Widely admired by his contemporaries, Longfellow achieved a degree of popularity in his day that no other American poet before or since has matched. His nostalgic, inspirational verse was embraced by Americans and Europeans enduring an era of rapid social change. Shortly after his death, however, his reputation suffered a serious decline. Although the debate over his literary stature continues, Longfellow is widely credited with having been instrumental in introducing European culture to the American readers of his day. Moreover, he simultaneously popularized American folk themes abroad, where his works enjoyed an immense readership.
Longfellow was born February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, to Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer and member of the Eighteenth Congress of the United States, and Zilpah Wadsworth, whose ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. In 1822 he enrolled in the newly formed Bowdoin College, of which his father was a trustee. Despite his father's wish that he study law, Longfellow preferred a literary career and began publishing poems in numerous newspapers and periodicals. Before graduation, he took an extended trip to Europe; this journey greatly influenced his future work, evidenced in a unique blend of both American and foreign elements in his later writings. After three years in Europe, he returned as a professor to Bowdoin and soon published Outre-mer; a Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, a book of travel sketches modeled on Washington Irving's Sketch Book. Longfellow later accepted a position at Harvard as the Smith Professor of Modern Languages, a post he held for eighteen years. During this time he again traveled to Europe and discovered the works of the German Romantic poets. He subsequently incorporated much of their artistic philosophy into his work. After returning and settling in Cambridge, he developed lasting friendships with such American literary figures as Charles Sumner, Washington Allston, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Devoting himself to scholarly pursuits as well as to poetry, Longfellow published textbooks, literary essays, and numerous translations of European poets. He died in 1882.
Voices of the Night, illustrates his view that poetry should be "an instrument for improving the condition of society, and advancing the great purpose of human happiness." Voices is distinguished by his "Psalm of Life" and "Light of the Stars," popular inspirational pieces characterized by simple truths and maxims. The poems in this and such subsequent early collections as Ballads and Other Poems and The Seaside and the Fireside generally conclude with didactic or romanticized expressions of the poet's religious faith, balancing or, according to many critics, at times awkwardly undermining the nostalgic melancholic reflections on life's transience that inform many of his finest poems.
The longer narrative works for which Longfellow is best remembered, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, The Song of Hiawatha, and Tales of a Wayside Inn, address American themes and subjects, often providing vivid descriptions of the American landscape that appealed greatly to readers worldwide. Evangeline, written in classical dactylic hexameter and praised for both its lyrical grace and poignant storyline, relates the tale of two lovers separated during the French and Indian War. After touring America futilely in search of her exiled bridegroom, the eponymous heroine is reunited with him momentarily at his hospital deathbed. The Song of Hiawatha, praised upon publication as the great American epic, grafts source material from Native American mythology onto the meter and plot structure of the Finnish folk epic Kalevala. Tales of a Wayside Inn, a series of narrative poems reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, is perhaps the best example of Longfellow's versatility and mastery of the narrative form. The poems comprising this work, including one of Longfellow's most famous, "Paul Revere's Ride," are highly regarded for their plots, characterizations, and intimate atmosphere. In addition to these narrative poems, Longfellow published what he considered his masterpiece: a trilogy of dramatic poems, The Golden Legend, The New England Tragedies, and The Divine Tragedy, entitled Christus: A Mystery. This work treats the subject of Christianity from its beginnings through the Middle Ages to the time of the American Puritans. While acknowledging that these works contain some beautiful and effective writing, critics generally agree that Longfellow's creative gift was poetic rather than dramatic, and that the scope of this particular work was beyond his range.
During his lifetime, Longfellow was immensely popular and widely admired. He was the first American poet to gain a favorable international reputation, and his poetry was praised abroad by such eminent authors as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alfred Tennyson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. In 1884, two years after his death, his bust was unveiled in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, making him the first American to be so honored. In the decades that followed, however, the idealism and sentimentality that characterize much of his verse fell out of favor with younger poets and critics who were beginning to embrace realism and naturalism. Longfellow's literary reputation further declined in the twentieth century with the advent of Modernism. Reviled as superficial and didactic, his poetry was largely dismissed and received little further critical attention. Some recent commentators, however, have found much to admire in Longfellow. He is often praised for his technical skill, particularly as demonstrated in his short lyrics and sonnets. He also continues to be regarded as a pioneer in adapting European literary traditions to American themes and subjects.
BY THE AUTHOR:Poetry
- Voices of the Night 1839
- Ballads and Other Poems 1842
- The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems 1846
- Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (narrative poetry) 1847
- The Seaside and the Fireside 1850
- *The Golden Legend (dramatic poetry) 1851
- The Song of Hiawatha (narrative poetry) 1855
- The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems 1858
- Tales of a Wayside Inn (narrative poetry) 1863
- *The New England Tragedies (dramatic poetry) 1868
- *The Divine Tragedy (dramatic poetry) 1871
- Kéramos and Other Poems 1878
- Ultima Thule 1880
- In the Harbor: Ultima Thule, Part II 1882
- Michael Angelo (narrative poetry) 1883
- The Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 11 vols. (poetry, dramas, novels, travel sketches, and translations) 1886
- Outre-mer; a Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. 2 vols. (travel sketches) 1833-34
- Hyperion (novel) 1839
- The Spanish Student (verse drama) 1843
- Kavanagh (novel) 1849
- The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri 3 vols. [translator] (poetry) 1865-67
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rust, Richard Dilworth. "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow." In Fifteen American Authors Before 1900: Bibliographic Essays on Research and Criticism, edited by Robert A. Rees and Earl N. Harbert, pp. 263-84. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.
