Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
ph_0111201237-Longfellow.jpg Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Besides working to establish the study of modern languages and comparative literature in the United States, Longfellow became the most popular of all living poets during his time.

Early Life

The second of Stephen and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow’s eight children, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, while Maine was still a part of Massachusetts. As a member of a loving, prosperous, and distinguished Unitarian family, the future poet seems to have had a happy childhood that included the scenes he would describe in “My Lost Youth.” He was a gentle, precocious boy who started school when he was three. At the age of six, he enrolled in the Portland Academy, where he was still a student when, on November 17, 1820, “The Battle of Lovell’s Pond,” his first published poem, appeared in the Portland Gazette with merely “Henry” given as the author’s name. His work did not receive unanimous acclaim: That evening, he heard a family friend disparage the poem.

In 1821 Longfellow passed the entrance examination for Bowdoin College; however, maybe because of his age, he remained at the Portland Academy another school year while working for college credit. It was not until the fall of 1822 that Longfellow, with his older brother, left home to study on the campus in Brunswick, Maine. While at Bowdoin, he studied hard, read avidly, joined a college literary club known as the Peucinian Society, had poems published in several off-campus periodicals, and, in 1825, graduated fourth in a class of thirty-eight.

As graduation approached, Longfellow feared that he would have to follow his practical-minded father’s wish and study law instead of pursuing a literary career, but the Bowdoin trustees offered him the new professorship of modern languages, provided that he study in Europe at his own expense to prepare himself for the job. Having accepted the opportunity gladly, Longfellow sailed from New York on May 15, 1826, at the age of nineteen.

Life’s Work

When his ship docked in France one month later, Longfellow began acquiring a knowledge of modern European languages and literature that would serve him well as a widely read author and translator. Although his intellect was hardly provincial before the voyage, his long, early visit to Europe made him a literary man of the world. His method of study was mainly one of informal immersion in the ordinary life of the countries he visited: France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and England.

Beginning his duties at Bowdoin in the fall of 1829, Longfellow became one of the first professors of modern languages in any U.S. college, since the traditional emphasis in languages had been on Latin and ancient Greek. As an innovative, enthusiastic teacher who could not find suitable materials, he had to translate or edit textbooks for his classes, trying to make modern European literature interesting for his students. During this period at Bowdoin, Longfellow put aside his ambition for fame as a creative writer and devoted himself more to scholarly articles than to poems and prose stories. His interest turned also to courtship, and on September 14, 1831, he married Mary Potter, an educated, intelligent, nineteen-year-old girl from his hometown.

Even before his wedding, Longfellow had grown dissatisfied with teaching at Bowdoin. By 1832 he was applying for other jobs, including ones outside the field of higher education. Then Longfellow, talented as he was, again had the sort of good luck that had let him avoid life as a lawyer: George Ticknor, who taught modern languages at Harvard, resigned his position and recommended Longfellow as his replacement. The Harvard administration accepted Ticknor’s recommendation, with the inclusion of their own recommendation that Longfellow travel again to Europe, this time to enrich his knowledge of German. Having resigned from Bowdoin, Longfellow, with his wife and two of her friends, sailed across the Atlantic and docked in England on May 8, 1835.

After a stay in London, where Longfellow arranged for the British publication of Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1833-1834), his new prose collection based on the journal he had kept during his first European tour, he and his party sailed for northern Germany, from which they traveled through Denmark to Sweden, where he studied the Swedish and Finnish languages. In the fall, they went to the Netherlands, where, in Amsterdam, Mary, who had been enduring a difficult pregnancy, suffered a miscarriage. After awhile, when her health seemed better, they traveled to Rotterdam, forty miles away; there, on November 29, 1835, Mary died.

