Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (February 27, 1807 � March 24, 1882) was an American poet who wrote many poems that are still famous today, including The Song of Hiawatha, Paul Revere's Ride and Evangeline.

Probably one of the best loved American poets the world over is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Many of his lines are as familiar to us as rhymes from Mother Goose or the words of nursery songs learned in early childhood. Like these rhymes and melodies, they remain in the memory and accompany us through life

He also wrote the first American translation of Dante Alighieri's Hell (Inferno). Born in Maine, Longfellow lived for most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a house occupied during the American Revolution by General George Washington and his staff.

He was born in the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland, Maine, the son of Stephen and Zilpah (Wadsworth) Longfellow. His father was a lawyer and his maternal grandfather Peleg Wadsworth was a general in the American Revolutionary War. He was descended from the Longfellow family who came to America in 1676 from Otley in Yorkshire, England and from Priscilla and John Alden on his father's side. He was sent to school when he was only three years old. When he was six, the following report of him was received at home: "Master Henry Longfellow is one of the best boys we have in school. He spells and reads very well. He can also add and multiply numbers. His conduct last quarter was very correct and amiable."

From the beginning, it was evident that Longfellow was to be drawn to writing and the sound of words. His mother read aloud to him and his brothers and sisters the high romance of Ossian, the legendary Gaelic hero. Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' was a favorite among the books he read. But the book which influenced him most was Washington Irving's 'Sketch Book'. Irving was another American author for whom the native legend and landscape were sources of inspiration.

When Henry was a senior at Bowdoin College at 19, the college established a chair of modern languages. The recent graduate was asked to become the first professor, with the understanding that he should be given a period of time in which to travel and study in Europe.

In May of 1826, Longfellow set out for Europe to turn himself into a scholar and a linguist. He had letters of introduction to men of note in England and France, but he had his own idea of how to travel. Between conferences with important people and courses in the universities, Longfellow walked through the countries. He stopped at small inns and cottages, talking to peasants, farmers, traders, and his silver flute in his pocket as a passport to friendship. He traveled in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and England, and returned to America in 1829. At 22, he was launched into his career as a college professor. He had to prepare his own texts, because at that time none were available.

In 1831, he married Mary Storer Potter, whom he had known as a schoolmate. When he saw her at church upon his return to Portland, he was so struck by her beauty that he followed her home without courage enough to speak to her.

With his wife, he settled down in a house surrounded by elm trees. He expended his energies on translations from Old World literature and contributed travel sketches to the New England Magazine, in addition to serving as a professor and a librarian at Bowdoin.

In 1834, he was appointed to a professorship at Harvard and once more set out for Europe by way of preparation. This time his young wife accompanied him. The journey ended in tragedy. In Rotterdam, his wife died, and Longfellow came alone to Cambridge and the new professorship. The lonely Longfellow took a room at historic Craigie House, an old house overlooking the Charles River. It was owned by Mrs. Craigie, an eccentric woman who kept much to herself and was somewhat scornful of the young men to whom she let rooms. But she read widely and well, and her library contained complete sets of Voltaire and other French masters. Longfellow entered the beautiful old elm-encircled house as a lodger, not knowing that this was to be his home for the rest of his life. In time, it passed into the possession of Nathan Appleton. Seven years after he came to Cambridge, Longfellow married Frances Appleton, daughter of Nathan Appleton, and Craigie House was given to the Longfellows as a wedding gift.

Longfellow got a brief outline of a story from Nathaniel Hawthorne which he composed one of his most favorite poems, 'Evangeline'. The original story had Evangeline wandering about New England in search of her bridegroom. Longfellow extended her journey through Louisiana and the western wilderness. She finds Gabriel, at last, dying in Philadelphia. 'Evangeline' was published in 1847 and was widely acclaimed. Longfellow began to feel that his work as a teacher was a hindrance to his own writing.

He retired from Harvard in 1854, devoting himself entirely to writing. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws from Harvard in 1859. In 1861, Frances died in a household fire that was started when she was sealing packages of her childrens' curls with matches and wax, burst into flame, devastating Longfellow. He commemorated her with the sonnet "The Cross of Snow" (1879). He died on March 24, 1882.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1884 he was the first American poet to have a bust of him placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.

His work was immensely popular during his time and is still somewhat today, but many modern critics consider him too sentimental. His poetry is based on familiar and easily understood themes with simple, clear, and flowing language. His poetry created an audience in America and contributed to creating American mythology.

Longfellow's home in Cambridge, the Longfellow National Historic Site, is a U.S. National Historic Site, National Historic Landmark, and on the National Register of Historic Places.