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By far the most widely known and best-loved American poet of his time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow achieved a rare degree of national and international prominence. Poems such as ”A Psalm of Life” (1838), Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (1847), and ”Paul Revere’s Ride” (1863) became mainstays of national culture, long remembered by generations of readers who studied them in school. Longfellow linked American poetry to European traditions beyond England and made pioneering contributions to the nation s literary life. However, his reputation suffered a serious decline in the twentieth century, and he became associated with an outmoded, genteel tradition.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Well-Born American
Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine (though at the time Maine was still a part of Massachusetts). His father, Stephen Longfellow, was an attorney and Harvard graduate active in public affairs; his mother, Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow, was the daughter of General Peleg Wads-worth, who had served in the American Revolution. The family occupied the first brick house in Portland, built by the general. Henry began his schooling at age three and was educated in private schools, where he became fluent in Latin. His first publication, a four-quatrain elegy to fallen soldiers, appeared in the Portland Gazette in 1820. Also that year, he passed the entrance examinations for Bowdoin College in nearby Brunswick, where he attended the following year.
Contrary to his father s wish that he study law, Longfellow preferred a literary career and joined the literary societies on campus. He began publishing poems, sketches, and reviews in numerous periodicals while attending Bowdoin. He hoped to support himself by writing, and fate provided such an opportunity. in 1825, the college trustees offered the young graduate a professorship in modern languages, provided that he prepare for the post by studying Romance (Latin-derived) languages in Europe. He sailed from New York in May 1826, and he spent three years rambling through cities and countryside, absorbing impressions of European cultures. His subsequent work revealed a unique blend of American and European influences.
Professor of Languages
Returning to Maine in 1829, Longfellow as a young professor soon found himself immersed in the unpoetic routines of pedagogy. He married a Portland neighbor, Mary Potter, in 1831, and published his first book, a travelogue called OutreMer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1833-1834). He also wrote essays on French, Spanish, and Italian literature, and material for language textbooks.
Overburdened with instructional tasks, Longfellow leapt at an offer to join the faculty at Harvard. He traveled to Europe again, accompanied by his wife, to ready himself for the new position. In London, he met the British writer Thomas Carlyle, who stimulated Longfellow’s interest in German Romanticism, which greatly influenced his later writing. While abroad, Mary Longfellow’s health collapsed following a miscarriage; she died in November 1835, leaving her widower stricken and disbelieving. He carried on, immersing himself in German literature in Heidelberg. He subsequently became infatuated with a young American girl visiting Switzerland, Frances “Fanny” Appleton.
Settling down at Harvard, Longfellow wrote poetry along with academic essays. His first poetry collection, Voices of the Night (1839), achieved immediate popularity. The poem ”A Psalm of Life,” from that collection, evokes the theme of carpe diem, gently imploring the reader to leave ”footprints on the sands of time.” His verses, filled with a wistful wisdom born of sad experiences, met an appreciative public response. He also published a romantic novel drawing on his European travels, Hyperion (1839).
Evangeline and Fame
Longfellow followed up his poetic success with another collection, Ballads and Other Poems (1842). Now that he had discovered his voice and his audience, he achieved personal happiness as well: after a seven-year courtship, Frances Appleton agreed to marry him in 1843. As a wedding gift, her father bought the Craigie House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Longfellow spent the rest of his life there, raising six children. Many distinguished friends, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, were frequent guests.
The professor’s academic efforts brought forth a huge anthology of The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), which he translated and edited. He also began writing the longer narrative poems for which he is primarily remembered. His greatest popular success came with Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie (1847). The heroine of this verse romance is separated from her husband during the eviction of the French-speaking Acadians from Nova Scotia. She journeys all over French and British America searching for him. Longfellow’s tale of marital fidelity was immediately acclaimed for its lyrical grace and poignant storyline and became one of the most beloved American poems of the nineteenth century.
Longfellow resigned from Harvard in 1854; he was now the leading American poet and happily withdrew from campus life to devote himself fully to writing. Each new book extended his fame. The Song of Hiawatha (1855) was another major success. It was drawn from the tribal folklore of the Ojibway Indians, but it was also inspired by Nordic epics. In the title poem of The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems (1858), Longfellow concocted a humorous romance out of familiar historical material from the Plymouth Puritans.
The Christus Trilogy
Fanny Longfellow died tragically on July 9,1861, when her dress caught fire at home. Trying to smother the flames, her husband burned his face so severely that he couldn’t shave again, instead growing the long white beard familiar from portraits. While coping with private tragedy, he suffered the additional trauma of the Civil War, which touched his family directly when his eldest son was wounded while fighting for the Union army. He coped with his sorrow by plunging himself into literary work. The next book he completed, Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), a series of narrative poems reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400), reveals Longfellow’s versatility and mastery of narrative form. It also contains one of his, and America’s, most famous patriotic poems, ”Paul Revere’s Ride.”
Longfellow also took on the ambitious task of translating Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1321) in blank verse. For advice, he gathered weekly sessions of his ”Dante Club” of writer-scholars, who included James Russell Lowell and William Dean Howells. Longfellow’s translation, still respected for its literary merit, appeared in three volumes from 1865 to 1867.
He then concentrated on what he considered his masterpiece: a trilogy of dramatic poems chronicling the history of Christianity. He had begun the series a decade earlier with The Golden Legend (1851), set in medieval Italy; he explored Puritanism and the Salem witch trials in The New England Tragedies (1868) and dramatized the passion of Christ in The Divine Tragedy (1871). The three works appeared together under the title Christus A Mystery (1872), but sales and critical response were unencouraging.
