Today we’ll take a look today at the life of master lyric poet – and Harvard professor – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Listen my children and you shall hear/as we speak about his painfully glorious career…
Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807 in a place that’s now Maine but back then was Massachusetts, and spent his childhood learning Latin and doing very well in school. His first poem was published when he was 13, and by the time he graduated Bowdoin College he had published 40 poems and had cultivated his literary talent. He was offered a position at Bowdoin College in the modern languages department, spending time traveling Europe, picking up Spanish, German, and French before returning to take the job. He married Mary Storer Potter in 1831. In 1834 Josiah Quincy III, the president of Harvard College, offered Longfellow a professorship, and once again Longfellow, accompanied now by his wife, went overseas to study foreign languages. But after a miscarriage at six months, Mary fell ill and passed away shortly after. Her death affected Longfellow, and he devoted many poems to the loss.
Upon returning to his position at Harvard in 1836, Longfellow settled into Craigie House on Brattle Street a half-mile northwest of the Square (now preserved as the Longfellow House–Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site). Longfellow published the poetry collection Voices of the Night in 1839, and Ballads and Other Poems two years later, including “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” He also became a prominent member of Boston literary society, and began seeing Fanny Appleton, who resided with her family in Beacon Hill. (Allegedly, Longfellow would walk to see her across the bridge that was later named the Longfellow Bridge.) They were married on July 13, 1843. The couple went on to have six children.
During this time Longfellow wrote Hyperion, a Romance (1839), The Spanish Student: A Play in Three Acts (1843), Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (epic poem) (1847), Poems on Slavery (1842), and Birds of Passage (1845), among other works. His income from his writing was increasing, and in 1854 he retired from Harvard University to write full time. The Song of Hiawatha was published in 1855, The Courtship of Miles Standish was published in 1858, and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” notably his most famous poem, was published in 1860. He was considered a “celebrity poet” in his day.
In July 1861 Longfellow lost his second wife in an accident by which Fanny’s dress caught on fire. Attempting to help douse the flames, Longfellow himself was injured, and it was because of the scars received that he kept the large beard his pictures show. He did not attend her funeral, and was also profoundly affected by the loss, lamenting in his poetry over her death as “the cross I wear upon my breast…”
Longfellow, along with a cohort of other prominent area writers and publishers, set about translating Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. Meeting once a week on Wednesday nights, they dubbed themselves “The Dante Club.” In 1874 the New York Ledger paid the highest price ever paid for a poem - $3000 – to Longfellow for his work "The Hanging of the Crane." During the Civil War Longfellow fought for the end of slavery and peace between the North and South. He spent his later years continuously writing, and died on March 24, 1882. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
There is a glorious biography of Longfellow over at the Poetry Foundation. You can also visit the Longfellow House National Historic Site in Cambridge. Read his works at Project Gutenberg. Check out the Houghton Library exhibit "Public Poet, Private Man" online. And the "salt and pepper" bridge in Boston is really the Longfellow Bridge. They're currently renovating the entire thing, so not sure if the line of a Longfellow poem is still written on the sidewalk...