xxxxxThe American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is best remembered today for his ballad The Wreck of the Hesperus, his narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha, produced in 1855, and his Tales of a Wayside Inn, a collection of stories which included his famous Paul Revere’s Ride. He was Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard University for some twenty years (1835-1854), during which time he produced his Voices of the Night and his Ballads and Other Poems, a collection which contained his famous The Village Blacksmith and Excelsior. He also wrote his highly successful Evangeline while at Harvard, and followed this with two other long narrative poems, The Song of Hiawatha and The Courtship of Miles Standish. Though popular in his day, the simplicity of his versification and subject matter, plus his tendency to moralize, lost him favour. Nonetheless, his sonnets on Dante, and some of his other lyrics rank high among his nation’s poetry, and works like Hiawatha and Paul Revere’s Ride have become part of his country’s heritage. A close friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, during his travels in Europe, he met Dickens and Tennyson, had tea with Queen Victoria, and became acquainted with the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.


1807 - 1882   (G3c, G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc)


Longfellow: 1850s, artist unknown – Digital Gallery, New York Public Library, USA. Whittier: lithograph by Armstrong and Co, Boston Massachusetts, 1887 – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington. Amesbury: from The Life of John Leafgreen Whittier by the American author William Sloan Kennedy (1850-1929), published in Chicago c1895, artist unknown.

xxxxxHenry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most celebrated and influential American poet of the 19th century, is best remembered today for his ballad The Wreck of the Hesperus, his narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha produced in 1855, and his Tales of a Wayside Inn, published in 1863. This string of stories, modelled loosely on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, included his famous Paul Revere’s Ride, an embellished account of the legendary “midnight ride”, made to give warning of the British advance on Concord at the beginning of the American War of Independence.

xxxxxLongfellow was born in Portland, Maine, and in 1825, after completing his education at Portand Academy and Bowdoin College, Brunswick, he travelled widely in Europe to study various languages. On his return in 1829 he was a teacher and librarian at Bowdoin College before becoming Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard University in 1835. It was while at Harvard that he gained public recognition with his first volume of verse entitled Voices of the Night, produced in 1839, and he followed this two years later with his Ballads and Other Poems, a highly successful work which included The Wreck of the Hesperus, The Village Blacksmith, and Excelsior. And also to his time at Harvard belonged Evangeline, the first of his long narrative poems. This sentimental tale of two lovers, separated when the British take over the French colony of Acadia, virtually swept the nation. Then soon after leaving Harvard in 1854 came his two other lengthy poems The Song of Hiawatha of 1855 and, three years later, The Courtship of Miles Standish, a work which sold over 15,000 copies within the first week of its publication.

xxxxxThe popularity of Longfellow’s poetic work owed much to the uncomplicated nature of its subject matter and a quality of verse which, by its simplicity, gentleness and romantic vision, created a melody as memorable as that of a familiar song. Though highly popular in its time, the childlike nature of his easy, satisfying rhythm later came under attack, as did his general lack of imagination and his tendency to moralize. But though some critics came to regard his work as commonplace and superficial, it is that very simplicity of theme and melodic verse that have kept him in the forefront of American poets. His sonnets and other lyrics rank high among his nation’s poetry, his lines are full of magical expression, and works like Evangeline, Hiawatha and Paul Revere’s Ride have remained part of his country’s heritage.

xxxxxAmong his other works was an account of his early travels entitled Outre-Mer, Poems of Slavery, The Belfry of Bruges, Seaside and the Fireside, and Ultima Thule. He also wrote essays on French, Italian and Spanish literature, composed six sonnets on Dante - regarded by many as his finest poems -, and produced a verse translation of his Divine Comedy in three volumes, completing the work in 1867.


xxxxxLongfellow made a number of visits to Europe during his career and these helped to widen interest in American literature. While in England he made the acquaintance of Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson, had tea with Queen Victoria, and received honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Elsewhere he was made a member of the Spanish Academy and the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, whom he met in Rome, set music to his opening of The Golden Legend, a work founded on a German poem. At home, he was a life-long friend of the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

xxxxxA gentle, kindly man by nature, with a genuine interest in people, he was extremely popular both at home and abroad, and did much to awaken a love of poetry among the young. His 70th birthday was celebrated throughout America, and on his 72nd birthday, the children of Cambridge  (where Harvard is situated) collected money in order to have a special chair made for the poet. It was constructed out of the chestnut tree in Brattle Street which had featured in his poem A Village Blacksmith (“Under a spreading chestnut tree”) and had had to be cut down for road widening. And we are told that some time in the 1850s the Chinese government presented him with a fan on which was inscribed the words of his poem The Psalm of Life. Such was the extent of his fame.

xxxxxIncidentally, Longfellow married twice and both marriages ended in tragedy. His first wife, Mary Storer Potter, died of a miscarriage, aged 22, while they were visiting Rotterdam in 1835. His moving poem Footsteps of Angels was composed in her memory three years later. His second wife, Fanny Appleton, by whom he had six children, was burned to death in 1861 when her dress caught fire while sealing an envelope with wax. Longfellow burnt his hands and face in a vain attempt to save her. Earlier, in 1839, he had based Mary Ashburton, the heroine in his romantic novel Hyperion, upon his wife Fanny. ……

xxxxx……  Among the familiar phrases which Longfellow has left with us are “ships that pass in the night”, “the patter of tiny feet”, “I shot an arrow into the air”, and “beneath the spreading chestnut tree”. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. Two years later a marble bust of him was placed in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, London, the first American to be honoured in this way.

