Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (born February 27, 1807 in Portland, died March 24, 1882 in Cambridge) – American poet, representative of Romanticism, called the “king of American poetry”; also a philologist, translator and lecturer, author of contemplative lyric poetry and two national epics. The third greatest figure in the national pantheon of the United States after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, he is widely regarded as the most popular poet of the 19th century, along with Walt Whitman. Member of the literary group known as the Fireside Poets, which also included John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant. One of the forerunners of modern philology.
Although Longfellow himself, unlike Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a staunch opponent of “national literature” in favor of “universal and transnational literature,” his poetry played a significant role in the formation of American identity and folklore, and he was recognized in Europe as the first great classicist from across the ocean. Longfellow”s prolific output also had moralistic ambitions, representing to young American society the ideals of generations of pioneer colonizers: the cult of the hearth and family life in accordance with the principles of the Gospel, the need for inner peace and harmony in the midst of adversity, a deep understanding of nature, and life activism in the spirit of faith, hope, and love.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, regarded during his lifetime as the most significant poet of his generation, was severely criticized after his death for a lack of originality, for being derivative of established European models, and for writing for a mass readership. Nonetheless, the Portland poet became a permanent fixture in American tradition as one of the most important figures; his life and work became the source of many American proverbs and the main theme of folk and country songs. It is also associated with the creation of cultural monuments such as the Longfellow Bridge or Longfellow”s Wayside Inn, numerous monuments, national memorials, and even the names of towns and villages.
Childhood and youth
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland on February 27, 1807, the second of eight children of Stephen and Ziply Longfellow, descendants of old New England settler families cultivating Puritan traditions. The Portland of his childhood was an agricultural and commercial province, as yet untainted by industrialization or the progress of civilization that in many areas of Europe as well as the United States had become the son of the age and the direct cause of the Romantic Revolt. Longfellow”s family settlement, “full of clear rivers, forests, and university centers teeming with rich intellectual life, honoring traditional ideals, conservative in morals, but believing in the progress of man and social institutions,” played a significant influence on his entire oeuvre. In the mature poems of the American Romantic such as Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish, the Arcadian image of New England, remembered in just this way, will return.
At the age of three, he independently mastered the alphabet, and at the age of five, he began his education at Portland Academy. It was then that he became emotionally and spiritually involved in the history of the War for American Independence, which ended shortly before his birth, and whose echoes still hovered over the young American generation. Although Longfellow is usually considered a poet detached from history in a social and political sense, these early impulses resulted in several poems later in life. Interestingly, one of these was dedicated to Casimir Pulaski (see “Casimir Pulaski in Longfellow”s Poetry”). “In the years of his childhood, the memories of the hard and heroic struggle must have still been vivid among the elderly He must have even seen veterans of this guerrilla war, and the second and ultimately decisive war with England was fought already in his lifetime. At the same time, high school sparked in him a deep interest in literature. Daily reading of Homer, Shakespeare, and Goethe soon turned into a passion. Henry also longed to become a writer. He composed his first song at the age of thirteen: the patriotic and pathetic Battle of Lovell”s Pond appeared in the November issue of the Portland Gazette. At the time, the boy spoke aloud about his greatest dream – “future dignity in literature”.
A year later, he enrolled at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. Fate would have it that Nathaniel Hawthorne, a future personality of American literature, would become his bench mate. The boys shared their literary insights, forging a lasting friendship. One day Hawthorne told Longfellow a story of tragic love from the history of the Acadian deportation that he had heard from a village minister. The story shocked the future “brahmin,” permanently etching itself in his memory. Such is the genesis of Evangeline, written over twenty-five years later, one of the greatest masterpieces of nineteenth century literature.
In 1825 Longfellow took over the chair of foreign languages, which entailed receiving a large stipend for study abroad. The future poet set aside the money for his scholarly and philological travels in Europe, which would bring him closer to the literature he loved and lay the groundwork for his emerging talent. In the fall of that year, now of age, Henry graduated from Bowdoin College.
