LONGFELLOW, Henry Wadsworth (1807–82). The most popular of American poets. He was born in Portland, Me., Feb. 27, 1807, and was the second son of Stephen Longfellow, a well-to-do lawyer of Portland, and Zilpah Wadsworth. Through his mother’s family Longfellow was descended from John Alden and Priscilla Mullens, whom he made famous in his poem "The Courtship of Miles Standish." His poetic gifts were evident while he was still in his teens. As early as 1820 he had printed verses in the Portland Gazette. In 1825 he was graduated in the same class with Hawthorne from Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Me., after a course marked by studiousness. He was immediately made professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, but was allowed to go to Europe for three years, to fit himself for his profession. In Europe, from 1826 to 1829, his life was passed in hard study in Paris, and in Italy and Spain. He was married in 1831 to Miss Mary Storer Potter, who died in 1835. Aside from a collection of juvenile poems, in 1826, and his translation of a French grammar for use in his classes, in 1830, his first literary work was the translation of the Coplas de Manrique (1833). The same year he published the first part of Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea, and the second part the following year (in book form, 1835), both rather stilted sketches of travel. In 1835 he resigned his chair at Bowdoin and went again to Europe for a year’s study, in preparation for the Smith professorship of modern languages at Harvard, which had been held by George Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature. From 1836 his residence was in Cambridge, where he first occupied and afterward owned the Craigie House, the headquarters of Washington during the operations about Boston in the War of Independence.
In 1838 his well-known "Psalm of Life" appeared in the Knickerbocker Magazine and the following year was published, with other poems, in Voices of the Night. The same year appeared Hyperion, a rather florid romance, the heroine of which was Miss Frances Appleton, of Boston, whom he married in 1843. In 1841 such poems as "The Wreck of the Hesperus," "The Skeleton in Armor," and "The Village Blacksmith," included in the volume Ballads and Other Poems, confirmed his literary reputation and made him perhaps the most widely read of American poets. In 1842 he again went to England and the same year published Poems on Slavery. It is sufficient to indicate the chief titles of his prolific later work: The Spanish Student (1843), a drama of no great merit; The Belfry of Bruges, and Other Poems (1846); Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), a very popular narrative pastoral in hexameter verse; Kavanagh (1849), a romance of better quality than Hyperion; The Seaside and the Fireside (1850), a volume of poems which included "The Building of the Ship"; The Golden Legend (1851); The Song of Hiawatha (1855); The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), a narrative poem in hexameters; Birds of Passage (1858); Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863–73), a volume of narrative poems modeled on the Canterbury Tales; Flower-de-Luce and Other Poems (1867); a translation of the Divine Comedy of Dante (1867–70), in verse; New England Tragedies (1868), two dramas dealing with historical events of early New England; The Divine Tragedy (1871); Three Books of Song (1872); Aftermath (1873); The Hanging of the Crane (1874); The Masque of Pandora (1875); Kéramos and Other Poems (1878); Ultima Thule (1880); In the Harbor (1882); Michael Angelo, the fragment of a drama (1883). He also edited an anthology, the Poets and Poetry of Europe (1843), and Poems of Places (1876–79, in 31 vols.). During this time his private life had been uneventful, except for the loss of his wife, who by a tragic accident was burned to death in 1861. In 1854 he resigned his professorship at Harvard and thenceforward lived quietly in Cambridge until his death, on March 24, 1882.
In appearance Longfellow was of medium stature and had rather pronounced, heavy features, cast in a mold of benignity. Kindliness was one of the chief traits of his character. As a teacher and writer, he was always conscientious and industrious. He numbered among his personal friends the most famous writers and statesmen of New England, as Emerson, Hawthorne, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, and Sumner.
Poems of Longfellow’s such as the "Psalm of Life" and "Excelsior" have gone to the heart of the American public, and ballads such as "The Wreck of the Hesperus," "The Skeleton in Armor," and "The Norman Baron" are on the tongue of many a schoolboy. One secret of his success lies in his rare gifts as a popularizer of ideas and of culture. This office manifests itself in two ways. He has given, in the first place, expression to the general and commonplace emotions of American civilization of the better sort, with its simplicity, its plain aspiration, and its lack of subtlety. Such are his poems on slavery, which express the feeling any humane man might have at the mention of the word, but which, though they served a good purpose in their day, lack the fire and deep emotion of Whittier’s poems upon the same theme. The "Psalm of Life," "The Building of the Ship," and "The Village Blacksmith" are the melodious phrasing of thoughts and feelings dear to the heart of the average man. Akin to these are the large number of poems, of which "Hiawatha," "Evangeline," "The Courtship of Miles Standish," and "Paul Revere’s Ride" may be taken as examples, dealing with American life in a quasi-historical and narrative way.
In the second place, Longfellow did much to open the eyes of Americans to the beauty of European life and to initiate them into European culture. Indeed he may be said to have done as much as any other American to spread the culture of modern literature in his own land. This he did in verse much more widely than by his actual teaching as Smith professor of modern languages. About half of this verse deals directly with scenes, legends, and stories of European civilization. Longfellow sincerely loved beauty and romance wherever it was to be found, and the pleasant sentiment of such poems as "The Belfry of Bruges" or the narratives of the Tales of a Wayside Inn did much to awaken a corresponding glow in the hearts of his countrymen. His service to American scholarship in his translation and annotation of Dante’s Divine Comedy was great.
Longfellow is justly popular as the poet who, above all other poets of his country, has expressed with a varied and finished art the simple, natural, elemental affections and sentiments. He is surpassed by other Americans in various ways, as by Emerson in profundity and subtlety, by Lowell in vigor and wealth of ideas, by Holmes in wit, by Bryant in stateliness, by Poe in sense of form and beauty; but in general artistic sense, in taste, in kindliness, in moral sensitiveness, he stands above the rest. He has been called superficial, his poetry academic, his prose rhetorical, but he is certainly one of the most widely diffused forces in the emotional and spiritual life of Americans, and indeed in all English-speaking countries his verse is well liked. In his narrative poems he possesses a freshness and vigor that deserve high praise, and he is often really inspired when dealing with the sea. The most exacting criticism would cull from his lyric poems a group which are of very high excellence.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIV (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 345-347.