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date: 14 June 2024

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworthfree

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworthfree

  • Susan Balée
  •  and Dana Gioia


  • North American Literatures

Longfellow's words continue to echo in the English language, although few people nowadays could name the poet who first wrote the phrases so many have uttered: “Into each life some rain must fall,” “Footprints on the sands of time,” “The patter of little feet,” “Ships that pass in the night,” “When she was good, she was very, very good,” and many more. Longfellow wrote with clarity and moral conviction—two qualities that endeared him to his own time yet render him quaintly anachronistic in ours.

Although modern readers may see Longfellow as part of an old-fashioned, genteel tradition, his impact on American literature must not be underestimated. He consciously set about creating a distinctly American literature early in the nineteenth century, and he was largely successful in this project. That he patterned it on the New England values that shaped his own personality—hard work, spiritual belief, self-mastery, charity, and patience—is not surprising. Longfellow cherished his country and his church. He saw God's hand in both nature and human nature, but he also believed that hard work and perseverance could make one's fortune, and their absence could mar it. All people, he felt, had a duty to their families and their communities.

Longfellow's poetry reflects his values, and it had a massive impact on generations of readers. However, in the twentieth century—at least since the modernist movement led by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in the first half of the century—the majority of English-language poets have ceased to share the values of this particular literary forebear. The twentieth century's best poets (with a few notable exceptions, such as Robert Frost) set themselves against Longfellow and almost everything he stood for. It is perhaps no surprise that poetry as a popular art form has suffered in tandem with Longfellow's reputation: once a part of nearly everyone's daily life, poetry now appeals primarily to the intellectual elite.

Longfellow would doubtless be astonished by the sea change that made his art academic rather than accessible. Perhaps he would be even more surprised by the fact that few Americans today can quote poetry (especially not contemporary poetry). In his day, most people knew several poems and many snatches of poems by heart. Poetry, like the songs from which it descends, was musical, meant to be said as well as read. Perhaps for this reason, the public's thirst for verse is now largely assuaged by popular song lyrics. Many people can sing the lines of a popular song, even if they cannot quote a poem. In Longfellow's day, they would have been able to do both, for both had established niches in popular culture. As the creator of the verses people loved, Longfellow in his day was much like Paul McCartney in ours—the bard of his generation.

A Nineteenth-century Celebrity

Happily, Longfellow did not live to see the fading of his name and the marginalization of his vocation. In his lifetime, he was a major celebrity, beloved as much by the common people who memorized his verses as by the literary critics who analyzed them. Even Edgar Allan Poe, who grew irritated by Longfellow's moral didacticism (Poe was ahead of his time in that response), had to admit his colleague's genius. Not only was Longfellow popular with readers, he made a great deal of money, too. Alfred Tennyson, England's poet laureate of the same era, once bragged to a friend that he earned two thousand pounds a year from poetry—and then lamented, “But Longfellow, alas, receives three thousand.” To put these sums in perspective, consider that the English novelist George Meredith earned an annual salary of £ 250 in 1860 as a junior editor for a publishing house, at that time his entire income for a year. He lived on it and was not considered poor.

The most beloved literary American of his era, Longfellow enjoyed a host of admirers, from his old classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne in the United States to Charles Dickens and the royal family in England. Moreover, Longfellow's popularity crossed class boundaries. When he visited Windsor Castle in 1868 to meet the royal family, Queen Victoria made an interesting note in her diary about the hubbub caused by Longfellow's visit:

I noticed an unusual interest among the attendants and servants. I could scarcely credit that they so generally understood who he was. When he took leave, they concealed themselves in places from which they could get a good look at him as he passed. I have since inquired among them, and am surprised and pleased to find that many of his poems are familiar to them. No other distinguished person has come here that has excited so peculiar an interest. Such poets wear a crown that is imperishable.

A Fireside Poet, a Metrical Master

The sobriquet “Fireside Poet”—a name given to Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier, all of whom were popular poets in family circles—suits Longfellow well. He began publishing poetry in an era when, for many people, an evening's entertainment consisted of telling stories or reading poems around the hearth. The entire family took part in the entertainment, and there was no sharp distinction in the early nineteenth century between highbrow and lowbrow literary culture. Longfellow's poems—both long narrative poems such as Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) and The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and shorter poems such as The Psalm of Life and The Village Blacksmith—were eminently suited for these family reading sessions.

However well Longfellow embodied the role of fireside poet, he also transcended it. Poems that are deceptively simple to memorize and recite were crafted with close attention to their metrical shape. The common reader could declaim Longfellow with ease, but his contemporary reviewers were keenly aware of the prosody he employed in making his verses. Critics of the first editions of his books hotly debated his experimentation with foreign meters, such as the dactylic hexameter he employed in Evangeline, or the unrhymed trochaic tetrameter of The Song of Hiawatha.

Nowadays, prosody is a neglected subject. Few literary critics know more than the rudiments of metrics and, as a consequence of the free-verse revolution (another effort by the modernists to ward off the influence of the literary past), even many poets have never studied versification. Certainly one reason for the fall in Longfellow's reputation has been the decline of interest among both scholars and poets in formal prosody. Twentieth-century American poetry gradually developed a metrical Puritanism, a conviction among both poets and critics that serious formal poetry is best written only in regular or loose iambics. The triple and trochaic meters have been relegated to light verse, and classical and foreign meters are regarded as technical curiosities.

Longfellow's verse, easy though it was to memorize and recite with its intense musicality and frequent rhymes, was based on a lifetime's study of European literary forms. Longfellow, who first traveled extensively in Europe at age nineteen, mastered several languages—Italian, French, German, and Spanish—and became proficient in Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Icelandic; he also studied the metrical devices of European poetry. In addition to his popular original works, he made European literature accessible to Americans through his translations. His translation of Dante's Divine Comedy remains in print and popular even today.

Indeed, America's knowledge of the poetry of Dante Alighieri owes much to Longfellow, whose translation and influence on the curriculum of Harvard University (where he held the Smith Chair of Modern Languages for eighteen years) made it part of a well-rounded American education in literature. Matthew Pearl's novel The Dante Club (2003) focuses on Longfellow's translation of Dante, much of it crafted while the poet was at Harvard. This popular and critically praised novel links Longfellow and the literary friends who listened to the early drafts of his translations to some Dantesque murders in nineteenth-century Boston. Perhaps it may bring Longfellow back to popular literary consciousness.

Creating a Distinctly American Literature

Very little, however, has been written on Longfellow in recent decades. Kermit Vanderbilt made the point well in a recent edition of American Literary Scholarship: “Increasingly rare is the scholar who braves ridicule to justify the art of Longfellow's popular rhymings.” This is a sad commentary on the poet who did so much to promote literature in America. His early experience of living abroad seems to have sharpened Longfellow's sense of what it meant to be an American. Other than Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant, both of whom he revered, Longfellow had no mentors in American literature to shape his writing. In the absence of a path to follow, Longfellow blazed one himself. As his Pilgrim ancestors had carved a community out of the American wilderness, he helped to create an American literature—a community of readers, bound by the same cultural currency of shared myths and history.

Longfellow wrote the first textbooks for his students at Bowdoin and then Harvard, for none existed when he began teaching comparative literature. His knowledge of European literature suggested to him the templates for his ambitious project. Instead of inventing new forms, he harnessed some of the best ones from Europe (the exemplary tale, ballad, and saga; the classical hexameter, Petrarchan sonnet, and trochaic tetrameter), and made them the vehicles to convey quintessentially American themes: the colonial experience of Miles Standish and the Plymouth Pilgrims, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, the myths and culture of Native Americans, or the tragedy of the Acadian French exiled from British Canada. His poems took as subjects North America's flora, fauna, and seasons, ships built and wrecked off the New England coast, slavery and the Civil War. Longfellow mythologized America's past, turning the sunlit summits and bloodstained plains of history into art. Nor did he neglect to commemorate in verse his own era and its major events.

For the most part, Longfellow led an emotionally rich, financially secure, spiritually and socially stable life. He had grown up with close ties to his parents, grandparents, and siblings. He found his vocation early in life and was fortunate enough to make it a rewarding career. He enjoyed good health, good looks, intelligence, wit, and charm. All his life, he was surrounded by good friends and by family whom he adored. The greatest tragedies of his life were the untimely deaths of both of his wives and one of his children. Though grief marked him, it also provided the impetus for some of his finest poems.

The deaths of his wives and daughter did not create but sharpened an already acute sense of the poignancy of loss—not only through the deaths of loved ones, but also of the self in time. Longfellow's poems point out that to be human and subject to time is constantly to experience loss. First we lose our childhood, and when we go home again as adults, the familiar places have grown disturbingly different. Longfellow went home often to the town of Portland, Maine, where he grew up, and that port town and its seafaring life appear in many of his poems. His upbringing in Maine greatly influenced his life and work.

Early Life: Portland, Maine, to Bowdoin College

Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, on 27 February 1807. He was the second child and second son of Zilpah Wadsworth and Stephen Longfellow. Henry's maternal grandfather, General Peleg Wadsworth, was a Revolutionary war hero who went on to serve in the Massachusetts legislature and the U.S. Congress. His paternal grandfather was a Portland judge and also a delegate to the Massachusetts legislature. Henry's father, Stephen, was Portland's leading lawyer and himself a representative in the Massachusetts legislature (Maine did not separate from Massachusetts until 1820).

As the critic Matthew Gartner (2000) observes, “The tier of New England society to which Longfellow belonged was made up of prominent families whose men became distinguished in law, religion, medicine, and education, and who felt deeply their civic responsibilities” (p. 60). His family's history was one of honorable service to the community and the nation, and Longfellow had no desire to buck the tradition. He deeply respected his parents and their values, and he believed in leading a good and useful life.

Although he knew early on that he wanted a career in literature rather than law, medicine, or religion, Longfellow also knew that he had to make literature serve a purpose higher than his own pleasure in creating it. Perhaps that explains his brother Samuel's description of his poetry as “serviceable.” Longfellow wrote poetry with a civic aim, to comfort or to exhort, but always to embody the ethic of social responsibility that his parents and his milieu had inculcated in him.

One of Longfellow's earliest memories as a child of the new republic was of the battle of the American ship Enterprise and the British Boxer during the War of 1812. He watched the sea battle from Munjoy Hill, overlooking Casco Bay, with his grandfather Wadsworth. The Enterprise won, though the captains of both ships were killed. At the age of five, Henry discerned that the fruits of war taste bitter, even to the side that wins. He felt this all the more strongly fifty years later, when the Civil War rent the nation and his eldest son was badly wounded fighting for the Union.

Longfellow's recollections of that sea battle and his childhood in Portland are best evoked in My Lost Youth:

Often I think of the beautiful townThat is seated by the sea;Often in thought go up and downThe pleasant streets of that dear old town,And my youth comes back to me.I can see the shadowy lines of its treesAnd catch in sudden gleams,The sheen of the far-surrounding seasAnd islands that were the HesperidesOf all my boyish dreams.And the burden of that old song,It murmurs and whispers still:'A boy's will is the wind's will,And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

This poem commemorates Portland as the scene of Longfellow's boyhood and goes on to “remember the sea-fight far away / How it thundered o'er the tide / And the dead captains, as they lay / In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay / Where they in battle died.” The captains remain in Portland forever, as does the poet's youth, left wandering among the “black wharves and the slips,” among the “Spanish sailors with bearded lips / And the beauty and mystery of the ships / And the magic of the sea,” and among his childhood haunts in Deering's Woods.