Travels in Europe. Professorial career
Thanks to the scholarship he received and the favorable opinions of prominent American personalities, from 1826 to 1829 Longfellow was able to devote himself to intensive travels in Europe. The main destinations of these voyages were France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, where the Portland boy had the opportunity to study Romance and Germanic philology. His eagerness and pleasant exterior enabled him to penetrate the local cultural circles with ease. During a few months in Madrid, he even met Washington Irving, fourteen years his senior, the triumphant American prose writer and author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, who was then American ambassador to Spain.
Upon his return to his native country, Longfellow-who already had some comparative spectrum-had for the next six years engaged in a thorough revision and organization from scratch of the study of modern languages at Bowdoin College. His work met with general approval. According to Stanisław Helsztyński: “He won the sympathy of the students with his simplicity, sincerity and friendly attitude to his listeners, from whom he hardly differed in age. His knowledge of the subjects allowed him to arouse enthusiasm for European cultures and literatures during his lectures”, all the more so as they were a real enrichment of the philological knowledge of the time. He was all the more respected because, being completely absorbed in his lectures, he also found time to popularize his knowledge in the pages of magazines.
On September 14, 1831, he married Mary Potter, five years his junior, a friend from his childhood days.
Tragic death of first wife – Mary Potter
In 1835, with the publication of his impressions of European travels (a volume of Outre-Mer sketches), Longfellow came to the attention of the educational authorities and earned the deep respect of his colleagues at Harvard University. Later that year, the university offered him the chair of modern languages there on the condition that he first spend a year in Germany and Scandinavia to deepen his knowledge of Scandinavian and German literature. Longfellow happily agreed to the proposal. Leaving the United States, he took with him his wife and two friends.
Longfellow”s literary travels in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and then Heidelberg proved to have a decisive influence on the further development of Longfellow”s literary talent, whose sensibility and imagination were satiated with the atmosphere of those places until the end. An example of this can be seen in the ballad, Skeleton in Armor, published six years later.
Unfortunately, the stay in Rotterdam brought the future poet one of the most tragic experiences of his life. Mary, only twenty-two years old, died suddenly from premature confinement. Avoiding an overly personal tone, Longfellow rather allusively recorded Mary”s death in later poems such as Footsteps of Angels, Mezzo Cammin, and Two Angels.
Echoes of the tragedy that befell Longfellow and the memory of Mary Potter would still float through his last major work, Song of Hawaii, written in the prime of his life.
Forced to complete his journey, he sent the coffin with the body of his wife to Cambridge, so that there, on the native soil, her funeral ceremony could be performed, and he himself set off for Germany, this time, however, in a mournful and penitential mood. Having settled for a few months in Heidelberg, he became acquainted with modern idealism, which at first took the name of Sturm und Drang, and later of the “romantic school.” Despite his despair, he still had the strength to penetrate the cultural life of the country and thus deepen the necessary knowledge. He even attended the famous lectures of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and established personal contacts with German poets and thinkers such as Friedrich Schiller and August Wilhelm Schlegel.
In 1836 Longfellow returned to America: he thus took over (as the youngest among the lecturers) the academic post at Harvard University. Although his beginnings were difficult, he was “warmly received by the young people, who appreciated his unpretentiousness, directness, kindness, and refined manner. He held the position of professor at Harvard until 1854.
In 1839, when the despair of losing Mary had eased somewhat, Longfellow took his first serious steps to embrace the parnassus. Not very fortuitously, he began with prose: a sentimental, semi-autobiographical novel, Hyperion, was then published. A few months later, however, came Longfellow”s literary debut in earnest: the collection Voices of the Night, which was already surrounded by a sublime atmosphere of legend from the moment of its publication. The book called for spiritual fortitude, heroism, and overcoming the resistance of the world, as if in spite of the tragic death of the author”s first wife, thus striking at the most precious ideals of the young United States – the ideals of independence.
