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by Bamber Gascoigne

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)


The most popular American poet of the 19th century, a storyteller, whose works are still cited – or parodied. Longfellow's works ranged from sentimental pieces such as 'The Village Blacksmith' to translations of Dante. Among his most interesting works are Evangeline (1847), a narrative poem of the former French colony of Acadia, echoing such epics as Homer's Odyssey, and The Song of Hiawatha (1855), especially noted for its sing-song meter and shamanistic rhythm. Longfellow is considered the first professional American poet. A number of his phrases, such as "ships that pass in the night", "the patter of little feet", and "I shot an arrow into the air", have become a common property.

"At the door on summer evenings,
Sat the little Hiawatha;
Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,
Sounds of music, words of wonder

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a Portland lawyer and congressman, and mother, Zilpah, was the daughter of General Peleg Wadsworth. Longfellow was early fond of reading – Washington Irving's Sketch-Book was his favorite and at thirteen he wrote his first poem, 'The Battle of Lovell's Pond,' which appeared in Portland Gazette, on November 17, 1820. Among Longfellow's classmates  at Bowdoin College was Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he helped later reviewing warmly his Twice-Told Tales. Before leaving the college, Longfellow had planned to become a writer, and said to his father: "The fact is, I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature; my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centers in it..."

Longfellow's translation of Horace earned him a scholarship for further studies. After graduating in 1825 he traveled from 1826 to 1829 in Italy, France and Spain, where he met Washington Irving, and returned to the United States to work as a professor and librarian in Bodwoin. He translated for his students a French grammar, and edited a collection of French proverbs and a small Spanish reader.

In 1831 Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter (1812-35), and made with her another journey to Europe, where he studied Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and the Dutch language and literature. On this trip Longfellow fell under the influence of German Romanticism. After his return to the United States, Longfellow published an essay on Esaias Tegnér's Frithiof's Saga (1825) in The North American Review. It contained a retelling of the poem. Tegnér praised Longfellow's work in a letter: "I rejoice, of course, to find my poems reproduced in so admirable a manner, and particularly for a nation which I value. . . . Among the four or five translations of Frithiof's Saga, which I have had occasion to see, there is none as yet with which I have been fully satisfied, exceot the Herr Professor's." (Poems by Tegnér: The Children of the Lord's Supper and Frithiof's Saga, introduction by Paul Robert Lieder, American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1914, pp. xv-xvi)

Mary Potter Longfellow died at Rotterdam in November 1835. She was pregnant, suffered a miscarriage and died of infection. Longfellow had her body embalmed and sent by vessel to Boston. Later he wrote of her the touching poem, 'Footsteps of Angels'  (1839), in which the "forms of the departed" visit the narrator: "With a slow and noiseless footstep / Comes that messenger divine, / Takes the vacant chair beside me, / Lays her gentle hand in mine."

This poem, in shorter form, was first called 'Evening Shadows.' Other works followed: the romantic novel Hyperion and a collection of poems Voices of the Night, which became very popular, but was shaply criticized by Edgar Allan Poe, who accused Longfellow of plagiarism. In a review published in April 1845, he called Longfellow the "GREAT MOGUL of the Imitators" and dismissed his poems as bedside reading for the "negrophilic old ladies of the north."

In 1836 Longfellow began teaching in Harvard, taking lodgings at the historic Craigie House, where General Washington and his wife had lived. He dreamed there that J.W. Goethe might come to Cambridge, and duly wrote Hiawatha, a pioneering treatment of Native Americans. Along with James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking" cycle, Longfellow's poem popularized the image of the "noble savage".

In 1840 Longfellow produced 'The Skeleton in Armor' and The Spanish Stundent, a drama in five acts. He went to Europe third time in 1842. While in London he met Charles Dickens, who invited him to stay in his home and introduced Longfellow to the biographer and critic John Foster. On his return, Longfellow published a pamphlet, which contained poems on slavery. Foster reviewed it favorably in the Examiner. During Dickens's reading tour in the United States in 1867-68, Longfellow dined with him in Boston invited him on Thanksgiving Day "to a quiet family dinner."

Longfellow was married twice. After the traumatic death of Mary, Longfellow married in 1843 Frances Appleton (1817-61), the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant, the Mary Ashburton of Hyperion. They had six children. Mary's father purchased the couple the colonial mansion Craigie House. Longfellow remained in Cambridge for the rest of his life, although he spent summers at his home at Nahant.

In 1854 Longfellow read Lönnrot's Kalevala in the German translation of Franz Anton Schiefner, and decided to use it as a model for his own work. The next year Longfellow published his best-know narrative poem, The Song of Hiawatha, It gained immediate success, selling 100,000 copies within two years. Frances died tragically on July 9, 1861 by burning – she was sealing a thin paper containing a lock of one of her children's hair and her dress caught fire from a lighted match. Longfellow, who  rushed in and threw a small rug over her, burned his hands and face. Frances dashed to the doorway, horribly burned. During the night, she regained consciousness and asked for coffee in the morning. Longfellow could not attend her funeral. His famous white beard concealed the scars.

