Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth,

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.

Bibliography

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).

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth

 

Born Feb. 27, 1807, in Portland, Me.; died Mar. 24, 1882, in Cambridge, Mass. American poet. Son of a lawyer.

Longfellow graduated from Bowdoin College and completed his education in Europe (1826-29). He was a professor of literature at Harvard University (1836-54).

Longfellow published his first verses in 1820. His poetry collections included Voices of the Night (1839), Poems on Slavery (1842; Russian translation by M. L. Mikhailov, 1861), and Birds of Killingworth (1858). His translations of the works of European poets (1846) played a great role in American cultural life. He also wrote the novels Hyperion (1838) and Kavanaugh (1849) and a book of travel sketches, Outre-Mer (1835).

Longfellow juxtaposed the world of nature to the confining pragmatism of the bourgeoisie. He praised patriarchal mores and idealized America’s past and the life of its native Indians. Even his early verses were dedicated to the Indians’ struggle for independence. Longfellow saw the sources of American national culture in their legends and traditions.

As a humanist, Longfellow was appalled by the extermination of the Indians and by Negro slavery. He formed ties with the abolitionist movement in the 1840’s but made no direct call to action. Turning to his country’s past, he created epic works about the life of America’s early settlers, establishing the hexameter in American poetry (in the narrative poems Evangeline, 1847, and The Courtship of Miles Standish, 1858).

Longfellow based The Song of Hiawatha (1855; Russian translations by D. L. Mikhailovskii, 1868-69, and I. A. Bunin, 1896), which brought him world fame, on Indian folk legends and the Finnish epic Kalevala. Hiawatha combines legends of gods and other mythological beings with historical events; the many stories are unified by a single hero. Hiawatha embodies the best features of the American Indian: courage, incorruptibility, and spiritual strength. But Longfellow, unable to shed his puritanical moralizing, substituted sentimentality for some of the poetry and naive simplicity of the ancient Indian legends.

In Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), Longfellow turned to the story cycle in the manner of Boccaccio and Chaucer with a free and tongue-in-cheek narrative style.

Possessing the skills of a translator and a scholarly interest in philology, literature, and folklore, Longfellow undertook the editorship of the 31-volume publication Poems of Places (1876-79), a collection of nature poetry from poets all over the world. Longfellow’s collection Poems on Slavery was popular in Russian democratic circles, especially in the 1860’s. Russian translators have often turned to his lyric poetry and ballads.

WORKS

The Complete Poetical Works. Boston-New York, 1906.
Poems. London-New York, 1960.
The Letters, vols. 1-4. Cambridge, Mass., 1966-72.
In Russian translation:
Izbrannoe. Moscow, 1958.

REFERENCES

Mikhailov, M. L. “Amerikanskie poety i romanisty.” Sovremennik, 1860, no. 12.
Brooks, V. W. Pisatel’ i amerikanskaia zhizn\ vol. 1. Moscow, 1967. Underwood, F. H. Life of H. W. Longfellow: A Biographical Sketch. New York, 1882.
Smeaton, W. H. O. Longfellow and His Poetry. London, 1919.
Osborn, C. S., and S. Osborn. Hiawatha With Its Original Indian Legends. New York, 1944.
Wagenknecht, E. H. W. Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist. New York, 1966.

M. A. NERSESOVA

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth

(1807–82) poet; born in Portland, Maine. After graduation from Bowdoin College (1825), he studied languages in Europe (1826–29) and became professor and librarian at Bowdoin (1829–35). After further study in Europe, he was appointed Smith Professor of French and Spanish at Harvard (1836–54). A collection of poetry, Voices in the Night (1839), contained the poems "A Psalm Life," "Hymn to the Night," and "The Light of the Stars," which soon became widely known. Ballads and Other Poems (1841), including such immensely popular works as "The Village Blacksmith," "The Wreck of the Hesperus," and "Excelsior," and his longer narrative poems, Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), further served to make him the best-known American poet of the century. His Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863) opens with "Paul Revere's Ride," which has ever since been a national favorite. The widespread knowledge of these works and their inclusion in school curricula throughout the country did much to establish the popular notion of poetry in the U.S.A. well into the 20th century. For spiritual solace after the accidental death of his second wife in 1861, he translated The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1865–67) and produced a series of six sonnets, "Divina Commedia," which are among his finest poems. Although his work later came to be regarded as saccharine and didactic, there is no denying that he long played one of the traditional roles of a poet.