Travelling around Europe allowed the poet to establish further constructive friendships, among others with Ferdinand Freiligrath and Alfred Tennyson. His closest friendship, however, was with Charles Dickens. At the same time, his private home in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Cambridge, originally the quarters of George Washington – the so-called Craige House later made famous throughout the world – became a meeting place for the most eminent minds of Boston society. “The professor”s courteous civility, his impeccable life, and his spontaneous friendliness, have graced the meetings of Boston friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Nathaniel Hawthorne or like Charles Dickens. Frequent visitors included: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sumner, Charles Eliot Norton, James Russell Lowell, several of whom, along with Longfellow, decided to form the Fireside Poets group aiming to revitalize America”s literary movement.
In the meantime he fell in love for the second time, even more strongly than before: the choice of his heart was Frances Appleton (called by him caressingly “Fanny”), the sister of the poet Thomas Gold Appleton. At first it was an unhappy love, as Frances did not reciprocate the poet”s feelings, making this clear in letters that have survived to this day. Nonetheless, after seven years of effort on Longfellow”s part, she agreed to form a closer friendship with him, culminating in their marriage in 1843.
Disputes with Walt Whitman
The marriage with Fanny was a happy one. Henry had six children with her, and his substantial income from book publishing and his contributions to the field of philology enabled him to become completely financially independent. So he resigned his position as a professor at Harvard and took care of his family. At the same time, with the publication of more and more collections of poems, he gained recognition and readership that soon earned him the title of the most outstanding poet that America carried. He quickly became one of the first poets of the New Continent for whom writing alone could be a source of livelihood. In his introductory essay to new translations of Longfellow”s poems, Juliusz Zulawski wrote: “…it is this situation – the different evaluation of this situation resulting from the difference of temperaments – that has placed the two greatest American poets, Longfellow and Whitman, at opposite poles.”
In 1860 the third collection of Walt Whitman”s Straws of Grass was published (by a Boston publishing house). The book received a very favorable review from the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who vowed to do his best to introduce the young Whitman to the literary elite of the time. Emerson was one of the greatest authorities in the United States of the nineteenth century, yet he failed to introduce Whitman to the famous “Saturday Club”. The reason was the strong opposition of Longfellow. Thus began the period of disputes between the two poets.
Whitman”s poems irritated Brahmin, who accused them of breaking classical structures too boldly, even calling them disorderly writing. Longfellow was upset by the indecent – as he put it, demoralizing – sincerity of the individual “blades,” especially those that dealt with such sensitive issues as sexuality or natural instincts. Thus the American bard stood up not only for long-established literary traditions, but above all for good taste and morality. Whitman, in turn, accused Longfellow of a lack of “Americanness,” or literary modernity in a variety of ways, of being derivative, eclectic, and a stylistic regression into ossified, outdated forms, and of being too prudish. For this reason, the quarreling poets gave each other critical publications for several years.
The tragic death of his second wife – Fanny Appleton
“Brahmin” led a peaceful, warm life in the bosom of his family – until another tragedy in his life. “Into this so happy environment fell a bolt from the blue on June 9, 1861. The poet”s wife, tidying up and sealing her childhood heirlooms with wax and candles, started a fire on the ground, which suddenly engulfed her light summer dress, and in the blink of an eye she burst into flames. At her screams the poet rushed in and, seeing what was happening, rushed to her rescue, covering her with a carpet to smother the fire. In vain.” However, Fanny did not die until the next day, as her biographers say: in terrible sufferings. The poet, too, suffered severe burns to his hands and face, which later resulted in hypersensitive skin that caused unbearable pain when shaving. For this reason Longfellow grew a beard, giving him a patriarchal appearance. This misfortune proved to have far-reaching effects in Longfellow”s life. He interrupted his original work to seek relief in the works of the great classics in complete isolation from current events. It is interesting to note that in many cases he drew on the anthologies of Alexander Chodko. “During the raging civil war, in which hundreds of thousands died , the fifty-year-old “brahmin” worked in his quiet library on Dante. His home in Cambridge became a kind of fortress of “unadulterated romanticism,” and his only contact with reality outside was his concern for his son as a Civil War participant.
In time, however, the poet returned to his original work. The never-published poem Cross of Snow attests to his temporary breakdown.
