Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807–82, American poet, b. Portland, Maine, grad. Bowdoin College, 1825. He wrote some of the most popular poems in American literature, in which he created a new body of romantic American legends. Descended from an established New England family, after college he spent the next three years in Europe, preparing himself for a professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin, where he taught from 1829 to 1835. After the death of his young wife in 1835, Longfellow traveled again to Europe, where he met Frances Appleton, who was to become his second wife after a long courtship. She was the model for the heroine of his prose romance, Hyperion (1839). From 1836 to 1854, Longfellow was professor of modern languages at Harvard, and during these years he became one of an intellectual triumvirate that included Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell. Although a sympathetic and ethical person, Longfellow was uninvolved in the compelling religious and social issues of his time; he did, however, display interest in the abolitionist cause. He achieved great fame with long narrative poems such as Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), which included "Paul Revere's Ride." In all of these works he used unusual, "antique" rhythms to weave myths of the American past. His best-known shorter poems include "The Village Blacksmith," "Excelsior," "The Wreck of the Hesperus," "A Psalm of Life," and "A Cross of Snow." Although he was highly praised and successful in his lifetime, Longfellow's literary reputation has declined in the 20th cent. His unorthodox meters, while contributing to the unique effects of his poems, have been much parodied, and many critics have viewed harshly his simple, sentimental, often moralizing verse. Longfellow made a poetic translation of Dante's Divine Comedy (1867), for which he wrote a sequence of six outstanding sonnets. After his death, he was the first American whose bust was placed in the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

See his letters (ed. by A. Hilen, 4 vol., 1967–72); biographies by his brother, Samuel (3 vol., 1891; repr. 1969), T. W. Higginson (1902, repr. 1973), and N. Arvin (1963); studies by C. B. Williams (1964) and E. C. Wagenknecht (1986).

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