In his grief, Longfellow still believed he should continue his European studies and decided not to return to the United States with his wife’s body but to study in Heidelberg, Germany. In the summer of 1836, while on a vacation in the Alps, Longfellow met Frances “Fanny” Appleton, who, still in her late teens, was a smart, pretty, and charming woman from a rich Boston family. A mutual attraction soon developed. However, the time that Longfellow had available for his second visit to Europe had almost expired, and in October he sailed for the United States.

Settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow began his official duties as Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, delivering his first lecture on May 23, 1837. In effect, he chaired a small academic department, besides teaching in the same attention-getting way he had taught at Bowdoin. He also wrote, but, unlike his writing during his stay at the smaller college, his writing at Harvard was more imaginative and autobiographical than scholarly. His loosely built novel Hyperion, published in the summer of 1839, tells in only slight disguise of his courtship of Appleton, who had rejected his marriage proposal in 1837. Still romantically interested in her, he sent her a copy of the book, apparently not realizing that she would object to having the courtship made so nearly public. It was not until 1843 that she encouraged Longfellow’s attention, and on July 13 of that year they married, receiving as a gift from the bride’s father Craigie House, the historic Cambridge mansion where Longfellow had been renting rooms.

Meanwhile, a few months after Hyperion, Longfellow’s first volume of poetry, Voices of the Night (1839), was published; it contained “The Psalm of Life,” which became one of his best-known poems, and marked the beginning of his immense popularity with critics and ordinary readers. In 1841 Longfellow published Ballads and Other Poems, which included “The Skeleton in Armor,” “The Village Blacksmith,” and “Excelsior.” The next year, while sailing home after a stay in Germany, he wrote eight short abolitionist poems published as Poems on Slavery (1842). After Longfellow married Frances in 1843, his literary productivity continued. Although he published one more novel, Kavanagh (1849), his big success came in poetry, not only in such short poems as “The Arsenal at Springfield” and “The Building of the Ship” but also in long narrative poems, especially Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). In 1854, when Longfellow resigned his position at Harvard to give his full professional attention to writing, the president, accepting the resignation with regret, praised Longfellow for the fame he had brought the college.

No famous writer has ever had a happier marriage. Tragedy, however, struck suddenly on July 9, 1861. While Frances was heating wax to seal locks of her daughters’ hair, her dress caught fire. She raced to her husband in a nearby room, but he could not put out the flames in time, and she died the next day. Longfellow, badly burned on his hands and face, never fully recovered from her death. His sonnet “The Cross of Snow,” written in 1879, suggests the emotional scar, and, with shaving difficult because of his facial scars, he grew the white beard that his admirers came to associate with him.

When Longfellow eventually resumed writing after his second wife’s death, he produced the long collections of related poems Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), which included “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and Christus: A Mystery (1872). He also wrote such separate long poems as Aftermath (1873), The Hanging of the Crane (1874) and Morituri Salutamus (1875). Furthermore, from 1867 to 1869, he added Dante’s monumental fourteenth century Italian poem Divina Commedia (1321; The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri) to his impressive list of translations. Working almost until the end of his life, Longfellow added a last stanza to his own poem “The Bells of San Blas” on March 15, 1882. On March 24, having been sick only a short time, he died at Craigie House, forty-five days after an admiring nation had celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday.


As Longfellow’s friend George Washington Greene said, no poet ever received such acclaim while he was living. In North America and in Europe, Longfellow triumphed both popularly and critically. In 1868, while he was on his last visit to England, Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle. That in itself was a high honor, but even more indicative of Longfellow’s fame was that some of the Queen’s servants, ordinarily nonchalant about seeing the powerful and the celebrated, hid in the halls to watch Longfellow as he walked by.

Amid all the praise, Longfellow lived like a gentleman, not merely in the sense that, with his second wife’s fortune and the money from his books, he could keep an ample store of wine at Craigie House, but also in the sense that he gave himself graciously. Reserved though he normally was, his many friends loved him, and they included such well-known men as the English novelist Charles Dickens, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (who had been one of Longfellow’s Bowdoin classmates), and the abolitionist senator of Massachusetts, Charles Sumner. Having become an institution, Longfellow found himself besieged at Craigie House by uninvited strangers and by unknown letter writers; yet he remained polite, even when the visitors and correspondents were boorish.

