Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Essay - Critical Essays

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow American Literature Analysis

The major problem in analyzing Longfellow as a poet in the early twenty-first century is disinterring what was once a great reputation. The values of Longfellow’s audience and time—metrical skill, the long narrative poem, and an abundance of sentiment—are not those of modern poets. By the moderns Longfellow was judged, perhaps, too harshly and too unhistorically. One can still recover some of Longfellow’s poetry, although what one sees in it today may not be what the nineteenth century valued.

Longfellow’s use of American myths and legends—and the way he altered them—remains important. There had been tales and novels in which American Indians appeared before those of Longfellow. Most prominently, there are the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; however, in those novels, the Indian is never the hero and never has a central position in the narrative. There is always a white man to lead or defeat the Indians, and the rites and ways of the Indian are seen as barbarous or passed over. Longfellow attempted to make the American Indian an epic hero on the scale of Achilles or Odysseus.

He is, perhaps, less successful in his attempt to make Evangeline into an epic heroine; she does not approach the heroes of Homer or Vergil. She is all too accepting of the fate that overcomes her. Finally, in The Courtship of Miles Standish, Longfellow attempted to make the Puritan past of New England into a charming world where repression and the inculcation of dogma become a marriage triangle in which (in the classical comic mode) an old man is forced to relinquish a young woman to one who is more fitting.

Longfellow’s social goals seem very similar to those of the British Victorian poets. Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” proclaims: “Life is real! Life is earnest!/ And the grave is not its goal.” This earnest striving to improve oneself and society is at the heart of many of his poems. Even Evangeline’s tragedy is blotted out by a submission to a beneficent God who is working to make things better. There is a firm belief in progress. In addition, Longfellow portrays women in a very Victorian manner. They are pure and virginal, and their primary goal is to follow their male leader.

Longfellow’s vision, in fact, was primarily domestic. The scenes between Evangeline and her father, Hiawatha and his mother, and Pilgrims Priscilla and John Alden all evoke the world of the parlor. Longfellow is not really interested in the wildness of the Indian or even the tyranny of the British in driving out the Acadians. One hears nothing of the dark worlds of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville—or even Henry David Thoreau.

In its place is the Angel of the House, the woman who is at the center of nearly all Longfellow’s works, who offers solace to all. One reason for his (once) nearly universal acceptance is his ability to present the sometimes violent American past as easily accessible and comforting. Rather than make the American past dark and mysterious, as other writers had, he attempted to make it familiar. His own sunny boyhood, very early success, and European sojourns may have led him to portray America in such a genteel manner.


First published: 1847

Type of work: Poem

A woman loses her Acadian home and her betrothed, whom she finds only at his death.

Evangeline had its origin in an anecdote. A South Boston man named Connolly urged Nathaniel Hawthorne to write the tale of a young woman who was exiled from Nova Scotia and searched for her lost love, only to find him a moment before his death. Hawthorne never picked up the subject, but Longfellow did. He believed that it was a wonderful tale of a woman’s fidelity; it was a perfect subject for his gentle sensibility. He also used historical sources, so the basic tale and the historical frame were given to the poet.

Evangeline begins with a brief introduction in which Longfellow evokes the “forest primeval” that remains while the hearts “beneath it” have vanished. His poem has a “woman’s devotion” as its epic theme and an Eden, “Acadie, home of the happy,” as its beginning scene. The village of Grand Pre in the land of Acadie is a “fruitful valley” filled with happy peasants from Normandy, France. Evangeline, “the pride of the village,” is a maiden of seventeen living with her aged farmer father, Benedict. Her life is a pastoral one; she helps the workers in the field and directs the household of her father.

The first scene in the poem is the visit of Basil the blacksmith and his son, Gabriel, to Benedict. Their purpose is to sign a contract of betrothal between Evangeline and Gabriel. The joyous occasion is threatened, however, by news of a British warship in the bay. Father LeBlanc believes that they are safe because they are “at peace.” Basil, however, objects, saying that in this world “might is the right of the strongest!” The old notary reconciles these positions with a tale about a maid unjustly accused of stealing a necklace of pearls; as she is on the scaffold about to be hanged, a bolt of thunder reveals the “necklace of pearls interwoven” in a magpie’s nest. The tale obviously mirrors that of Evangeline: An innocent girl is freed from an her unjust oppression, although only at the end of a long trial.

The next day is one of feasting, especially in the house of Benedict, but this is broken by the arrival of British troops. The language changes from the soft descriptions of nature to legal language: “By his Majesty’s orders . . . all your lands, and dwellings, and cattle of all kinds/ Forfeited be to the Crown.” The settlers are to be “transported to other lands.” In the rush to depart, Gabriel is separated from Evangeline. Evangeline has other problems, however; her father cannot bear the thought of being separated from his land and dies of age and sorrow.