Longfellow glimpsed the greater world in the ships that docked in Portland, with their sailors of many nations, and he also experienced the “forest primeval” of North America in the ancient forests of Maine.

His youth in Portland appears again and again in his poems, many of which create metaphors or spin narratives about the sea, tides, storms, shipbuilding, and shipwrecks. His experiences tramping through forests, both around Portland and in more rural Brunswick where he attended Bowdoin College, also show to good effect in numerous poems, including The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) (where the woods are a fearful place for the Pilgrims, the haunts of “savage” Indians), Evangeline (a pristine forest representing an Eden from which the Acadians are evicted), and The Song of Hiawatha (the woods as a spiritual site as well as the primary habitation of the northeastern tribes).

My Lost Youth touches on several of Longfellow's New England themes, and it also points to the great twentieth-century American poet who is Longfellow's truest heir: Robert Frost. Frost too treats the themes of boyhood, lost youth, and the New England woods. In a clear nod to Longfellow, Frost's first collection of poetry was titled A Boy's Will. (Longfellow and Frost also share an influential biographer, Lawrance Thompson.)

Longfellow published his first poem at age fourteen: a poem about the Revolutionary War battle of Lovell's Pond, which the boy had heard about often from his grandfather. The same year, he enrolled in Bowdoin College with his elder brother Stephen. Because Maine had just become a state and Stephen Longfellow Sr., was one of the trustees of Bowdoin College, the Longfellows decided to send their boys there rather than to Harvard.

In Henry's case, this may have been an inspired choice. Bowdoin in his day was small and undistinguished. Its professors were old and unrenowned, and its president, the Reverend William Allen, was a dour old Calvinist of the early Puritan type. Henry, who might have found himself awed and intimidated by the caliber of Harvard professors, was a confident student at Bowdoin. Even though the professors lacked reputation, the Bowdoin students of his era supplied the school's brilliance; several of them, including Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, became nationally distinguished.

The weather and lack of society also promoted study: Brunswick was cold and isolated. Undistracted, Longfellow read widely and indiscriminately. He wrote poetry and published a great deal of it—dozens of his poems appeared in newspapers and magazines during his college years. Although he studied science and mathematics in addition to Greek and Latin, it was modern literature that drew him. His father, as he well knew, expected him to become a lawyer like himself, but Henry had no desire to become a lawyer, nor a doctor, politician, or minister—the other acceptable careers for well-educated men of his social class. The more his father assumed that Henry's future lay in his law firm, the more this otherwise obedient son resisted. He wrote his father, “I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature; my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centers upon it.”

The sober paterfamilias was rather taken aback by his son's passion, but he reminded him that the family was not wealthy enough to support him in a career that didn't pay; in fact, there wasn't wealth enough in America “to afford encouragement and patronage to merely literary men.” Henry had to recognize the justice of his father's reservations, but he did not want to give up his dream. He made a pact with Stephen Longfellow: if his father would allow him one year of postgraduate study at Harvard in modern languages and literature, he would then join Longfellow and Sons as a lawyer. In his heart, however, Henry planned to make a living as a “merely literary man.” He had begun to be paid for some of his published poems and essays, and he realized that the contacts he would make in Cambridge might help him gain a position as an editor at a magazine or newspaper.

Longfellow continued to work hard at Bowdoin, his goal clear before him. In his junior year, he appeared in a “Dialogue” performed at the college to debate the rights of Native Americans. He took the part of King Philip, the Wampanoag chief who had decimated settlements all over Massachusetts during the first Indian War of the seventeenth century. A classmate assumed the role of the Puritan soldier Miles Standish. Longfellow found an account of a man named Hecklewelder who had lived for years with various tribes and come to appreciate the Native American way of life. The book influenced him deeply, and he wrote to his mother: “It appears from this account of them and their customs that they are a race possessing magnanimity, generosity, benevolence, and pure religion without hypocrisy. They have been most barbarously treated by the whites both in word and deed.”

Longfellow carried off his role to hearty applause, although he also sympathized with Miles Standish, as would become apparent decades later when he wrote The Courtship of Miles Standish. He knew from family stories that he himself was a direct descendant of Standish's friend and rival suitor, John Alden.

His role as King Philip, however, opened his eyes early to the rich culture of Native Americans and their long history of mistreatment at European hands. (Later, Longfellow would take up the slaves' cause as ardently as he did that of America's indigenous peoples.) His incorporation of Native American legends and beliefs into a narrative poem is a landmark in American literature. The Song of Hiawatha, for all its faults, celebrated the Native American heritage in a way that endured. It was a best-seller in the author's lifetime and for decades afterward; it was translated into many languages and frequently set to music, the most famous interpretation being that by Antonin Dvořák in his New World Symphony.

In the years 1824–1825, however, Longfellow's ideas about American history were merely seeds that would not germinate for decades. The youth's immediate goal was simply to distinguish himself in his studies in order to make his way successfully at Harvard as a postgraduate student.

In the spring of his graduating year, Longfellow discovered that he would graduate fourth in a class of thirty-eight. As the student body's main poet, he expected to read a poem at graduation, but the professor in charge of the commencement ceremony thought Longfellow's scholastic achievements merited a higher distinction and asked Longfellow to deliver an oration at the graduation exercises. The topic Longfellow selected and his presentation of it now sound like a prospectus for his own literary goals.

