Probably one of the best loved American poets the world over is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Many of his lines are as familiar to us as rhymes from Mother Goose or the words of nursery songs learned in early childhood. Like these rhymes and melodies, they remain in the memory and accompany us through life.
There are two reasons for the popularity and significance of Longfellow’s poetry. First, he had the gift of easy rhyme. He wrote poetry as a bird sings, with natural grace and melody. Read or heard once or twice, his rhyme and meters cling to the mind long after the sense may be forgotten.
Second, Longfellow wrote on obvious themes which appeal to all kinds of people. His poems are easily understood; they sing their way into the consciousness of those who read them. Above all, there is a joyousness in them, a spirit of optimism and faith in the goodness of life which evokes immediate response in the emotions of his readers.
Americans owe a great debt to Longfellow because he was among the first of American writers to use native themes. He wrote about the American scene and landscape, the American Indian (‘Song of Hiawatha’), and American history and tradition (‘The Courtship of Miles Standish’, ‘Evangeline’). At the beginning of the 19th century, America was a stumbling babe as far as a culture of its own was concerned. The people of America had spent their years and their energies in carving a habitation out of the wilderness and in fighting for independence. Literature, art, and music came mainly from Europe and especially from England. Nothing was considered worthy of attention unless it came from Europe.
But “the flowering of New England,” as Van Wyck Brooks terms the period from 1815 to 1865, took place in Longfellow’s day, and he made a great contribution to it. He lived when giants walked the New England earth, giants of intellect and feeling who established the New Land as a source of greatness. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David
Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William Prescott were a few of the great minds and spirits among whom Longfellow took his place as a singer and as a representative of America.
The first Longfellow came to America in 1676 from Yorkshire, England. Among the ancestors of the poet on his mother’s side were John and Priscilla Alden, of whom he wrote in ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish’. His mother’s father, Peleg Wadsworth, had been a general in the Revolutionary War. His own father was a lawyer. The Longfellow home represented the graceful living which was beginning to characterize the age.
Henry was the son of Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow. He was born February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine. Portland was a seaport, and this gave its citizens a breadth of view lacking in the more insular New England towns. The variety of people andthe activity of the harbors stirred the mind of the boy and gave him a curiosity about life beyond his own immediate experience. He was sent to school when he was only three years old. When he was six, the following report of him was received at home: “Master Henry Longfellow is one of the best boys we have in school. He spells and reads very well. He can also add and multiply numbers. His conduct last quarter was very correct and amiable.”
From the beginning, it was evident that this boy was to be drawn to writing and the sound of words. His mother read aloud to him and his brothers and sisters the high romance of Ossian, the legendary Gaelic hero. Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ was a favorite among the books he read. But the book which influenced him most was Washington Irving’s ‘Sketch Book’. Irving was another American author for whom the native legend and landscape were sources of inspiration.
“Every reader has his first book,” wrote Longfellow later. “I mean to say, one book among all others which in early youth first fascinates his imagination, and at once excites and satisfies the desires of his mind. To me, the first book was the ‘Sketch Book’ of Washington Irving.”
Longfellow’s father was eager to have his son become a lawyer. But when Henry was a senior at Bowdoin College at 19, the college established a chair of modern languages. The recent graduate was asked to become the first professor, with the understanding that he should be given a period of time in which to trave land study in Europe.
In May of 1826, the fair-haired youth with the azure blue eyes set out for Europe to turn himself into a scholar and a linguist. He had letters of introduction to men of note in England and France, but he had his own idea of how to travel. Between conferences with important people and courses in the universities, Longfellow walked through the countries. He stopped at small inns and cottages, talking to peasants, farmers, traders, his silver flute in his pocket as a passport to friendship. He travelled in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and England, and returned to America in 1829. At 22, he was launched into his career as a college professor. He had to prepare his own texts, because at that time none were available.
Much tribute is due him as a teacher. Just as he served America in making the world conscious of its legend and tradition, so he opened to his students and to the American people the literary heritage of Europe. He created in them the new consciousness of the literature of Spain, France, Italy, and especially writings from the German, Nordic, and Icelandic cultures.