Despite the tragic death of his second wife, his poetry did not lose its old call for hope and optimism. Though enriched by a slightly more melancholy tone, their main message was an exploration of the mystery of death, transience, and suffering in the perspective of God”s plan of salvation. There were even new juxtapositions: tides and waves, despair and reassurance, death but also birth. Only the old activism and youthful verve, known from heroic cries like the Builders or the Psalm of Life, disappeared. They have given way to calm, to inner harmony in the face of misfortune, and to patiently enduring what the vicissitudes of fate yield with confidence in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator. Longfellow”s poetry became more contemplative in the process.
Last Years of Life. Friendship with Walt Whitman
There were still heated arguments between Longfellow and Whitman in the press. Longfellow, however, “was too wise to be obstinate.” In 1879 he decided to form an alliance with his opponent. Visits to the half-paralyzed “good gray poet” in Philadelphia turned into friendship and frequent meetings. The two also managed to convince each other of their, often extremely different, arguments. Despite appearances, Whitman and Longfellow had much in common. Admittedly, “there was much that divided them, but one thing they had in common: they were both good men, distinguishing – each in his own way – the noble in heart from the mean, the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the bad.
The poet”s seventieth birthday in 1877 became an occasion of national happenstance for the American people. Although he continued to travel extensively throughout Europe, Longfellow grew tired of the honors he received, the hardships of travel, and his social life. In his old age, he suffered from peritonitis, which was associated with frequent stomach pains and the need to take opium. This was also the case on the night of March 23-24, 1882, but already in the morning the poet was reported dead. The nation was in mourning that day.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was buried in “America”s first cemetery garden” – Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge. At that time, an appreciative essay, The Death of Longfellow, by Walt Whitman, appeared in print, beginning: “Longfellow rich in color, graceful forms and themes – in all that makes life beautiful and love subtle – going toe-to-toe with the songsters of Europe on their own ground and writing better and more beautifully than any of them.” The author of Sprigs of Grass placed two branches of ivy on the grave of the “brahmin” as a sign of respect and love.
Longfellow”s rich literary legacy boils down to a unified worldview system composed of several overarching themes, the most important of which are:
In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”s view, the overarching purpose of poetry was to practice conscientiousness and trust in God and to sustain faith in Him – especially in moments of doubt. This was manifested in the visual art of contrasting poetic images, such as a sea storm and a gathering at a feasting table. Longfellow, undoubtedly a traditionalist, preached the cult of the hearth and family life in accordance with the principles of the Gospel, the need for inner peace and harmony in the midst of adversity, and a deep understanding of nature. The moralistic mission of his poems was confirmed by their simple, clear form, which was supposed to appeal to ordinary people. Longfellow was therefore the first American poet to be read both in elite drawing rooms and in rural homes. Not only that, but Walt Whitman gave him the worthy title of “universal poet,” with equally happy results bringing beauty to men, women, and youth alike.
The attitude consistently espoused in the “brahmin” poems finds its source in two passages in the New Testament: “You shall know them by their fruits” and – “Everyone, therefore, who listens to these words of mine and fulfills them, may be compared to a prudent man who built his house on a rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, the winds blew and struck the house. But it did not fall, for it was firmly established on a rock. It is clearly visible in the poet”s first, legendary from the moment of its publication, poem – Psalm of Life, it is also visible in the posthumously published In the Harbour and in every other Longfellow”s collection, regardless of the date of publication, as if in spite of the tragic events that affected the author in his personal life.
Longfellow broke with the Puritan doctrine of original sin as the only truth about man. In his view, the fundamental and most profound human trait is the pursuit of goodness and love, given by God from the very beginning of man”s creation, which must be “beaten with a hard hammer” during the course of life. For it is not only the intention that is important, but above all its fruits: the good done to others and sacrifice. An equally important role in Longfellow”s work is played by the ever-creative present, opposed to all forms of despair. He put on a pedestal ordinary people, blacksmiths or builders, who, however, were shining examples of sacrifice, devotion to work and nobility. Resigning at the same time from rich psychological profiles or even from the principles of realism, he proposed rather exemplary, almost hagiographic models of piety, simplicity, hospitality and spiritual vigor.
