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Creator / Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.
"Music is the universal language of mankind — poetry their universal pastime and delight."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Outre Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (February 27, 1807 – March 24, 1882) was an American poet whose works include "Paul Revere's Ride", The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline. He was the first American to translate Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy and was also one of the Fireside Poets from New England (which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.).

He was born in Portland, Maine—then still part of Massachusetts—on February 27, 1807, the second son in a family of eight children. His mother, Zilpah Wadsworth, was the daughter of a Revolutionary War hero. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a prominent Portland lawyer and later a member of Congress.

All who knew him found Longfellow to have a "lively imagination" and a thirst for learning. At three he was already well on his way to learning the alphabet. When he was five, his parents sent him to the Portland Academy, a private institution where his older brother, Stephen, was also enrolled. As was the custom for the time, the two brothers focused most of their studies on languages and literature. Always a writer at heart, when Henry wasn't in school he and his childhood friend, William Browne, planned elaborate writing projects. When Longfellow was 13, he published his first poem, "The Battle of Lovell's Pond", under "Henry"; it appeared on the front page of the "Gazette," and no one in his family, except his sister Anne, knew he was the author. He overheard his father tell a friend of his how terrible the poem was, and although he was devastated, these remarks did not stop his literary aspirations.

Henry and Stephen enrolled in Bowdoin College, but because of Henry's young age, they stayed in Portland for their first year. They moved to Brunswick, Maine, in 1822 to start their second year in Bowdoin, graduating in 1825; Nathaniel Hawthorne, another famous writer, was a fellow classmate who became his lifelong friend and also graduated from the college that year. During their time in Bowdoin, Henry's passion for literature grew. Stephen wanted his brother to prosper in the future and suggested that he study law. Henry was willing to acquiesce, but his passion for literature was way too strong to give up. Stephen ultimately relented and may have played a role in securing his brother's professorship in teaching European languages — then a relatively new academic field — in the college.

In 1826, Longfellow took a trip to Europe and studied modern languages there for three years, then returned to Bowdoin to teach them. In 1831 he married Mary Storer Potter of Portland, a former classmate, and soon published his first book, a description of his travels called Outre Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835). He also wrote critical essays and published six foreign language textbooks. It was enough to earn him the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages at Harvard College, which he accepted in 1834, beginning a long association with the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Longfellow, however, always retained his ties to family and home in Maine.

To practice his language skills, Longfellow, Mary, and two friends went to Europe in 1835 before starting his career at Harvard. Sadly, Mary died following complications of a miscarriage, and Longfellow, falling into a very deep depression, tried to find solace in travel. He eventually found it when a chance meeting in the Swiss Alps brought Longfellow together with the wealthy Appleton family of Boston. It was then he met and fell in love with their daughter, the stylish and beautiful Frances "Fanny" Appleton. On the other hand, Fanny did not return Longfellow's affections.

Spurned, Longfellow returned to Cambridge in 1836 to take up his teaching post. This is also when his creative life truly began; in the next fifteen years, he wrote all the works on which his extraordinary and nearly instantaneous fame came to rest. Hyperion, an autobiographical novel (featuring a thinly veiled account of Longfellow's love for and rejection by Fanny Appleton), appeared in 1839. The poetry collections Voices of the Night (1839) and Ballads and Other Poems (1841) were received enthusiastically by an international audience, and his fame as a poet continued to grow. In 1847, he published his epic poem Evangeline, a story of loss and devotion set against the deportation of the Acadian people in 1755. In the meantime, Longfellow worked full-time at Harvard University, where he lectured and directed the Modern Languages department. The department was meant to consist of four men teaching in their native languages: Spanish, French, Italian, and German, and he had to fill in any vacancies.

Longfellow's fame and his seven years of patient wooing finally led Fanny to relent; they married in 1843 and had six children, of whom only one did not survive to adulthood. Fanny's father gave Longfellow Craigie House as a wedding gift, and it would become the place where they raised their children. His friends and acquaintances, including Hawthorne, Holmes, Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, and Charles Eliot Norton, would also come to Craigie House to visit.

In 1854, Longfellow decided to quit teaching to devote all his time to poetry, and he became one of America's first self-sustaining writers. During that time, he published Hiawatha (1855), a long poem about Native American life, and The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems (1858).

