Poet Biographies

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Words Transcending Time

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a celebrated American poet of the 19th century whose works explored universal themes of love, loss, and the human condition. His complex work, which is popular to this day, had a melodic, lyrical quality.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Portrait

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was another all-time great poet that came from America in the 19th century. He was known and appreciated by many poetry lovers during his time of writing and long after. However, it was not only Americans that knew of him. He could be classed as a celebrity of the time, with his work reaching beyond the shores of the United States. For example, he was celebrated across the pond, being honored by Westminster Abbey in London, as he was given a bust in Poet’s Corner. This was an achievement only a few American poets had attained. The work and poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were lyrical in style and covered many themes such as; love, religion, nature, life, and death.

Early Life

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, when it was part of Massachusetts, in February of 1807. He was the second of eight children born to Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer, and his wife, Zilpah. Longfellow’s ancestors had come to the United States from England in the early 1600s. They settled in New England and were among the original Mayflower Pilgrims. Longfellow was directly related to the first child born in Plymouth, Elizabeth Alden Peabody. 


When he was only six years old, Longfellow attended Portland Academy.

He was considered to be an exemplary student, particularly excelling in Latin. It was his mother who stimulated in him his first literary passions. She encouraged his engagement with reading while his father had grander, more professional plans for his son. Longfellow published his first poem in November of 1870 when he was only thirteen. It was called ‘The Battle of Lovell’s Pond.’

Three years later the young poet began attending Bowdoin College in New Brunswick, Maine. It was through this institution that Longfellow met and befriended fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne who would be a lifelong friend. By his senior year at the school, he knew that he wanted to become a writer. He submitted poetry to a variety of publications and was successful in publishing more than thirty poems from 1824 to 1825 when he graduated.

Longfellow was a proficient student of modern languages and, after he graduated, was offered a position at Bowdoin College. Before accepting or declining the offer, he traveled at his father’s expense throughout Europe, where he refined his language skills further. It is said that it cost his father around $2,600, which is the modern equivalent of $67,000. He spent time in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and England. He returned to the United States in August of 1829. His travels were productive, and he was able to learn four European languages that would benefit him in his new professorial role. He initially decided to decline the offer, but after the trustees of the school increased his proposed salary, he accepted.

Throughout the early 1830s, he spent much of his time translating textbooks and publishing translations of poetry. He also wrote a travel book titled, ‘Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea.’ In 1831 Longfellow was married to a childhood friend, Mary Storer Potter, and over the next two years, he continued to publish non-fiction and fiction pieces of prose. In another turn of fortune, Longfellow was offered a professorship at Harvard University. The one stipulation to the offer was that he spends more time traveling and learning Dutch, German, and Scandinavian languages.

While traveling throughout Europe, he was hit with the news of his wife’s death. His wife, Mary, suffered a miscarriage and was unable to recover. She died several weeks later, in November of 1835. She would continue to feature in his poetry long after her death. In 1836 he finished his trip and took up his position at Harvard. It was not long after her death that he completed his poem ‘Psalm of Life,’ a piece questioning how he could go on to regain solace and make the most of his future.

Literary Career

The next three years were full of successes for the writer. He published his first book and collection of poetry ‘Voices of the Night’ in 1839 as well as his prose romance work, ‘Hyperion.’ Longfellow was a well-loved professor and a prominent member of the literary scene. Around this same time, he met Frances Appleton, whom he soon began courting. The intended relationship did not immediately go well, as Frances was uninterested in marriage.

The works of 1839 were followed by ‘Ballads and Other Poems’ in 1841. A number of these poems, such as ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ immediately became popular. Longfellow took yet another trip to Europe in 1842 and published ‘Poems on Slavery’ as well as ‘The Spanish Student: A Play in Three Acts,’ over the next two years.

After having courted Frances Appleton for seven years, she finally agreed to marry him. They were immediately married and together had six children. In the late 1840s, Longfellow started receiving a substantial income from his writing, and in the 1850s, he retired from Harvard.