Accompanied by his three daughters, Longfellow made his last visit to Europe in 1868. He spent two days with the English poet Alfred Tennyson on the Isle of Wight. Tennyson had his guest photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, saying  "I will leave you now, Longfellow. You will have to do whatever she tells you. I will come back soon and see what is left of you." Queen Victoria, who was his great admirer, invited him to tea. In Rome he saw Liszt, who set to music the introduction to The Golden Legend (1851).

The Song of Hiawatha adapted its meter from the Finnish national epic Kalevala. J.R.R. Tolkien – wrongly – claimed that  Hiawatha is "a mild and gentle bowdlerising of the Kalevala coloured, I imagine, with disconnected bits of Indian lore and perhaps a few genuine names." (Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, Volume VII, 2010, p. 251) Longfellow's poem told a story of an Indian chief, an Ojibwa Indian, who is raised by Nokomis, his grandmother, "the daughter of the moon". Upon reaching manhood, Hiawatha wants to avenge the wrong done by his father, the West Wind, to his mother, Wenonah. Father and son eventually reconcile, and Hiawatha becomes the leader of his people. He marries Minnehaha, and an era on peace and prosperity ensues under his reign. But hard times come to his tribe, disease and famine afflict his people. Minnehaha dies, Hiawatha takes his leave to go to the Isles of the Blessed, and advises his people to accept the white man and heed to those who will come with a new religion. The poems ends like Kalevala, where the central character, the old and wise Väinämöinen, representing paganism, makes way for a new era. – As a background for the poem, Longfellow consulted Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's books on the Indian tribes of North America and perpetuated an error of Schoolcraft's that placed Hiawatha among the forest tribes of the northern Midwest. The historical fifteenth-century Iroquois chief Hiawatha lived well to the east; apart from the name, Longfellow´s poem had virtually no connection to him.

Walt Disney, who loved the poem, wanted to make a film based on it. "There's a magic to it," he said. "There's mystery to it. There's something in that subject matter." (Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers, and Artists by Don Peri, 2011, pp. 14-15) In the animated cartoon Little Hiawatha (1937), produced by Walt Disney Studios, the title character is a just little boy whose baggy pants are constantly falling down. Moreover, the  animation satirizes some of the clichés about Indians. "Fearless was this mighty warrior, skilled in all the craft of hunters," the narrator intones, but later it turns out that the boy can't kill a little rabbit because it is so cute and scared. The comic artist Carl Barks, who worked for the Disney company, was also an admirer of Longfellow's work. In his classic story 'The Land of the Pygmy Indians' (Uncle Scrooge #18, 1957) the inhabitants on a small barren asteroid speak in the rhythms of the poem

"Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,"  starts one of Longfellow's most famous verses, which secured Revere's place in the nation's collective memory. The work was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1861. Longfellow's patriotic poetry reflects his interest in establishing an American mythology. No doubt, Revere was an American patriot, but Longfellow took liberties with historical facts for dramatic purposes: Revere never reached Concord on his "mindnight ride," it was another rider, Samuel Prescott, who spread there the word of alarm. Following the disastrous Penobscot Expedition in 1779, Revere was charged of disobedience of orders and unsoldierslike behavior, "during the whole expedition to Penobscot, which tends to cowardice." However, Longfellow's poem elevated him into the pantheon of the Revolutionary heroes.

Longfellow's other works include The Courtship of Miles Standish  (1858), Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), a translation of Dante´s The Divine Comedy (1865-67) and Christus: A Mystery (1872), a trilogy dealing with Christianity from its beginnings, which was intended to be Longfellow's masterpiece. Longfellow began his Dante translation in 1865, collaborating with the poets James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the historian George Washington Greene, and the publisher James T. Fields. Inferno was completed two years later. The poet's 70th birthday in 1877 was celebrated around the country. Longfellow died in Cambridge on March 24, 1882. According to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, it was Longfellow's celebrity that finally killed him. In London his marble image is seen in Westminster Abbey, in the Poet's Corner.

For further reading: The Heroines of Henry Longfellow: Domestic, Defiant, Divine by Timothy E.G. Bartel (2022); Longfellow's Imaginative Engagement: the Works of His Late Career by Jeffrey Hotz (2022); Why Longfellow Lied: the Truth about Paul Revere's Midnight Ride by Jeff Lantos (2019); Reconsidering Longfellow, edited by Christoph Irmscher and Robert Arbour (2014); Longfellow Redux by Christoph Irmscher (2008); Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life by Charles C. Calhoun (2005); A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion by Robert L. Gale (2003); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: America's Beloved Poet by Bonnie L. Lukes (1997); Longfellow: His Life and Work by Newton Arvin (1977); Longfellow and Scandinavia by Andrew Hilen (1970); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist by Edward Wagenknecht (1966); Longfellow: A Full-Length Portrait by Edward Wagenknecht (1955); Young Longfellow by L.R. Thompson (1938) - See also: Elias Lönnrot, Ivan Bunin. Museums: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's House, 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Longfellow's Wayside Inn, off route 20, Sudbury, Concord.  Note: Longfellow's brother Samuel Longfellow (1819-1892), clergyman and poet, had close contacts with Transcendentalist movement. He published religious lyrics, articles, and essays.

