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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born into a well-known Portland, Maine, family on February 27, 1807. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a prominent Portland attorney and later a member of Congress. His mother, Zilpah Wadsworth, was the daughter of Peleg Wadsworth, an American General in the Revolutionary War. As a boy, Henry loved to read, especially stories set in foreign places. He published his first poem when he was only 13, entered Bowdoin College at the age of 15, and by his senior year was determined to become a famous writer. The college asked him to teach modern languages there after his graduation in 1825, but Longfellow chose to spend a little more than three years traveling in Europe first. Upon his return he taught French, Spanish, and Italian at Bowdoin until 1836, when he moved to Harvard College.

In addition to teaching, writing textbooks, and traveling to Europe to improve his ability to use other languages, Longfellow launched his literary career. In 1835, he published Outre-Mer, a book of travel sketches. His first volume of poems, Voices of the Night, was published in 1839. The volume included "Hymn to the Night" and "A Psalm of Life." By the time he resigned from Harvard in 1854, Longfellow had published 12 books, not including textbooks, including The Spanish Student (1843) and Evangeline (1847).

Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter in 1831. She died suddenly in 1835 while the couple was traveling in Europe. Trying to overcome his grief, Longfellow continued his travels and in 1836 met the Appletons, a Boston family. He fell in love with one of the daughters, Frances, but she did not agree to marry him until 1843. His new father-in-law gave the couple Craigie House, an historic mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that had once served as General George Washington's headquarters, and there they raised six children, five of whom lived to adulthood.

Craigie House as it looks today

By 1854 Longfellow's reputation as a writer was solidly established. In 1855, he published The Song of Hiawatha, which according to estimates sold a million copies during Longfellow's lifetime. He achieved further success in 1858 with The Courtship of Miles Standish, which was subsequently translated into many languages.

In 1861, at the height of his success, Longfellow's wife accidentally set her dress afire, either with a burning match or hot sealing wax. By the time Longfellow could extinguish the flames, she was fatally burned. To help ease his grief, Longfellow busied himself with translating Dante's epicpoem, The Divine Comedy, which he completed in 1863. He also wrote the sonnet "The Cross of Snow," which was not found until after his death. The remainder of his life was lonely, but rewarding. During a trip to Europe in 1868 and 1869, he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge universities. He died in Craigie House on March 24, 1882. England honored him by placing a memorial bust in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, and Longfellow remains the only American to be so honored.

His Works

No poet of his day matched Longfellow's variety of style and content. "The Children's Hour" shows his love of family life, while "Mezzo Cammin" is a poem about an artist's concern for his career, and "A Psalm of Life" has an instructive, moral purpose. He wrote poems on the simple life ("The Village Blacksmith"), patriotic historical poems (Paul Revere's Ride), tributes to nature ("Woods in Winter"), and ballads ("The Wreck of the Hesperus"). He also wrote poems, generally sonnets, about other writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Keats. He wrote a six-sonnet sequence on Dante's Divine Comedy, and also wrote antislavery poems and made many translations of European poems.

Evangeline (1847) was the first of Longfellow's four major narrative poems. It is the tale of injustice, describing the forced removal of French colonists from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian Wars. It is also the story of two lovers -- Evangeline Bellafontaine and Gabriel Lajeunesse -- separated during the move, and of Evangeline's years-long search for Gabriel.

The Song of Hiawatha (1855) concerns a legendary Indian hero who is raised by a tribe on the shores of Lake Superior. The poem describes Hiawatha's many battles and contests, and his marriage to Minnehaha. Hiawatha prepares his people for the coming of European settlers and Christianity, and eventually departs from the earth to become a god of the Northwest Wind. The poem's subject suited Longfellow well, as it gave him the opportunity to use his scholarship, his resources as a student of other cultures, and his love of idealized narratives.

The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) is a romanticized story based on colonial New England legend and history. In it, a shy Miles Standish asks his friend John Alden to propose marriage on his behalf to Priscilla Mullens. Alden agrees, even though he also loves Priscilla. While "passing on" Standish's proposal, Priscilla asks "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" Standish, believing his friend has betrayed him, goes off to fight Indians. There is a false report of his death, but he returns in time to attend Alden's marriage to Priscilla, and the three are reunited in friendship.

Tales of a Wayside Inn is a series of 21 narrative poems published in three parts (1863, 1872, and 1874). The poems are told in turn by a group of friends at an inn in "Sudbury Town." They show Longfellow's scholarship and his interest in the life and history of other lands, including ancient Israel, Sicily, Italy, Norway, and Iceland. Three of the poems, including "Paul Revere's Ride," concern American themes.

In addition to narrative poems, Longfellow also wrote a number of well-received short poems, including "Mezzo Cammin," "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport," "The Ropewalk," "Divina Commedia," "Keats," and "The Cross of Snow."

Longfellow also wrote some prose, including his first creative work, Outre-Mer, A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835), and the romantic novels Hyperion (1839) and Kavanagh (1849).

The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978

Academy of American Poets
The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Website

Revolutionary War
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This page was last updated on 11/16/2017.