Almost inevitably, such a high reputation had to fall. Although some readers voiced objections to his poetry during his lifetime and shortly after his death, the outcry arose with the general anti-Victorianism that began during World War I. Among other features of his poems, critics targeted his notion of propriety in diction and subjects, his sentimentality, and his overt didacticism. Yet a cry of protest against the harshest of the criticism eventually arose as well, and by the end of the twentieth century the mainstream critical opinion was that besides his contribution as an innovative professor in a new discipline, Longfellow enriched American literature. While his rank among nineteenth century American poets is lower than that of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and he belonged to what hostile sociological critics denounce as a privileged class, he remains important not only for what his contemporaries thought of him but also for what he wrote.


Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1963. Seeing Longfellow as a significant minor poet, Arvin is most helpful when he critically examines many of the works and explains why Longfellow’s reputation fell.

Hirsh, Edward L. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers 35. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964. This booklet contains ten pages of biography, thirty pages of well-balanced criticism of Longfellow’s poetry and prose, one page about his reputation, and a three-page selected bibliography without annotation.

Longfellow, Samuel, ed. Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence. 2 vols. Boston: Ticknor, 1886. This biography, prepared by a younger brother, withholds some information but has proved indispensable to all subsequent authors of full-scale biographies. For the most part, the author allows Henry Longfellow to speak for himself. Includes illustrations and an index.

Longfellow, Samuel, ed. Final Memorials of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Ticknor, 1887. Printed in 1891 as the third volume of Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this book provides letters and journal entries to supplement the 1886 biography, especially for the poet’s last fifteen years.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. After a short narrative biography, Wagenknecht presents Longfellow topically as a Christian humanist, analyzing the man rather than his writings.

Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 68. New York: Twayne, 1964. After a chronology and a chapter on Longfellow’s “Image and Actuality,” Williams devotes four chapters to biography, three to a sympathetic study of the works, and one to “Longfellow in Literary History and in Literature.” The selected bibliography is annotated.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born into a well-to-do family in Portland, Maine, in 1807, a mere thirty years after the American Revolutionary War began. He entered Bowdoin College in Maine at the age of fourteen, and he studied the usual classical curriculum taken from British universities. He graduated from Bowdoin in 1825, having made such an impression upon the faculty there that he was given a fellowship to go to Europe to study the modern languages to prepare himself for an appointment as a professor at Bowdoin. In 1829, he was appointed a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin and remained there for seven years. He was a successful and industrious teacher; he provided materials for his classes because there were no texts in the modern languages at the time. In 1831, Longfellow married Mary Potter, a fellow native of Portland. His success was marred by Mary’s death in 1835. The sunny poems of Longfellow, in fact, often mask private tragedies.

Longfellow’s success at Bowdoin led to an appointment as professor of modern languages at Harvard College, which he began in 1835. Longfellow was writing poems at the same time. There was an obvious conflict between his duties as a professor and the demands of a career as a poet. He published Ballads, and Other Poems in 1841; the first important poem by Longfellow was Evangeline, published in 1847. Suddenly, Longfellow made Americans see that their experience was as fit a subject for serious poetry as Greek myth or British history. Evangeline is a narrative poem that tells the story of the expulsion of a group of settlers from Acadie (now Acadia) in Nova Scotia; it was popular with critics and readers alike and retained a place as a school text for American students until the 1960’s.

Longfellow married Fanny Appleton in 1843 and received the Craigie House in Cambridge as a wedding gift. The beautiful Victorian house is now a tourist attraction on Cambridge’s historic Brattle Street.