The second part of the poem deals with Evangeline’s search for Gabriel. She descends the established settlements of early America to the Mississippi River and the bayous of Louisiana. She hears news of Gabriel, but she always seems to miss him. She has a guide, Father Felician, who attempts to assuage her sorrow and lead her to her beloved. Longfellow effectively conveys the mysteriousness of America at this time in the resonant names of places, rivers, and Indian tribes. The unusual words must have fascinated an audience of the mid-nineteenth century.

Evangeline finds Basil the blacksmith in Louisiana, but Gabriel “is only this day” departed. Basil is happy in Louisiana, as it is a more fertile land than Acadie and there is no winter; however, Evangeline yearns for Gabriel. Basil leads her into Indian country to search for Gabriel; they come upon a Shawnee maiden who leads them to the Mission of the Black Robe. The Shawnee maiden, after hearing the tale of Evangeline, tells her of Indian myths that mirror her tale. Longfellow uses the Indian tales as parallels and contrasts to Evangeline’s tale. However, the fatalism of the Indian myths is very different from the Christian providence that dominates the main tale.

The priest at the mission tells Evangeline that Gabriel had been there six days before. He had departed, saying he would return to the mission. Evangeline decides to wait. When the seasons pass and he does not return, however, she goes in search of him in the “Michigan forests.” Evangeline finds another refuge in a Moravian community and finally settles in Philadelphia, where the gentle Quakers are dominant. She becomes a Sister of Mercy, nursing the sick and comforting the dying. In the hospital, she notices a man dying of fever. Suddenly, the decrepit man assumes “once more the forms of [his] earlier manhood.” She cries “Gabriel! O my beloved!” and he calls to his mind:

Green Acadian meadows, with sylvan rivers among  them,Village, and mountain, and woodlands; and  walking under their shadow,As in the days of her youth, Evangeline rose in his  vision.

While Evangeline has the power to convey Gabriel back to his earlier and happy life, she does not have the power to save him. He dies in her arms. Evangeline does not complain about this cruel trick of fate, but “meekly” accepts it: “Father, I thank thee!” Evangeline does find her beloved, even if it is at the moment of his death. Longfellow’s world is one of affirmation, not doubt.

One reason that Evangeline is no longer popular is the passivity of the main character. She undergoes terrible trials but never seems to lose her optimism. The reader does not see any internal conflict, only a chain of accidents that separate the pair. Her affirmation at the seeming irony of discovering Gabriel on his deathbed rings hollow in the twenty-first century.

“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”

First published: 1854 (collected in The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems, 1858)

Type of work: Poem

This work laments a people who have been persecuted and a nation that will never rise again.

“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is structured by a series of contrasts. The silent “Hebrews” in their graves are contrasted with the motion of the waves. Death, declare the mourners, “giveth Life that nevermore shall cease.” The central contrast is the one between the living and the dead. The synagogue is closed, and the living have gone, “but the dead remain,/ And not neglected; for a hand unseen,/ Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,/ Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.” The dead seem to be especially blessed by that “unseen hand” of nature or God. Longfellow then traces the historical situation of the Jews, however, showing that no “unseen hand” has protected them from persecution.

Longfellow is very direct in assigning “Christian hate” as the cause of the persecution and dislocation of the Jews. He imaginatively captures the persecution in significant detail. He imagines their exile over the sea, “that desert desolate,” and their lives in “narrow streets” and “mirk and mire.” In another set of contrasts, the Jews “fed” upon the “bitter herbs of exile” and “slaked [their] thirst” with tears. In addition, they are “Taught in the school of patience to endure/ The life of anguish and the death of fire.” The contrasts of the poem are resolved by reversing the positions of past and future: “And all the great traditions of the Past/ They saw reflected in the coming time.” Longfellow then uses an appropriate and powerful metaphor reversing past and present, the living and the dead.

And thus forever with reverted lookThe mystic volume of the world they read,Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

All the negative elements of the poem are contrasted with or overcome by their opposites. Death leads to life, and exile to knowledge.

The last stanza of the poem, however, reverses the patterns that have been established: “But ah! What once has been shall be no more!” The people of Israel may find life in death and endurance in exile, but the nation of Israel cannot. Its creation is described in a metaphor of birth. “The groaning earth in travail and in pain/ Brings forth its races, but does not restore,/ And the dead nations never rise again.” A nation, in Longfellow’s view, is bound by natural laws, while a people are free of such restraints. (It is ironic that the nation of Israel was indeed to “rise again” in 1949.)

