Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Essay - Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882

American poet, novelist, translator, playwright, and travel writer.

Widely admired by his contemporaries, Longfellow achieved a degree of popularity in his day that no other American poet before or since has matched. His nostalgic, inspirational verse was embraced by Americans and Europeans enduring an era of rapid social change. Shortly after his death, however, his reputation suffered a serious decline. Although the debate over his literary stature continues, Longfellow is widely credited with having been instrumental in introducing European culture to the American readers of his day. Moreover, he simultaneously popularized American folk themes abroad, where his works enjoyed an immense readership.

Biographical Information

Longfellow was born February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, to Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer and member of the Eighteenth Congress of the United States, and Zilpah Wadsworth, whose ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. In 1822 he enrolled in the newly formed Bowdoin College, of which his father was a trustee. Despite his father's wish that he study law, Longfellow preferred a literary career and began publishing poems in numerous newspapers and periodicals. Before graduation, he took an extended trip to Europe; this journey greatly influenced his future work, evidenced in a unique blend of both American and foreign elements in his later writings. After three years in Europe, he returned as a professor to Bowdoin and soon published Outre-mer; a Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, a book of travel sketches modeled on Washington Irving's Sketch Book. Longfellow later accepted a position at Harvard as the Smith Professor of Modern Languages, a post he held for eighteen years. During this time he again traveled to Europe and discovered the works of the German Romantic poets. He subsequently incorporated much of their artistic philosophy into his work. After returning and settling in Cambridge, he developed lasting friendships with such American literary figures as Charles Sumner, Washington Allston, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Devoting himself to scholarly pursuits as well as to poetry, Longfellow published textbooks, literary essays, and numerous translations of European poets. He died in 1882.

Major Works

Voices of the Night, illustrates his view that poetry should be “an instrument for improving the condition of society, and advancing the great purpose of human happiness.” Voices is distinguished by his “Psalm of Life” and “Light of the Stars,” popular inspirational pieces characterized by simple truths and maxims. The poems in this and such subsequent early collections as Ballads and Other Poems and The Seaside and the Fireside generally conclude with didactic or romanticized expressions of the poet's religious faith, balancing or, according to many critics, at times awkwardly undermining the nostalgic melancholic reflections on life's transience that inform many of his finest poems.

The longer narrative works for which Longfellow is best remembered, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, The Song of Hiawatha, and Tales of a Wayside Inn, address American themes and subjects, often providing vivid descriptions of the American landscape that appealed greatly to readers worldwide. Evangeline, written in classical dactylic hexameter and praised for both its lyrical grace and poignant storyline, relates the tale of two lovers separated during the French and Indian War. After touring America futilely in search of her exiled bridegroom, the eponymous heroine is reunited with him momentarily at his hospital deathbed. The Song of Hiawatha, praised upon publication as the great American epic, grafts source material from Native American mythology onto the meter and plot structure of the Finnish folk epic Kalevala. Tales of a Wayside Inn, a series of narrative poems reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, is perhaps the best example of Longfellow's versatility and mastery of the narrative form. The poems comprising this work, including one of Longfellow's most famous, “Paul Revere's Ride,” are highly regarded for their plots, characterizations, and intimate atmosphere. In addition to these narrative poems, Longfellow published what he considered his masterpiece: a trilogy of dramatic poems, The Golden Legend, The New England Tragedies, and The Divine Tragedy, entitled Christus: A Mystery. This work treats the subject of Christianity from its beginnings through the Middle Ages to the time of the American Puritans. While acknowledging that these works contain some beautiful and effective writing, critics generally agree that Longfellow's creative gift was poetic rather than dramatic, and that the scope of this particular work was beyond his range.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Longfellow was immensely popular and widely admired. He was the first American poet to gain a favorable international reputation, and his poetry was praised abroad by such eminent authors as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alfred Tennyson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. In 1884, two years after his death, his bust was unveiled in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, making him the first American to be so honored. In the decades that followed, however, the idealism and sentimentality that characterize much of his verse fell out of favor with younger poets and critics who were beginning to embrace realism and naturalism. Longfellow's literary reputation further declined in the twentieth century with the advent of Modernism. Reviled as superficial and didactic, his poetry was largely dismissed and received little further critical attention. Some recent commentators, however, have found much to admire in Longfellow. He is often praised for his technical skill, particularly as demonstrated in his short lyrics and sonnets. He also continues to be regarded as a pioneer in adapting European literary traditions to American themes and subjects.