In 1861, the Civil War began, and in 1863, Longfellow's son Charley ran off to join the fighting, writing to his father: "I have tried to resist the temptation of going without your leave but cannot any longer." Longfellow's three daughters: Edith, Alice, and Anne Allegra, also appeared on the battlefield: shortly after the fighting ended at Gettysburg in early July 1863, a copy of a painting of the three daughters was found. The identity of its owner has never been discovered.

On July 9, 1861, Fanny's clothes caught fire, and she was horribly burned; she may have accidentally stepped on a self-lighting match or lit her clothes using a candle to melt sealing wax. Longfellow himself unsuccessfully tried to put out the flames, but his hands and face were burned (he is thought to have grown his famous beard to cover up the burns on his face). Fanny succumbed to her injuries the next day, and Longfellow, profoundly saddened, slowed considerably in writing original poems; one of those poems was "The Cross of Snow," his only poem that directly addresses his grief. The greatest part of his creative energy went instead into translating 'The Divine Comedy', which he eventually published in 1867.

Longfellow continued to write poetry, and his fame continued to grow, receiving honors of all kinds from Europe and America; he once met Queen Victoria, who read and appreciated his works; and got acquainted with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Walt Whitman, and even Oscar Wilde. His 70th birthday, in 1877, even became a national celebration. When he turned 72, he received as a gift a chair that bore a brass plate on the seat with an inscription: "To the author of 'The Village Blacksmith,' This chair made from the wood of the spreading chestnut tree is presented as an expression of grateful regard and veneration by the children of Cambridge, who with their friends join in the best wishes and congratulations on this anniversary."

On March 24, 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died of peritonitis. When Walt Whitman heard of the poet's death, he wrote that, while Longfellow's work "brings nothing offensive or new, does not deal hard blows," he was the sort of bard most needed in a materialistic age: "He comes as the poet of melancholy, courtesy, deference—poet of all sympathetic gentleness—and universal poet of women and young people. I should have to think long if I were ask'd to name the man who has done more and in more valuable directions, for America."

Major Works

  • Outre Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835): The first major work by Longfellow, inspired by his travels in Europe.
  • The Voices of the Night (1839): Longfellow's first collection of poetry. One of his most famous poems, "A Psalm of Life", comes from this collection.
  • Ballads and Other Poems (1842):
  • Poems on Slavery (1842):
  • The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1845):
  • Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847):
  • The Seaside and the Fireside (1850):
  • Kavanagh (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):
  • A translation of The Divine Comedy (1867):
  • Christus: A Mystery (1871):
  • The Masque of Pandora and Other Poems (1875):
  • ''Kéramos and Other Poems (1878):
  • Ultima Thule (1880):
  • In the Harbor (1882):

Tropes in the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

  • Death of the Old Gods: In the canto "The Wraith of Odin", from The Saga of King Olaf (in Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863), King Olaf, who is about to convert Norway to Christianity, is feasting when a grey-bearded and one-eyed old man in a cloak and hood appears at the gates "shivering" from the cold, and is invited by King Olaf to warm himself in the hall. The whole evening the stranger entertains the king with his extraordinary knowledge of old tales and poetry, but in the morning the man has mysteriously disappeared, even though he stayed in the same bedroom with the king, with the doors still locked from the inside. King Olaf immediately infers that the stranger was Odin, but instead of being frightened, he declares that Christianity is already victorious, because the stranger was the ghost (= wraith) of Odin:
    King Olaf crossed himself and said:
    "I know that Odin the Great is dead;
    Sure is the triumph of our Faith,
    The one-eyed stranger was his wraith."
  • Homage: "Divina Commedia" is a sonnet cycle Longfellow wrote while translating The Divine Comedy. It bears witness to the epic poem's influence on the world, on Italy and beyond.
  • Tempting Fate: At the start of The Sicilian's Tale: King Robert of Sicily, the King hears priests singing from the Magnificat: "He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted them of low degree."
    Thereat King Robert muttered scornfully,
    "'T is well that such seditious words are sung
    Only by priests and in the Latin tongue;
    For unto priests and people be it known,
    There is no power can push me from my throne!"
Before the night is out, he finds that actually, there is.