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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), American professor and poet wrote Song of Hiawatha (1855);
"There he sang of Hiawatha,
Sang the Song of Hiawatha,
Sang his wondrous birth and being,
How he prayed and how be fasted,
How he lived, and toiled, and suffered,
That the tribes of men might prosper,
That he might advance his people!"
Ye who love a nation's legends,
Love the ballads of a people,
That like voices from afar off
Call to us to pause and listen,
Speak in tones so plain and childlike,
Scarcely can the ear distinguish
Whether they are sung or spoken;--
Listen to this Indian Legend,
To this Song of Hiawatha!--from the Introduction
Written as a tribute to North American Indians, Longfellow starts his fictional epic poem with the Great Spirit Gitche Manito "the Master of Life" fortelling the coming of a great leader. Hiawatha's deeds of courage and acts of peace with the White Man earn him a legendary place as "Hiawatha the Beloved" among his people. Longfellow's Hiawatha shares the name of the real Mohawk Indian Chief Hiawatha (born c.1400's) who followed De-Ka-Nah-Wi-Da's teachings of peace and was instrumental in the formation of the Iroquois League of Five Nations. Similar to the stories of James Fenimore Cooper including his The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Longfellow drew upon works written at the time about the Indian tribes of North America including Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's (1793-1864) Algic Researches (1839). Sympathetic to the Indians and their way of life, Longfellow blends fact and legend to weave a romantic tale written in the style of the Finnish National Epic poem "Kalevala", written by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884). Hiawatha's marriage to Minnehaha and overly romanticised elements caused some controversy when Song of Hiawatha first appeared. His tone is at-times sentimental and moralising, and he uses unorthodox meters, but it earned him much esteem from his contemporaries. Longfellow enjoyed international acclaim during his lifetime and today Song of Hiawatha is celebrated as his best-known work. Longfellow had a lifelong friendship with fellow New Englander and author Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he met at College. He was acquainted with many other noted literary figures of his day including Lord Alfred Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, and Walt Whitman. Queen Victoria invited him to tea and he received honorary doctoral degrees from Cambridge and Oxford Universities, indicative of his popularity outside of the United States.
Another American legend that Longfellow draws upon is that of Patriot Paul Revere's (1734-1818) account of his famous 18 April 1775 ride to alert the countryside of advancing British troops during the American Revolution. Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" was published in 1863. Longfellow used his pen to pay tribute to numerous historical figures and many other authors including William Shakespeare--"Poet paramount, Whom all the Muses loved", John Keats--"Here lieth one whose name, Was writ in water. And was this the meed, Of his sweet singing?", and Geoffrey Chaucer--"He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote 'The Canterbury Tales', and his old age, Made beautiful with song;"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on 27 February 1807, the second child of eight born to Zilpah née Wadsworth (1778-1851) and lawyer Stephen Longfellow (1775-1849) in the city of Portland, Maine. The family soon moved to a house on Congress Street, now known as the Wadsworth Longfellow Home. Early on young Henry knew he wanted to be a poet; he was a fast learner and loved to write stories and poems. The Portland Gazette printed his first at the age of thirteen. Henry and his siblings often visited their Grandparents's farms, and he reveled in the natural beauty of the nearby shores of Casco Bay. The bustling comings and goings of the port city, and the fishing vessels and merchant ships fed his imagination for places far beyond; he would cross the Atlantic Ocean a number of times during his life.
At the age of six Henry entered the Portland Academy; he then went on to attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine from 1822 to 1825, whereupon he was offered a professorship with the college. During his three-year Grand Tour of Europe, which the college had advised in order for him to further study languages in preparation for teaching, Longfellow immersed himself in the literature of Europe, and in mastering half a dozen languages. Upon arrival back in America he settled at Bowdoin to teach modern languages including French and Italian from 1829-1835. He also wrote many textbooks for the college. His trip had inspired his own Spanish travel book Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835), which was in part inspired by the writings of Washington Irving.
In 1831 Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter (1813-1835). On his next trip to Europe, this time with his wife, Mary suddenly died in Rotterdam, The Netherlands after having a miscarriage; Longfellow later wrote his poem "Footsteps of Angels" in honour of her;
And with them the Being Beauteous,
Who unto my youth was given,
More than all things else to love me,
And is now a saint in heaven.
With a slow and noiseless footstep
Comes that messenger divine,
Takes the vacant chair beside me,
Lays her gentle hand in mine.
After arriving home from this second trip in 1836, Longfellow took on the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a position he held until 1854. On 13 July 1843 Longfellow married Francis Elizabeth "Fanny" Appleton (1817-1861) with whom he would have six children: Charles, Ernest, Fanny, Alice, Edith, and Anne Allegra. It had been a long courtship; Longfellow taking time from his busy teaching schedule to visit her in Boston. She finally agreed to marriage and a gift from Fanny's father was buying them Craigie House in Cambridge where so many of their friends gathered including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Fanny was a talented artist, well-travelled, and well-read in many subjects. She was a loving and attentive mother and as their father, so she had much influence on their intellectual growth. While teaching full time, Longfellow continued his prodigious output of poetry. Voices of the Night: Ballads; and other Poems (1839), his autobiographical Hyperion, a Romance (1839), Ballads and Other Poems (1841), and Poems on Slavery (1842) are among his many collections that were warmly received in North America and Europe.
After resigning from teaching in 1854, Longfellow was able to put all his energies into writing. One of his next most famous works The Song of Hiawatha showed him at the height of his career. The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems (1858) and his translation of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (1861) were among his numerous works to follow. 1861 was the year a tragic accident happened to Fanny; her dress suddenly caught fire from a candle and she was engulfed in flames. Henry tried desperately to smother the flames, suffering burns to his hands and face, to no avail; Fanny soon succumbed to her wounds. Longfellow's grief changed him forever; his flowing white beard covered his burn marks, and he wrote "The Cross of Snow" almost twenty years later;
In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face--the face of one long dead--
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
Although Longfellow disapproved, his son Charles fought in the American Civil War. Longfellow continued to write poetry, collected under such titles as Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), Household Poems (1865), and Flower-de-Luce (1867). The same year that The New England Tragedies (1868) was published, Longfellow made his last trip to Europe. He continued to write up until the year of his death. Works to follow include Three Books of Song (1872), Kéramos and Other Poems (1878), and In the Harbor (poems, 1882). Dedicated to his friend and historian George Washington Green, "Ultima Thule" was first published in 1880;
Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died at home in Cambridge on 24 March 1882. He now rests in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. In 1884 he was the first citizen of the United States to be honoured in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, England. His marble bust now stands among the monuments to other such world-renowned authors and poets as Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Browning.
Further works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow include;
The Spanish Student. A Play in Three Acts (1843),
Poets and Poetry of Europe (translations, 1844),
The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1845),
Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (epic poem, 1847),
Kavanagh: A Tale (1849),
The Seaside and the Fireside (poetry, 1850),
The Golden Legend (dramatic poem, 1851),
"The Children's Hour" (1859),
The Divine Tragedy (1871),
Christus: A Mystery (1872),
"Aftermath" (1873), and
The Masque of Pandora and Other Poems (1875).
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.
The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.
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