| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
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.
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.
San Jose State
In the Heath Anthology
A Psalm of Life
The Jewish Cemetery at Newport
The Harvest Moon
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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.
The texts of three major works.
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