Walt Whitman wrote of Longfellow”s poetry, “He neither urges nor flogs. His influence is like a good drink or like air. Neither is lukewarm, but always vital, full of flavor, movement and grace. It strikes an exquisite mediocrity, it does not care for exceptional passions or the excesses of human nature. He is not revolutionary, he brings nothing forward or new, he does not deliver hard blows. On the contrary, his songs soothe and heal, and if they excite, it is a healthy and pleasant excitement. Even his anger is gentle…”
Particularly important monuments of American culture are Longfellow”s three classical epics (Evangeline, Song of Hiawatha, and The Courtship of Miles Standish), the first two of which gained the status of national epics. They were at the same time the first works that satisfied the need of the fledgling culture of the United States for great works of literature – equal to the greatest pillars of the old continent, i.e. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri or the works of William Shakespeare – which could at the same time define the noblest values and national identity of Americans. Two epics, Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish, turn to the pioneer history of the United States, including the deportation of the Acadians and the arrival of the sailing ship “Mayflower” to the coast of North America.
One of Longfellow”s last major works was a three-part (because it was divided according to the three theological virtues) dramatic poem on the life of Jesus Christ and the famous burning of witches in Salem, Christus. A Mystery. The second was a poetic casket novel considered the most national of the poet”s works, Tales from the Wayside Inn. The work became the most perfect manifestation of Longfellow”s outstanding gift for narration; it is also considered by many in contemporary literary criticism to be the greatest (though not the most popular) literary achievement of the “Brahmin” and his most contemporary work. Juliusz Żuławski wrote about this work: “Longfellow perhaps reveals his romanticism and tenderness for European literature the most in Tales from a Roadside Inn. And at the same time we find there the key to understanding the American mentality in which he himself is completely immersed”. The most famous passage in the poem is the story of Paul Revere, an American patriot and member of the American Revolution, the great national pride of the United States. “And immediately following is the Student”s story of Sera Federico”s falcon from the Arno River. Then a Spanish Jew tells the legend of Rabbi Ben Lewi. Then a Sicilian about King Robert. Then a Musician the Scandinavian saga of King Olaf. Then a Theologian tells of Torquemada. And so on. That”s the whole Longfellow!”
Traces of foreign literature
Throughout his entire creative life, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow consciously (though some claim this was due to an excess of “scientific” writing or a lack of talent and writing temperament) tended toward poetic regression. This means that, avoiding any novelty of style and content, he tended to perpetuate forms already present in the literature of past millennia, sometimes already considered archaic. Evangeline”s ambition was to be a noble mediator between the tradition of Europe (the roots of “Americanness”) and the ideals of the United States (“Americanness”). As a result, his entire oeuvre is imbued with models already found in European literature: this applies not only to poems set in the atmosphere of medieval legends or sacred monuments of the Renaissance, but also to those that take the nineteenth-century United States as their time and space. Some of the works of the “brahmin” drew directly from specific works of classical literature.
As complex and multi-layered as Longfellow”s life is the reception of his work. It has been a “river subject” for literary criticism for the last two centuries, giving rise to ever new debates. Recently, there has even been a monumental monograph on the poet by Charles C. Calhoun, Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, which is an attempt to refresh and unmake his figure.
During his lifetime Longfellow”s popularity and renown, both in the United States and Europe, were immense; he was considered the first American poet of world renown, and internationally he could only be matched by Alfred Tennyson. The popularity of “Brahmin” grew even more with the advent of the Victorian era in English literature, an era that particularly valued his subdued style of lyrical expression and melancholy-sentimental mood. Critical voices were few at the time: they belonged primarily to Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe (perhaps the fiercest and most virulent of the “Brahmin” critics), and Margaret Fuller. In all cases, however, the charges against Longfellow”s poetry were toned down by an appreciation of the “refined grace” and “taste for beauty” present in it. It is well known that also the friend of the “brahmin”, Ralph Waldo Emerson, did not count it among the top achievements in American poetry. This seems most understandable, given the philosopher”s aversion to tradition and desire for worldview revolutions, who wrote: “Why should we not have poetry based on intuition rather than tradition, or religion revealed to ourselves rather than history taken over from our fathers?”
