Biography of Henry Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was America’s first truly national poet. Beloved in his day, his poetry still holds an important place in the canon of American romanticism and transcendentalism (although he did not identify as a member of the latter); he has been lauded for the natural rhythm and simplicity of his verse. Matthew Gartner writes that Longfellow "always wrote with his audience in mind, paternally consoling and uplifting them in lyrics, ballads, odes, sonnets, verse dramas, and the long narrative poems whose characters became hallmarks of American culture: Evangeline, Hiawatha, the Puritan maiden Priscilla, the midnight-riding Paul Revere. The essential note of his poetry, its sweet and settling mildness, its serene reassurance, was perfectly modulated to appeal to the reading public. This was socially responsible poetry, poetry with purpose, whose often explicit message urged such virtues as patience, resignation, and hard work. Given these themes, it seems fitting that as a poetical craftsman he was not boldly original or radically experimental, as were his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson."

Born on February 27th, 1807 in Portland, Maine (part of Massachusetts at the time), Longfellow could trace his descent back to the Mayflower pilgrims, and his grandfather was a Revolutionary War general. As a young man he learned many languages as well as the piano and the flute. He attended Portland Academy and matriculated at Bowdoin College when he was fourteen years old. He graduated in 1825, and the administration at Bowdoin offered him a chair in the modern languages department provided he first spent time studying in Europe.

In Europe Longfellow studied and quickly mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and some German. He returned to Bowdoin and served as professor of modern languages for five years. He married Mary Potter in 1831 and traveled with her to Europe in 1835. This time he studied Scandinavian and Dutch languages. Tragedy struck while abroad when Mary died due to complications from a miscarriage.

Longfellow took up a position at Harvard University when he returned in 1837. He remained a professor in the modern languages department for eighteen years. His first collection of poetry, Voices of the Night, was published in 1836. While teaching and writing in Cambridge, Longfellow moved into the Craigie House, the former dwelling of George Washington.

In 1842 Longfellow returned to England and Germany; there he wrote Poems on Slavery. He married Fanny Appleton in 1843.

By 1854 Longfellow had decided to leave Harvard to focus on his writing. Tragedy struck again when Fanny died due to her dress accidentally catching fire when she was sealing packages of her daughter’s curls. Longfellow was distraught and returned to Europe in 1867. Oxford and Cambridge bestowed honorary degrees upon him and he was selected as a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of the Spanish Academy.

Longfellow’s most famous works were published in the 1850s and 1860s. These include Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863). He completed a famous translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy in 1867.

In 1872 the Cambridge chestnut tree featured in “A Village Blacksmith” was cut down, so children collected pennies to have it made into a chair that was presented to Longfellow on his 72nd birthday. Longfellow wrote until his death from peritonitis on March 24th, 1882. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts; he was the first American poet to have a bust placed in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Study Guides on Works by Henry Longfellow

The poem was written in 1859 and first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860. It was later included in the collection Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863). Longfellow wrote the poem a few years after resigning from his professorship at Harvard to...

"Christmas Bells" is both an occasional poem written during the Civil War, and a general message about having hope during times of despair. Longfellow wrote it on December 25th, 1863; it was published in a juvenile magazine in 1865 and included in...

Longfellow wrote "The Day is Done" in 1844 and included it as the proem to his anthology The Waif, a selection of sentimental poems mostly about nature that came out at the end of 1844. Some of the poets included were Percy Shelley, Robert...

Evangeline is one of Longfellow’s most famous works, and with The Song of Hiawatha, one of his longest. Critics designate this poem as the one that secured his literary preeminence.

The provenance of the poem is an interesting one. On April 5th,...

“Paul Revere’s Ride” is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most famous poem and certainly one of the most famous poems in American literature. Revered in its time and loved by schoolchildren today, it has suffered from critical dismissal and...

"A Psalm of Life" was first published in The Knickerbocker, attributed only to "L." It was then included in Voices of the Night, published in 1838 not long after Longfellow took on the position of Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard...