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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 thirty-two, 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 eighteen 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 Dante’s 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 fifty-eight. His most important work was finished, but his fame kept growing. In London alone, twenty-four 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."
Ballads and Other Poems (1841)
Christus: A Mystery (1872)
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)
The New England Tragedies (1868)
The Spanish Student (1843)
Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimmage Beyond the Sea (1835)
Hyperion: A Romance (1839)
Kavanagh: A Tale (1849)
Poetry in Translation
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1867)
You know it's funny, nobody ever says "Henry Longfellow." It's always "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," which sounds very official and formal. This is just a trifle odd because Longfellow was one of the so-called "fireside poets," a group of five nineteenth-century American poets who were about as popular in their day as Katy Perry is today. We're serious, folks. These guys sold a lot of books. They were called the "fireside poets," or sometimes the household or schoolroom poets, because their poetry sounded like stuff you would read aloud by the fire. It was memorable, easily to memorize, and dealt with common subjects that most Americans could relate to. You could say that the fireside poets wrote poetry for the people.
Longfellow was unquestionably the most popular and influential of the group, which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. In addition to holding prestigious teaching positions at Bowdoin College and Harvard University (yes, that Harvard), Longfellow published some of the most wildly popular poetical works in the nineteenth century, such as Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and "Paul Revere's Ride" (1861). As you've probably guessed just from looking at these titles, Longfellow wrote about a lot of very American things, and this endeared him to American reading audiences.
When he wasn't writing poetry, Longfellow engaged in other literary pursuits, such as translation, editing (he compiled a massive, 31-volume anthology entitled Poems of Places between 1876-1879), and essay writing (Longfellow was a frequent contributor to the North American Review in the early 1830s).
In 1879, near the end of his life, Longfellow wrote "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls," a short poem that is now one of his most famous. Longfellow had to know he was getting on in years and, after having already witnessed the death of two of his wives, it's no surprise that he would write a poem about death.
It's also no surprise that the last collection Longfellow published in his lifetime and the one which contained "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls," was called Ultima Thule (1880). It's certainly a strange choice for a title, that's for sure. In old European maps and atlases, Thule was a region in the very north of the known world (often identified as Norway), with "Ultima Thule" often referring to the extreme limit or edge of the known world. By calling his final volume Ultima Thule, Longfellow was very clearly suggesting that he had reached the limit or end of his time on earth.
Life is a roller coaster. There's no doubt about that. Things go up, and then things go down. Just like a roller coaster, life can be bumpy, rocky, and scary, but it can also be fun, thrilling, even exhilarating. Sometimes, it's the bumps along the way that actually make it fun. Seriously folks, those bumps can be fun, just wait. In the end, though, and just like life, a crazy roller coaster ride eventually comes to an end. We know it's sad, but life goes on, right?
Well, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew that better than anybody. At least, he knew it well. A guy who managed to keep writing even after losing two wives (one to a miscarriage, the other in a fire) has got to know something about how the tide rises and the tide falls. That's really what he's driving at in this poem. That's what we were getting at with our little roller coaster story. Life is a roller coaster, and life is like the ocean tides: it goes up, and it goes down. You are born, live, and then die (hopefully at a ripe old age like… 156). Good things happen, bad things happen, but—through it all—life goes on.
Even though this is a poem about the ups and downs of life, it's about the circle of life. It is a poem about death. It's pretty clear, after all, that the mysterious traveler in the poem who leaves the shore behind is leaving life behind as well. The roller coaster ends, and that's a sad, sad fact. But life continues even after death—if not in a spiritual sense in the afterlife, definitely in a natural sense. So, if the end of that big ride we call Life has got you down, check out this poem. Sure it's sad, no doubt about it, but it's also hopeful, too.