In 1854, Longfellow resigned his professorship at Harvard to devote more time to poetry. In 1855, he published The Song of Hiawatha, another long narrative poem based on American legends. The Song of Hiawatha surveys the career of an American Indian hero, Hiawatha. Using as a structural model the Finnish epic The Kalevala, Longfellow brought together a number of Indian tales into one unified book. His view of the American Indian, however, seems to have been constructed to please the taste of his audience. It has little of the violence or nobility others found in that people. The poem was immensely successful and was translated into many languages; Longfellow was becoming the model of the poet to most Americans.

The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) is another long narrative poem on an American subject, the Pilgrims of Massachusetts. Personal relationships and marriage are the subject; it is a domestic poem, not a heroic one. It did re-create and make accessible another period of American history. Longfellow’s great success as a poet was tarnished by the death of his wife Fanny in a fire at Craigie House in 1861. His last years, however, were serene. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1869. Between 1867 and 1869, he translated Dante’s La Divina Commedia (c. 1320, The Divine Comedy, 1802), although he did not write many new or important poems. He died in Cambridge in 1882 and was honored as America’s greatest poet.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Longfellow contributed much to American poetry. He showed that Americans had a marvelous and important history. He makes early America into a mythic land: The Indians, the Pilgrims, and the exiles from Nova Scotia are all given a treatment that had previously been reserved for Greek or Roman myth. Longfellow also opened American poetry to a variety of poetic meters and structures. Certain themes recur; Longfellow generally portrays women as submissive and passive. He also suggests that there is progress in the world; the disaster of Evangeline or the dislocation of the Indians cannot drive out the optimism that things are getting better and humankind is becoming more civilized.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the second of eight children, was born into an old and distinguished New England family. Stephen Longfellow, his father, was a prominent lawyer who had served as a representative in Congress and who could count among his ancestors New England patriarchs such as Samuel Sewell. His mother, Zilpah, could trace the Wadsworth name back through a Revolutionary War general to seventeenth century Plymouth Puritans such as John Alden. Schooled at the Portland Academy and Bowdoin College, Longfellow finished his formal education in 1825, graduating in a class that included Nathaniel Hawthorne. From the beginning, he had been expected to carry on the traditions of his two family groups: “You must adopt a profession which will afford you subsistence as well as reputation,” his father had counseled him just before graduation. During his collegiate years, Longfellow had shown so much aptitude for foreign languages that Bowdoin actually offered him a newly established professorship in modern languages. The trustees of the college, however, insisted that their new professor travel to Europe at his own expense to round out his language training.

Accepting the offer, Longfellow toured Europe from 1826 to 1829, dividing his time between France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. By August 11, 1829, he was back at Bowdoin, preparing lecture notes and writing his own grammars and study texts. For the next six years, his scholarly duties at the college and his academic writing in linguistics and literature occupied most of his professional life. He did, however, find time to renew an interest in creative writing. His only book during the stay at Bowdoin, Outre-Mer, was a prose account of his European travels, modeled on Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). Settling more comfortably into academic life, Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter on September 14, 1831, and devoted himself to extending his reputation by publishing literary criticism. Three years later, Harvard College was impressed enough with the quality of his academic writing to offer him the Smith Professorship of French and Spanish Languages, again contingent on his willingness to travel to Europe for further study.

