin lines of the epic poems of Homer and Virgil.

Longfellow used the same hexameter line for The Courtship of Miles Standish (1856), another dramatic rendering of American legend. As with The Song of Hiawatha (1855), for which Longfellow contrived an accentual, unrhymed stanza to imitate the sound of oral folk narrative, Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish are poems rooted in a scholar’s understanding of poetic history and form. In choosing domestic legends and casting them in classical forms, Longfellow was attempting to create an American epic poetry. Unfortunately, poems so easily memorized are sitting targets for parody, and the fact that these three great poems were recited by generations of school children has inevitably distorted both their importance and Longfellow’s achievement.

Always accessible, Longfellow’s poems reflect his wide reading and cultural breadth—so much so, in fact, that Poe accused him of poaching. And although the sentiments of old favorites such as “A Psalm of Life” may seem to our somewhat cynical, twenty-first-century ears to be simplistic, Longfellow’s uplifting moral verses, like his memorable narrative poems, added inestimably to a growing American literary voice. His seventy-fifth birthday was an occasion for national celebration, and his reputation in England, where he was acknowledged the equal of poets such as Wordsworth and Tennyson, earned him a bust in the poet’s corner at Westminster Abbey.
Allison Heisch
San Jose State University

In the Heath Anthology
A Psalm of Life (1838)
The Warning (1842)
The Jewish Cemetery at Newport (1852)
Aftermath (1873)
Chaucer (1873)
The Harvest Moon (1876)

Other Works
Poems (1886)

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The Courtship of Miles Standish
The text of this Longfellow poem.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A biography and links to poetry etexts.

Longfellow: Mezzo Cammin
The text of this Longfellow poem.

Norse Ballads of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Selected electronic texts by Longfellow.

Recollecting Longfellow
The texts of three major works.

Secondary Sources

Kenneth W. Cameron, Longfellow Among His Contemporaries, 1978

Edward Wagenknecht, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist, 1966

Edward Wagenknecht, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, His Poetry and Prose, 1986