In 1831, he married Mary Storer Potter, whom he had known as a schoolmate. When he saw her at church upon his return to Portland, he was so struck by her beauty that he followed her home without courage enough to speak to her. With his wife, he settled down in a house surrounded by elm trees. He expended his energies on translations from Old World literature and contributed travel sketches to the New England Magazine, in addition to serving as a professor and a librarian at Bowdoin.
In 1834, he was appointed to a professorship at Harvard and once more set out for Europe by way of preparation. This time his young wife accompanied him. The journey ended in tragedy. In Rotterdam, his wife died, and Longfellow came alone to Cambridge and the new professorship. The lonely Longfellow took a room at historic Craigie House, an old house overlooking the Charles River. It was owned by Mrs. Craigie, an eccentric woman who kept much to herself and was somewhat scornful of the young men to whom she let rooms. But she read widely and well, and her library contained complete sets of Voltaire and other French masters. Longfellow entered the beautiful old elm-encircled house as a lodger, not knowing that this was to be his home for the rest of his life. In time, it passed into the possession of Nathan Appleton. Seven years after he came to Cambridge, Longfellow married Frances Appleton, daughter of Nathan Appleton, and Craigie House was given to the Longfellows as a wedding gift.
Meantime, in the seven intervening years, he remained a rather romantic figure in Cambridge, with his flowing hair and his yellow gloves and flowered waistcoats. He worked, however, with great determination and industry, publishing ‘Hyperion’, a prose romance that foreshadowed his love for Frances Appleton, and ‘Voices of the Night’, his first book of poems. He journeyed again to Europe, wrote ‘The Spanish Student’, and took his stand with the abolitionists, returning to be married in 1843.
The marriage was a happy one, and the Longfellow house became the center of life in the University town. The old Craigie House was a shrine of hospitality and gracious living. The young people of Cambridge flocked there to play with the five Longfellow children – two boys, and the three girls whom the poet describes in ‘The Children’s Hour’ as “grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair.”
From his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow got a brief outline of a story from which hecomposed one of his most favorite poems, ‘Evangeline’. The original story had Evangeline wandering about New England in search of her bridegroom. Longfellow extended her journey through Louisiana and the western wilderness. She finds Gabriel, at last, dying in Philadelphia.
‘Evangeline’ was published in 1847 and was widely acclaimed. Longfellow began to feel that his work as a teacher was a hindrance to his own writing. In 1854, he resigned from Harvard and with a great sense of freedom gave himself entirely to the joyous task of
his own poetic writing. In June of that year, he began ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. Henry Schoolcraft’s book on Indians and several meetings with an Ojibway chief provided the background for ‘Hiawatha’. The long poem begins with Gitche Matino, the Great Spirit, commanding his people to live in peace and tells how Hiawatha is born. It ends with the coming of the white man and Hiawatha’s death.
The publication of ‘Hiawatha’ caused the greatest excitement. For the first time in American literature, Indian themes gained recognition as sources of imagination, power, and originality. The appeal of ‘Hiawatha’ for generations of children and young people gives it an enduring place in world literature.
The gracious tale of John Alden and Priscilla came next to the poet’s mind, and ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish’ was published in 1858. It is a work which reflects the ease with which he wrote and the pleasure and enjoyment he derived from his skill.
Twenty-five thousand copies were sold during the first week of its publication, and 10,000 were ordered in London on the first day of publication.
In 1861, the happy life of the family came to an end. Longfellow’s wife died of burns she received when packages of her children’s curls, which she was sealing with matches and wax, burst into flame. Longfellow faced the bitterest tragedy of his life. He found some solace in the task of translating Dante into English and went to Europe for a change of scene. The years following were filled with honors. He was given honorary degrees at the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge, invited to Windsor by Queen Victoria, and called by request upon the Prince of Wales. He was chosen a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of the Spanish Academy.
When it became necessary to remove “the spreading chestnut tree” of Brattle Street, which Longfellow had written about in his ‘Village Blacksmith’, the children of Cambridge gave their pennies to build a chair out of the tree and gave it to Longfellow. He died on March 24, 1882. “Of all the suns of the New England morning,” says Van Wyck Brooks, “he was the largest in his golden sweetness.”