Longfellow overcame the prejudices of his time in imaginatively and sympathetically portraying the Jews, but in the last stanza, he becomes a man bound by his time and place by being unable to overcome ideas of the life cycle of a nation. Nevertheless, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is a beautifully constructed and powerful poem.

The Song of Hiawatha

First published: 1855

Type of work: Poem

An Indian hero and teacher leaves a land that is soon to be transformed by white people.

Longfellow gathered the material for The Song of Hiawatha from many sources, and his aim was to codify the various tales he read into a coherent mythology. He sought to introduce a white audience to Indian mythology. It begins, as most mythologies do, with people and their god. Gitche Manito, “the mighty/ He the Master of Life,” brings the various tribes together to smoke the peace pipe. Gitche Manito will also send a prophet to the people “Who shall guide you and shall teach you,/ Who shall toil and suffer with you.” This prophet, who sounds very much like Jesus, will bring prosperity if the people listen. The prophet is Hiawatha.

Section 2 of the poem shows the taming of nature, of the four winds—especially the West-Wind, which is to be Hiawatha’s father. Hiawatha, after his mysterious conception (an element common to nearly all mythologies), lives with his grandmother, Nokomis, who teaches him about nature. In the fourth section of the poem, Hiawatha goes to see his father, the West-Wind. The West-Wind praises him and defines Hiawatha’s mission in life:

Go back to your home and people,Live among them, toil among them,Cleanse the earth from all that harms it,Clear the fishing grounds and rivers,Slay all monsters and magicians.

One of the most important contributions Hiawatha makes to his people comes after a long fast. Hiawatha is challenged by Mondamin, “a friend of man,” to wrestle. The wrestling takes three days, and on the third day Hiawatha defeats, strips, and buries Mondamin. Soon after, plant shoots appear, then maize, the staple food of the people. Hiawatha does not go in search of great deeds so that he might win praise or honor; rather, he struggles to bring benefits to his people. The progress from hero to leader is reminiscent of the ancient epics of Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Hiawatha has, as an epic hero should, friends who embody lesser skills: Chibiabos is a musician, and Kwasind is “the strongest of all mortals.” Hiawatha goes wooing, but once more it is not for his own pleasure but for the people. He will woo and marry Minnehaha, a Dacotah maiden. Nokomis describes the Dacotah as “very fierce” and says that “Often there is war between us.” The wooing, therefore, has political and social benefits; a marriage will unite the warring Dacotah and Objibway tribes. Minnehaha is the only character in the poem invented by Longfellow, and she is another of his long-suffering and passive women. Her answer to Hiawatha’s proposal is, “I will follow you, my husband!”

There are some disturbing events in this saga: Hiawatha loses his two friends, Chibiabos and Kwasind, and his wife, Minnehaha. His friends die in action, but Minnehaha dies in a famine. Significantly, Hiawatha has no power to overcome this natural event. Her death, however, is seen as something of a blessing, as she will be carried to the “Islands of the Blessed,” where there is no labor or suffering. Hiawatha had discovered the existence of these islands earlier in the poem, bringing consolation to the people—and to himself for the loss of his bride.

The next-to-last section of the poem deals with the coming of the white people. A canoe “Bigger than the Big-Sea Water,! Broader than the Gitche-Gumee” appears. Hiawatha counsels peace: “Let us welcome, then, the strangers,/ Hail them as our friends and brothers,/ And the heart’s right hand of friendship/ Give them when they come to see us.” This vision of peace and brotherhood is, however, immediately obliterated by another vision. Hiawatha sees “our nation scattered” and the “remnants of the people” swept away “Like the withered leaves of Autumn.” It is a poignant passage that reveals the historic fate of the American Indian and destroys the optimistic dream. Longfellow does not assign any blame to white people for the destruction of the Indian way of life.

The last section of the poem describes Hiawatha’s departure. He will not be there for the uprooting of the people he has served. Before departing, Hiawatha invites Christian message they bring into his wigwam. The Christian message is then received and welcomed by the chiefs. (There is no hint of the historic martyrdom that was to come to so many Jesuits or of the lack of interest in the Christian message by the Indians.) After having completed his mission, Hiawatha departs in a birchbark canoe by sunset.

The Song of Hiawatha is one of Longfellow’s most successful poems. It portrays the Indians with sympathy and some understanding. The meter of the poem is very noticeable. Longfellow rejected the long dactylic hexameters of Evangeline for a short unrhymed trochaic tetrameter. It has the effect of a chant and often fits the material perfectly. The hero of the poem may be a little too noble, good, and unselfish. He has none of the human faults that make Beowulf and Gilgamesh, for example, so interesting. At times, Hiawatha is more a Victorian gentleman bringing progress to “lesser breeds without the law” than an American Indian warrior.

