We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.
—from Snow-bound, John Greenleaf Whittier
The fireside poets (also called the “schoolroom” or “household” poets) were the first group of American poets to rival British poets in popularity in either country. Today, their verse may seem more Victorian in sensibility than Romantic, perhaps overly sentimental or moralizing in tone; but, as a group they are notable for their scholarship, political sensibilities, and the resilience of their lines and themes. (Most schoolchildren can recite a line or two from “Paul Revere’s Ride” or The Song of Hiawatha.)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant are the poets most commonly grouped together under this heading. In general, these poets preferred conventional forms over experimentation, and this attention to rhyme and strict metrical cadences made their work popular for memorization and recitation in classrooms and homes. They are most remembered for their longer narrative poems (Longfellow’s Evangeline and Hiawatha, Whittier’s Snow-bound) that frequently used American legends and scenes of American home life and contemporary politics (as in Holmes’s “Old Ironsides” and Lowell’s anti-slavery poems) as their subject matter.
At the peak of his career, Longfellow’s popularity rivaled Lord Alfred Tennyson’s in England as well as in America, and he was a noted translator and scholar in several languages—in fact, he was the first American poet to be honored with a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. Hiawatha itself draws not only on Indigenous languages for its rhythmic underpinning, but also echoes the Kalevala, a Finnish epic. Lowell and Whittier, both outspoken liberals and abolitionists, were known for their journalism and work with the fledgling Atlantic Monthly. They did not hesitate to address issues that were divisive and highly charged in their day, and in fact used the sentimental tone in their poems to encourage their audience to consider these issues in less abstract and more personal terms.