The young graduate's topic was “Our Native Writers,” and he argued for a national poetry using American scenes, characters, and themes. He urged America's nascent authors to work with a “deep and thorough conviction of the glory of their calling—an utter abandonment of everything else—a noble self-devotion to the cause of literature.” American literature should be beautiful, as befitted a country so brimming with natural beauty, and it should “liberalize and enlighten.”

Longfellow had struck a chord with his hearers. and some of them had power to direct his future. Unknown to him, a bequest had just been given to Bowdoin to endow a new Chair of Modern Languages. The board of the college, uncertain whom to hire for the position, were swayed by the passion of one trustee who had heard Longfellow deliver his oration. This same trustee convinced the dumbstruck Stephen Longfellow that his eighteen-year-old son was the right man for the professorship. He had the intellect and the work ethic; all he needed was a greater command of modern languages. Study abroad would give him that, as well as added maturity.

A few months after he graduated, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was offered the professorship of the newly endowed Chair of Modern Languages at Bowdoin, contingent on two years of travel and study abroad. He accepted, and packed his bags for Europe.

Professor Longfellow

When the nineteen-year-old Longfellow boarded the Cadmus in May 1826 to sail for Europe, something notable happened: he stopped writing poems. The silence lasted for the next eleven years, during a time of life when most poets are hard at work mastering their medium, usually by writing reams of verse that carry them from juvenilia into artistic maturity. Instead, Longfellow dedicated his twenties to learning his craft in a different way. He studied European languages and literature, translated an astonishing range of poetry—usually in its original meters—and wrote prose of every sort, from fiction and memoir to grammar textbooks and literary criticism.

When Longfellow returned to original poetry in late 1837, he had developed a combination of skills unprecedented among American poets: a deep knowledge of European literature, practical experience with dozens of poetic genres and forms from his work in translation, a trained critical mind, and an assured authorial voice developed in prose works, notably Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea (1835), his autobiographical travelogue.

Also in that decade, Longfellow took up his duties as a professor at Bowdoin College, also serving as the college's librarian for an additional salary. As a young professor, Longfellow kept very busy preparing his lectures on French, Spanish, and Italian literature, particularly because he had to write the needed textbooks himself. He married in 1831, mitigating the loneliness of Brunswick with a lovely young wife, the nineteen-year-old Mary Storer Potter, the daughter of Judge Barrett Potter, an old neighbor in Portland. Despite the pleasure of his new marriage, by 1834 Longfellow was becoming increasingly frustrated by the stultification of life in a Maine backwater. Fortuitously, George Ticknor, Harvard's eminent professor of modern languages, decided to retire and suggested Longfellow (whose reputation had spread widely through his published textbooks and translations) as his successor. Harvard tendered an offer that Longfellow was delighted to accept.

To improve his language skills, particularly his German, before taking the Harvard post, Longfellow sailed for Europe again in April 1835. This time he took his young, pregnant wife with him. The trip began auspiciously with a visit to Thomas Carlyle in England, followed by productive months in Denmark and Sweden, where Longfellow studied the Nordic languages. The young couple enjoyed living abroad, but tragedy erased their happiness in October 1835. They had traveled to Amsterdam so that Longfellow could study Dutch. Mary Longfellow suffered a miscarriage there on October 5; seemingly recovered, she traveled on with her husband to Rotterdam, where she died of an infection on November 29.

Longfellow was stunned by grief, but he continued to study German and to travel through the German-speaking countries, sometimes terribly lonely, occasionally buoyed by friendship (William Cullen Bryant befriended him in Heidelberg, and the Appleton family of Boston in Interlaken, Switzerland). On 24 January 1836, he wrote to his father from Heidelberg: “I feel very lonely and dejected and the recollection of the last three months of my life overwhelms me with increasing sorrow. Every day makes me more conscious of the loss I have suffered in Mary's death.…[T]he sense of my bereavement is deep and unutterable” (pp. 538–539 in Letters, ed. Hilen, vol. 1). To Eliza Potter, Mary's sister, he explained further: “[T]he world considers grief unmanly, and is suspicious of that sorrow, which is expressed by words and outward signs.”

For the most part, then, Longfellow did not trumpet his grief to others. He may have been somewhat ashamed of it, and then further confused when he found himself falling in love with Fanny Appleton less than a year after Mary's death. He suffered another loss when Fanny initially rejected him. He returned to America alone in the fall of 1836 to take up his duties as the holder of the Smith Chair of Modern Languages at Harvard.

What factors, then, caused Longfellow's creative energies to reignite, prompting him to resume writing his own poems? His biographers have suggested a variety of reasons for the poetic rebirth. Samuel Longfellow, his younger brother, who compiled the first biography in 1886, believed that when Henry moved into Craigie House, an elegant Cambridge mansion with historical associations (George Washington had lived there during the Revolutionary War), his creative powers were unleashed. Herbert Gorham theorizes that Longfellow's immersion in European literature for the previous decade had instilled in him anxiety about the difficulty facing any American artist who hoped to equal the Old World's tradition, and that this stifled his creativity until he could assimilate the influences. Matthew Gartner advances the idea that Longfellow's need to be more than a “merely literary man” did not reach fulfillment until he achieved the sense of professional and public responsibility conferred on him by the Harvard appointment.

The factor most frequently singled out as an impetus, however, is the death of Mary Longfellow. His scholarship could not bear the psychic weight of Longfellow's grief nor adequately address his need for self-definition in the new social milieu of Cambridge. Almost as soon as he returned from Europe, he began composing the autobiographical Hyperion: A Romance (1839), and within the year he resumed writing poetry. From this time on, Professor Longfellow would be primarily an imaginative writer.