Longfellow”s poetic work also gave him considerable fame and recognition among prominent figures in 19th century history. “When this excerpt was read to Abraham Lincoln, tears stood in the eyes of the brave patriot and he pronounced with emotion: What a great gift is bestowed upon a man, a poet, who can so deeply move our hearts!” Queen Victoria herself expressed her wish to receive the “Brahmin” in an audience at Windsor. “In courteous conversation with the poet she was astonished at the great attentiveness of her entourage, who showed a more sincere and profound interest towards Longfellow than at receptions of crowned heads. Her astonishment was further increased when she heard those present after the poet”s departure in conversation with her begin to recite Longfellow”s most popular works.” He was then colloquially called “the Brahmin of the United States.”
In spite of rather reluctant or even sometimes critical opinions about Longfellow”s originality and artistic heights, he has always figured as the “king of American poetry.” He undoubtedly constitutes the most myth-making poet of the United States today, the one who has made the greatest contribution to native literature; impressive, moreover, was his great educational, didactic, and translational plan to not only renew native literature on the basis of tradition, but also to deepen philological knowledge and culture so that it would count on the international stage. “I would have to think long if I were asked to name a man who has done more for America and in a more important direction,” Walt Whitman wrote. “Bramin,” along with several other members of the Fireside Poets, furthermore, gave an unusually rich contribution to school reading material, so in time the group came to be known simply as the Schoolroom Poets. Indeed, Longfellow”s message became so engrained in the atmosphere of school interpretation that it began to be seen as banal and cheap moralism. The 20th century thus began to treat him with far-reaching leniency, considering him a “children”s poet” rather than a serious author who could provide much important reflection. Others reduced Longfellow”s significance to that of a literary intermediary, an Agamemnon of sorts, an author who laid the (admittedly momentous) foundations for the fledgling culture of the United States, but who is no longer worth bothering with, especially since America has produced truly innovative geniuses like Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe. Whatever the attitude of younger generations, however, “Longfellow has retained to this day the admiration and love in the hearts of millions of American citizens.” Moreover, there is no doubt that “he has remained still the most popular national poet of the broad masses of the American people.”
Longfellow, as a self-directed regressive author and influenced by the classics of European literature, made no mark on subsequent generations of poets, and the inspiration for his work was limited to the Fireside Poets. Nevertheless, according to contemporary literary critics, Longfellow”s style of poetry directly influenced modern prose, including such important writers of the era as: Herman Melville, Joaquin Miller, Jack London, and even, for many years, Walt Whitman, who was hostile to the “Brahmin.”
As one of the flagship figures of American literature as well as American folklore, Longfellow has inspired many artists in the folk and country music scene. Among the most famous is the ballad by the Canadian group The Band, Acadian Driftwood, the content of which is an expansion of the introduction to Gospel. The same was with the song by Emmylou Harris entitled Evangeline. Neil Diamond also reached for the poet”s work in 1974, recording his album Longfellow Serenade. There are also many significant similarities between Leonard Cohen”s song Tower of Song and Longfellow”s poem Mezzo Cammin.
The lyrics on Mike Oldfield”s Incantations album (the song “Part Two”) are taken from chapters XXII and XII (in that order) from the epic The Song of Hiawatha.
Longfellow”s fame reached Poland relatively quickly, already in the 1950s. Of particular interest at the time were such poems as: a kind of American answer to Friedrich Schiller”s Ode to Joy and Mickiewicz”s Ode to Youth – Psalm of Life; and Excelsior, an allegory of consistent adherence to a once-agreed resolution, which hit at the insurrectionary ideals of the second generation of Polish Romantics. From then until the present day, Longfellow was translated by Adam Asnyk, Antoni Lange, Julian Tuwim, Zygmunt Kubiak and Juliusz Żuławski, among others.
The distinguished poet dedicated a poem to General Casimir Pulaski, “Hymn Of The Moravian Nuns Of Bethlehem At The Consecration Of Pulaski”s Banner” (1854).
Translations of foreign literature