Principal Works

Voices of the Night 1839

Ballads and Other Poems 1842

The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems 1846

Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (narrative poetry) 1847

The Seaside and the Fireside 1850

*The Golden Legend (dramatic poetry) 1851

The Song of Hiawatha (narrative poetry) 1855

The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems 1858

Tales of a Wayside Inn (narrative poetry) 1863

*The New England Tragedies (dramatic poetry) 1868

*The Divine Tragedy (dramatic poetry) 1871

Kéramos and Other Poems 1878

Ultima Thule 1880

In the Harbor: Ultima Thule, Part II 1882

Michael Angelo (narrative poetry) 1883

The Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 11 vols. (poetry, dramas, novels, travel sketches, and translations) 1886

Outre-mer; a Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. 2 vols. (travel sketches) 1833-34

Hyperion (novel) 1839

The Spanish Student (verse drama) 1843

Kavanagh (novel) 1849

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri 3 vols. [translator] (poetry) 1865-67

*These were published together as Christus: A Mystery in 1872


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (essay date 1832)

SOURCE: “The Defence of Poetry,” in The Achievement of American Criticism, edited by Clarence Arthur Brown, The Ronald Press Co., 1954, pp. 219-33.

[In the following essay, originally published as a review of Sir Philip Sidney's “The Defence of Poetry” in North American Review, Vol. XXXIV, in 1832, Longfellow discusses the role of poetry in America's national consciousness.]

… As no ‘Apologie for Poetrie’ has appeared among us, we hope that Sir Philip Sidney's Defence will be widely read and long remembered. O that in our country, it might be the harbinger of as bright an intellectual day as it was in his own!—With us, the spirit of the age is clamorous...

(The entire section is 7633 words.)

Edgar Allan Poe (essay date 1842)

SOURCE: “The American Scene: Longfellow,” in Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Robert L. Hough, University of Nebraska Press, 1965, pp. 116-29.

[One of the foremost American authors of the nineteenth century, Poe is widely regarded as the architect of the modern short story and the principal forerunner of aestheticism in America. In the following essay, he reviews Longfellow's verse, noting that his imagery and innovation are restricted by his moral didacticism.]

We have said that Mr. Longfellow's conception of the aims of poesy is erroneous; and that thus, laboring at a disadvantage, he does violent wrong to his own high powers; and now the question...

(The entire section is 4946 words.)

North American Review (review date 1856)

SOURCE: A review of The Song of Hiawatha in North American Review, Vol. 82, No. 170, pp. 272-75.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a laudatory assessment of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha.]

What a mixed blessing is civilization! If, among these Dacotah or Ojibway tribes in which Hiawatha makes us all feel so much at home, a poet of the people muses for a year or two, goes a hunting and brings back no new song, goes a fighting and has no monody for the graves of the slain, until, at some high feast of victory, love, or old mystery, he breaks his long silence, and sings such a song as he has never sung to them before,—if he sings it...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)

North American Review (review date 1867)

SOURCE: A review of The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and The Prose Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in North American Review, Vol. 104, No. 215, pp. 531-41.

[In the following essay, the anonymous reviewer praises the scope of Longfellow's work and contends that “it is yet too soon to measure the whole obligation of American letters to him, and it seems somewhat late to reason minutely of the fact of his genius.”]

The publication of a complete and uniform edition of Mr. Longfellow's Works is an event which suggests to us not so much question as acknowledgment of his excellence, and we have here rather to celebrate a fame already...

(The entire section is 3871 words.)

James Russell Lowell (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: “Longfellow: Tales of a Wayside Inn,” in The Function of the Poet and Other Essays, edited by Albert Mordell, Houghton Mifflin, 1920, pp. 123-26.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1893, Lowell provides a mixed assessment of Tales of a Wayside Inn.]

It is no wonder that Mr. Longfellow should be the most popular of American, we might say, of contemporary poets. The fine humanity of his nature, the wise simplicity of his thought, the picturesqueness of his images, and the deliciously limpid flow of his style, entirely justify the public verdict, and give assurance that his present reputation will settle into fame. That he has not...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

George Hamlin Fitch (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: “Longfellow: The Poet of the Household,” in Great Spiritual Writers of America, Paul Elder and Co., 1916, pp. 58-67.

[In the following essay, Fitch examines Longfellow's enduring popularity as a poet.]

Longfellow cannot be classed among the world's greatest poets—with Shakespeare, Browning, Tennyson, or Victor Hugo—but he is probably more widely read than any of these poets of the first rank. Thomas Wentworth Higginson quotes from Professor Grovesnor of Amherst College an anecdote which shows the worldwide popularity of the author of Evangeline and Hiawatha. The professor was one of a party traveling from Constantinople to Marseilles when...

(The entire section is 1908 words.)

George Saintsbury (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: “Longfellow's Poems,” in Prefaces and Essays, Macmillan and Co., 1933, pp. 324-44.

