Biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882

Biographical Sketch by Wendi Capehart

Longfellow was once considered America's foremost poet, skilled enough to rival even the great poets of Britain. In his time he outsold Tennyson -- in England! He is the only American poet represented by a bust in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ;was born in Portland, Maine on February 27th, 1807. His father was Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer and a Congressman. His mother was Zilpha Wadsworth, a descendant of Puritans John Alden and Priscilla who had arrived on the Mayflower, and whom Longfellow immortalized in one of his poems ("speak for yourself, John . . ."). He was one of eight children, four boys and four girls. Samuel Longfellow, Henry's brother, said that their father "was at once kind and strict, bringing up his children in habits of respect and obedience, of unselfishness, the dread of debt, and the faithful performance of duty."

His childhood was a happy one. He could see the sea from his house. He could go to his grandfather's farm and play with his cousins and his siblings. He could visit his other grandfather and listen to this stories of his adventures during the American Revolutionary war, the battles he had seen, the time he had been captured by the British, the famous patriots he had known He could make himself at home in his father's library and read all the wonderful books he loved. His father's home library also gave him access to many great works of literature, and like Christina Rossetti, one of his favourites was The Arabian Nights. He also enjoyed Shakespeare and Don Quixote.

An exceptionally bright child, he began to go to school when he was just three years old. Before he was seven he had studied halfway through the Latin grammar. He finished studying at the local school and entered college when he was just fourteen. The college was called Bodoin, and it was only twenty or so miles away from home. Of course, at that time, travel was mainly on foot or by horse, so even in the express carriage, pulled by four of the fastest horses, it was a five-hour journey.

One of Longfellow's classmates was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would go on to become another well known American author. Hawthorne and Longfellow knew each other in college, but it was later that they really became friends. Henry had published a few poems before, but in college he began to truly develop his skills and published more poems, and imagine a career as a poet. It was also in college that his genius for languages was recognized. His professors found his translations of the classics into English were the best they'd ever read. He had such a knack for modern languages that he was able to speak and write fluently after only very short periods of study, and he spoke multiple languages. Up until that time, most only taught the classical languages: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Therewere no courses in the modern languages spoken in daily life. Harvard had recently started such a program of study. Henry's professors talked amongst themselves and decided that Bowdoin should be the second American college to offer a course of study in modern languages, and that young Henry would be the first professor. The position was created for Henry because of his skill with language.

One of the trustees at Bowdoin was good friends with Henry's father, who was also a trustee, and he broached the subject with Henry's father. But his father wanted him to be a lawyer, so nothing further was said. After graduating with honours in 1825 at the age of eighteen, Henry spent some time working as a tutor at the college. To please his father, he worked in his father's office to see if he might want to become a lawyer. He definitely did not. He father suggested he go into the ministry, but Henry said he was not a good enough man for that. His father asked if he might want to be a doctor. Henry had no stomach for that. Instead, he said, his soul burned for a career in literature. His father told him that a literary life would be pleasant, but was best suited to somebody who had an independent means of income, because America as a country was not wealthy enough to support "literary men." However, his father agreed to let him study literature and foreign languages for an additional year at Cambridge University, in England.

Before he could leave for Cambridge, Henry was offered and accepted the job of head professor at Bowdoin. Because he was still so young, the college wanted him to travel in Europe to improve his language skills even more before he started at the school. This was a common practice at the time, and over the course of his lifetime, Longfellow would be able to take several long tours of Europe, every time he was offered a promotion or another teaching job. This time, he spent three and a half years traveling in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, and England before returning home and taking up his new work at Bowdoin.

He was now twenty-one years old. Working as a professor not only allowed him to travel extensively, he was able to write and publish more books every year. It was the perfect job for a writer who had no outside support.

He taught. He wrote. He began a family, marrying a girl he had known since childhood. His wife, Mary S. Potter, accompanied him to Europe during another of his European travels. When she was six months pregnant with their first child, she went into early labour at a critical time. Neither she nor the child survived. Longfellow's journals of the time frequently refer to his great loneliness and heartbreak.

He poured his heart into work, and on his return to America, where he began teaching at Harvard, and continued writing and publishing. He published several more articles, and his first two volumes of poems. The second was especially well received and solidified his status as "America's poet."

He next attempted to write a collection of poems condemning slavery. He was unhappy with the result because he didn't think his objections came through as strongly as he intended. They were such "thin gruel," he said, that even a slave-owner could read them without it spoiling his breakfast. When a friend told him that his poems were wrong because his anti-slavery beliefs were wrong, Longfellow wrote a series of declarations:

I believe slavery to be an unrighteous institution based on the false maxim that Might makes Right.

I have great faith in doing what is righteous and fear no evil consequences.

I believe that every one has a perfect right to express his opinion on the subject of slavery, as on every other thing; that every one ought so to do until the public opinion of all Christendom shall penetrate into and change the hearts of the Southerners on this subject.

I would have no other interference than what is sanctioned by law.

I believe that where there is a will there is a way. When the whole country sincerely wishes to get rid of slavery it will readily find the means.

Let us, therefore, do all we can to bring about this will in all gentleness and Christian charity. And God speed the time.

In 1843 he married his second wife, Fanny Appleby, whom he had courted for seven years. She wrote her sister once that Longfellow was not a songbird but a mockingbird. But she must have changed her mind. Theirs was a thoroughly happy marriage, except for the shared sorrow when one of their six children died in infancy. He was finally able to resign from teaching and support his family entirely from his writing.

But in 1861, another tragedy nearly destroyed him. Fanny was sealing locks of her children's hair in thin paper, using the heat from the fire to melt sealing wax to seal the paper. There was a terrible accident, her dress caught fire, Longfellow attempted to put out the fire and badly burned his own arms, face, and chest. Fanny only survived a day, Longfellow himself was bedridden for days, wild with pain and grief, too injured to attend his wife's funeral.

He began to grow out his trademark long beard after this because the disfiguring scars on his face made shaving impossible. For the rest of his life he grieved deeply, sometimes fearing that grief would drive him mad. Today he would probably be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He wrote once that he was slowly bleeding to death inside. Somebody once expressed a hope that Longfelow would be able to bear this cross, and Longfellow said he could bear a cross, but he was stretched out on it.

He continued to work and perhaps sought distraction from his great grief in his writing and more serious translations. He immersed himself in his translation of the Divine Comedy of Dante. Eighteen years after Fanny's death he wrote a sonnet called The Cross of Snow, which contains these lines:

There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

He died at Harvard on March 24th, 1882, known and loved by all who knew him both for his poetry and his gentle soul.

Sources

Wikipedia

Lives of English Authors: A Biographical History of English Literature, published by T. Nelson and Sons, 1890<

A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion, by Robert L. Gale

The Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published by T. Y. Crowell, 1901