This Day In Literary History
On February 27th, 1807, the legendary American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine. A child prodigy, he began his schooling at the age of three. At six, he was studying Latin and reading Miguel Cervantes' classic epic novel, Don Quixote.
Longfellow was thirteen when his first published poem, The Battle of Lovell's Pond, appeared in the Portland Gazette. Two years later, he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. There, he met legendary writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became his lifelong friend.
After graduating in 1825 at the age of eighteen, he was offered a job as professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, on the condition that he travel to Europe to learn more languages. So, he embarked on a three-year European tour, where he became fluent in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese.
While in Madrid, Longfellow met legendary American writer Washington Irving, who encouraged him to become a professional writer. Longfellow based his second book, a travelogue called Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835), on his European tour.
Back in America, when he wasn't teaching at Bowdoin, he translated French, Spanish, and German textbooks. His first book, published in 1833, was a translation of the works of medieval Spanish poet Jorge Manrique.
In 1831, Longfellow married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Storer Potter. She died three years later from illness following the miscarriage of their only child. Her husband was devastated. At the time, he had been teaching languages at Harvard and had become fluent in Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic.
After losing his wife, Longfellow threw himself into his work, mostly to escape his grief. He worked on more translations and began publishing the poetry collections that would make him famous, such as Voices in the Night (1839) and Ballads and Other Poems (1841).
To escape his loneliness, Longfellow socialized with fellow writers and scholars. In 1839, five years after he'd lost his wife, he found himself falling love again, with Frances "Fanny" Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. She wasn't interested in him.
Nevertheless, Longfellow determined to win her heart, writing to a friend, "Victory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion." After a tumultuous seven year courtship, Fanny's dogged admirer won her heart.
It almost didn't happen when Longfellow published Hyperion, a Romance (1839), a novel inspired by their early courtship. The protagonist, Paul Flemming, a grief stricken American wandering through Germany, meets an Englishwoman named Mary Ashburton and determines to win her heart.
When Fanny learned that she was the inspiration for the character of Mary Ashburton, she was neither flattered nor amused. Longfellow wouldn't give up. When in a letter she finally agreed to marry him, he walked 90 minutes to her home rather than wait for a carriage.
The couple would remain together for eighteen years and have six children before tragedy struck again. In July of 1861, Fanny was trying to seal an envelope with hot wax when her dress caught fire. Her screams woke Longfellow from his nap, and he tried to save her.
Severely burned, Fanny was tended by a doctor who administered ether to her throughout the day and night. She died the next morning. Longfellow had been burned as well, but he would recover physically, growing a beard to hide his facial scars. Emotionally, he was destroyed.
Longfellow had used laudanum (a tincture of opium) to ease the pain of his burns; now physically healed, he used the drug to ease the pain of his depression. He feared that he might go insane and begged his family not to send him to an asylum. He determined to write again.
By now, Longfellow had become the most famous poet in America, and one of the richest writers as well. He continued to write poetry collections and novels. In 1867, he published his greatest work as a scholar - a translation of Dante Alighieri's classic poem, The Divine Comedy.
Longfellow also devoted his later years to social causes. A prominent abolitionist, he protested slavery and supported the Union during the Civil War. He opposed a prewar compromise to allow slavery to preserve the union, but hoped that the Northern and Southern states could reconcile after the war ended.
As a poet, Longfellow was known as a master of lyric poetry. A versatile poet, he experimented with both traditional and free verse, using anapestic and trochaic forms, heroic couplets, ballads, sonnets, and blank verse - unrhymed iambic pentameter.
His greatest poems include Paul Revere's Ride, The Village Blacksmith, The Wreck of the Hesperus, and his classic epic poems, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, which was based on Ojibwe tribal legends.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died of peritonitis in 1882 at the age of 75.
Quote Of The Day
"The tragic element in poetry is like Saturn in alchemy — the Malevolent, the Destroyer of Nature; but without it no true Aurum Potabile, or Elixir of Life, can be made." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Enjoy!