Daniel Gerard Hoffman was born in New York City on April 3, 1923, and was reared in Larchmont and New Rochelle, New York. He started writing poetry in high school and became interested in the origins of poetic form—folk songs, especially African American music, and ballads. He entered Columbia University in 1940, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. After serving in the Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1946 as editor of its Technical Data Digest, he returned to Columbia, receiving his B.A. degree (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1947, an M.A. in 1949, and a Ph.D. in 1956. At Columbia, his studies concentrated in English and American literature. There he perfected his writing style under the tutelage of Mark Van Doren. He also pursued his interest in folklore through anthropology courses with Ruth Benedict, his special concern being myth, magic, and religious ritual.
A critic, editor, and teacher as well as poet, Hoffman has been a professor of English at Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was poet-in-residence and Felix E. Schelling Professor of English until 1996. He and his wife, the poet Elizabeth McFarland, settled in Swarthmore in 1965. She died in 2005, after fifty-seven years of marriage. His long residence in the Philadelphia area has lent both familiarity and feeling to his Brotherly Love, based on William Penn’s establishment of a colony in the New World. From 1956 to 1957, Hoffman was a visiting professor at the Faculté des Lettres in Dijon, France: The poems of The City of Satisfactions, part 2, reflect his experience there. He has also been a fellow in the School of Letters, Indiana University; the Elleston Lecturer in Poetry at the University of Cincinnati; and a lecturer at the International School of Yeats Study, Sligo, Ireland.
The persona of Hoffman as critic and teacher rarely enters his verse: Some notable exceptions are in “The Princess Casamassima” (from The Center of Attention), a poignant evocation of a young revolutionary and former student, and “Filling the Forms,” a humorous meditation on academic bureaucracy. His private life is reflected in his love poems to his wife, McFarland (his “Musebaby”), and in his celebration of his daughter Kate and son Macfarlane in “Ode” and “The Blessings,” respectively. His verse in general, however, is neither confessional nor autobiographical; his personal testament is emblematic of a sensitive and intelligent witness of life in contemporary America.