[In the following essay, Saintsbury counters the critical backlash against Longfellow's verse.]

When the news of Longfellow's death reached London, nearly a quarter of a century ago, the evening papers published it just at the meeting time of a small private literary dining-club, of which he, Victor Hugo, and one or two other great foreigners were members. I happened to be in the chair (or vice-chair, I forget which) that evening; and thus it fell to my lot to propose the toast of his name, with the silent honours usual in such cases. I might, I think, have claimed the office...

(The entire section is 6059 words.)

Fred Lewis Pattee (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: “Hiawatha,” in The Feminine Fifties, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1940, pp. 167-76.

[In the following essay, Pattee discredits the Native American mythology in The Song of Hiawatha and discusses the many parodies of the poem.]

In 1854, Longfellow, aged forty-four, abandoned his lifework of teaching, for which he had so thoroughly prepared himself, to make poetry his sole profession. He would build now that “tower of song with lofty parapet” of which so long he had dreamed. It was “no middle flight” he would take. He would write an American epic with gods and demi-gods on earth among men. And that meant Indians.

Ever since...

(The entire section is 2226 words.)

Hubert H. Hoeltje (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: “Hawthorne's Review of Evangeline,” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, June, 1950, pp. 232-35.

[In the following essay, Hoeltje presents Nathaniel Hawthorne's review of Longfellow's Evangeline.]

When the Whigs of Salem were in the midst of their conspiracy to oust Nathaniel Hawthorne from the surveyorship of the Port of Salem, one of their charges was that he had taken an active part in Democratic politics by writing political articles for the Salem Advertiser, a local Democratic organ. In his defense, a letter written to his friend, George S. Hillard,1 and published at Hillard's instance in the Whig Boston...

(The entire section is 1369 words.)

Rudolph von Abele (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “A Note on Longfellow's Poetic,” in American Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1952, pp. 77-83.

[In the following essay, Abele analyzes the major analogy of Longfellow's “Seaweed.”]

Longfellow's “Seaweed,” a poem published in 1845,1 is interesting mainly because its theme is a theory of poetry from which the working out of the poem deviates rather noticeably, so that the poem really produces irony unintended by its author. The fundamental technique is the extensive treatment of a metaphoric analogy by means of a meticulous series of substantive and syntactic parallels. This rather common approach may be used for various reasons: because...

(The entire section is 2432 words.)

Marius Bewley (review date 1963)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Longfellow,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. SVI, No. 2, Summer, 1963, pp. 297-304.

[In the following negative review of Newton Arvin's critical biography of Longfellow, Bewley asserts that “there is no important nineteenth century American poet who has written so little of what is unmistakable poetry as opposed to the mere competence of verse.”]

It is unfortunate that the late Newton Arvin should have chosen Longfellow as the subject of his last book. Mr. Arvin's three critical studies of Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville were valuable additions to literary biography. The Hawthorne in particular, which appeared in 1929, was as judicious...

(The entire section is 3343 words.)

Howard Nemerov (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “On Longfellow,” in Poetry and Fiction: Essays, Rutgers University Press, 1963, pp. 143-58.

[In the following essay, Nemerov discusses Longfellow's reputation as an unfashionable poet and urges a reassessment of his verse.]

Great reputation is perhaps the most curious as well as the most volatile product of civilized society; lives of great men very often remind us, Longfellow's celebrated “Psalm” to the contrary, what a vast deal of illusion their energy sustains around them while they live, and how perishable a commodity it proves to be after they die. William Blake put the matter with characteristic clarity:

When Sir Joshua Reynolds...

(The entire section is 6134 words.)

Cecil B. Williams (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “Household Lyrics, Ballads, Odes, Elegies, Sonnets,” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp. 129-47.

[In the following essay, Williams examines the scope of Longfellow's work, focusing on his lesser-known ballads, sonnets, odes, and elegies.]

The land of Song within thee lies,
          Watered by living springs;
The lids of Fancy's sleepless eyes
Are gates unto that Paradise;
Holy thoughts, like stars arise;
          Its clouds are angels' wings.
Look, then, into thine heart, and write!
          Yes, into Life's deep stream!
All forms of sorrow and delight,
All solemn Voices of the Night
That can soothe thee, or...

(The entire section is 7796 words.)

Cecil B. Williams (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “Verse Narrative, Indian Saga, Idyl, Framework Tales, Drama, Translations,” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp. 148-86.

[In the following essay, Williams provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Longfellow's major poetic works.]

Come, read to me some poem
          Some simple and heartfelt lay
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
          And banish the thoughts of day.
And the night shall be filled with music,
          And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
          And as silently steal away.

—“The Day Is Done”


(The entire section is 16253 words.)

