Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular poet in American history. His work commanded a readership that is almost unimaginable today even for bestselling novels. In terms of their reach and influence, Longfellow's poems resembled studio-era Hollywood films: they were popular works of art enjoyed by huge, diverse audiences that crossed all social classes and age groups. Writing in a period before electronic media usurped the serious literary artist's role as society's storyteller, Longfellow did as much as any author or politician of his time to shape the way nineteenth-century Americans saw themselves, their nation, and their past. At a crucial time in American history—just as the Revolutionary War receded from living memory and the disastrous Civil War inexorably approached—Longfellow created the national myths for which his new and still unstoried country hungered. His poems gave his contemporaries the words, images, myths, and heroes by which they explained America to one another and themselves.
Longfellow was an immensely versatile poet who excelled at virtually every form and genre from the epic to the sonnet. He was an innovator in versification and a master of lyric poetry, translation, and adaptation. No form, however, better displayed his distinctive gifts than the short narrative poem. Nineteenth-century readers greatly esteemed the form, which combines the narrative pleasures of fiction with the verbal music of verse.
Longfellow’s status as a major poet rests especially on the critical assessment of his four book-length poems—Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863-1873). These were the poems that earned him a preeminent position among his contemporaries. The special qualities of these poems seem antithetical to the lyric traditions of modern poetry, which prize verbal compression, intellectual complexity, elliptical style, and self-referential movement. Longfellow’s greatest gifts were best suited to more public poetry—forceful clarity, evocative simplicity, emotional directness, and a genius for memorable (indeed often unforgettable) phrasing.
Even if you can’t recite any poems by Longfellow, you may have used some phrases from his work— “Footprints on the sands of time” (from “A Psalm of Life”), “The patter of little feet” (from “The Children’s Hour”), or “Into each life some rain must fall” (from “The Rainy Day”).
Longfellow’s first collection of poems and translations, Voices of the Night (1839), was an immediate success. Edgar Allan Poe predicted that its opening ballad, “Hymn to the Night”—with the memorable lines “I heard the trailing garments of the Night / Sweep through her marble halls!”—would endure as a favorite. But “A Psalm of Life” became the more popular poem, in part because of the moral idealism of lines like “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime.”
If Voices of the Night revealed Longfellow’s mastery of lyric poetry and his dexterity as a translator, Ballads and Other Poems (1841) revealed his other great strength: storytelling. Ballads such as “The Wreck of the Hesperus”—about the heartbreaking death of a young girl—and “The Village Blacksmith”—a tribute to his ancestor, Stephen Longfellow— proved he could create a moving and memorable story.
Longfellow is rightly celebrated for telling the diverse story of America, but he also draws on his own life in many of his shorter poems. Written at age 48, “My Lost Youth” evokes the trees, ships, and sailors of the poet’s childhood in Portland, Maine, with the refrain “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”
“The Children’s Hour,” a playful ballad, expresses Longfellow’s love for his three daughters. When they invade his study, the poet says: “I have you fast in my fortress, / And will not let you depart, / But put you down into the dungeon / In the round-tower of my heart.”
The Italian sonnet "Mezzo Cammin" borrows its title from the opening line of Dante’s Inferno, which Longfellow himself translated as "Midway upon the journey of our life." Both poets use this metaphor to describe the age of thirty-five, the halfway point in the Bible's allotted span of human life, "three-score years and ten." In "Mezzo Cammin," Longfellow grieves not only for his first wife's death — "sorrow, and a care that almost killed" — but also for his failure to achieve his literary ambitions. Eighteen years after his second wife's shocking death, Longfellow's anguish remains fresh in the sonnet titled "The Cross of Snow." Despite the enormous popularity of this first poet-professor of the nineteenth century, these two posthumously published sonnets suggest the intensely private life he kept inside, as he once expressed in a letter: "With me, all deep feelings are silent ones."
Like Evangeline, Longfellow’s narrative poem Tales of a Wayside Inn remains surprisingly contemporary in its concerns. Published in three parts between 1863 and 1873, Tales of a Wayside Inn celebrates what we now call multiculturalism, and its stories are openly concerned with environmental sensitivity, religious tolerance, political freedom, and charity. Longfellow’s poem—roughly modeled after Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—consists of twenty-two tales in verse told by a sundry group of travelers over three days at the Red Horse Tavern in Sudbury, Massachusetts, which was a stagecoach stop about twenty miles from Cambridge.
The poem begins with a prelude that introduces a diverse group of storytellers—a Sicilian political refugee, a Spanish Jew, a Norwegian musician, a youthful student, a broad-minded theologian, and a tenderhearted poet. The stories draw from all their ethnic traditions, told in an astonishing array of metrical forms. Longfellow draws from medieval, colonial, and romantic sources for all the tales except for The Poet’s Tale, titled “The Birds of Killingworth.” This poem, as well as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Legend Beautiful,” “Azrael,” and “The Monk of Casal-Maggiore,” rank among some of the best short American narrative poems ever written. The Yankee landlord, based on the real-life innkeeper named Lyman Howe, begins the narrative.
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.
These opening lines of "Paul Revere's Ride" are so famous that even people who have not read the entire poem often know them by heart. By invoking children in the opening line of his patriotic poem, Longfellow implicitly defines his narrative as a story the older generation considers important enough to pass down to posterity. Perhaps for this reason, Longfellow placed "Paul Revere's Ride" as the first story told in Tales of a Wayside Inn.
Everyone in Longfellow's original audience would have understood the significance of April 18, 1775: it was the day before the American Revolution began. The next morning at Lexington and Concord, the American colonists fired their "shot heard round the world" and initiated their ultimately successful armed resistance against the British Empire.
The real Paul Revere was one of many patriots who spread the warning to "every Middlesex village and farm." Biographer Charles Calhoun says, "Had it not been for the poem, Revere would probably be remembered today only for his skill as a silversmith, but Longfellow single-handedly elevated him to the Revolutionary pantheon." Reading the poem against the backdrop of America's impending Civil War—its original publication date was 1860, a year before the firing on Fort Sumter—suggests an even deeper level of meaning.
"A region of repose it seems
A place of slumber and of dreams,
Remote among the wooded hills!"
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from his poem Tales of a Wayside Inn