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The Life and Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Updated on May 9, 2012
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In 1858, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the epic poem The Courtship of Miles Standish telling the story of the courtship and marriage of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. These Mayflower pilgrims were ancestors of his, and from their simple beginnings they could not have foreseen the great impact that their descendants would have on the shaping of America, with at least three presidents numbered among them. However, they are best remembered because of one of their most forgotten grandchildren, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow's boyhood home, built in 1785
Longfellow's boyhood home, built in 1785

Early Years

He was born on February 27, 1807 to Stephen and Zilpah Longfellow in what was then the district of Maine in the state of Massachusetts. There were some prestigious relatives, including war heroes and generals, clerks, state representatives, and congressmen, but nothing hinted at a poetic talent in the family.

A local dame school was the beginnings of his education and by the age of six he could read and write well. He was enrolled at the Portland Academy and attended there until he turned fourteen when he was accepted at Bowdoin College, a small university that had been in existence for only twenty years. When he began studying there at fifteen his class of forty-five students included notables such as Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would eventually become a close friend. In 1825 he graduated third in his class.

As a Young Man

During his last year of college he began to consider a future career. Family tradition and his father's wishes indicated that his future was in the law, but Henry longed for a career in literature. However, the American economy and culture couldn't support someone who was solely devoted to the arts, so an offer for the professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin was an excellent avenue for Henry to pursue. Accepting the position required several years of linguistic study in Europe which the Longfellows were required to pay for. His father agreed to send him to master as many languages as he could on a tour that ended up lasting three years and two months.

The tour began in France, then on to Italy, Spain, and then Germany. However, soon after arriving in Germany he heard from his family that his sister Elizabeth's health was failing. Plans for his return began, but she died of consumption two months before he arrived back in the States.

Upon his return home he took up his professorship at Bowdoin, learning as he went what the position required. It was a new post in American colleges, and between teaching students he spent a great deal of time translating foreign works and updating old textbooks. The work was harder than he had expected

Mary Storer Potter
Mary Storer Potter
Longfellow as a young man
Longfellow as a young man

First Marriage

There was one great benefit to having work. With his salary of $800 a year he was able to support a wife, and on September 14, 1831, he married Mary Storer Potter. Details about their courtship and marriage were lost when Henry destroyed all of their correspondence after her death just four years later in 1835. She was said to be a pretty nineteen year old with a kind, affectionate disposition.

After the wedding the couple moved to Brunswick, a short distance from Bowdoin where Henry's discontentment was growing. In 1834 Josiah Quincy, the president of Harvard, offered him the position of professor of modern languages, which Henry accepted and agreed to spend another year in Europe. He and Mary departed in April of '35, visiting London and then Sweden when Mary discovered that she was pregnant. This complicated the rest of their travels through Scandinavia considerably, and when they arrived in Amsterdam in October she miscarried the baby. Loss of blood weakened her, and on November 29th she passed away, leaving her husband struggling with grief and guilt.

Life at Harvard and First Collection of Poems

On July 17 he returned to Americato take up his position at Harvard. He found the teaching there to be more enjoyable than at Bowdoin, but even more enjoyed putting together a new collection of poems to be printed in 1839.

This compilation called Voices of the Night contained poems written over the years, and in it was some of Longfellow's most famous and enduring poetry including the famous 'Psalm of Life.' It became extremely popular with both readers and critics and established him as America's first major poet.

This was a desperately lonely time, and his attentions to a Miss Fanny Applegate were given no returns. He had me the Applegate family in Germany, but even though Henry pursued her relentlessly she didn't return his interest. But his work as an author kept him busy and somewhat distracted. Hyperion, a novel, was written in 1839, and his second collection, Ballads and Other Poems was published in 1842. Later the same year it was followed by Poems on Slavery, his first attempt at a political piece.

Second Marriage

In May of 1843, Fanny Applegate had a change of heart and agreed to become Henry's wife seven years after they had met and he had begun to pursue her. As a wedding present, her father bought the Craigie house, famous because it had been George Washington's headquarters during the summer of 1775. They began to make their home something of a memorial Washington, and it stays as such today. The Longfellows had six children altogether, five of whom lived to adulthood.

Even with all of the busyness of family life and his duties at the college, Longfellow continued to write with works during this time including his first play, The Spanish Student, and the compilations The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems andThe Waif. 1845 saw the publication of his first collection of translations and began work seriously on his first epic poem, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, which brought him incredible popularity and acclaim, even in Europe. Yet another book, The Seaside and the Fireside enabled him to support his family with his poetry and give up the position at Harvard. The 1850s were the happiest years of his life, seeing much of his best work. His success, both professionally and personally, made him a very contented man, and he could wish for no more.

But in 1861, tragedy struck and Henry never completely recovered from it. On July 9 Fanny was cutting her daughter Edith's hair when her dress caught on fire. She ran into her husbands study for help and he attempted to put the flames out, but it was too late. Fanny was badly burned everywhere except her face and she died the next morning. Longfellow himself was badly burned and couldn't attend the funeral, held on their eighteenth wedding anniversary, July 13, 1861.

The Longfellow family on their European tour
The Longfellow family on their European tour

Later Works

The domestic tragedy was not the only cloud on his horizon-- his nation was embroiled in a civil war and his son Charley joined the army against his father's wishes. To try to forget his grief Henry began work on his Tales of a Wayside Inn which was published two years later. He also began to write several historical dramas called The New England Tragedies and again took up a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy which was successfully published in 1867.

A final tour in Europe with his family brought many accolades including honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, a visit with the Queen of England and meetings with Franz Liszt and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was also a time to remember and revisit the places he had first seen as a young man that had influenced his life and work in so many ways.

Death and Legacy

In spite of suffering from poor health for years, Longfellow continued writing his poetry in the years leading up to his death on March 24, 1882. The cause of death given was peronitis, but it now believed that he suffered from stomach cancer. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery with both Mary and Frances.

His fame was so great, and his art so loved, that he was the first American poet to be given a place among the busts at Poet's corner in Westminster Abbey. The inscription reads "Longfellow. This bust was placed amongst the memorials of the poets of England by the English admirers of an American poet." Though his work was discredited and largely forgotten in the modernist movement, his poetry stands as the legacy of America's first great poet.


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    • collegatariat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks PDXKaraokeGuy! Most of this research was actually done during my junior year of high school, and it was fun and educational to revisit.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 

      6 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Very nice. I've heard an dread longfellow for years but never knew much about him. Well done and well researched. Up and shared!

    • collegatariat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks Jamie! I appreciate your taking the time to read it.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      6 years ago from Reno NV

      Enjoyable read about one of the greats of American Poetry. Jamie


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