Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What features of the traditional epic are found in Evangeline?

What innovative and unusual metrical schemes does Henry Wadsworth Longfellow employ in his poetry?

What would you judge to be Longfellow’s greatest virtues as a lyric poet?

How is the twentieth and early twenty-first century reassessment of Longfellow’s poetry reflected in the republication and anthologizing of his work?

Longfellow wrote a large amount of poetry and wrote rather quickly. Are such composition habits more likely to mar the quality of a poet’s work or increase the chances of scoring successes?

Longfellow’s poetry was long considered accessible to, and appropriate for, elementary school children. To what extent is this judgment true today?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111201237-Longfellow.jpg Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Besides his poetry, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow produced a variety of works, most of them connected with his scholarly duties as professor of modern languages and literature at Bowdoin College (1829-1835) and at Harvard College (1837-1854). He created his own grammars: Elements of French Grammar (1830) and Manuel de Proverbes Dramatiques (1830). He wrote a series of scholarly articles in linguistics and literature for the North American Review, most of them reprinted in his collection, Drift-Wood (1857), and several other prose works. Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1833-1834) was an account of his first European tour; Hyperion (1839) was an account of his second, highlighted by an autobiographical reshaping of his romance with Fanny Appleton, whom he married three years later. Kavanagh: A Tale (1849) was his only attempt at writing a novel. He edited four anthologies of poetry: The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845) contained selections from four hundred poets from ten different countries; The Waif: A Collection of Poems (1845) and The Estray: A Collection of Poems (1847) gathered together antislavery verses; and the thirty-one volumes of Poems of Places (1876-1879), one of the largest anthologies of poetry ever assembled. As the leading American poet of his age, Longfellow carried on a voluminous correspondence, writing more than five thousand letters, many of which have been published as The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1966-1974) by Harvard University Press. George T. Little reissued twenty-seven poems written during Longfellow’s college days in an edition titled Longfellow’s Boyhood Poems (1925).

Achievements

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular English-language poet of the nineteenth century. In both England and the United States, volumes of his poetry outsold all other verse and most fiction for nearly fifty years. When he died, more than a million copies of his poetry had been sold. He was granted private audiences with Queen Victoria, honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and a memorial in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, a distinction hitherto reserved for only the greatest of England’s own poets. In America, a national holiday was proclaimed to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday. From the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, nearly every school-age child in the United States and most of those in Britain were required to read some of his lines. Apparently, few poets of any age had shown themselves better able to articulate the values, beliefs, and aspirations of their readership. The body of Longfellow’s work can be seen as an index to some of the newly industrialized world’s deepest self-images. Contemporaries praised “the sentiments of tenderness” in Hyperion, admired the “unexaggerated truthfulness” of Evangeline, and the “accuracy” of The Song of Hiawatha. They extolled the way he “obeyed the highest humanity of the poet’s calling” in The Golden Legend and repeatedly singled out the universal appeal of his voice: “force of thought” for the old, “melody” for the young, “piety” for the serious, and a “slight touch of mysticism” for the imaginative.

Longfellow was decidedly the most popular of a...

(The entire section is 1,350 words.)