Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems Background

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems Background

With a life stretching from 1807 to 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the quintessential 19th century American. Maturing too late to belong to the 1700’s and dying too early to be influenced by the transformative changes of the turn of 20th century, Wadsworth is to American literature of the 1800’s what Charles Dickens was to Victorian literature. Born in New England of a Puritan background, Longfellow seems almost to have been born specifically for the purpose of using poetry to help create the myth of America when sincerity, hope and potential were not just possible, but demanded while also destined to fall from grace with the arrival of postmodern ironic historical revision of the 20th century. While authors like Whitman, Dickinson and Melville struggled to find success or even acceptance, Longfellow had already become such an icon of American poetry that even in London, 10,000 copies of The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems fly off the shelves in just one day.

For much of his life, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the Stephen King of poetry. He poetry collections outsold most novels and he even managed to outsell the British Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson in England. To mark the occasion of Longfellow’s 75th birthday, a national day of celebration was set aside for Americans to honor the literary lion whose narrative poems about Hiawatha, Mile Standish, Evangeline and Paul Revere were an essential in their way in constructing American mythology as the Leatherstocking Tales novel series of James Fenimore Cooper or the short stories of Washington Irving. During his lifetime, Longfellow enjoyed the rare distinction of hitting the daily double: he was not just commercially popular, but was so critically respected that he became the first American poet to receive the prestigious recognition of being honored with a bust Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

The fame would last well into the 20th century as musical rhythms and easy rhymes of his verse were memorized by millions of American schoolchildren. By mid-century, Longfellow was no longer even part of the curricula of most colleges and more often than not was never encountered again by students after elementary school. Charges of sentimentality, a noted lack of experimentation with form and a generalized disdain toward poets who relied heavily on rhyme resulted in Longfellow at last being forced to make way for those other chroniclers of American whose greater experimentation found disdain during their own age: Whitman, Dickinson and Melville—among others—became the beneficiary of the changes in taste which perhaps unfairly diminished the reputation of a poet far too enjoyable to read to deserve such fall from grace.

Significant Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

A Psalm of Life” 1838

“The Wreck of the Hesperus” 1840

“Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” 1845-1847

“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” 1852

“The Song of Hiawatha” 1855

“The Courtship of Miles Standish” 1858

“The Children’s Hour” 1860

“Paul Revere’s Ride” 1861

Christmas Bells” 1863

Tales of a Wayside Inn 1863-1873

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