G. R. Elliott (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Gentle Shades of Longfellow,” in The Cycle of Modern Poetry, Russell & Russell, 1965, pp. 64-82.

[In the following essay, Elliot compares the work of Longfellow to that of Walt Whitman, maintaining that the two poets are complementary and instrumental to the development of an American poetic.]

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The poet Vachel Lindsay, tramping and talking among the Rockies several years ago, said he considered Longfellow a greater poet than Walt Whitman. The remark was noted in a book by Stephen...

(The entire section is 7405 words.)

Cecelia Tichi (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Longfellow's Motives for the Structure of Hiawatha,” in American Literature, Vol. 42, No. 4, January, 1971, pp. 548-53.

[In the following essay, Tichi contends The Song of Hiawatha was inspired by Longfellow's desire to provide “cultural continuity between the old world and the new.”]

The critical disesteem of Longfellow's verse hallmarks was perhaps a certainty upon the decline of the poet's inflated reputation shortly after his death in 1882. Despite Edward Wagenknecht's sympathic mid-twentieth-century reappraisal of Longfellow through biography, and Newton Arvin's more recent effort to establish him without apology as a minor figure in...

(The entire section is 2164 words.)

Robert A. Ferguson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Longfellow's Political Fears: Civic Authority and the Role of the Artist in Hiawatha and Miles Standish,” in American Literature, Vol. L, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 187-215.

[In the following essay, Ferguson determines the influence of political events, particularly the Civil War, on Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha and The Courtship of Miles Standish.]


In 1849 Henry Longfellow wrote that the three-fold function of the poet was “to charm, to strengthen, and to teach” and he added that these elements inevitably worked together to form “the most perfect harmony.”1 These assumptions did not...

(The entire section is 11065 words.)

Gerald R. Griffin (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Longfellow's ‘Tegnér's Drapa’: A Reappraisal,” in The American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 40, Fall, 1978, pp. 379-87.

[In the following essay, Griffin explores Longfellow's artistic and philosophical intentions as evinced in “Tegnér's Drapa.”]

For the uninitiated, Longfellow's “Tegnér's Drapa” (1847) must surely be one of the most confusing if not unrewarding poems ever written by the best known of the New England Fireside Poets. Without appropriate footnotes the bewildered reader is immediately at a loss to know who or what “Tegnér” is—and the same for “Drapa”—the title means “a death song or lament for Tegnér.” Indeed,...

(The entire section is 3786 words.)

Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Longfellow's ‘A Psalm of Life’: A Relation of Method to Popularity,” in The Markham Review, Vol. VII, Spring, 1978, pp. 49-51.

[In the following essay, Littlefield justifies the popularity of Longfellow's “A Psalm of Life” in light of critical derision and compares the poem to Benjamin Franklin's “The Way to Wealth.”]

Since the publication of Longfellow's “A Psalm of Life” in 1838, critics have attacked the poem for its didacticism or have felt the need to apologize for its triteness. Samuel Longfellow, the poet's brother, said that the poem had “perhaps grown too familiar for us to read it as it was first read” and that if the ideas...

(The entire section is 2269 words.)

James H. Justus (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Fireside Poets: Hearthside Values and the Language of Care,” in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by A. Robert Lee, Vision Press, 1985, pp. 146-65.

[In the following essay, Justus places Longfellow in context with other Fireside Poets such as William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.]

When Robert Frost appeared at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the spectacle of poet and president together on the same platform was an anomaly widely remarked. The poet as public institution was such a rarity in the United States that the occasion stimulated a few expressions of hope that, among all the...

(The entire section is 7152 words.)

Kenneth Hovey (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘A Psalm of Life’ Reconsidered: The Dialogue of Western Literature and Monologue of Young America,” in ATQ, Vol. 1, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 3-19.

[In the following essay, Hovey assesses the importance and influence of Longfellow's “A Psalm of Life.”]

Following publication in the Knickbocker Magazine of October 1838, “A Psalm of Life” brought rapid national acclaim to its author, the new Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard. Spread abroad through translations into French (1848), German (1856), Dutch (1861), Chinese (1865), Italian (1866), Portuguese (ca. 1870), Danish (1874), Marathi (1878), Sanskrit (by 1879), Russian (by 1882), and...

(The entire section is 7524 words.)

Further Reading


Rust, Richard Dilworth. “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” In Fifteen American Authors Before 1900: Bibliographic Essays on Research and Criticism, edited by Robert A. Rees and Earl N. Harbert, pp. 263-84. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.

Primary and secondary bibliography.


Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962, 338 p.

Biography containing detailed analyses of Longfellow's poems.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1902, 336 p....

(The entire section is 835 words.)