Hyperion: A Romance and Voices of the Night

Longfellow's strange hybrid book Hyperion combines travel sketches, memoir, sentimental romance, and literary essay. Orestes Brownson reviewed the book in the January 1840 edition of the Boston Quarterly Review, capturing its essence: “Such a journal as a man who reads a great deal makes from the scraps in his table-drawer.” Matthew Gartner (2000) believes Hyperion is this and much more. In it, Gartner claims, Longfellow is beginning to invent himself as a poet and to insist that the poet is far more than a merely literary man; he is, instead, a “master of culture.” Certainly the hero of the book, Paul Flemming, is a master of literature. He displays an amazing familiarity with European authors old and new and is happy to share his wisdom with the object of his affection, Mary Ashburton.

Early readers in Boston quickly discerned that Mary Ashburton was closely modeled on Fanny Appleton, and the hero on Longfellow himself; hence it has been hard for critics to separate Hyperion the book from the story of Longfellow's love for the Boston heiress. Unhappily for the author, Fanny's embarrassment when the book came out hardly helped his suit. Her father's reaction to it was to keep Longfellow at arm's length during his visits to their Beacon Street mansion, prolonging the period before Fanny and Henry Longfellow finally married in 1843.

Gartner thinks that Longfellow's feelings for Fanny were “a corollary to his expertise in poetry. [She] did not so much inspire Longfellow to poeticize as to display his own literariness” (p. 69). Hyperion underscores the idea that aesthetic discussions, reading literature aloud and musing on it, are essential to enduring romantic love. A characteristic passage from Hyperion describes Paul Flemming “continually drawing from his pocket or his memory some scrap of song or story; and inviting some fair Angélique, either with her father's permission or without, to attend the dissection of an author upon whom he was to lecture. He soon gave proofs of this to Mary Ashburton” (p. 181).

Gartner argues that Longfellow needed to validate his profession of literary man and to answer the question “Is poetry suitable work from a man?” (p. 70). He was still trying to counter the reservations his father had laid before him earlier. Ten years into his professorship, he remained defensive about his role as a man of letters with important, useful lessons to teach. In the book, Paul Flemming is rejected by Mary Ashburton, just as Longfellow was rejected by Fanny. Flemming is shaken but not unmanned. Instead, he has an epiphany in a European graveyard, where an inscription on a chapel wall reinvigorates him. It becomes the epigraph of the book: “Look not mournfully into the Past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the Present. It is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy Future, without fear, and with a manly heart.”

Longfellow, still grieving over the death of Mary, had really seen such an inscription on a chapel wall in a village graveyard in the Austrian Alps in June 1836. It comforted him, and its essence returned many times in his most popular poems. If Hyperion tried to make the profession of literature respectable, Longfellow's first published poem after a ten-year hiatus really achieved that goal. A Psalm of Life first appeared in October 1838 in the Knickerbocker Magazine. It generated an enormous popular response and was reprinted in newspapers across the country before its inclusion in Longfellow's first collection of poems, Voices of the Night, published in December 1839, two months after Hyperion.

This poem exemplifies what Longfellow did best as a poet and what made him beloved among all classes of people. By taking on themes as large as life and death and calling his poems about them “psalms,” Longfellow was, in Gartner's words, “promising his readers quasi-scriptural truths on the great existential and eschatological questions—the purpose of life and the meaning of death” (p. 73). A Psalm of Life was written to comfort and to encourage, and it did both, from its first two exhortatory stanzas to its last three, which remind sufferers that they are not alone:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,Life is but an empty dream!—For the soul is dead that slumbers,And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!And the grave is not its goal;Dust thou art, to dust returnest,Was not spoken of the soul.
Lives of great men all remind usWe can make our lives sublime,And, departing, leave behind usFootprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,Sailing o'er life's solemn main,A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,With a heart for any fate;Still achieving, still pursuing,Learn to labor and to wait.

This beloved public poem of comfort to the bereaved was accompanied by others like it in Longfellow's first volume. His private grief, as ever, he did not make public. The best poem commemorating his own loss of Mary is Mezzo Cammin, written in 1842 in Germany and never published during his lifetime:

Half of my life is gone, and I have letThe years slip from me and have not fulfilledThe aspiration of my youth, to buildSome tower of song with lofty parapet.Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fretOf restless passions that would not be stilled,But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,Kept me from what I might accomplish yet;Though, half-way up the hill, I see the PastLying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—A city in the twilight dim and vast,With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—And hear above me on the autumnal blastThe cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Longfellow composed this poem in Boppard, Germany, on the Rhine, during a six-month sojourn in Europe whose central purpose was to take the “water cure” at Marienbad. The hard-working professor was suffering from nervousness, vision problems, dyspepsia, and recurring toothaches.

Perhaps Longfellow never published Mezzo Cammin because he felt it was indelicate to memorialize his first wife while he courted a second (he married Fanny Appleton the next year), or perhaps he simply did not feel that this poem fit in with his project of poems both useful and comforting to his public readers. Mezzo Cammin borrows its title from the opening line of Dante's Inferno, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” later translated by Longfellow as “Midway upon the journey of our life.” Dante used this metaphor to describe the age of thirty-five, the halfway point in the Bible's allotted span of human life, “three-score years and ten.” Longfellow, as his notes show, composed his own poem at that age.

What makes this poem unusual for Longfellow is its final sestet. Rather than resolving the speaker's dilemma of artistic talent not realized because of extreme grief, instead it amplifies the dilemma. The lines vividly describe how the protagonist is caught inescapably between the unrecoverable but still visible past and his distant but nonetheless inevitable death.