Primary and secondary bibliography.
Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962, 338 p.
Biography containing detailed analyses of Longfellow's poems.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1902, 336 p.
A detailed account of Longfellow's personal and professional life, featuring numerous excerpts from correspondence and valuable information concerning early critical evaluation of his works.
Howells, W. D. "The White Mr. Longfellow." In his Literary Friends and Acquaintance: A Personal Retrospect of American Authorship, pp. 178-211. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900.
Reminiscences of Howell's friendship with Longfellow.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Longfellow: A Full-Length Portrait. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955, 370 p.
A well-researched biography concentrating on Longfellow's inner life, social relationships, and the details of his career as a scholar, professor, and man of letters.
Allen, Gay Wilson. "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow." In his American Prosody, pp. 154-92. New York: American Book Co., 1935.
A detailed examination of Longfellow's stanzaic devices and metrical forms.
Bowen, Edwin W. "Longfellow Twenty Years After." The Sewanee Review XIII, No. 1 (January 1905): 165-76.
Reviews Longfellow's stature as a literary figure, finding that while he "does not deserve to rank with the world's great poets," his poetry "has more in it that appeals to the human heart than does the poetry of any of his American contemporaries."
Davidson, Gustav. "Longfellow's Angels." Prairie Schooner XLII, No. 3 (Fall 1968): 235-43.
Explores the representation of angels in Longfellow's work.
Fletcher, Angus. "Whitman and Longfellow: Two Types of the American Poet." Raritan 10, No. 4 (Spring 1991): 131-45.
Compares Longfellow and Whitman, concluding that "theses two paths in the wilderness are in fact different ways of reaching the same goals."
Franklin, Phyllis. "The Importance of Time in Longfellow's Works." Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 58 (1970): 14-22.
Examines Longfellow's interpretation of the past and its effect on progress, concluding that "like many others in the nineteenth century, Longfellow did not conceive of the present as an absolute and isolated point in time. He could not look at the present without, at the same time, seeing the past and considering the future."
Frothingham, O. B. "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow." Atlantic Quarterly XLIX, No. CCXCVI (June 1882): 819-29.
A general overview of Longfellow's career, defending his reputation as an important American poet.
Gohdes, Clarence. "Longfellow." In his American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, pp. 99-126. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.
Discusses the reception of Longfellow's poetry in England.
Gorman, Herbert S. A Victorian American: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1926, 363 p.
Views Longfellow in the context of the era in which he lived, calling the poet "our great Victorian." Gorman argues that "Longfellow, without being quite conscious of it, was as much English as he was American."
Long, Orie William. "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow." In his Literary Pioneers: Early American Explorers of European Culture, pp. 159-98. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935.
Evaluates the influence of European writers, particularly Goethe, on Longfellow's art and thought.
Millward, Celia, and Tichi, Cecelia. "Whatever Happened to Hiawatha?" Genre VI, No. 3 (September 1973): 313-32.
Examines the metric and poetic devices used in The Song of Hiawatha and also discusses its relationship to other epic-heroic poetry.
More, Paul Elmer. "The Centenary of Longfellow" In his Shelburne Essays on American Literature, edited by Daniel Aaron, pp. 136-54. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1963.
Discusses the contrast between Longfellow's popular appeal and his critical reception, noting both the accessibility and the lack of originality of his work.
Moyne, Ernest J. "Hiawatha" and "Kalevala." Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1962, 146 p.
Analyzes the relationship between The Song of Hiawatha and Kalevala, the Finnish epic that influenced both the form and content of Longfellow's poem.
Ullmann, S. "Composite Metaphors in Longfellow's Poetry." Review of English Studies 18, No. 70 (April 1942): 219-28.
Analyzes elements of synaesthesia, "the metaphoric mingling of the various spheres of sensations," in Longfellow's verse.
Ward, Robert Stafford. "Longfellow's Roots in Yankee Soil." The New England Quarterly 41 (June 1968): 180-92.
Examines the New England heritage of Longfellow's verse.
Wells, Henry W. "Cambridge Culture and Folk Poetry." In his The American Way of Poetry, pp. 44-55. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.
Describes Longfellow as "an ideal spokesman for the spirit of romantic sentiment pervading almost all social classes in Northern Europe and North America," but nonetheless finds his poetry derivative and lacking in feeling.
Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New Haven, Conn.: College & University Press, 1964, 221 p.
Critical and biographical study of Longfellow.
Zimmerman, Michael. "War and Peace: Longfellow's 'The Occultation of Orion.'" American Literature XXXVIII, No. 4 (January 1967): 540-46.
Offers a stylistic analysis of Longfellow's poem.