Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
About the Author
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.
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 and a descendant of John Alden of the Mayflower. 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. 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 wrote 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 in Italy, France and Spain from 1826 to 1829, 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, and made with her another journey to Europe, where he studied Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and the Dutch language and literature. On this trip he fell under the influence of German Romanticism. Longfellow's wife died at Rotterdam in 1835. Three years later he wrote of her the touching poem, 'Footsteps of Angels.' In 1839 he published 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. In 1840 he wrote 'The Skeleton in Armor' and The Spanish Student, a drama in five acts. Longfellow went to Europe third time in 1842. He wrote several poems on slavery, publishing them in a pamphlet on his return.
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. Longfellow was married twice - after the death of his first wife he married in 1843 Frances Appleton, the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant, the Mary Ashburton of Hyperion. He 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 in 1861 by burning - her dress caught fire from a lighted match. 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 king of Karelia. - 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. Among his other works are The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), 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. 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.
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