The Courtship of Miles Standish

First published: 1858 (collected in The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems, 1858)

Type of work: Poem

In this Puritan idyll, an old warrior surrenders his claim to the hand of a young woman to a more appropriate young scholar.

The Courtship of Miles Standish is another historical narrative poem; this time Longfellow turns to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation for his material, and he once more softens the harshness of his subject and makes it accessible to his audience. The meter he chose for the poem is dactylic hexameter, but it has none of the monotony of Evangeline; it is very loosely structured and at times seems on the edge of prose. It also has none of the heroic treatment of Evangeline or The Song of Hiawatha. It is really a romantic drama, not an imitation of Greek or Finnish epic.

The poem begins with a description of Miles Standish as “strongly built and athletic,/ Broad in the shoulders, deep-chested, with muscles and sinews of iron.” John Alden is not described in the same detail, but it is clear that he is the opposite of Miles Standish. Alden is no soldier but is called a scholar. Standish is a man of few words, while Alden is a closet poet hymning the name of Priscilla. The conflict of the tale is quickly brought out. Miles Standish has lost his wife and uses biblical authority rather than personal passion to justify his search for a new bride. She is to be Priscilla Mullins.

Standish does not have the words to woo a maiden, however, so he turns to Alden. Alden’s conflict is quickly resolved: “The name of friendship is sacred;/ What you demand in that name, I have not the power to deny you!” His divided feelings emerge, however, love contends with friendship, and he wonders if he must “relinquish” the joys of love. He resolves the dilemma by seeing his love as vanity; “I have worshipped too much the heart’s desire and devices.” Religious authority prevails.

Alden’s delivery of Standish’s proposal to Priscilla is surprisingly blunt. There is no poetic prologue or honeyed words, merely the facts of the case. “So I have come to you now, with an offer and proffer of marriage! Made by a good man and true, Miles Standish the Captain of Plymouth.” Priscilla replies directly: “Why does he not come himself, and take the trouble to woo me?” She is not the submissive Minnehaha or the dutiful Evangeline but an independent and witty woman. She takes the failure of Standish to woo her as a reason to reject him. She sees him as “old and rough” and one lacking in the basic elements of courtship: He will never win her.

Alden tries to make a case for Standish, but Priscilla is not interested in his virtues. Instead she give Alden hope and increases his conflict by uttering the famous words, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” Alden is filled with joy, yet downcast at his betrayal. He vows to depart from Plymouth and return to England on the Mayflower.

Standish is shocked and angered when he hears of Priscilla’s rejection of his proposal and her encouragement of Alden’s suit. More weighty matters demand his attention, however: How shall the Pilgrim settlers answer the Indians who have sent the “skin of a rattlesnake” as a challenge to war? The Elder of Plymouth counsels peace; Standish is adamant for war. “Truly the only tongue that is understood by a savage/ Must be the tongue of fire that speaks from the mouth of the cannon!” Standish consistently rejects language and translates words into military action. The next day, Alden’s conflict over whether to sail for England or stay and woo Priscilla continues. He decides to stay but not to woo. The pair’s relationship is redefined; he will be her friend. Priscilla defines the relationship with precision and candor. “Let us, then, be what we are, and speak what we think, and in all things/ Keep ourselves loyal to truth, and the sacred professions of friendship.”

Standish goes to war and answers the words of the Indian chief, Pecksuot, with action: He snatches Pecksuot’s knife from him and kills him. Priscilla is not pleased by this valor but repelled by it. The poem’s conflict is partially resolved when news comes that Standish has died in battle. Alden and Priscilla are free to marry, but the shadow of Standish still hovers over their relationship.

The denouement of the poem comes on the wedding day of Alden and Priscilla. After the service, the ghost of Standish appears to bless the marriage. “Mine is the same hot blood that leaped in the veins of Hugh Standish/ Sensitive, swift to resent, but as swift in atoning for error./ Never so much as now was Miles Standish the friend of John Alden!” Standish remains his old self, telling the people that he “had rather by far break into an Indian encampment,/ Than come again to a wedding to which he had not been invited.” With his presence removed, the familiar landscape of Plymouth is transfigured into the “Garden of Eden.”

The Courtship of Miles Standish is one of Longfellow’s most successful poems. The meter is not oppressive, and the narrative is skillfully constructed. The biblical language elevates the romance without overwhelming it. The characters are also well conceived. Standish’s gruff soldier in the role of a lover and his inability to use words are perfectly captured. Priscilla Mullins is a clever and imaginative creation, very different from the submissive female Longfellow usually portrays. Longfellow also removes some of the excessive solemnity of the Pilgrims and makes their world delightful and human.