HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
( 1807 - 1882 )
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine--then still part of Massachusetts--on February 27, 1807, the second son in a family of eight children. His mother, Zilpah Wadsworth, was the daughter of a Revolutionary War hero. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a prominent Portland lawyer and later a member of Congress. Henry was a dreamy boy who loved to read. He heard sailors speaking Spanish, French and German in the Portland streets and liked stories set in foreign places: The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and the plays of Shakespeare.
After graduating from Bowdoin College, Longfellow studied modern languages in Europe for three years, then returned to Bowdoin to teach them. In 1831 he married Mary Storer Potter of Portland, a former classmate, and soon published his first book, a description of his travels called Outre Mer ("Overseas"). But in November 1835, during a second trip to Europe, Longfellow's life was shaken when his wife died of a miscarriage. The young teacher spent a grief-stricken year in Germany and Switzerland.
Longfellow took a position at Harvard in 1836. Three years later, at the age of 32, he published his first collection of poems, Voices of the Night, followed in 1841 by Ballads and Other Poems. Many of these poems ("A Psalm of Life," for example) showed people triumphing over adversity, and in a struggling young nation that theme was inspiring. Both books were very popular, but Longfellow's growing duties as a professor left him little time to write more. In addition, Frances Appleton, a young woman from Boston, had refused his proposal of marriage, but later accepted.
A few months after the war began in 1861, Frances Longfellow was sealing an envelope with wax when her dress caught fire. Despite her husband's desperate attempts to save her, she died the next day. Profoundly saddened, Longfellow published nothing for the next two years. He found comfort in his family and in reading Dante's Divine Comedy. (Later he produced its first American translation.) Tales of a Wayside Inn, largely written before his wife's death, was published in 1863.
From 1866 to 1880 Longfellow published 7 more books of poetry, and his 75th birthday in 1882 was celebrated across the country. But his health was failing, and he died the following month, on March 24.