Longfellow was born on 27 February 1807 in Portland, Maine, the second of eight children. His mother’s father had been a general in the American War of Independence and a Member of Congress, and his father was a lawyer. He went to private school where, among other subjects, he learned Latin, and published his first poem aged 13. At 15, he entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. There he met Nathaniel Hawthorne who would become a lifelong friend. While at Bowdoin, Longfellow published as many as 40 poems. Thereafter, he travelled to Europe and spent three years on a grand tour.
On returning to Maine in 1829, Longfellow took took up an offer from Bowdoin to teach languages and act as the college’s librarian. In 1831, he married Mary Potter, a childhood friend, but, during a second sojourn in Europe - at the behest of Harvard College - she had a miscarriage and died soon after. He returned to the US, and took up the professorship of modern languages at Harvard, renting rooms in Cambridge, at the Craigie House (once George Washington’s HQ during the Siege of Boston). He began publishing books of poetry, Voices of the Night (1939) and Ballads and Other Poems (1941). Soon after the former, he also published Hyperion, a prose romance inspired by his trips abroad and his hitherto unsuccessful courtship of Fanny Appleton (whom he had first met in Switzerland).
In 1843, after a seven year courtship, Longfellow and Appleton finally married, and Fanny’s father bought them Craigie House as a wedding present. They lived there for the rest of their lives, having six children. In 1847, Longfellow published his famous poem Evangeline, which helped increase his literary income. In 1854, he retired from Harvard to concentrate on writing, and five years later Harvard awarded him an honorary doctorate of laws. In the summer of 1861, a tragic fire led to Fanny’s death. In trying to save his wife, Longfellow burned his face, and subsequently wore a beard to cover the scarring. Biographers say he never fully recovered from his wife’s death. He spent several years translating Dante’s Divine Comedy; a weekly meeting with friends came to be known as the Dante Club.
During the last 15 years or so of his life, Longfellow’s fame continued to grow, and he was awarded many honours, and met many other famous figures. He supported the abolitionist cause and hoped for a reconciliation between the northern and southern states after the American Civil War. He published several more books; and he travelled to Europe, receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, and meeting Queen Victoria in 1868. He died in 1882. For further information see Wikipedia, Maine Historical Society, Poets.org, Poetry Foundation, or a Houghton Library’s online exhibition.
Longfellow kept a diary throughout his life, rarely making long entries. Despite their brevity, they often exhibit his poetical and lyrical view (physically and metaphorically) of the world around him. The journal entries were first edited and compiled by his brother Samuel within a two volume biography - Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: with extracts from his journals and correspondence (1886, Ticknor and Co, Boston).
17 October 1838
‘Face swollen with tooth-ache; look like King Henry VIII. A working day in college. Have I been wise to give up three whole days [in the week] to college classes? I think I have; for thus I make my presence felt here, and have no idle time to mope and grieve.’
18 October 1838
‘Wrote a chapter in Hyperion. Thus slowly goes on the work. Well or ill, I must work right on, and wait for no happier moments. This is a glorious autumn day. The coat of arms of the dying year hangs on the forest wall,as the coat of arras on the walls of a nobleman’s house in England, when he dies.’
7 December 1845
‘I know not what name to give it, not my new baby, but my new poem. Shall it be ‘Gabrielle,’ or ‘Celestine,’ or Evangeline’?’
20 May 1846
‘Tried to work at Evangeline. Unsuccessful. Gave it up and read Legard’s letters, which give one a favorable idea of his abilities and aims. In the afternoon drove to town. Dined at Prescott’s at five [the eminent historian
6 July 1846
‘Examination in Modem Languages. The Spanish classes did very well; the Italian not so well; the German best of all, as is usually the case. A warm, weary day, made more weary by a long Faculty-meeting in the evening. So ends the college year with me, and vacation begins. Dear vacation, when alone I feel that I am free! I have a longing for Berkshire or the sea-side. Both Nahant and Stockbridge beckon; and Niagara thunders its warning and invitation. And now let me see if I cannot bring my mind into more poetic mood by the sweet influences of sun and air and open fields.’
9 July 1846
‘Idly busy days; days which leave no record in verse; no advance made in my long-neglected yet dearly loved Evangeline. The cares of the world choke the good seed. But these stones must be cleared away.’
17 November 1846
‘I said as I dressed myself this morning, “To-day at least I will work on Evangeline.” But no sooner had I breakfasted than there came a note from ___ to be answered forthwith; then ___, to talk about a doctor; then Mr. Bates, to put up a fireplace; then this journal, to be written for a week. And now it is past eleven o’clock, and the sun shines so brightly upon my desk and papers that I can write no more.’
15 May 1855
‘I am plagued to death with letters from all sorts of people, of course about their own affairs. No hesitation, no reserve, no consideration or delicacy. What people!’
17 May 1855
‘A beautiful morning. Went and sat an hour with Lowell in his upper chamber among the treetops. He sails for Havre the first of June.’
20 May 1855
‘Sumner just returned from New York, where he has been lecturing on Slavery to huge audiences in theatres. A great success, and a great sign of the state of the public mind.’
31 January 1859
‘Prescott’s funeral at the Chauncey-Place Church, at three in the afternoon. It was very impressive and touched me very much. I remember the last time I spoke with Prescott. It was only a few days ago. I met him in Washington Street, just at the foot of Winter Street He was merry, and laughing as usual. At the close of the conversation he said, “I am going to shave off my whiskers; they are growing gray.” “Gray hair is becoming,” I said. “Becoming,” said he; “what do we care about becoming, who must so soon he going?” “Then why take the trouble to shave them off?” “That’s true,” he replied with a pleasant laugh, and crossed over to Summer Street. So my last remembrance of him is a sunny smile at the comer of the street!’
8 August 1877
‘A lovely summer day; I wanted to be in many places at once.’
27 February 1879
‘My seventy-second birthday. A present from the children of Cambridge of a beautiful armchair, made from the wood of the Village Blacksmith’s chestnut-tree.’
13 June 1880
‘Yesterday I had a visit from two schools; some sixty girls and boys, in all. It seems to give them so much pleasure, that it gives me pleasure.’
By way of a postscript, I, myself, as a young man was much enamoured of Longfellow’s Evangeline, and copied the prologue into my diary in 1975, and learned it off by heart. Here are the first few lines.
‘This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.’
And then, 20 years later, I remembered the poem when visiting Wistman’s Wood, an ancient patch of oak woodland on Dartmoor, and wrote this in my diary.
25 October 1996
‘[Wistman’s] wood was beautiful. The oaks were indeed small old and decrepit and covered in moss and lichens some of which was hanging down and reminded me of the Longfellow poem Evangeline. The clinging mist and rain added to the atmosphere making it seem, if anything, that much more of an ancient place. We clambered around the moss-covered boulders through which the trees had been growing for so many years and inspected the different trees, admiring the patterns of the gnarled and partly dead branches and the various flora they supported, not least good strong ferns growing among the lichen and moss.’