Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote many works that are still famous today. He also wrote the first American translation of Dante Alighieri's “Inferno”. Born in Maine, Longfellow lived for most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a house occupied during the American Revolution by General George Washington and his staff.
He was born in Portland in 1807, in the family of a rich lawyer. The poet’s ancestors came to America in 1620 on the ship “Mayflower” and built the first village in New England, as that part of America is called. His grandfather took part in the War of Independence. The family traditions helped the poet to understand the history of his country. Later he often used historical facts in his poems.
At college the boy loved literature and decided to be a writer, but his father wanted him to be a teacher. When Longfellow was 19, his father sent him to Europe for further language study. The young man lived in France, Italy, Spain and Germany, where he studied foreign languages. When Longfellow returned from Europe, he became the first professor of modern languages at the college from which he had graduated as well as a part-time librarian. During his years at the college, he wrote textbooks in French, Italian, and Spanish and a travel book.
In 1831, he married Mary Storer Potter of Portland. Tragically, his young wife died during the trip in Rotterdam after suffering a miscarriage in 1835. When he returned to the United States in 1836, he was invited to read lectures on literature at Harvard.
He began publishing his poetry, including "Voices of the Night" in 1839 and "Ballads and Other Poems", which included his famous poem "The Village Blacksmith", in 1841. In 1842 he published “Poems on Slavery”, in which he created a gallery of images of slaves. He wrote about the selling of Negroes at the slave-markets, about exhausting work on the plantations, about cruel tortures.
In 1847 he married again and with his wife visited England and Europe. In 1854 he left Harvard University and devoted all his time to literature. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws from Harvard in 1859. He wrote lyrical poems, ballads, one novel “Hyperion”, a dramatic poem “Michelangelo”. In 1861, Frances died in a household fire, which had resulted from her attempting to seal a letter with paraffin wax, a devastating event for Longfellow. He commemorated her with the sonnet "The Cross of Snow" (1879). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died on March 24, 1882. He is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1884 he was the first American poet for whom a commemorative sculpted bust was placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
CHECK YOUR KNOWLEDGE:
1. When and where was Longfellow born?
2. Who were Longfellow’s ancestors?
3. What did he do at Harvard?
4. What kinds of works did Longfellow write?
5. What was his contribution to American literature?
The poet was greatly interested in old American legends and Indian folk-lore. His best work is a long poem “THE SONG OF HIAWATHA” (1855), in which he used old Indian legends.
Hiawatha is a historical person. He was an Indian chief, who lived at the end of the 15th century and came from the tribe of Mohawks. According to tradition, he helped found the Iroquois League by uniting his people with four other nations. For later generation of Iroquois, Hiawatha became a legendary hero. According to the legend, Hiawatha was born of the daughter of a Star and his father was the wild West Wind. Stories were told of his miraculous powers over the forces of nature. He could crush huge stones and even mountains. He was brave and loved his people. He taught him many things - growing maize and building boats; he introduced crafts and art. He was one with nature; he knew the language of all the birds and beasts, understood the whispering of the clouds, the trees, the rivers and streams. The Indians loved Hiawatha and made him the hero of many stories and songs. The first part of the poem is about Gitche Manito, the Great Spirit, or God, in whom all Indian tribes believed.
Longfellow showed the nature of North America, the mode of life of Indian tribes, described Indian arms and costumes, songs and rites.
On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott kept watch in Boston for the approach of British troops the day before the Battle of Lexington and Concord at the outset of the American Revolution. A system had been set up whereby a scout in the bell tower of a church would hang lanterns to indicate whether the British advance was by land or sea. Upon getting the signal, Revere and Dawes set out riding across the Massachusetts countryside warning citizens to prepare for battle. The next day, the American colonists were prepared.
This ride was commemorated by Longfellow in 1863. Longfellow embellished the narrative somewhat. His poem, however, was immensely successful in celebrating a particular tale of American bravery and preparedness, and his was one of the most frequently anthologized poems in American literary history.
PAUL REVERE’S RIDE (lines 1-23)
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 tonight,
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 mooring 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.
Lines 1-5. Narrative poetry tells a story, often using the elements of plot that are found in a short story. Longfellow introduces the story of Paul Revere’s ride with exposition, or background information.
2. Lines 6-14. Here, the narrative starts to reveal the conflict of the story and add complications.
3. Line 21. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things, using a word such as like or as.
COMPREHENSION AND DISCUSSION:
1. What is the conflict of the poem?
2. The introductory section establishes a storytelling framework for this narrative poem. From hints in the lines 1-5, who do you think is telling the story of Paul revere? To whom is the story being told?
3. Who is “he” in the line 6? Where and when does the action of the story take place?
4. According to the second stanza, what does Paul Revere say will be the purpose of his ride?
5. Before he begins his ride, Paul Revere waits for a signal from his friend. What is the signal, and what does it tell Revere? From here is it sent?
6. How do the lines 15-20 contribute to setting, conflict, and suspense in the poem?
7. What does the simile (line21) for the British ship suggest about the feelings of the American patriots toward the British?
8. Does the description of the ship reflect the major conflict in the story? Explain.