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.
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.
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.
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.