Arguably, Longfellow’s most famous poem was ‘Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie,’ which was met with immediate popularity. The epic, long poem tells the story of Evangeline, an Acadian girl who is seeking out her love Gabriel. The Acadians were descendants of French settlers in Nova Scotia. It is said that the fame of the poem helped highlight the true story of the expulsion of the Acadian people.

Another of Longfellow’s most defining poems was ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ a poetic tale set during the American Civil War. The original story tells of Paul Revere’s ride to Lexington, Mass, to alert Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the impending approach of the British troops.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on the themes of the American native landscape, American colonialism, and history. Poems such as ‘Song of Hiawatha‘ and ‘Courtship of Miles Standish‘ are both based on stories from the colonial period, from both sides of events. Other poets, such as Washington Irving, followed Longfellow in discussing the events of this important period in American history. You can read more of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems here.

Civil War

The American Civil War played a role in Longfellow’s life and seeped into his poetry. Multiple members of his family were involved in the conflict. His son Charles, his nephew Stephen, and his wife’s half-brother Nathan Appleton Jr. were all wounded in action. His poem ‘Killed at the Ford‘ is heavily embedded in the Civil War as it speaks of the death of a soldier and its ultimate impact on the family back home. This can be seen as a reflection of his own experience.

Later Life

Longfellow’s good luck did not last, though, and in 1861, on a particularly hot day, Frances was subject to a horrible accident. Her dress caught fire, and she was badly burned. She died the next morning with her husband by her side. Longfellow was also burnt in the incident and would take to wearing a beard to hide his scars for the rest of his life. The writer was never the same after his wife’s death and turned to drugs to treat his depression.

Longfellow’s next writing project was a translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ which was published in 1867. The book was printed a number of times, and his yearly income continued to increase. In 1874 he sold one of his poems for $3,000, the highest price ever paid for a single piece of poetry.

In March of 1882, Longfellow’s health began to decline, but his suffering was a mystery. He was in intense pain for several days before his death on March 24th, 1882. It was later discovered that he was suffering from peritonitis, or inflammation of the lining of the abdomen. He is buried alongside both his wives in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Influence from Other Poets

Throughout his literary career, Longfellow was compared to Ralph Waldo Emerson in both his poetic style and his stance against the slave trade. Contemporary scholars argue that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry was just as worthy of the critical acclaim received by Longfellow.

When Longfellow died in 1882, Emerson was in attendance at his funeral and was said to have paid his respects to the casket twice. The philosopher and poet, who was also renowned for his work, died only a month after Longfellow, which made their comparison stick until this day. 

Longfellow is considered to be part of the Fireside Poets, a group of literary greats that were active in the 19th century. This name was acquired as, due to their poetry being so accessible and iconic, many families would read their works by the fire. It was even said that Queen Victoria would read the works of Longfellow during her quiet time. These poets would inherently enter the consciousness of many young people as they grew up. Some of the most notable names in this group were Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier.


Who is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one the greatest and most celebrated 19th-century poets of all time. He was known for his lyrical and song-like poems that were read by many people of all ages all across the globe. He would write about many themes, including; love, death, life, religion, American history, Native America, and more.

How many poems did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow write?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was prolific, to say the least, writing over 1,000 poems across his literary career. These poems came in the form of 16 collections of work.

What was unique about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of a number of very successful 19th-century American poets. However, what set him apart was his unrivaled success across the globe. For example, he was awarded a commemorative bust that was placed in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London. He is currently the only American poet to be awarded this.

Why did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wear a thick beard?

Unfortunately, Longfellows’s second wife, Frances, was badly burnt and died after her dress set alight when writing a letter. In an attempt to save her, Henry was badly burnt on his face. He then grew his beard to cover the scars that were left after the tragedy.

How did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow die?

On March 24th, 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died from inflammation of his abdomen at the age of 75. It was only after his death that the cause was determined.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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