He and his wife, Mary, sailed in April, 1835, to visit England, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland. In October, tragedy overtook the couple; Mary lost the child she was carrying and, in November, died from complications from the miscarriage. It took a year of grieving, studying, and falling in love again—this time with Fanny Appleton, the daughter of a prominent Boston family whom he had met in Switzerland—for Longfellow to recuperate fully from the loss. By the fall of 1836, he had returned to Harvard to continue his scholarly writing. By 1842, he had also finished Hyperion, a highly autobiographical account of his unrequited love for Fanny, and three volumes of original poetry. By 1843, he had apparently achieved enough recognition for Fanny to consent to marriage. The stay at Harvard marked the beginning of the most productive period of Longfellow’s career, and his home life, with six children, was apparently a happy one. His creative writing blossomed: He issued three more volumes of poetry. His scholarly endeavors continued to absorb him, and he added to his academic bibliography two major collections of verse. By 1854, his poetry had gained so much recognition that he could afford to resign his professorship and devote himself to writing full-time. In the next seven years, he produced his most popular works: The Seaside and the Fireside, The Golden Legend, The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems, and Tales of a Wayside Inn. The flowering of Longfellow’s productivity was again interrupted by personal tragedy: the death of his second wife in 1861. While sealing some letters with hot wax, Fanny set herself on fire and burned to death in the family living room. Longfellow himself was badly burned trying to rescue her. He never completely recovered from the loss, although he tried to lose himself in an ambitious verse translation of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802), in some passionate and realistic poems about the horrors of the Civil War, and in a dramatic narrative of the life of Christ.

Throughout the next decade, Longfellow devoted most of his flagging energies to reissuing previously published poetry, writing sequels to previously successful poems, and experimenting with a few new forms that he did not intend for publication during his lifetime. Much of his mature thought and many of his penetrating personal reflections were invested in an uncompleted drama about the life of Michelangelo. His health began to fail before the work was completed, and he died from peritonitis after a short illness, on March 24, 1882, less than a month after his seventy-fifth birthday had been celebrated all over America.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s father was an influential lawyer, and his mother’s family went back to Priscilla Mullins and John Alden, passengers on the Mayflower. A talented, bookish lad, Longfellow at the age of fifteen entered Bowdoin College, where one of his classmates was Nathaniel Hawthorne. After his graduation he was offered Bowdoin’s newly established professorship of modern languages. Because European study was a preliminary requirement, Longfellow in 1826 began that long and loving dalliance with the treasures of the Old World that was to color all his experience and influence his writing. In 1829 he returned from the first of his four excursions to Europe and began teaching at his alma mater.

In 1834 Harvard University appointed Longfellow to its Smith professorship of French and Spanish. Before beginning his new duties, Longfellow undertook another European tour, this time accompanied by his wife, the fragile Mary Potter of Portland, whom he had married in 1831. Her death in Rotterdam was Longfellow’s first great sorrow. Eight years later he married Frances Appleton, the model for the heroine of the semiautobiographical Hyperion; eighteen years of domestic happiness followed until Frances Longfellow’s death from burns resulting from an accident at home. Five children were born of this marriage, including the three daughters who are featured in “The Children’s Hour.”

Aside from his personal tragedies, Longfellow’s adult years constitute a remarkable story of uninterrupted success and growing prestige. In 1839 his first book of verse, Voices of the Night, gained wide and prompt recognition with such poems as “The Psalm of Life” and “Excelsior.” In 1854 he resigned the Harvard professorship to devote himself exclusively to writing. Such longer works as Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and the first part of Tales of a Wayside Inn, which includes “Paul Revere’s Ride,” brought the poet acclaim and affluence. At the age of sixty-one, during his last trip to Europe, he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and enjoyed a private audience with Queen Victoria. At seventy-five he published a volume of poems titled In the Harbor; a few weeks later, stricken by sudden illness, he died on March 24, 1882, in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Longfellow’s work, reminiscent of the German Romantic lyrists, belongs to the less dramatic aspects of the Romantic movement. He was deeply interested in the antislavery movement and also did much to popularize European culture in the United States. In 1884 he became the first American venerated with a bust in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. His frequent didacticism and occasional lack of profundity are balanced by a craftsmanship and versatility that give grace and fluency to all his work. Never a slavish imitator of his European literary models; he served, rather, as a link between the Old World and the New.

Even more important was his contribution of narrative poems based on American themes and historical incidents, most of them hitherto ignored as poetic material. Longfellow remains one of his country’s most representative poets, a writer who continues to be venerated because he understood the aspirations and sorrows of everyday life and was able to express them in tones of unmistakable simplicity and sincerity.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a member of the Eighteenth...

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