Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Analysis

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).


(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 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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Buell notes Longfellow’s strong interest in New England life. Longfellow’s interest in religious epics is also stressed.

Gartner, Matthew. “Longfellow’s Place: The Poet and Poetry of Craigie House.” The New England Quarterly 73, no. 1 (March, 2000): 32-57. Discusses the symbolic status of the private home in Longfellow’s poetry and in the mid-nineteeth century United States. The private home was seen as a sacred space whose high priestess was the wife and mother, and Longfellow used his own home to advance his prestige and authority.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. The earlier edition (1961) of this work is a standard critical survey of American poetry. Pearce adopts a dismissive tone toward Longfellow: that he lived in a closed world, constantly intent on proving that life is not an empty dream.

Suchard, Allen. “The Nineteenth Century: Romanticism in American Poetry.” In American Poetry. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. In spite of Longfellow’s reputation as a celebrator of the American way of life, he was, in fact, possessed by a gloomy vision; argues that the brooding quality of his verse is its best feature. Claims that Longfellow’s sonnets have been unduly neglected.

Tucker, Edward L. “The Meeting of Hawthorne and Longfellow in 1838.” ANQ 13, no. 4 (Fall, 2000): 18-21. Discusses a number of meetings between Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne and comments on the omissions regarding the meetings in Longfellow’s edited journals.

Turco, Lewis P. Visions and Revisions of American Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Alabama Press, 1986. Turco views Longfellow as a derivative poet of minor importance, maintaining that he imitated the English Romantics, and, in spite of the bulk of his output, almost none has endured

Waggoner, Hyatt H. “Five New England Poets.” In American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Claims that Longfellow was the saddest of all American poets and that his dominant theme is that time is humankind’s enemy. He was unwilling to face his own vision and made constant efforts to cheer himself up. Waggoner contends that Longfellow was unintelligent and that his poems are often incoherent.