Despite flagging creative zeal, Longfellow remained productive in his final decade. In 1874, The New York Ledger paid him the staggering sum of three thousand dollars for a single poem, ”The Hanging of the Crane.” At his death in 1882, he was still selling a thousand books a week, and he left his children a sizable estate.
Works in Literary Context
Longfellow displayed an affection for language, literature, and narrative early in life. His early verses imitated British romantic poets and the American William Cullen Bryant. On his first trip to Europe, Longfellow met Washington Irving, who encouraged him to write and provided a model of an American writer who absorbed European influences. Longfellow’s first book, OutreMer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, owed an obvious debt to Irving. Longfellow’s later immersion in German literature, including works by such writers as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, awakened a new sense of poetry as emotional expression. He incorporated much of the artistic philosophy of Goethe, Schiller, and other German poets into his writing and virtually introduced this tradition to American readers, enhancing the worldliness of the young nation’s literature.
American Epic Poetry
Several of Longfellow’s most successful poems—for example, Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie, The Song of Hiawatha, and Tales of a Wayside Inn were epics. Epic poetry is one of the world’s oldest literary forms; it extends back at least as far as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Its narrative form is suited to grand themes of history and mythology. By fashioning epics out of Acadian, Native American, and Puritan source material, Longfellow was deliberately offering America a set of founding myths that established a richness and depth of culture like those found in Europe.
Music and Meter
Longfellow’s poetry combined technical virtuosity with depth of sentiment. He experimented with many forms and meters, from the classical rhythm of Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie to sonnets, ballads, and free verse. Musicality was a key attribute of his poetry, and he thought carefully to select formal elements that matched the theme and mood of his subject. The most famous example is The Song of Hiawatha, written in an unrhymed meter borrowed from the Kalevala, a Finnish folk epic. The poem’s steady trochaic meter, stressing the first of each pair of syllables, summons up the beat of a tom-tom: ”By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water.” It was so strikingly original that innumerable poets produced parodies of Hiawatha. Many of Longfellow’s works, however, are remembered less for their formal qualities than for their tender sentimentality; they are lyrics, shorter poems that aim to produce an emotional effect. Examples include his early ”psalms,” his melancholy lyrics reminiscent of the German Romantics, and his verses extolling moral virtues and paternal affection.
Works in Critical Context
The publication of Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie made Longfellow a remarkably popular poet; the book sold out five printings within three months, and hundreds of editions and translations followed. The Song of Hiawatha proved even more marketable, earning seven thousand dollars in royalties in its first decade. Although sales of later volumes never matched the popularity of these offerings, and the commercial failure of the Christus trilogy was a disappointment, Longfellow lived to experience recognition and rewards seldom enjoyed by other writers at the time. Prominent literary and political figures visited him in Cambridge, and on his final visit to Europe, Queen Victoria received him at Windsor Castle. Longfellow was the only American writer honored with a bust in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, which was installed there two years after his death.
Posthumous Reputation Plummets
Even during his lifetime, Longfellow had his detractors. Edgar Allan Poe famously accused him of imitating the work of other writers; Walt Whitman concurred in this assessment. Numerous critics have found Longfellow’s work lacking the originality of Whitman or Emerson, while they have acknowledged his rare popularity. In the twentieth century, however, Longfellow suffered an eclipse of reputation nearly as unparalleled as his original success. In the atmosphere of disillusioned modernity that followed World War I, the gentle simplicity and moralism of his poetry seemed antiquated and even ridiculous. In Herbert Gorman’s disparaging 1926 biography, Longfellow became an easy scapegoat for ills attributed to Victorianism and Puritanism. The New Critics of the next generation scorned his didacticism and lack of irony; they looked in vain for complexities and ambiguities his poems do not contain. Because of Longfellow’s stature in the canon and the classroom, New Historicist critics leveled the charge that he represented a ”high culture” used to indoctrinate immigrants and American children in Puritan norms.
Ironically, it is entirely possible to read Longfellow as a friend of American multiculturalism. In the eyes of sympathetic critics, he was instrumental in introducing European culture to the emerging American mainstream of the antebellum period. Even The Song of Hiawatha, as outdated as it may read today, represents an attempt to honor the endangered Native American cultures. In a recent book, Longfellow Redux (2008), Christoph Irmscher attempts to overcome the contemporary prejudice against the poet and explore the remarkable connection he maintained with his audience. In Irmscher’s argument, Longfellow advanced democratic culture by delivering the international cultural conversation to American readers, bridging social and linguistic divides.
- Austin, George Lowell. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Life, His Works, His Friendships. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1883.
- Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865. New York: Dutton, 1936.
- Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.
- Gorman, Herbert S. A Victorian American: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Doran, 1926.
- Hatfield, James Taft. New Light on Longfellow, with Special Reference to His Relations with Germany. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.
- Irmscher, Christoph. Longfellow Redux. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois, 2008.
- Kennedy, William Sloane. Henry W. Longfellow: Biography, Anecdote, Letters, Criticism. Cambridge,Mass.: Moses King, 1882.
- Mathews, Joseph Chesley, ed. Henry W. Longfellow Reconsidered: A Symposium. Hartford, Conn.: Transcendental Books, 1970.
- Norton, Charles Eliot. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: A Sketch of His Life. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1906.
- Schaick, John Van Jr. The Characters in ”Tales of a Wayside Inn.”Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1939.
- Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Poetry and Prose. New York: Ungar, 1986.
- Waggoner, Hyatt H. American Poets from the Puritans to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
- Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1964.
- Ward, Nathan. ”The Fire Last Time.” American Heritage (December 2001).
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