Few of Longfellow's poems end in such an indeterminate way. The sonnet, however, suggests at least two things about Longfellow in 1842 that one would not have said before his wife's death: first, he was now certain of his poetic vocation, and second, the awareness of his own mortality spurred his creative resolve.

Ballads and Other Poems

The success of Longfellow's second verse collection, Ballads and Other Poems (1841), determined his literary future. Although he would still occasionally write fiction and scholarly prose, he soon conceded to the wisdom of the marketplace. With the exception of his unsuccessful novel Kavanagh: A Tale (1849), and the critical apparatus to his major translations, virtually all of his subsequent work would be in verse. Ballads and Other Poems also helped define Longfellow's poetic gifts for both himself and his public. The new volume revealed his strength as a storyteller, and narrative poetry became the prime source of Longfellow's immense popularity. His superiority at creating compelling stories—clearly, movingly, and memorably—was his chief virtue in the eyes of his contemporaries, although today it poses the chief obstacle to his appreciation among critics in our time.

Ballads contains three of Longfellow's best-known poems. Two of these, The Wreck of the Hesperus and The Village Blacksmith, treat distinctly American themes—an actual shipwreck off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, about which Longfellow had read, and the central role of the blacksmith in New England village life. Longfellow's great-great-grandfather, Stephen Longfellow, had been just such a blacksmith in Newbury, Massachusetts, and the stories of his centrality to the town he lived in filtered down through the Longfellow family. The third of the collection's most noted poems is The Skeleton in Armour; though at first glance an episode from a Norse saga, it was in fact inspired by an antique, rusted coat of mail found near the Round Tower of Newport, Rhode Island. Evidence suggested that the armor had belonged to a Viking, and Longfellow crafted his poem with that in mind.

Gartner finds The Village Blacksmith a crucial poem in Longfellow's invention of himself as a poet and a master craftsman of culture:

[It is] the first poem in which Longfellow creates a master-figure in order to associate himself explicitly, as poet and artist, with that figure. By trumping his own creation in the last stanza of the poem, Longfellow perfectly casually and rather breathtakingly claims a place as a kind of father figure—a place his readers were evidently eager to grant him.

(p. 80)

The first seven stanzas of the poem take place in an eternal, cyclical present (“Each morning sees some task begin, / Each evening sees it close”), but the final stanza shifts from the blacksmith's character and sledge-swinging day job, to what he has taught the poet:

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,For the lesson thou hast taught!Thus at the flaming forge of lifeOur fortunes must be wrought;Thus on its sounding anvil shapedEach burning deed and thought.

The lesson the narrator learns is one taught to Longfellow by his own ancestor, Stephen Longfellow, who eventually left Newbury and his smithy to become a schoolteacher in Portland, Maine, where his descendant would grow up to be first a teacher, and then a master craftsman.

Four Long Narratives of North America

The issue of Longfellow's status as a major poet ultimately rests on the critical assessment of his four book-length poems: Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863–1873). These are the poems that earned him a preeminent place among his contemporaries, but they are also the works most utterly rejected by the twentieth-century modernists. The long poems present a number of problems for critics, not the least of which is their proper evaluation. They are the most slippery kind of literature to judge: not quite masterpieces, but too good and too original to ignore. They still command a reader's attention and linger in the memory.

Unlike Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, which engendered the tradition of poetry's private voice, publicly pronounced, Longfellow's extended poems are neat and lucid: they are polished, linear, nonautobiographical narratives. Their form is not exploratory but patterned after the traditional genres of pastoral romance, folk epic, and framed tale. They are conceived as serious but popular entertainments, meant to enlarge the reader's humanity without deconstructing his or her moral universe.

The moral element in Longfellow's long poems cannot be minimized. Although the poems may now seem old-fashioned in form, they remain surprisingly contemporary in their concerns. Evangeline depicts the personal tragedies of the displaced Acadians, an ethnic and religious minority driven from their Canadian homeland by an imperial power. The Song of Hiawatha strives to present with dignity the legends and customs of Native Americans on their own terms. The Courtship of Miles Standish criticizes the harshness of military values. Tales of a Wayside Inn, whose very framework celebrates multiculturalism (the tales, modeled on Boccaccio's Decameron, are told by a Sicilian political refugee, a Spanish Jew, a Norwegian musician, a broad-minded theologian, a poet, and the Yankee landlord of the American inn), contains stories openly concerned with environmental sensitivity, religious tolerance, political freedom, and charity.

Evangeline is the most poetically impressive of the longer poems. It contains passages—the prologue, the burning of Grand-Pré, the journey on the Mississippi, the descriptions of the prairies—that are both beautiful and “sublime” in Edmund Burke's sense of that term. The story also has a magnificent narrative sweep, right until its end, which reveals Longfellow's central weakness as a storyteller, one that Charles Dickens and many other mid-nineteenth-century writers shared: sentimentality. Nevertheless, Evangeline remains a haunting work.

The Song of Hiawatha is America's answer to the European romantic obsession with the folk epic. This poem sold thirty thousand copies during its first six months in print and became the most popular long poem ever written in the United States. It secured Longfellow's place as the favorite English-language poet of his day. Hiawatha displays his gifts as both storyteller and mythmaker. Longfellow used the trochaic tetrameter of the Finnish Kalevala for his poem, and he incorporated dozens of Ojibway words. These devices constantly remind the reader or listener that Hiawatha's mythic universe is not our world.

