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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882, Biographical Notes

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a popular American poet and writer. He was born in Portland (then in Massachusetts, now in Maine) in 1807 and although well travelled, his base was never far from his roots.

From a young age Longfellow showed a keen interest in foreign languages: In 1825 he graduated from Bowdoin College (in Brunswick) and having shown a real talent for translating, he was offered a professorship in modern languages on the understanding he would first extend his studies in Europe. This clearly defined his future writing for while his own works were written in English, he was also well known for his translations of both contemporary and classical European poetry.

During his first spell in Europe Longfellow learnt more about the French, Spanish and Italian languages. This put him in good stead for his return to the Bowdoin College in 1929, where he took up his new duties as a professor and a librarian. Although he had plenty of time for writing poetry and essays, editing text books and translating, he found the work limiting and felt isolated. When an offer of an alternative professorship at Harvard came along, including the chance of further European travels, he was on his way. In 1835, he returned to Europe, basing himself in Heidelberg, Germany, and also spending time in Sweden, The Netherlands and England. Later in the same year tragedy struck when Mary Storer Potter, Longfellow's first wife, died in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) following a miscarriage. In mourning, he was drawn to the work of the German romantics and this was to influence some of his mid period writings.

This second visit to Europe was shorter than the first and in 1836 Longfellow took up his professorship at Harvard, renting rooms in Craigie House (now a national historic site known as Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts). When he married his second wife in 1843 (Frances "Fanny" Appleton), Craigie House was given to him as a wedding present. Longfellow and Frances had six children during their eighteen year marriage, but tragedy was to strike again in 1861 when her dress caught fire, subsequently claiming her life and leaving her husband, who tried to save her, with injuries which were severe enough to prevent him from attending her funeral, and led to him growing a beard thereafter - to cover some of his own injuries.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is classed as a lyric poet, although he also worked in other styles. He was one of the Fireside Poets of New England and his best known works were The Song of Hiawatha (1855), Paul Revere's Ride (1860) and Evangeline (1847). Not everything he wrote was a great success and like most well known writers, he had his critics. In particular, his 1842 Poems On Slavery were not well received.

You can find a bibliography of Longfellow's important works here, and a list which includes many of his important translations, here.

In 1882 Longfellow died of peritonitis. He, and others of the Fireside Poets, were the first Americans to truly challenge British poets in terms of popularity, and they each left an indelible mark on literary history. In 1884 Longfellow was to become the first American to be given the accolade of a bust in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey (London, England).