Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American fireside poet who used traditional Romantic odes, ballads, and narrative poems to capture the American spirit and immortalize the young nation's heroes.
Best known of the famous fireside poets of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the most popular American Romantic poets of his age. Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine in 1807. His typical New England upbringing and interest in linguistics suited him for a life as a professor at Bowdoin College and later Harvard University. Ultimately, however, Longfellow quit teaching to focus on what he perceived as his true passion and responsibility: poetry.
Longfellow’s poetry cannot be separated from its public nature. Immensely popular in his lifetime, Longfellow felt a duty to please his compatriots with his works. Thus, his writing typically pursues particularly American subjects and themes. The enduring “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “Evangeline”, “Song of Hiawatha”, and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” all romanticize significant events familiar to his North American audience. Other poems, such as “A Psalm of Life” capture the American spirit through their uplifting messages and call to triumph over adversity.
Longfellow sought to cheer and comfort his readers through his works, and though he brought the influences of his European studies into his poetry, he rarely experimented with form. He is best known for his traditional odes, ballads, and long narrative poems that make use of simple meter and pleasing rhymes. His Romantic poems laud patriotic and family values while promoting the virtues of patience, hard work, faithfulness, and courage. In his own words, he felt poetry ought to “have power to quiet/ The restless pulse of care,/ And come like the benediction/ That follows after prayer” (“The Day is Done”).
While more modern audiences have rejected his poetry as over-sentimentalized, he was read widely in his day. His works became staple readings at the hearthside, in schools, and at civic ceremonies. His fame was such that he is one of the few American poets to have a bust in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey in London. While his name may not “echo for evermore” (as Revere’s in “Paul Revere’s Ride”), it left an undeniable stamp on nineteenth century American literature.
“Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.”
“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”
“Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.”