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 concentrated group of American poets that helped shape one another’s stylistic response to the demands of such an audience. The group included James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant, all of whom catered primarily to a mass readership. They have frequently been called Fireside poets, meaning that they wrote not by but rather for the family hearth. They specialized in polite, sentimental, and traditional homilies for readers trying desperately to reaffirm some of their oldest and most cherished values during a period of unsettling and apparently chaotic change. Longfellow specifically imagined that each of his lines would be read aloud after dinner around the family circle, with young and old profiting by his every word. For them, he tried to picture a world in which an omniscient God was still in control, where the human soul was still immortal, where death remained only “a beginning, not an end,” where noble and courageous acts could still affect the outcome of a crisis, where the first duty of all was to sustain their spirituality by concentrating on the good, the beautiful, and the true, and where the duty of poets was to help their readers in this concentration on the sublime.
Longfellow was lionized for supporting these pieties in the nineteenth century and has been largely ignored because of them during much of the twentieth. A literate, scholarly, and compassionate man, Longfellow’s verses probably merit neither critical extreme. At his worst, he could write prosaic and long-winded verse that seemed to aim principally at giving his audience the sentimentality they came to demand of him. At his best, he could struggle with his own and his age’s doubts forthrightly; he could write movingly of the passing of traditional agrarian society and Christian ideals. Stronger minds than Longfellow’s were puzzled by the abrupt changes that industrialization, urbanization, and political revolution had brought to their world. If he remained unsure of the qualities that the new world needed, he articulated with precision those qualities from the old that had been lost. There was an elegiac suppleness in his affirmations that created a tone of frailty and a sense of transience that often contradicted the superficial optimism that his readers demanded of him.