Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poetry

by on March 3rd, 2011
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When I was in public school, my mother compared things I was being taught to what she had to learn when she was my age. She remembered memorizing and reciting the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for English classes. She is now in her 80s and can still recite the first few lines of “The Village Blacksmith” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” Although I encountered some of Longfellow’s verse in American poetry anthologies and in literature textbooks, I never had to memorize individual poems.

When I grew up and had children of my own, I wanted them to know the Christmas carols I had grown up hearing. One of my favorites was “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The lyrics to that melody were from a poem penned by Longfellow, one of my favorite poets.

His Life
Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, on 27, February 1807 to Zilpah Wadsworth and Stephen Longfellow. His father was both a legislator and lawyer. After Henry graduated from Bowdoin College, his father attempted to persuade him to study to become a lawyer. The young man wished to pursue a literary career.

Henry was selected by Bowdoin College to become one of their first professors of modern languages. The position required study in Europe, a three year leave of absence which ended any further pressure on him to pursue a legal career. In the following years, Longfellow was a professor at two institutions. From 1829 to 1835, he taught at Bowdoin College. From 1834 to 1854, he was the professor of French and Spanish at Harvard College.

Longfellow was married twice. Both marriages ended tragically. In 1836, Mary, his wife of only five years, died after miscarrying their first child. His second wife Fanny had been married to Longfellow for 18 years when she burned to death in a freak accident in 1861. Her death which he tried to prevent scarred him physically and emotionally. They had six children. Longfellow lived for another 21 years but did not remarry.

The American Civil War was fought when Longfellow was in his mid 50s. His oldest son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow, was seriously injured in battle. You may read more about Longfellow’s life here.

His Literary Career
Longfellow published his first literary work while teaching at Bowdoin College. Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea is a series of sketches about a pilgrim’s travels throughout Europe. His first book of poetry, Voices of the Night, was published in 1839, four years before he married his second wife.

In the following 43 years, Longfellow would publish fourteen more collections of his poetry as well as two epic poems, an autobiographical romantic novel, a play and translations of various works.

Unlike too many other writers whose genius is not recognized until they are dead, Longfellow was popular in both America and in England while he was still alive. He was invited to visit the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria. He is the only American poet to be recognized in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

His Legacy
One of the lasting contributions Longfellow made to American poetry as an art form was his use of the emerging American culture in his themes. From 1815 to 1865, America was attempting to establish what it meant to be a native of the country. Up to that time, European culture was still dominant.

Longfellow was among the first to write about Native Americans and life in the United States. He helped to develop a sense of national history through his ballads about Paul Revere and Miles Standish.

Generations of school children were introduced to his verse. Teachers in the early to mid twentieth century required their students to memorize and recite his best known epic poems.

Christmas Bells
The words to the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” were penned by Longfellow on Christmas Day in 1864. It was a response to the contradiction of war during a time when joy and peace should abound. The song has five stanzas but Longfellow originally wrote seven stanzas for the poem. Two of them have direct references to the Civil War.

The poem then known as “Christmas Bells” was later included with eleven more poems in the 1867 collection Flower-De-Luce. While Longfellow was referring to the American Civil War and the war-weary desire for peace, we can easily apply the last two stanzas to our own war-torn world:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the son
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And the poet’s reply of hope:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The Reaper and the Flowers
This poem was written in 1838, two years after Longfellow’s wife miscarried and died. It appeared in the anthology Voices of the Night. Having miscarried a child myself, I am awed to recognize the grief and final acceptance I felt at that time expressed in this verse:

And the mother gave, in tears and pain,
The flowers she most did love;
She knew she should find them all again
In the fields of light above.

Oh, not in cruelty, not in wrath,
The Reaper came that day;
‘T was an angel visited the green earth,
And took the flowers away.

“Resignation” is also about this subject. The poet wrote it in 1848 when grieving the death of Fanny, one of his daughters. According to his journal entry for November 12 of that year, he wrote “An inappeasable longing to see her comes over me at times, which I can hardly control.” When we lost our two month old baby girl to SIDS in 1992, I felt the same way. His poem does not dwell on the pain of separation but instead reminds the grieving of the hope of one day being reunited with their loved ones.

The best known work from this American master poet includes the epic poems “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Village Blacksmith,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Longfellow wrote many more poems which express the deepest feelings all of us have had at one time: feelings of love, sorrow and pride of country.

All of Longfellow’s poetry:

“Resignation” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/by-the-fireside-resignation/

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