Selected works:

  • Elements of French Grammar, by M. L'Homond, 1830 (translator, 2nd ed., 1831; original title: Elémens de la grammaire française)
  • Manuel de Proverbes Dramatiques, Novelas Españolas, 1830  
  • Syllabus de la Grammaire Italienne, 1832
  • Cours de Langue Française, 1832
  • Saggi dé Novellieri d'Ogne Secolo, 1832
  • Coplas de Manrique, 1833 (translation of Coplas por la muerte de su padre by Jorge Manrique)
  • Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea, 1833-34 (2 vols.)
  • Hyperion: A Romance, 1839
  • Voices of the Night, 1839
  • The Spanish Student; A Play, in Three Acts, 1840
  • Ballads and Other Poems, 1841
  • Poems on Slavery, 1842
  • Poets and Poetry of Europe, 1845
  • The Waif: A Collection of Poems, 1845
  • The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems, 1846
  • The Estray: A Collection of Poems, 1847
  • Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, 1847
  • Poems, Lyrical and Dramatic, 1848 (with an introductory essay by George Gilfillan)
  • Kavanagh: A Tale, 1849
  • The Seaside and the Fireside, 1850
  • The Golden Legend, 1851
  • The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1851
  • Poems, 1852 (illustrated by  Jane E. Benham, Birket Foster, etc.)
  • The Prose Works, 1853
  • The Song of Hiawatha, 1855
    - Laulu Hiawathasta (suom. A. E. Ollilainen, 1912) / Hiawatha (katkelma, suom. Aale Tynni, 1985)
  • The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1856 (illustrated by  John Gilbert)
  • Prose Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1857 (2 vols.)
  • The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems, 1858
  • Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863
  • The Ship of State. Issued by the Loyal National League at the Sumter Mass Meeting, April 11, 1863, at Union Square, 1863
  • The Complete Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1866 (rev. ed., 7 vols.)
  • The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, 1867 (3 vols.; translator)
  • Flower-de-luce, 1867
  • The New-England Tragedies, 1868
  • The Building of the Ship, 1870
  • The Poets and Poetry of Europe, 1870 (new ed.)
  • Christus: A Mystery, 1872
  • Aftermath, 1873
  • The Hanging of the Crane, 1874
  • The Masque of Pandora, and Other Poems, 1875
  • Poems of Places, 1876-79 (31 vols., editor)
  • Favorite Poems, 1877
  • The Skeleton in Armor, 1877 (engravings by A. V. S. Anthony)
  • The Early Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1878 (ed. and prefaced by Richard Herne Shepherd)
  • Excelsior, 1878
  • Kéramos and Other Poems, 1878
  • From My Arm-Chair, 1879
  • Ultima Thule, 1880
  • The Longfellow Birthday-Book, 1881 (arranged by Charlotte Fiske Bates) 
  • Poems of America, 1882
  • Seven Voices of Sympathy, 1882 (ed. by Charlotte Fiske Bates)
  • The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1883-1886 (3 vols.)
  • There Was a Little Girl, 1883 (illustrated by Bertha M. Schaeffer)
  • Michael Angelo: A Dramatic Poem, 1884
  • The Village Blacksmith, 1885
  • The Prose Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1886 (2 vols.)
  • The Wreck of the Hesperus, 1887
  • A Longfellow Night; a Short Sketch of the Poet’s Life, with Songs and Recitations from his Works for the Use of Catholic Schools and Catholic Literary Societies, 1888
  • Longfellow’s Days: The Longfellow Prose Birthday Book, 1888 (edited by Laura Winthrop Johnson)
  • The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1889-91 (6 vols.)
  • Paul Revere’s Ride, and Other Poems, 1894 (with explanatory notes)
  • The Sonnets of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1907 (arranged, with an introduction, by Ferris Greenslet)
  • The Narrative Poems of Longfellow, 1908 (ed. for school use by John Rush Powell)
  • The Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1909 (10 vols., edited by Charles Walsh)
  • Longfellow’s Boyhood Poems, 1925 (edited by Ray W. Pettengill)
  • The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1966-1982 (6 vols., edited by Andrew Hilen)
  • The Poetical Works of Longfellow, 1975 (with a new introd. by George Monteiro)  
  • Hiawatha’s Childhood, 1984 (illustrated by Errol Le Cain)
  • Poems, 1984 (illustrated by David Frampton)
  • Selected Poems, 1988 (edited with an introduction by Lawrence Buell)
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1989 (edited and with an introduction by Geoffrey Moore)
  • The Children's Hour, 1993 (illustrations by Glenna Lang)
  • Poems and Other Writings, 2000
  • The Quotable Longfellow, 2014 (edited by Michael Steere; introduction by Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair)
  • Paul Revere's Ride: the Landlord's Tale, 2014 (illustrated by Charles Santore)
  • The Village Blacksmith, 2020 (illustrated by G. Brian Karas)

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