Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Look then, into thine heart, and write!

“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.” This quote is from a letter sent home from Longfellow’s school when he was just six years old.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine. He was the son of Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow. Early on, his parents could see that he had an interest in literature. His mother read to him frequently. Don Quixote was one of his favorites but it was Washington Irving’s Sketch Book that influenced him the most. Sent to school at just three years old, Longfellow graduated from Bowdoin College at 19.

Upon graduation he was offered a job as professor of modern languages, a program that the college was just putting together. He accepted the position with the stipulation that he would be given a period of time to travel and study in Europe. It was on this journey that he was able to retain many ideas for his future writings.

Longfellow walked through the countries so that he could stop at inns and cottages and talk to people. He met peasants, farmers and traders. He traveled to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and England. Returning to America in 1829, he started his career as a college professor. He had to write his own texts because there were none at that time.

In 1831, Longfellow married his first wife, Mary Storer Potter. In 1834, he was offered a professorship at Harvard. Once again, he set out for Europe to prepare himself to teach. His wife accompanied him on this trip and died in Rotterdam. Arriving at Cambridge alone, he took a room at historic Craige House. Eventually, the house was purchased by Nathan Appleton. Seven years after Longfellow came to Cambridge he married Mr.

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Appleton’s daughter Frances and the house was given to the Longfellow's as a wedding gift. This house would be Longfellow's home for the rest of his life.

Longfellow had five children, two boys and three girls. He described them in 'The Children's Hour as "grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair." In 1847 Evangeline became the first successful long poem written in the United States. In 1854, he left Harvard to concentrate on his writing. He felt that being a teacher was a hindrance to his own writing. It was during that same year that he wrote The Song of Hiawatha. In 1861, Longfellow’s wife died of burns she received while trying to seal packages of her children’s hair with wax and matches. Once again, at a major turning point in his life, Longfellow went to Europe where he spent his time translating Dante into English.

Longfellow was highly regarded by his peers and the children of Cambridge loved him. When it became necessary to remove "the spreading chestnut tree" of Brattle Street, which Longfellow had written about in his 'Village Blacksmith', the children of Cambridge donated money to build a chair out of the tree and gave it to Longfellow. He died on March 24, 1882. There is a marble image of him, in the poet’s corner, in Westminster Abbey. He is the first American to be honored this way.

"Of all the suns of the New England morning," says Van Wyck Brooks, "he was the largest in his golden sweetness." Considered to be the first professional American poet, Longfellow is loved by many for his familiar themes, easily grasped ideas, and clear simple melodious language.

It is, perhaps, Longfellow’s shorter poems that showcase this talent the most. Evangeline and Songs of Hiawatha are written in Greek and Finnish meter and lack the flow and beauty and grace of poems like the building of the Ship. The language in this poem is deceptively simple. The ship rich with symbolism can be a metaphor for the Union and its rocky ride, the bride opening her arms to her husband, or, simply a ship blindly trusting its fortune to the waters for the first time. The poem contains layered meanings and depth, but Longfellow conveys those meanings in language that is easily recognizable. There is comfort in that easy recognition, in the familiar, the knowing. The Building of the Ship translates into the language of the common person; a drink mixed with beauty, meaning, and simplicity that soothes as it is swallowed.

In the similarly titled poem, The Builders the language is much the same: beautiful, melodious, and easily grasped. The theme of the poem is a familiar one, a collective fate that we self-construct. But the material with which we build, according to Longfellow is time. Yesterday’s block is set, and if we want tomorrow to have a “firm base” we must be careful of our actions today. In this poem, perhaps more than others, Longfellow’s voice conveys an earnestness that leaves the reader the impression that he meant what he wrote, that the common people can believe in his words, and he remembers them further by reminding his readers that every contribution is equally important, “nothing useless is, or low.”

A favorite of Longfellow’s audience, the Day is Done is simply a heartfelt piece that contains not just his words but his emotions as well. It is easy to see him, and ourselves, out for an evening stroll when suddenly, inexplicably, overwhelmed by sadness. A sadness burdened by the cares of the world, that bows our shoulders low and causes us to search for solace. Longfellow reminds us further that such solace is not to be found in great minds, whose words reflect the sorrows of life. We, like him, must seek the comfort of a simpler mind, a carefree, happy soul who sees the day in the blackness of night.

Longfellow’s popularity owes itself to the fact that his poetry does not simply speak to you, but through you. Years come and go, but his works live on because they are easy to read, beautifully written and carry themes that life is unable to alter. And above all, they offer solace and hope.
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