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About this poet

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine—then still part of Massachusetts—on February 27, 1807, the second son in a family of eight children. His mother, Zilpah Wadsworth, was the daughter of a Revolutionary War hero. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a prominent Portland lawyer and later a member of Congress.

Henry was a dreamy boy who loved to read. He heard sailors speaking Spanish, French and German in the Portland streets and liked stories set in foreign places: The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and the plays of Shakespeare.

After graduating from Bowdoin College, Longfellow studied modern languages in Europe for three years, then returned to Bowdoin to teach them. In 1831 he married Mary Storer Potter of Portland, a former classmate, and soon published his first book, a description of his travels called Outre Mer ("Overseas"). But in November 1835, during a second trip to Europe, Longfellow's life was shaken when his wife died during a miscarriage. The young teacher spent a grief-stricken year in Germany and Switzerland.

Longfellow took a position at Harvard in 1836. Three years later, at the age of 32, he published his first collection of poems, Voices of the Night, followed in 1841 by Ballads and Other Poems. Many of these poems ("A Psalm of Life," for example) showed people triumphing over adversity, and in a struggling young nation that theme was inspiring. Both books were very popular, but Longfellow's growing duties as a professor left him little time to write more. In addition, Frances Appleton, a young woman from Boston, had refused his proposal of marriage.

Frances finally accepted his proposal the following spring, ushering in the happiest 18 years of Longfellow's life. The couple had six children, five of whom lived to adulthood, and the marriage gave him new confidence. In 1847, he published Evangeline, a book-length poem about what would now be called "ethnic cleansing." The poem takes place as the British drive the French from Nova Scotia, and two lovers are parted, only to find each other years later when the man is about to die.

In 1854, Longfellow decided to quit teaching to devote all his time to poetry. He published Hiawatha, a long poem about Native American life, and The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems. Both books were immensely successful, but Longfellow was now preoccupied with national events. With the country moving toward civil war, he wrote "Paul Revere's Ride," a call for courage in the coming conflict.

A few months after the war began in 1861, Frances Longfellow was sealing an envelope with wax when her dress caught fire. Despite her husband's desperate attempts to save her, she died the next day. Profoundly saddened, Longfellow published nothing for the next two years. He found comfort in his family and in reading Dantes Divine Comedy. (Later, he produced its first American translation.) Tales of a Wayside Inn, largely written before his wife's death, was published in 1863.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the poet was 58. His most important work was finished, but his fame kept growing. In London alone, 24 different companies were publishing his work. His poems were popular throughout the English-speaking world, and they were widely translated, making him the most famous American of his day. His admirers included Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, and Charles Baudelaire.

From 1866 to 1880, Longfellow published seven more books of poetry, and his seventy-fifth birthday in 1882 was celebrated across the country. But his health was failing, and he died the following month, on March 24. When Walt Whitman heard of the poet's death, he wrote that, while Longfellow's work "brings nothing offensive or new, does not deal hard blows," he was the sort of bard most needed in a materialistic age: "He comes as the poet of melancholy, courtesy, deference—poet of all sympathetic gentleness—and universal poet of women and young people. I should have to think long if I were ask'd to name the man who has done more and in more valuable directions, for America."

Frank Beck contributed to the writing and research of this profile of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Aftermath (1873)
Ballads and Other Poems (1841)
Christus: A Mystery (1872)
Evangeline (1847)
Flower-de-Luce (1867)
Household Poems (1863)
Keramos and Other Poems (1878)
Poems on Slavery (1842)
Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863)
The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1845)
The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858)
The Golden Legend (1851)
The Masque of Pandora and Other Poems (1875)
The Seaside and Fireside (1849)
The Song of Hiawatha (1855)
Three Books of Song (1872)
Ultima Thule (1880)
Voices of the Night (1839)

Prose

The New England Tragedies (1868)

Drama

The Spanish Student (1843)

Essays

Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimmage Beyond the Sea (1835)

Fiction

Hyperion: A Romance (1839)
Kavanagh: A Tale (1849)

Poetry in Translation

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1867)

Paul Revere's Ride

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807 - 1882
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive 
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war:
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon, like a prison-bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified 
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street
Wanders and watches with eager ears, 
Till in the silence around him he hears 
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet, 
And the measured tread of the grenadiers 
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed to the tower of the church,
Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead, 
In their night-encampment on the hill, 
Wrapped in silence so deep and still 
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread, 
The watchful night-wind, as it went 
Creeping along from tent to tent, 
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!" 
A moment only he feels the spell 
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread 
Of the lonely belfry and the dead; 
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent 
On a shadowy something far away, 
Where the river widens to meet the bay, --
A line of black, that bends and floats 
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride, 
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride, 
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side, 
Now gazed on the landscape far and near, 
Then impetuous stamped the earth, 
And turned and tightened his saddle-girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search 
The belfry-tower of the old North Church, 
As it rose above the graves on the hill, 
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height, 
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns, 
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight 
A second lamp in the belfry burns!

A hurry of hoofs in a village-street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark, 
And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark 
Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet: 
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light, 
The fate of a nation was riding that night; 
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight, 
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders, that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock, 
And the barking of the farmer's dog, 
And felt the damp of the river-fog,
That rises when the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington. 
He saw the gilded weathercock 
Swim in the moonlight as he passed, 
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare, 
Gaze at him with a spectral glare, 
As if they already stood aghast 
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When be came to the bridge in Concord town. 
He heard the bleating of the flock, 
And the twitter of birds among the trees, 
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled,--
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard-wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,-- 
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the "Fireside Poets," wrote lyrical poems about history, mythology, and legend that were popular and widely translated, making him the most famous American of his day. 

by this poet

poem
To-day we make the poet's words our own, 
And utter them in plaintive undertone; 
Nor to the living only be they said, 
But to the other living called the dead, 
Whose dear, paternal images appear 
Not wrapped in gloom, but robed in sunshine here; 
Whose simple lives, complete and without flaw, 
Were part and
poem
Out of the bosom of the Air,
    Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
    Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
      Silent, and soft, and slow
      Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
    Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled
poem
Ojibwa

The owl,—

   Au

The owl

   Au

The great black

Owl

   Au

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