xxxxxThree extracts of his works are shown below: The Song  of  Hiawatha,  noted in particular for its unusual, sing-song meter, tells the tale of an Ojibwa Indian who becomes the chief of his tribe, marries Minnehaha, and, after a successful reign, eventually departs for the “Isles of the Blessed”. The story is based loosely on two books about the Indian tribes of North America, written by the American explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Details for The Wreck of the Hesperus were obtained from an account of the sinking of the brig Favorite, which was wrecked on the Norman’s Woe rocks just outside Gloucester Harbour, Massachusetts during a storm in 1839. Among those who drowned was a woman, found lashed to one of the masts to keep her from being swept overboard. Longfellow made use of this gruesome finding, and highlighted the tragedy by putting the captain’s young daughter in the place of the middle-aged woman. His The Village Blacksmith proved extremely popular, particularly among school children.

The Song of Hiawatha


John Greenleaf Whittier


xxxxxWell worthy of a mention here is the American journalist, poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). He was born into a Quaker family in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and became himself a devout Quaker. He had little formal education, but he read widely and gained a sound knowledge of English literature. He began his working life as a journalist, editing newspapers in Haverhill, Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, before returning home in 1832. There he became a leading member of the anti-slavery movement, gaining prominence in 1833 with his celebrated pamphlet entitled Justice and Expediency. Later his poems on slavery were collected under the titles Voice of Freedom, published in 1846, and Songs of Labour and Other Poems, produced four years later.

xxxxxIn 1836 he moved to Amesbury in north-east Massachusetts, and it was from then on that he devoted most of his time to literature. He wrote a large number of articles and reviews, and, alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, contributed to the new magazine The Pioneer. In addition, he returned to writing poetry and produced some of his most popular works, including Maud Muller and The Barefoot Boy in the 1850s, and the patriotic ballad Barbara Frietchie in 1863. His earliest collection of poems, Legends of New England in 1831, had given a nostalgic account of the rugged farm life of his native land, and in 1866 he returned to this pastoral theme in his poem Snow-Bound. Considered by many to be his finest work, this earned him a reputation equal to that of his contemporary Longfellow. And this reputation was maintained by The Tent on the Beach a year later, Among the Hills in 1868, and The Pennsylvania Pilgrim in 1872.

xxxxxIncidentally, Whittier was also concerned in social welfare and took an active part in politics. He served for a time on the Massachusetts legislature, and was one of the founder members of the Liberal Party in 1839, and the Republican Party five years later. ……

xxxxx……  A number of his poems were made into hymns and are still sung today. His house in Amesbury, where he composed most of his poems, has been preserved as a museum to his memory. Often referred to as the “Quaker Poet”, the town of Whittier in California was named after him in 1887.

xxxxxAnother American poet who made a name for himself at this time was the journalist and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). A devout Quaker, he began his working life as a journalist and became prominent in the anti-slavery movement in 1833 with his celebrated pamphlet Justice and Expediency. He later turned to writing articles and reviews, alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, and, starting in the 1850s, produced some of his finest poetry with works like Maud Muller, The Barefoot Boy, and the ballad Barbara Frietchie. Following an early work describing country life in his homeland (Legends of New England of 1831), in 1866 he continued this pastoral theme in Snow-Bound, a poem which earned him a reputation as great as that of Longfellow. Later works included The Tent on the Beach, Among the Hills, and The Pennsylvania Pilgrim. Some of his poems were made into hymns.

Ye who love the haunts of Nature,

Love the sunshine of the meadow,

Love the shadow of the forest,

Love the wind among the branches

And the rain-shower and the snow storm,

And the rushing of great rivers

Through their palisades of pine-trees,

And the thunder in the mountains,

Whose innumerable echoes

Flap like eagles in their eyries; -

Listen to these wild traditions,

To this Song of Hiawatha.

By the shores of  Gitche Gumee,

By the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,

Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

Dark behind it rose the forest,

Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,

Rose the firs with cones upon them;

Bright before it beat the water,

Beat the clear and sunny water,

Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

There the wrinkled old Nokomis

Nursed the little Hiawatha.

The Wreck of the Hesperus

At daybreak on the bleak sea beach

A fisherman stood aghast,

To see the form of a maiden fair

Float by on a drifting mast.

The salt was frozen on her breast,

The salt tears in her eyes;

And her streaming hair, like the brown sea-weed

On the waves did fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,

In the midnight and the snow!

Oh! save us all from a death like this,

On the reef of “Norman’s Woe”.

The Village Blacksmith

Under a spreading chestnut-tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

And children coming home from school

Look in at the open door;

They love to see the flaming forge,

And hear the bellows roar,

And catch the burning sparks that fly

Like chaff from the threshing-floor