Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Who of us of a certain age have not travelled in their imagination with Paul Revere on his epic ride to Concord? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a well-known 19th century Romantic poet and the author of such tales as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish and his masterpiece Evangeline. During his lifetime, Longfellow wrote hundreds of poems.
Longfellow was born in Portland in 1807 and was named after his grandfather, Revolutionary War hero Peleg Wadsworth. He grew up in the wilds of Maine, then a province of Massachusetts. Even as a child, Longfellow knew he wanted to be a poet. He published his first poem at the age of 13 in the Portland Gazette.
Three generations of Longfellows had gone to Harvard, but in the excitement of Maine becoming a state in 1820, young Henry opted for Bowdoin College in the tiny hamlet of Brunswick. He entered at age 14 in 1822. Interestingly, he boarded in the same house where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived 30 years later while writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Longfellow so impressed his teachers with the quality of his intellect that on graduating he was offered a job as professor in the newly established chair of Modern Languages. He was sent to Europe in 1826 to study modern languages to prepare for the position.
Longfellow absorbed much of what Europe had to offer. He travelled to France, Germany, Italy and Spain, studying the language, the history, the literature and culture of each country. The one-year tour stretched to three years before he returned in 1829.
Back in the United States while teaching at Bowdoin, Longfellow fell in love with 19-year-old Mary Potter, the daughter of a family friend in Portland. The couple married in 1831. Although he was a popular professor, Longfellow did not particularly enjoy the drudgery of teaching, which he felt limited his writing career. “I do not believe that I was born for such a lot. I have aimed higher than this,” he is known to have said.
In 1834 the restless young teacher received a letter from President Josiah Quincy of Harvard offering him the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages at a salary of $1500 per annum along with the recommendation he spend a year in Europe furthering his studies. Longfellow resigned from Bowdoin and set sail to Europe with Mary, who was pregnant at the time. Tragically, she died in Holland shortly after suffering a miscarriage, leaving Longfellow shattered.
The devastated poet returned to Cambridge in 1836 and began his career at Harvard. Although he was hired to teach modern languages, his “whole being was focused on literature,” wrote Henry Seidel Canby, founder and editor of the Saturday Review of Literature. In the meantime, Longfellow had met Fanny Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. He married Fanny in 1843, following a seven-year courtship. The couple lived happily together for 17 years and had six children.
On July 9, 1861 Fanny was putting locks of her children’s hair into an envelope and sealing it with hot wax when her dress suddenly caught fire. Hearing her screams, Longfellow rushed in and tried to extinguish the flames. Fanny died the next day of her burns. Longfellow himself was so badly burned that he was unable to attend her funeral. It was the great tragedy of his life.
Longfellow had become an incredibly prolific writer who was enormously popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in England. Sales of his poems ran into the hundreds of thousands. By age 50 he was earning $3,000 per poem. When The Courtship of Miles Standish was published in 1858 it had a phenomenal sale of 10,000 copies the first day and 25,000 in the first month.
During his lifetime, Longfellow’s works were more widely translated than all of his contemporaries combined. One publisher wrote, “You must look to Shakespeare for a larger currency of thought than Longfellow, for he is quoted in both Westminster Palace and Parliament.”
Most recently, references to Longfellow appear in David McCulloch’s new book The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris. Longfellow is mentioned as part of “A galaxy of New Englanders, including Oliver W. Holmes, Emerson and Harriet B. Stowe, whose brilliance distinguished American letters in the 1850s.”
Longfellow published Poems on Slavery in 1842, revealing him as a supporter of abolitionism. In 1856 he wrote to his good friend Charles Sumner, “Your speech is the greatest voice on the subject that has yet been uttered.” This was delivered shortly before Sumner was brutally caned by South Carolina senator Preston Brooks.
During his final visit to England in 1868, several universities honored the poet, and Queen Victoria invited him to visit at Windsor Castle. Throughout all the accolades, Longfellow remained a modest, very private man. He was always a reluctant public speaker.
On August 22, 1879, a female admirer visited Longfellow’s house in Cambridge. Unaware to whom she was speaking, she asked him: “Is this the house where Longfellow was born?” Longfellow told her it was not. The visitor then asked if he had died here. “Not yet”, he replied. Three years later Longfellow went to bed with severe stomach pains. He died of peritonitis on March 24, 1882, aged 75.
Tributes poured in from around the world. England erected a memorial bust of him in Poets Corner of Westminster Abby. Today, he sits in the illustrious company of Chaucer, Spencer, Shelley, Keats, Browning and Tennyson.
Undeniably, Longfellow’s star has dimmed in the past century. Henry Seidel Canby summarizes his import: “Longfellow came nearer than anyone else to being the voice of the middle class man in the street in the 19th century. Vertically he went neither high nor deep; horizontally, he spread across the planes of the respectable, educated middle class. He was for them the poet”.