Again, the fatal flaw of this long poem is its ending. Hiawatha instructs his people to accept the Black-Robes (the European priest colonizers) and then paddles off into the sunset. Scholars have justly castigated Longfellow for this ending, but the fact is that the poet lacked the tragic vision to recognize the unlikelihood of such a humane, liberal reconciliation between Native Americans and the invading Europeans. Once Hiawatha's narrative leaves mythic time for history, it must face the tragic consequences of its material, but tragedy was a genre beyond Longfellow's reach.

The Courtship of Miles Standish is the least compelling of the four long poems, although it is interesting for what it says of the nation's grim Puritan forebears. Hawthorne took that project much further with novels such as The Scarlet Letter.

Tales of a Wayside Inn

Of the four long poems, Tales of a Wayside Inn makes the best case for Longfellow's narrative mastery. As Newton Arvin (1962) writes, “No literary undertaking could have made a happier or more fruitful use of his powers…his storytelling genius, his sense of narrative form, his versatility, and the opulence of his literary erudition” (p. 205). The stories, told in a variety of metrical forms, are mostly splendid. The best half dozen or so—Paul Revere's Ride, King Robert of Sicily, The Cobbler of Hagenau, Azrael, The Monk of Casal-Maggiore, The Legend Beautiful, and The Birds of Killingworth—rank among the best short American narrative poems ever written. One senses here, as in none of the other long poems, Longfellow's celebrated personal charm, warmth, and humor.

That he had retained these attributes attests to his ability to practice the wisdom he preached in poems such as The Psalm of Life, for by the time he penned Tales of a Wayside Inn, he had endured two more tragedies. The first was the death of his daughter, Fanny, in 1848, at the age of one and a half years. His Christian faith buoyed him then, and he wrote in Resignation (collected in The Seaside and the Fireside, 1850):

She is not dead,—the child of our affection,—But gone unto that schoolWhere she no longer needs our poor protection,And Christ himself doth rule.

The second tragedy, and by far the worst he would ever know, was the death of his second wife, Fanny Appleton, in July 1861. They had been happily married for eighteen years, the parents of five living children, ensconced as the most eminent couple in Cambridge in their beloved Craigie House, which her father had given them as a wedding present. All of this ended on a bright day in July. Fanny's death was horrific: she burned to death, despite her husband's attempts to save her. John Derbyshire contrasts the deaths of Longfellow's two wives by noting that Mary Longfellow's death was “within the scope of afflictions one might reasonably expect to suffer in the days before modern medicine. Grief was appropriate, and in this case sincere; but death was all around, and it was unusual in Longfellow's time for anyone to be long derailed by the death of a loved one.”

The death of Fanny Longfellow was of another dimension altogether. Longfellow was dozing in his study while Fanny was sitting in the library with her two youngest daughters, ages five and seven, sealing envelopes of their hair, which she had just cut off to keep as mementos of their childhoods. A match landed on her dress, which burst into flames. Screaming, Fanny ran into Longfellow's study. He attempted to put out the flames with a rug and his own body, but succeeded only after having burned himself badly, and too late to save Fanny. She died after a night of agony. Longfellow was plunged into grief that lasted for years. He grew a beard to cover the burn scars that had permanently disfigured his handsome face.

Work proved the one anodyne. First he returned to his translation of Dante; after completing it, he began Tales of a Wayside Inn. Even people who think they do not know any poetry by Longfellow probably do know the first of those tales: Paul Revere's Ride. Longfellow wrote this poem just as the memories of the Revolutionary War were receding and the horrors of the Civil War were approaching. It first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly a few months before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Longfellow wanted to remind his audience of the courage their ancestors demonstrated in forming the Union and to persuade them that they should try to keep it from being rent asunder.

The opening lines of the poem are so famous readers may forget their layered meanings:

Listen, my children, and you shall hearOf the midnight ride of Paul Revere,On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;Hardly a man is now aliveWho remembers that famous day and year.

Why, one wonders, does the poem begin by addressing “children”? Sure most readers of the Atlantic Monthly were not children. By invoking children in the opening line of his patriotic poem, Longfellow implicitly defines his narrative as a story the older generation considers important enough to pass down to the younger. What will follow, therefore, is not merely an interesting story but a legacy. Longfellow gives the date, 18 April 1775; as everyone in his original audience would have known, it was the day before the American Revolution began. The next morning at Lexington and Concord, American colonists fired their first shots against the British.

Longfellow wanted to create a stirring patriotic myth. To do so, he took Paul Revere, a regional folk hero hardly known outside Massachusetts, and turned him into a national icon. The poem does not merely recount a historical incident; it dramatizes unconquerable Yankee individuality against the old order of European despotism. Revere is a man of action, galloping through the night to warn the colonists of a British invasion; however, he is also a symbolic figure, a timeless emblem of American courage and independence.

In the last stanza, the verb tenses shift from the past (“rode”) of the opening five lines to the future tense (“shall echo,” “will waken”) of the closing lines:

For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,Through all our history, to the last,In the hour of darkness and peril and need,The people will waken and listen to hearThe hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

Americans woke during the Civil War to deeply conflicting messages, not all of them about preserving the Union. Nevertheless, Longfellow's poem was so successful that modern readers remember it not as a literary work but as a national legend.

Lasting Influences

Longfellow's seventieth birthday in 1877 was cause for nationwide celebration. In 1879, the children of Cambridge gave him a Village Blacksmith armchair, carved from the wood of the venerable chestnut tree that he had memorialized in his poem. When he died in 1882, he was America's most beloved literary figure, the patriarch of poetry.

