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|Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)|
The most popular American poet of the 19th century, a storyteller, whose works are still cited – or parodied. Longfellow's works ranged from sentimental pieces such as 'The Village Blacksmith' to translations of Dante. Among his most interesting works are Evangeline (1847), a narrative poem of the former French colony of Acadia, echoing such epics as Homer's Odyssey, and The Song of Hiawatha (1855), especially noted for its sing-song meter and shamanistic rhythm. Longfellow is considered the first professional American poet. A number of his phrases, such as "ships that pass in the night", "the patter of little feet", and "I shot an arrow into the air", have become a common property.
"At the door on summer evenings,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a Portland lawyer and congressman, and mother, Zilpah, was the daughter of General Peleg Wadsworth. Longfellow was early fond of reading – Washington Irving's Sketch-Book was his favorite and at thirteen he wrote his first poem, 'The Battle of Lovell's Pond,' which appeared in Portland Gazette, on November 17, 1820. Among Longfellow's classmates at Bowdoin College was Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he helped later reviewing warmly his Twice-Told Tales. Before leaving the college, Longfellow had planned to become a writer, and said to his father: "The fact is, I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature; my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centers in it..."
Longfellow's translation of Horace earned him a scholarship for further studies. After graduating in 1825 he traveled from 1826 to 1829 in Italy, France and Spain, where he met Washington Irving, and returned to the United States to work as a professor and librarian in Bodwoin. He translated for his students a French grammar, and edited a collection of French proverbs and a small Spanish reader. In 1831 he married Mart Storer Potter (1812-35), and made with her another journey to Europe, where he studied Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and the Dutch language and literature. On this trip Longfellow fell under the influence of German Romanticism.
Longfellow's wife died at Rotterdam in 1835. He was pregnant, suffered a miscarriage and died of infection. Longfellow had her body embalmed and sent by vessel to Boston. Later he wrote of her the touching poem, 'Footsteps of Angels' (1839), in which the "forms of the departed" visit the narrator: "With a slow and noiseless footstep / Comes that messenger divine, / Takes the vacant chair beside me, / Lays her gentle hand in mine." This poem, in shorter form, was first called 'Evening Shadows.' Other works followed: the romantic novel Hyperion and a collection of poems Voices of the Night, which became very popular, but was shaply criticized by Edgar Allan Poe, who accused Longfellow of plagiarism. In a review published in April 1845, he called Longfellow the "GREAT MOGUL of the Imitators" and dismissed his poems as bedside reading for the "negrophilic old ladies of the north."
In 1836 Longfellow began teaching in Harvard, taking lodgings at the historic Craigie House, where General Washington and his wife had lived. He dreamed there that J.W. Goethe might come to Cambridge, and duly wrote Hiawatha, a pioneering treatment of Native Americans. In 1840 Longfellow wrote 'The Skeleton in Armor' and The Spanish Stundent, a drama in five acts. He went to Europe third time in 1842. While in London he met Charles Dickens, who invited him to stay in his home and introduced Longfellow to the biographer and critic John Foster. On his return, Longfellow published a pamphlet, which contained poems on slavery. Foster reviewed it favorably in the Examiner. During Dickens's reading tour in the United States in 1867-68, Longfellow dined with him in Boston invited him on Thanksgiving Day "to a quiet family dinner."
Longfellow was married twice – after the death of his first wife he married in 1843 Frances Appleton (1817-61), the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant, the Mary Ashburton of Hyperion. They had six children. Longfellow resigned from his post in 1854 and published next year his best-know narrative poem, The Song of Hiawatha, which gained immediate success. Frances died tragically on July 9, 1861 by burning – she was sealing a thin paper containing a lock of one of her children's hair and her dress caught fire from a lighted match. Longfellow, who rushed in and threw a small rug over her, burned his hands and face. Frances dashed to the doorway, horribly burned. During the night, she regained consciousness and asked for coffee in the morning. Longfellow could not attend her funeral. His famous white beard concealed the scars.
Longfellow settled in Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life, although he spent summers at his home at Nahant. In 1868 Longfellow made his last visit to Europe with his three daughters. He spent two days with the English poet Alfred Tennyson in the Isle of Wright. Queen Victoria, who was his great admirer, invited him to tea. In Rome he saw Liszt, who set to music the introduction to The Golden Legend (1851).
The Song of Hiawatha adapted its meter from the Finnish national epic Kalevala and told a story of an Indian chief, an Ojibwa Indian, who is raised by Nokomis, his grandmother, 'the daughter of the moon'. Upon reaching manhood, Hiawatha wants to avenge the wrong done by his father, the West Wind, to his mother, Wenonah. Father and son eventually reconcile, and Hiawatha becomes the leader of his people. He marries Minnehaha, and an era on peace and prosperity ensues under his reign. But hard times come to his tribe, disease and famine afflict his people. Minnehaha dies, Hiawatha takes his leave to go to the Isles of the Blessed, and advises his people to accept the white man and heed to those who will come with a new religion. The poems ends like Kalevala, where the central character, the old and wise Väinämöinen, representing paganism, makes way for a new era. – As a background for the poem, Longfellow consulted Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's books on the Indian tribes of North America and perpetuated an error of Schoolcraft's that placed Hiawatha among the forest tribes of the northern Midwest. The historical Hiawatha (c. 1450) lived well to the east.
Longfellow's later poetry reflects his interest in establishing an American mythology. His other works include The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), a translation of Dante´s The Divine Comedy (1865-67) and Christus: A Mystery (1872), a trilogy dealing with Christianity from its beginnings, which was intended to be Longfellow's masterpiece. Longfellow began his Dante translation in 1865, collaborating with the poets James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the historian George Washington Greene, and the publisher James T. Fields. Inferno was comleted two years later. The poet's 70th birthday in 1877 was celebrated around the country. Longfellow died in Cambridge on March 24, 1882. In London his marble image is seen in Westminster Abbey, in the Poet's Corner.
For further reading: Longfellow Redux by Christoph Irmscher (2008); Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life by Charles C. Calhoun (2005); A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion by Robert L. Gale (2003); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: America's Beloved Poet by Bonnie L. Lukes (1997); Longfellow: His Life and Work by Newton Arvin (1977); Longfellow and Scandinavia by Andrew Hilen (1970); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist by Edward Wagenknecht (1966); Longfellow: A Full-Length Portrait by Edward Wagenknecht (1955); Young Longfellow by L.R. Thompson (1938) - See also: Elias Lönnrot, Ivan Bunin. Museums: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's House, 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Longfellow's Wayside Inn, off route 20, Sudbury, Concord. Note: Longfellow's brother Samuel Longfellow (1819-1892), clergyman and poet, had close contacts with Transcendentalist movement. He published religious lyrics, articles, and essays.