Even today, if we put aside the many cultural barriers between Longfellow's age and our own, we find that he is an exceptional poet of transparent grace and memorable emotion. He was, first and foremost, a popular poet who purposely addressed his songs and stories to a broad and mixed audience. He is among the handful of English-language poets who have managed to create a significant and enduring body of work in a widely accessible style.

Longfellow stayed true to his roots and his core values. He believed in hard work, social usefulness, familial love, and universal compassion. He was a Christian humanist, but also a creator. Yet he never set himself up as equal to Christ or God, but rather as a kind of master craftsman, like the potter in his late poem Kéramos (1877), for whom the process of creation is as important as its product. The only constant is change, and time will eventually return everyone and every object to clay:

Turn, turn, my wheel! What is begunAt daybreak must at dark be done,To-morrow will be another day;To-morrow the hot furnace flameWill search the heart and try the frame,And stamp with honor or with shameThese vessels made of clay.

First, though, one must live—to have the heart and body tried by existence—to be stamped with honor or with shame. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's name has been stamped with honor. It will be a shame if more readers do not rediscover his work.


Collections of Poetry
  • Voices of the Night (1839)
  • Ballads and Other Poems (1841)
  • Poems on Slavery (1842)
  • The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1845)
  • Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (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 (1866)
  • The New England Tragedies (1868)
  • The Divine Tragedy (1871)
  • Aftermath (1873)
  • The Masque of Pandora and Other Poems (1875)
  • Kéramos and Other Poems (1878)
  • Ultima Thule (1880)
  • In the Harbor (1882)
  • Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea (1835)
  • Hyperion: A Romance (1839)
  • Kavanagh: A Tale (1849)
  • Works (1886)
  • Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings (2000)

Further Reading

  • Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. (1962). This is the most comprehensive biography and critical analysis of Longfellow's works in (relatively) modern times. Arvin builds upon Thompson and many other biographers before himself to give a full portrait. He notes that Longfellow's great reputation is undergoing a sort of Purgatory—a collapse attendant upon a too-great popular inflation—but he advocates an honored place for Longfellow in the canon. Arvin says that a “hospitable and comprehensive” American literature would certainly have a corner dedicated to popular literature, particularly the poems of Longfellow.
  • Derbyshire, John. In the Bivouac of Life: Longfellow and the Fate of Poetry. The New Criterion, December 2000. A witty, current assessment of Longfellow's reputation based upon the 2000 publication of the Library of America edition of his works.
  • Gartner, Matthew. Becoming Longfellow: Work, Manhood, and Poetry. American Literature 72 (March 2000), 59–86. This article traces Longfellow's twin project of inventing himself as a poet and making the role of poet/literary man a respectable profession. Gartner's deep cultural knowledge of Longfellow's New England social milieu makes this article particularly enlightening.
  • Gioia, Dana. Longfellow in the Aftermath of Moderanism. In Columbia History of American Poetry, pp. 64–96. New York, 1993. Discusses in depth the role played by twentieth-century modernism in demolishing Longfellow's literary reputation.
  • Haralson, Eric L. Mars in Petticoats: Sentimental Masculinity in Longfellow. Nineteenth-Century Literature 51 (December 1996), 327–355. Although Longfellow worried mightily at various points in his life about seeming “manly” enough, Haralson shows that the lessons the poet had to teach were in fact the traditionally feminine ones of patience and endurance. An interesting look at nineteenth-century manhood and femininity and Longfellow's role in changing cultural values.
  • Hawthorne, Hildegarde. The Poet of Craigie House. New York and London, 1936. This biography, though it may seem at first glance to be written for young adults (it is illustrated) actually pairs very well with Longfellow's own work. It is clear, charming, and well-crafted (Hawthorne uses the techniques of fiction to tell Longfellow's life story as if it were a novel). An added fillip of the book is the occasional nugget of insight not present in other biographies. After all, Hildegarde Hawthorne was Nathaniel Hawthorne's granddaughter, and her portrait of Longfellow is based not only on her study of all of his published journals, letters, and memoirs, but also on her grandfather's reminiscences.
  • Hilen, Andrew, ed. The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1966–1982.
  • Howells, William Dean. Literary Friends and Acquaintance: A Personal Retrospect of American Authorship. New York, 1900. An amusing as well as laudatory portrait of Longfellow as an eminence grise (or, rather, “white”—the main chapter of this book devoted to Longfellow shows him as a leonine, white-headed and bearded old man, “The White Longfellow”). Howells wanted to honor the author he loved, but he does it with a great deal of humor, positing himself as the young Ohio bumpkin in the presence of New England's great literary men.
  • Longfellow, Samuel. Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence. Boston, 1886. This was the first biography of Longfellow, written by his younger brother. Naturally, it is a very positive portrait of the celebrated poet; Samuel Longfellow avoids the complex and contradictory issues of his older brother's life. Nevertheless, it is valuable for the many reminiscences of someone who grew up with the poet and knew him from childhood on. Also, it marks the first time Longfellow's important poem “Mezzo Cammin” appeared in print.
  • Thompson, Lawrance. Young Longfellow. New York, 1938. Thompson's project is to show Longfellow in a more complicated, twentieth-century light. Thompson is irked by “the techniques of Victorian biography,” specifically, the portraits of Longfellow by Samuel Longfellow and W. D. Howells, because he feels they are mere hagiographies, filled with deletions and emendations that conceal the true nature, good and bad, of the poet. Howells's piece bothers him because it shows Longfellow as an old man—the sort of eternal patriarch of poetry that he'd become in popular imagination. Thompson writes, “It is high time to attempt to visualize him as his friends saw him, in the formative vigorous years” (p. xii). Thompson does so, and this biography ends with Longfellow in 1843, marrying Fanny Appleton.